In 2007, a major project “Towel of Ukrainian national solidarity” initiated by Tamara Stepanenko took place in Ukraine. It involved creating a monumental piece of folk art. The project was joined by embroiderers from all Ukrainian regions, researchers-ethnographers and artists, state authorities and media, prominent personalities. An academic conception and art draft of the Towel (rushnyk in Ukrainian) were elaborated by Oleksandra Telizhenko, an honoured artist of Ukraine, member of the Folk Art Association, an assistant professor who specializes in art criticism. Major work had been conducted, and when the towel-talisman was presented, at last, Telizhenko stated that the embroidered sacral symbols had been crippled. It meant that they didn’t carry the defending function but vice versa could influence Ukraine’s future bringing violence and chaos. However, nobody paid attention to her words then. But in seven years it turned out she might have been right.
Some years before the Revolution of Dignity, the annexation of Crimea and war in Donbas broke out, I talked to Oleksandra. She showed a photo of the towel of national solidarity. She pointed at the Coat of Arms which was embroidered in different techniques for some reason and thus it seemed to have been made of two parts – she said it could lead to the shift of balance in the political system and institute of the presidency. She touched the Tamga, a symbol of the Crimean Tatar, created by embroideresses in gold, Oleksandra told that some problems with Crimea might occur in the future. “The towel with invalid symbols can hurt Ukraine, the nation can get in danger,” the artist said. In 2014, during the annexation of Crimea, I remembered that conversation. And I got scared. But I thought: do these old symbols really work? I am still very concerned about it. Meanwhile, the towel of Ukrainian solidarity is now travelling across the world, and Ukraine is rolling into the abyss. Coincidence? It may be. But researchers-ethnographers believe that our ancestors took these sacral issues very seriously.
Magical power of collective embroidering
According to Oleksandra Telizhenko, Hryhorii Pavlutsky, a PhD in art history, described a very interesting ceremony about a hundred years ago. This ceremony existed on the territory of Ukraine in the IV century. Our ancestors hang embroidered towels on holy trees in the fields and prayed. “Can you imagine what is a towel when it is prayed to? The towel becomes a medium between a person and that supreme force the person prays to,” Oleksandra says. It should be noted that when the project was discussed, the organizers were worried if the publicity of embroidering contradicted to the folk tradition. Then, the Stepanenkos and researchers-ethnographers found examples of collective embroidering in Ukrainian history. It turned out that even whole villages used to embroider a towel-talisman. It happened when a community was in danger and some decisions were to be made. Thus, when there was an epidemic or drought, girls and women gathered in one house and embroidered an art canvas in one night. Before the dawn, they hallowed it in the church. Then, all villagers walked under the towel and the danger disappeared. The same thing was practised during wars. Embroidering a towel-talisman, a woman was praying and hence putting her desire of the husband coming safe and sound from the war with threads into the art canvas. It increased the collective energy and mischiefs went away.
Towel physics, towel magic
Ukrainian towels were embroidered on a special natural homespun art canvas (made of flax plant or hemp). The art canvas has to be made of one-piece thread, which symbolizes the eternity of life. Such a towel can become not only a decorative element but a talisman. “Embroidering is a magical process. A woman takes a thread with three fingers like she is going to cross herself. Thus, the person’s energy accumulates in their fingers through electromagnetic lines on their palms and is embroidered into the art canvas with a needle which is a wire. Moreover, a thread which is embroidered point by point has a pattern of helices. It is a symbol of the evolution of the universe. It keeps all thoughts and desires of the person who has embroidered it,” Oleksandra says. That’s why our grannies told that you can start embroidering only if your thoughts are clear and kind. Such an embroidered piece turns into an accumulator of vivid energy aimed at the good. “As for the movement of energies in embroideries, our scientists have a wide field to work on,” Telizhenko believes.
Symbols embroidered carry the ultimately important meaning as well. Oleksandra Telizhenko studies this issue in her book “The Basics of National Culture”. “Ornaments are our old cosmic letters. Geometrical symbols which we inherited from the Paleolithic and Neolithic Ages are universal. They seem to be just a combination of simple squares, rhombuses… But in fact, they contain the whole Universe on the art canvas, the striving for happy living and procreation,” the expert says. Over time, symbols have been changing, new ones have been created: The Tree of Life, colourful flowers, plants, birds. Each epoch was reflected in towels’ ornaments and symbols, and symbols were reflected in the epochs.
Towel hugging Ukraine
The towel of Ukrainian national solidarity impresses with its size, in the first place. It is 9 meters long and 0.75 meters wide. By the way, the length of the towel wasn’t chosen randomly. According to the classical numerology, the number 9 symbolizes a spiritual perfectness and boosts mental action. Thus, organizers wanted the towel to mobilize the national intelligence towards the development of Ukraine with its energy.
Yet before the embroidering process, dozens of people had taken part in this project. The art canvas for the towel had been spun out of hemp 55 years ago by a villager from the Khmelnytsky region Kateryna Androshchiuk. The art canvas, which was to become a sacral talisman, was washed in the Dnipro river, bleached under the May sun in the Dnipro fields and hallowed with songs and dances by local women. The threads used were made of natural Chernihiv region wool and dyed with natural colourant by a famous artist from Crimea Mamut Churlu. An amusing incident happened during the transportation of the materials. The threads were transported from Crimea by train. They were to be taken in the city of Zaporizhzhia, but somebody has mixed something up and the threads kept on travelling. They were taken 300 km away in the city of Kharkiv. They could have gone to Moscow because it was a final destination of the train.
However, despite all the obstacles, the project continued to be implemented. Creation of the image of Ukraine required to combine styles, ornaments and traditional colours of all 25 Ukrainian regions (including Crimea). Oleksandra Telizhenko was working on the draft for three years. The first collective embroidering of the towel took place on the island of Khortitsia (where Kozacks are originally from). The towel was embroidered by people not only from Ukraine but also from Moldova, Poland, the USA and Canada diasporas. The towel of national solidarity has a special 270-page-passport. As each symbol depicted on the towel has been thoroughly selected and given scientific credence to. The draft was created on a special real-size piece of the carton by Oleksandra Telizhenko. The draft uses symbols to tell about the past, present of Ukraine and program happy future. The colour style is unique and includes 21 colours. Due to the mastery of the author, it turned into a symphony of an optimistic attitude, which is not just beautiful but also conveys the power and dynamics of the whole work. The towel shows three significant epochs of Ukrainians: the Trypilian culture, the Kyiv Rus epoch and the Kozak Age. The composition also includes the Tree of Life which symbolizes the mightiness and indestructibility of Ukraine. The centre of the sacral towels has the coats of arms – the golden Tryzub, which is followed by the Star of Great Foremother. The image of the towel-talisman, integral and unshakable, was aimed at blessing Ukraine to get wealth, prosperity, progress and harmony. Huge collective work multiplied by vibes of the 9-meter blessed symbols was to turn the towel into the most powerful accumulator of kindness. But according to Oleksandra Telizhenko, it all went wrong.
Destroyed symbols drive a wedge
At first, everything was OK. The organisers adhered to all the old traditions. Then, the towel went travelling across Ukraine. Each city or town arranged a big celebration for the action The Towel of National Solidarity. The concept supposed all the best crafters, prominent personalities, patriots to embroider the towel in order to put the best vibes into the art canvas. But later, those who wished joined the process. Some events had up to 12 people embroidering at once. Evidently, it is virtually impossible to control the process under such conditions. At some point, the situation started to get out of hand. Meanwhile, Oleksandra Telizhenko was registering the author’s right on the towel. However, Tamara Stepanenko as an author of the idea and one of the organisers was against it. “That was the time when I was discharged from the controlling process. The embroidering went chaotic. As a result, the key symbols of the sacral talisman were destroyed. The art canvas then had different symbols, colour, different symbolic and energetic message,” Oleksandra says. The sacral Mirrors were embroidered in an invalid way. Now they failed to symbolize the combination of material and spiritual energies. The symbols and colours of the fundamental components of Trypilian, according to the author, were also changed. The heart of the towel was also altered: the coats of arms, which had been supposed to be all-in-one, was embroidered in different techniques, which divided it into two parts. Also, in the middle of the sacral sign of the Great Foremother situated under the coats of arms, there was a Crimean-Tatar Tamga depicted.
As for this situation, Oleksandra Telizhenko was addressing the head of the National Folk Art Association Yevhen Shevchenko, Minister of Culture Vasyl Vovkun, Department of Humanitarian Policy of the President’s Office and other people.
“The whole structure of the towel has been destroyed, the basics of the composition, the energetic power have been undermined. We have to correct it, we have to take the towel back to the full accordance with the project. It is terrible. Apparently, the towel is experiencing the same which Ukraine is experiencing now.
The strange thing is that the action was initially launched by people who pursued only personal material objectives. However, it should be admitted that these were them who conducted a major organising work due to which the action took place. Because we – artists, specialists, patriots, volunteers wouldn’t have been able to do this. Unfortunately, this is our objective reality. The action, totally unique and large, took place. But render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and render to Ukraine the Blessing Talisman. Clear and majestic,” Telizhenko wrote in one of her letters to authorities. She says that everybody promised to help but nobody did it in fact.
However, the author of the idea Tamara Stepanenko believes that the towel was supposed to be a folk one, so people actually made it. “Every time we changed something on the towel, we gathered an expert board and discussed all the details. If it was appropriate, we changed it, indicated all the alterations in the protocol, passport, and only then people could embroider it. As for the coats of arms, it was embroidered by a Ukrainian, Russian, and Crimean Tatar. They were embroidering it for four days without a pause; the needle didn’t stop even for a minute not to break the history of the state. Women slept in turns. As for the Tamga, we should bear in mind that the Crimean Tatars are the only people in Ukraine who don’t have their own state. So they officially asked us to allow them to embroider their sign on the towel. We discussed that with historians, ethnographers, policymakers, nobody was against it. Just look at how Tatars support Ukraine today. In Crimea, they are the only fore post which keeps the Ukrainian nationhood,” Stepanenko says.
Mrs Stepanenko also told that now she is looking for where the Towel can be placed for people to come to it and see it. “My husband and I are dreaming to create a Ukrainian National Towel Museum one day. However, we let arrange presentations every time there is an enquiry. Recently, there has been a 102d presentation of the Towel in the Donbas town of Svatovo. Besides Ukraine, the Towel has already been to Romania, Italy, Germany, France, Austria, Canada, the USA. Honestly speaking, it is impossible to launch a business connected with the Towel. The aureole of the Towel disappears. The Towel constantly works. Of course, the situation in Ukraine is upsetting. But I believe that only if we overcome the war, struggle, we will be independent. Today, time and space seem to be pressed. We have to carry on war and develop intellectually, culturally and spiritually at once. I guess the Towel helps us.”
The Towel’s destination: hide or show?
If the symbols of the Towel drive a wedge in Ukraine, what should we do to end it? Oleksandra Telizhenko says, “It is not that simple. I’ve been thinking about it much, counselling with experts. Should we re-make it now as life goes on? I guess we also shouldn’t destroy the Towel. I think we should leave it with mistakes, as it is, as the past, experience, but we should put it into the chest, hide it. And we mustn’t show it to anybody.” However, Tamara Stepanenko has another opinion. She reckons that the Towel should live as it has been embroidered with good intentions hence has a positive influence. She says, “It is a brilliant work. I believe that the towel will live, protect Ukraine and be passed down for generations.”
Thus, the Towel issue is still unresolved. Also, we can’t be sure if these old symbols work at all. May it be just people’s mind which is prone to notice amusing coincidences? Yuri Melnychuk says, “Both variants are possible. Confucius said that “Symbols rule the world”, Plato believed that “Numbers rule the world”, and numbers are basically symbols. Old quotes are not just words.” Indeed, symbols, colours, numbers are energies are filled with a deep meaning. Researchers prove their influence on the environment, mental state of an individual or even the whole community. So, perhaps researchers and artists should unite to discuss the destroyed symbols issue? As old thinkers are likely to have been right.
Text by Yuliia Vovkodav