Mykola Ridnyi The Battle Over Mazepa

Mykola Ridnyi, The Battle Over Mazepa, film still, 2023. Courtesy the artist

John Hansard Gallery, in partnership with Pushkin House, is delighted to present a new moving image work by acclaimed Ukrainian artist and filmmaker Mykola Ridnyi.

The Battle Over Mazepa conceptualises the historical significance and contemporary perception of Ivan Mazepa, a political and military leader of the Zaporizhian Sich and Left-bank Ukraine in the late-17th and early-18th century. Addressing codes of hip-hop culture, Ridnyi borrows the popular form of a rap battle to collide two great works of world literature associated with this historical figure: Mazeppa by Lord Byron in 1819 and Poltava by Alexander Pushkin in 1828–29. While Byron envisions Mazepa as a romantic hero, seized by love, Pushkin portrays him as a traitor in accordance with the colonial attitude of the Russian Empire. Highlighting the confrontation of these two texts, Ridnyi invited four rappers from different national and cultural backgrounds to write and perform their response to the poets’ lyrics.

Mykola Ridnyi: “When we are thinking of contemporary genres of poetic expression, which are full of tension and political messages, as well as passions, desires and lust, various forms of hip-hop culture come to mind. Personal attitude and artistic reactions towards each other are very characteristic for rap artists. Why not look at Byron and Pushkin’s contradictions through a lens of present-time music and explore them by means of rap battle and diss tracks, which seem not so far from the competition between poets of the 19th century?

Byron’s romanticised heroic image of Mazepa quickly gained recognition and inspired a number of works in various art forms including Théodore Géricault and Eugène Delacroix paintings, Victor Hugo’s collection of poems, Henry M. Milner’s hippodrama, and many others. While in Ukraine Mazepa is seen as a crucial figure in Ukraine’s fight for independence from Russia, Russian historiography mostly characterises him as a defector who abandoned his allegiance to the Russian Empire, switching sides during the Great Northern War against the Kingdom of Sweden. It was on the wave of Mazepa’s popularity during the Romantic period that Pushkin, a great admirer of Byron, wrote a poem-response presenting Mazepa as an antihero.

As part of his work on the film, Mykola Ridnyi invited Susanne Strätling, Professor of Comparative Literature at the Freie Universität Berlin, to work with four rap performers to dissect the idealised and imperialist Mazepa narratives of the two poems and to write a modern interpretation of it. Performers Elie, Moh, Caxxianne and Exo represent different styles of hip-hop culture and spoken word performance. The resulting verses blend historic themes with current sentiments, revealing the urgency of events which took place centuries ago and their resonance in the contemporary global world.

Pushkin House is an independent cultural centre established in London in 1954 during the Cold War by a group of scholars with Russian roots. As a venue offering a varied programme of events, exhibitions and community initiatives, they are a platform for initiating active enquiry, debate and exchange across cultures.

The project is realised with support from the Senate Department for Culture and Europe (Ad-hoc Fellowship) in collaboration with the Berlin Artistic Research Programme.

The Battle Over Mazepa is on show at Pushkin House from 13 October 2023 – 27 January 2024.

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