On a September Sunday evening at the Harrick Gallery, there’s a strange image: about twenty people are standing and sitting around and everyone’s holding a small cup, and they’re talking about shamanistic practices and the effects of herbal tea. As the group notices my presence, the circle opens up for me, and the discussion continues.
The speaker and performer is Olha Pryymak, a London based Ukrainian painter, and the event’s the closing of the gallery’s summer group exhibition, called SHUFFLE. Olha made a similar performance earlier this July, at the Florence Trust exhibition, where she just completed her one-year-long residence.
Olha’s standing in front of the piece titled Cowslip and magnolia bark for nervous tension, part of her new Symptoms and Remedies series. Behind her is a nicely organised table with a feel of witchery to it: small jars containing various herbs and an ever-brewing teapot in the middle. Rosebay willow herb, mint, camomile, rosehip and linden leaves are just a few ingredients of the show.
The circle slowly splits and the talk turns into conversation, but still you can sense the ritual atmosphere. In general tea consuming’s considered an intimate, homey thing and as a consequence sharing the tasty and freshly brewed herbs is bonding the audience. My favourite is the Rosebay Willow herb whose pink flowers appear even across London. Olha offers the tea and enthusiastically shares the ingenuity of making it. She warns us of its possible unpleasant side effects and advises us to use restraint: some of the herb’s agents in higher dosage can be quite dangerous.
Even if it takes time and attention to master the herbalism, apparently it’s worth the effort. Her collection now consists of over a dozen selections of wild flowers from Latvia, Ukraine and London too. Growing up in a small town close to nature she has inherited the knowhow from her grandmother and mother. Recently she rediscovered folk medicine on a research trip to Aizpute, Latvia. Collaborating in a workshop with an interdisciplinary art group she participated in the process of gathering and preparing the herbs. The experience inspired her to focus on herbalism as her new subject, and to fuse it with her art. Through experimentation she’s succeeded in interweaving a traditional habit with emerging, contemporary styles.
As I walk around the gallery I find a piece downstairs of Pryymak’s, ‘Increasing blood flow in the limbs, rose hips and rosebay willowherb’. Her figurative paintings present her newly discovered theme of healing and transforming. While flowers have always been subject matter for art, it’s more often for their aesthetics and symbolism, rather than their medicinal qualities. Olha’s flowers are always cover faces, depersonalizing the figures and broadening the themes. The message is clear, and the titles themselves are strict directions for use.
The subject’s alchemy is rooted in prehistoric habits of mankind to create, to emphasize and to process. Pryymak’s found a way too of translating an ancient act into a display which feels both contemporary and prescriptive. Everyday stories and concerns are characteristic aspects of her work, not only reflecting the actual problems but also offering us a solution, with the intention – based on shamanistic rituals – to explore the mind and heal.
More can be discovered about Olga Pryymak’s work on her website olechko.org.