Zuzanna Hertzberg’s spoken word performance at the opening of “Difficult Pasts. Connected Worlds” (29.04.-28.08.2022) in the National Gallery of Art, Vilnius. Curated by Ieva Astahovska, Margaret Tali and Eglė Mikalajūnė. On the photo are seen banners from her work “Nomadic Memory” and installation “Volunteers for Freedom” (2016-2020) that both revive the memory of the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War.
© Gintare Grigėnaitė

Dealing with Difficult Pasts: Interview with Margaret Tali

Margaret Tali is a researcher, writer, editor and curator. Originally from Estonia who is living between Tallinn and Rotterdam. Her work is related to contemporary and modern art, memory and trauma, practices of decolonization and narrating cultural difference.

Marija Petrovic:  Could you tell me in your words about the topics are that you are dealing with in your research and in your curatorial work? 

Margaret Tali: In the framework of my postdoctoral studies at the Estonian Academy of Arts (at the Institute of Art History and Visual Culture), I have been dealing with 20th century history of the Baltic states – more specifically during and after the Second World War. The war and the Soviet occupation presented one continuous state of a major conflict for the region. I am trying to connect some narratives, for example the history of different ethnic minorities, which has not been that much discussed and also establish transnational connections through art and documentary film. Together with Ieva Astahovska from the Latvian Center for Contemporary Art, we set up a project called “Communicating Difficult Pasts” (2019-2024) which took 20th century history in our region as its starting point. We tried to look into the many silences of the Soviet and Post-Soviet history, start thinking about how we could open them up for the public and what kind of methods humanities researchers and artists have already found. Bringing people from these fields together was very important. We also held the exhibition “Difficult Pasts. Connected Worlds” in the Latvian Museum of Art in Riga and in the National Gallery of Arts in Vilnius, which grew out of the project quite organically. In Vilnius, we had 14 artists altogether with whom we collaborated and many of them developed new works that contributed to this process of seeing transnational connections, creating bridges between local histories, sometimes also between Eastern and Western Europe, or for instance between Latvia and The Caribbean. In fall 2024 the exhibition will continue to Tallinn Art Hall. Recently, I have been interested in exploring the turbulent history of the late 19th century and early 20th century, how global coloniality has influenced these histories in the Baltics and how museum collections reflect these histories.

Marija Petrovic: Thank you so much for this interesting summary! Speaking of history and differences and connections between the Western and the Eastern perspectives on it: even though KVOST is located in the former eastern part of Berlin and this location plays a big role for our program, it is still rooted in a Western art-sphere. Where one can often find a common view of Eastern Europe as one whole and especially because of the Soviet past and the 20th century, there exists a big emphasis on a “shared” or a “common” history. What do you think of this? 

Margaret Tali: I think, partly, this comes from the nineties, when mostly Western European curators were curating Eastern European art, because in Eastern Europe, we have always seen and acknowledged the differences between different countries. It’s very easy, if you just travel around and learn more about the history of your neighboring countries, to realize how different it actually is. There are some similarities between Estonia and Albanian or Hungarian history for example. But there are a lot of important differences too. I think as we continue, we need to acknowledge these differences more. There is the Visegrád zone, for instance, which has over the past ten years become a region of its own. And the Baltic context is also becoming more closely connected. With Russia’s war in Ukraine a new chapter in this process has started in many ways too. Smaller regions are also becoming more stronger, some even say that Eastern Europe is disappearing as an outcome. I think it’s important to create connections between these contexts and these histories as well and I am interested in understanding such historical connections within the former Soviet countries. 

Marija Petrovic: I would say that there’s also a lot of non-knowledge in Eastern Europe as well. I can take my own biography as an example, because even though I grew up in Ukraine, I have absolutely almost no original, or let’s say “organic” knowledge about the Baltics, for example. Of course there’s the Soviet history, but it was oftentimes very different in different places. And only because one grew up in one part of the former Soviet Union, doesn’t automatically guarantee knowledge on an other. But it’s quite interesting for me, being rooted in the West now, that I often have to deal also with expectations to be an expert on this huge region, which is just not possible. 

Margaret Tali: Well, I would say what we can always do is resist. My knowledge of Ukrainian history, for instance, is extremely limited and it’s important to know the boundaries of what we can speak about. Like you were saying about your being based in the Western academic context, until now I still feel in-between the two because I have moved from the Netherlands to Estonia recently. And in many ways, I am still positioning myself in the local discourse and catching up with what has been done in different disciplines in Estonia and elsewhere because many colleagues do such interesting work and it’s easy to miss if you are not based in the region. It has to do with the Western-centered way how knowledge distribution works. 

Marija Petrovic: Is there something that is widely unknown in the West but that is distinct for the discourse in the Baltic region and sets it apart from other post-Soviet countries? Even though the Baltic states themselves are pretty diverse of course?

Margaret Tali: What connects us to Eastern Europe are these 50 years under the Soviet occupation and domination, but each of the countries has a very long history and different peoples. And we need to consider that not every people has a country – there’s more of the peoples that don’t compare to those who do. So I think, this multitude of ethnic and also gendered identities is definitely something we need to consider so much further and make space for in our narratives of history. In this 50 years that we share, I think, we share more with Post-Soviet countries, compared to the Eastern Block countries. Mainly because of the way control was exercised and operated. There are also earlier colonial periods, which remained critically unexplored until recently. For instance, Estonian and Latvian territories were under the Baltic German rule within the Soviet Empire for centuries and we are still figuring out how we can talk about these colonial entanglements. This history of proto-colonization is still fairly little known in Germany, if at all. I think it’s a topic that is only now gaining more attention. And the reason why we don’t know about it has a lot to do with the Soviet history because of its process of erasing many historical details and using propaganda to create a history to serve its imperial interests. The cultural memories of these earlier periods are therefore limited or perhaps we need new methods to learn to read them adequately. Lithuania has a history of being a state since the 13th century. So I think there’s a lot of work ahead in understanding the continuities of colonial influence in our histories. 

Marija Petrovic: Do you observe that these topics are currently being explored by the artists and researchers in the respective countries?

Margaret Tali: Well, when we were working on “Communicating Difficult Pasts” in 2018 with Ieva, we started by looking at who the artists are who deal with history critically. And at that point, there wasn’t a lot of artists in the Baltics who were doing research-based work, you could really count them with two hands. Of course, there’s also a difference if you look from afar or if you look from within, and with me based in Rotterdam and Ieva in Riga we did both. We invited some of these artists to a summer school that we organized in Kuldīga and to a symposium “Prisms of Silence” in Tallinn. We also made an open call, inviting researchers to propose their topics from different disciplines in humanities. We tried to made it open for all, but in the end mostly Eastern European scholars and artists applied. So what became clear to us is that there is a framework, which comes with talking and thinking about history and these frameworks do not easily meet or connect in Eastern Europe and the West. In the context of our project, several new art works have been produced researching, connecting and communicating these and other global colonial histories. I hope – if we have a chance to continue with the project – that there will be more. 

Marija Petrovic: What do you feel are the challenges that arts and culture production in the Baltics? Is there something that can make it difficult for artists to stay and work in the region or to approach certain topics?

Margaret Tali: I can speak as a freelance creator with some knowledge of the Baltic context here. I guess, something that needs opening up is artistic education. Which even though there are positive developments too, to an extent still continues to pursue the myth of an autonomous genius type of artist. Because this is how most of the teachers have been educated as well. And it’s a discourse which is very hard to break. Of course, it comes from the hierarchies of the past, patriarchal and heteronormative cultural traditions in our societies. This is a baggage that many art institutions also continue to sustain and support. From my part, I can only hope that there will be more conversations, more collaboration and more bridges. Establishing these connections that are so necessary and that we all can learn from because they can open new ways of thinking and new ways of understanding ourselves. Exchanges with contexts where art operates in different and much more collective ways and can help to solve problems (or is being used in such a way), are really crucial, because these are the small ways of opening things up and building other ways of knowing and doing. But it’s a long-term process – there’s no quick way.

Marija Petrovic: Are there any specific topics that you think are important and that we need to explore more in the future?

Margaret Tali: I think ecology is definitely one of those and ways of living together with nature, questions around land, how it has been shaped, transformed and questions around its ownership. I see these as important, eye opening and potentially something that can take us further to think of our future too. Also, minority history – ethnic and gender minorities needs to be integrated into our narratives of histories. And connections. We definitely need to establish more transnational and global connections. I’m a firm believer in that.

Marija Petrovic: I absolutely agree. Thank you so much for your time!