Our Grandmothers’ Gardens
The Rencontres d’Arles


For the exhibition Our Grandmothers' Gardens, Olga Grotova tells the story of her ancestors and country using three media: a film, historical magazines, and two works on paper. The film recounts the artist’s return to the Ural Mountains with her mother. They go out to find a parcel of land that belonged to her great-grandmother in the Soviet era, then to her grandmother, ending up in collective ownership. The artist’s viewpoint on this space of true self-determination is a tribute to the agency of these women. In the archive, we see Soviet propaganda campaigns boasting of women farmers. Finally, completing the set, are two works on paper made by superimposing images and materials, notably that of earth taken from the gardens themselves.

Taous Dahmani, Curator

The Friendship Garden 
(Sound work)
Paweł Althamer's Garden ‘Silence’


Paweł Althamer's installation Silence
Photo: Dmitry Shumov

Mum, Kazakhstan, 8mm film,  2022
The Friendshio garden is a sound work included in the spatial installation Silence by Paweł Althamer.

The work is based on the poem about my grandmothers’ return to Urals after imprisonment in the Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland in the 1930s. 

To Althamer, each element of the garden—be it a fallen tree or a particular deciduous bush—is a hidden quote, while the composition as a whole is a unique environment where the restless city dweller of today can alter the regime of time, as if transported to a picturesque space in a past era, where the rhythm and pace of life were not by default accelerated to the limit.

The work can be listened to online via the Soundcloud  (in Russian)

Debris on a Luminous Plain
Centrala, Birmingham (Solo exhibition)

Garage Museum of Contemporary Art

2019- 2021

In present-day Russia there is an untold history of the hundreds of thousands of women who were executed or forcedly resettled to the Gulag, the system of forced labour camps across the Soviet Union. Many of them were wives and mothers of men pronounced the ‘Enemies of the People’ (Vragi Naroda): ethnic minorities, affluent peasants, academics, Germans, Jews and Poles that were thought a threat to the Soviet regime. The women were arrested at night, sentenced without trial and hauled to the country’s remotest regions. One of the biggest all-female penal facility was the camp for ‘Wives of the Traitors of the Motherland’ also known as ‘Algiers’ (А.Л.Ж.И.Р) where tens of thousands were detained, amongst them thousands of mothers with their small children.

In the recent decades the Russian state has done everything to obliterate the history of ‘Algiers’ and other forced-labour camps: they are not featured in history books and are not subjects of state-commissioned monuments and remembrance ceremonies. The female prisoners’ stories have been twisted and re-written to justify the ordeal, but mostly they have been silenced; instead they exist like worm tunnels that weave through the monolith of Russia’s history, filling it with voids and fractures.

Debris on a Luminous Plain is based on my grandmother’s memories of ‘Algiers’ and the Kazakh steppe where the camp was located. She arrived there in 1938 as a one-year old baby with her mother, my great grandmother, and they returned back to Russia twenty years later. The knowledge that rests in between those temporal indents is fractured and disjointed, akin to the slippages of the tongue that would incessantly fail to form a narrative.

Debris on A Luminous Plain
Centrala, 2019

Debris on A Luminous Plain, performance
Centrala, 2019

A few years ago I came across a 1970s herbarium on a Russian online noticeboard. Driven by an unclear instinct I asked my mother to buy it. Afterwards she reported that the seller was a middle-aged man who came in a car covered in patriotic stickers: ‘To Berlin!’ and ‘We’ll bend you over’. His wife was a schoolteacher, he said, she found the herbariums discarded in the school storage.It was an easy way to make a buck; his car was an old Zhigul.

I picked up the artefact next time I came to Russia: two massive boxes with hundreds of sheets of dried plants. The herbarium was a study material distributed widely in Soviet schools to educate the children about USSR’s vast territories: from the newly adjoined Asian republics to Siberia and Caucasus. Each plant had a name a naïve illustration next to it showing the scene from the place where it had been collected: a woman harvesting grapes in Crimea, a man walking the donkey in one of the East Asian countries.

One of the herbarium’s chapters was about the Kazakh steppe. It had some weeds whose names I heard from my grandmother: sagebrush, feather brush. The illustration showed a smiling man in a wide-brimmed straw hat with the yolk-yellow deserted landscape in the background.

The Debris paintings are made with the traces of the Kazakh steppe plants: a laborious mark-making process that I developed to replace my agency with that of the non-human witnesses. Each painting is an exercise in accumulating absences,  layering them one after another to contain a narrative within silences.

The Friendship Garden
Garage Museum of Contemporary Art


The Friendship Garden is a project initiated as part of the Field Research. By championing strategies of resistance and bringing to light the places, events, and people often neglected by or recouped from dominant histories, the Field Research challenges the leading positions of dominant agents of knowledge, liberating knowledge from belonging to one discipline, one culture or one narrative, and breaks free from the prevailing impermeability of academic and archival institutions in the post-Soviet spaces. 

The Friendship Garden investigates the land cultivation practices of Soviet women and their role in female self-expression, creativity, and independence.

Home-grown food provided the promise of autonomy in the authoritarian state, and gardens and allotments fostered intricate support structures that connected neighbors, scarce tools, labor, and produce. Like many other female practices of the Soviet era, gardening has been largely overlooked and has escaped artistic enquiry. The research opens up complex discussions around the state, the body, womanhood, the female connection to land, and friendship as an alternative economic force.

The starting point for the project is the history of Friendship, an allotment garden cooperative where Grotova’s great-grandmother Klavdia and her daughter Marina, the artist’s grandmother, had a plot for three decades starting from the 1960s, in the aftermath of their return from ALZHIR-Akmolinsk Camp for Wives of Traitors to the Motherland. Friendship was situated in the Urals, bordering the vast forest that camouflaged a myriad of nuclear research towns. The garden’s timeline ran parallel to the Cold War but existed outside official history, instead being in sync with the lunar cycles, plants, and lives of the female gardeners. The allotment garden was set up with the help of other women formerly imprisoned in ALZHIR and became a site where their trauma could be processed and their new-found freedom made sense of through engagement with the earth. Since the garden also served as the main source of food, the wellbeing of the family and all the neighbors depended on collaboration and, quite literally, friendship. The project delves into personal history and uses it as a prompt to imagine alternative economic systems based on friendship, cooperation, and care.

In 2021 Grotova visited women’s gardens that have been overlooked or erased from public memory. They are scattered from Yakutia and Kazakhstan to western Russia and Ukraine, each presenting a unique story and an empowering vision of perseverance and resistance. Grotova is interested in re-actualizing the gardens’ lost histories and unraveling power’s relationship to memory and the politics of forgetting. Through her research and artistic work, the artist hopes to re-situate the grandmothers’ knowledge in the world.

The Waters of the Volga
Oslo Kunstforening


The project is based on my poem about a trip to the Volga River, my great grandmother’s birthplace. Performed in collaboration with Syowia Kyambi at the Oslo Kunstforening.

The series of drawings is made with river waters, debris and graphite.