The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, signed in 1939, secretly split Eastern European territories between Germany and the Soviet Union. Soviet occupation of Latvia began in 1940. An estimated 35,000 died during this regime of terror. Having no intention to restore Latvian autonomy, the Nazis launched a counter-offensive in 1941. By July 10th, Nazi forces assumed total and ruthless control. From 1944-1991, Latvia was once again under Soviet rule. For nearly 50 years, thousands of Latvians were deported to Siberian camps, forced into exile, or executed. On 23rd August 1989, ‘The Baltic Way’ drew global attention to the plight of the Baltic States. United by suffering, two million people joined hands in peaceful protest. They formed a human chain spanning 675 kilometres across Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Latvia claimed independence in 1991.
Born in 1938, Vija Celmins is a celebrated Latvian American artist. Her family fled Riga in 1944, moving between displacement camps before eventually finding passage to the US in 1948. Celmins later revealed: “it wasn’t until I was ten and living in Indiana that I realized being in fear wasn’t normal.” Attending the John Herron School of Art in 1955 was the first time she did not feel like an outsider. Her early works apparently contain dog hairs belonging to her beloved Lācīte, or “little bear” in Latvian. In 1966, Vija joined the ‘Artists Tower of Protest’, a collective demonstration against the Vietnam War.
It is easy to assume links between refugee art and refugee life. Celmins has said “I never even thought about Latvia.” Patiently crafted over several years, her meticulous pieces speak for themselves. Her subjects: oceans, webs and night skies - boundless by nature - refuse to be confined. Celmins resides in New York but exhibits at prestigious venues across the world. She remains an artist of quiet renown.
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