TUkrainian embroidery famous for guns and military helicopters; engraved portrait of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin; Pictures of elegantly dressed school leavers standing among the rubble of a bombed-out building in Kharkiv: all appear in an exhibition of the latest artworks in Ukraine.
While the country’s art is getting more attention than ever, the gallery The Captured House, which opened in Brussels last week, stands out because 90% of the works have been created since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
In the early days of the war, artists of Ukraine were shocked. “Nobody did anything for about three to four weeks,” said Katya Taylor, curator of the show. “Artists don’t feel like using art anymore.”
Then in April she noticed a boom in new work on her Instagram. This was the genesis of a traveling exhibition that visited Berlin, Rome and Amsterdam, and opened last week in the European Union capital.
Through paintings, sculptures, and photographs by some 50 Ukrainian artists, Taylor hopes to show the harsh reality of war as he feels it every day. “The exhibition is not about war per se – it is about a human catastrophe that people are going through.”
The goal of Daria Koltsova, the Kharkiv-born artist who fled Odessa when the conflict began, is to count every child killed in the war. Having fled to Palermo via Moldova, I feel lost, endlessly browsing the news, overwhelmed with minute-by-minute updates on the bombing of Ukrainian cities and the killing of children. I started making little heads out of clay. “The stress I feel every day, because I get these messages every single day. It was really painful and it all started my way of living it all, a kind of artistic sublimation.”
When the gallery opened in Berlin, I sat for three hours a day in the basement art space making heads, each one representing a child killed in the war.
The haunting shots taken during this time became part of the Brussels Exposition. Dressed in plain vintage Ukrainian dress, she carefully sculpts clay to create the eyes, then the nose. She seems reluctant to let it go, adding another tiny head to the pile of stark faces. “Every time the carving is done, I say goodbye and let it go,” she said. Working on strains an updated version of a traditional Ukrainian lullaby, Oh, Judit Son Colo Vikon (The dream wanders through the window). As she sculpts, she thinks of the children who will never grow up.
As of July 28, 358 children have died and 693 others have been reported injured according to official sources quoted by Ukrinform news agency, although the actual death toll is likely to be much higher.
The artist plans to create a new head for every child killed in the war: “So many people have died that we don’t have time to honor the dead the way they should be.”
Other works are considered the aggressor, such as Ihor Hosev’s portraits of Russian classics distorted by graffiti. The portrait of Pushkin, the national poet taught in every Russian school, was written with Zs – the symbol of the Russian offensive. Raging massive seascape, The Ninth Wave, by 19th century artist Ivan Aivazovsky, written with the motto “Russian warship go fuck yourself” – Ukrainian defenders’ response to a Russian Navy ship has become a patriotic rallying cry.
These works are part of the “Abolition of Russia” movement that led to Ukrainian cities removing sculptures and renaming public spaces. But questioning Russian high culture is Not universally popular In Ukraine, it is not clear. Aivazovsky was born in Feodosia in Crimea, a part of Ukraine that was occupied and then annexed in 2014.
The exhibition also highlights photojournalists whose photographs brought the horrors of war to the world such as Maxim Levinea longtime Reuters contributor who was killed near Kyiv during the first weeks of the war, and Evgeny Malolitka, an Associated Press photographer, who along with fellow video journalist Mstislav Chernov, I stayed in besieged Mariupol When all the other international media went, to document the relentless attacks on civilians, like pregnant women escaping from the maternity hospital that was bombed.
The last gallery is not a work of art, but a steel door from a house in Irvine. The residents of the house, a family with two children, fled on foot to Kyiv, 15 miles (25 kilometers) away. They survived. Their house was bombed and reduced to rubble, except for the front door. When the gallery door arrived in Berlin in early May, it filled with dust and the smell of fire. “It was pretty cool,” curator Taylor recalls. “I feel a certain strength in the art and in those original pieces that will not be able to be exhibited or given away in five years.”
The transformation from entering a drab home into a war-torn museum exhibit in less than three months underscores the astonishing speed of the artistic response to war. “I’ve always thought that artists need time and distance to think, especially on a subject like war, but we don’t have that time and distance,” Taylor said.
The exhibition, promoted by the Ukrainian government, is part of Kyiv’s cultural diplomacy, with the aim of countering arguments that the war was triggered by NATO or Kyiv expansion. Taylor said such accounts the team encountered primarily in Italy, where polls show people are less likely to view Russia as responsible for the war than anywhere else in the European Union.
In Berlin, people left the fair in tears, while in Rome our “social work” was more important, Taylor said, referring to gallery-goers who blamed NATO for the war. “And I have nothing to say to this because you need to come to Mariupol and have this conversation.”
After wrapping up the exhibition in Brussels on Sunday, the team hopes to travel to New York, Washington and San Francisco next year, to show the reality of war to an American audience. “We are not here [in Brussels] Taylor said. “But we are here for people to make choices when they choose their politicians, when they vote on any level of decisions.”