The Artists Making Work in Wartime Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine — A group of men and women are traveling, most of them standing, in the back of a Soviet Kamaz truck against a pitch-black background. A crescent Earth crowns the night sky. The passengers crammed in the bed of the Kamaz are in street clothes except for the astronaut helmets they are all wearing. Diagonally across from Serhii Kondratiuk’s painting “Wedding on the Moon” (2021), a white sphinx statuette rests inconspicuously in the corner of the studio. It looks beheaded, with a deformed stump for a neck. The side profile, however, portrays the older Taras Shevchenko, the father of modern Ukrainian literature, looking back. 

Wars are overwhelming events that upend the rules and order that govern life. Yet amid the evil of it, the war in Ukraine has also ushered in a wave of creation in Kyiv that is all the more powerful because many artists have witnessed missiles and blasts and share in the pain and primal fear of the entire nation, driving them to respond with urgency and vital intensity. In the process, they are forging a new Ukrainian identity. Their powers of expression have bloomed and acquired an existential, necessary quality. 

Kondratiuk and other artists would find it elusive to describe how their creative process has been transformed by the war, while indeed recognizing that it is a pervasive presence in their daily lives. Most of the art he made during the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, now into its second year, has related somehow to the war, not least because of the air raid sirens that blare out of the public emergency systems and mobile phones, urging residents to move to shelters. 

On January 23, day 699 of the war, Kondratiuk’s studio was abuzz with conversations in Ukrainian, English, and a couple of other languages, with curators and writers visiting from different parts of Europe. The liveliness contrasted with the cavernous, dimly illuminated corridors of the Kyiv Institute of Automation, one dark winter evening on day 700 of the war. 

Like a body that has outlived its purpose, the Soviet-era behemoth of a building that housed scientists working on robotics and related fields has been taken over mostly by artists who have turned the affordable offices into studios. While leading a tour, Alona Karavai, co-founder of the art education nonprofit Insha Osvita, reflected on the irony that the Kyiv Institute of Automation was once the site of drone development and precision-guided weapons research now used against Ukraine. 

Encountering Krystyna Melnyk’s realistic paintings of wounded bodies, with torn flesh or open sores, was an even more compelling invitation to make associations between art and war. She created her paintings to make the journey from pain to lightness, she said. 

“It’s connected to some kind of high spiritual experience, but it’s not a healing experience,” Melnyk told Hyperallergic. At the same time, making these works did not make her suffering worse, either, because she was sublimating it into art. 

Landscapes ruled the studio of Anton Saenko. Their horizontal, mostly pastel layers that merge into each other are not unlike the plains in the twilight where earth and sky fuse into a single polychromatic scene, evoking the infinite horizons of Ukraine. 

“I like spaces in art, I don’t like objects,” Saenko told Hyperallergic. “And I like painting landscapes.” At the same time, he acknowledged, “painting landscapes is always political.” Some are rendered in shades of blue and yellow, not only the colors of the Ukrainian flag but also of wheat fields under a blue sky. Others recall the same subject at sunset or dawn, yet the darker hues of gray and reds ranging on burgundy might suggest the black and red flag of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. The color choices were deliberate, he said in response to a question, but did not elaborate further. 

In Old Kyiv, the Mystetskyi Arsenal was hosting Coexisting with Darkness, an exhibition that reflects on Russia’s destruction of the power grid and which attracted 5,000 visitors in the two months following its November 9 opening. The war reoriented the flagship cultural institution of Kyiv’s interest toward contemporary Ukrainian art as part of a broader decolonization project.   

The last stop was the apartment of Bohdan-Liubomyr Tetianych-Bublyk, son of Fedir Tetianych (1942–2007), near the Central House of Artists, a 1977 Soviet modernist building. Tetianych was one of the preeminent figures of modern Ukrainian art, and his son’s home is a time capsule in which one travels in time and imagination. Bublyk-Tetianych’s drawings of invading armies of cadaverous soldiers and fleets engaged in naval warfare on A4 papers lined the walls of the foyer, leading into a living room where some of Tetianych’s works hung, including the metaphorically titled “Ukraine means borderless,” also called “Ukraine equals infinity,” a very large painting from 1971 that at first sight might pass as abstract.

A closer look revealed a plethora of figures that populate the 79-by-118-inch canvas. Tetianych developed Frypulia, a philosophy that encompasses a cosmovision of infinity that is in opposition to the Zodiac. Tetianych’s painting of Mikhail Gorbachev, the man who ushered in an era of reforms in the Soviet Union, unwillingly accelerating its demise, overlooked the room. 

“I was paralyzed for ten seconds,” said artist Yeva Kafidova, who witnessed a fighter jet launching a missile from the balcony of her home, about the war’s impact on her practice. She has not been able to stop working since.

Similar is the experience of Nikita Kadan, considered one of the leading figures of the contemporary art scene in Ukraine. “I felt a lot of energy inside,” he said about his initial reaction to the invasion two years ago. “It was like getting an adrenaline injection, like being high on drugs, and after a long period I felt extremely exhausted.” 

Like Kafidova, he witnessed an air attack from his apartment in a high-rise tower in Kyiv. The blast woke him up in time to see a ball of fire coming out of a building. Then he went back to sleep.

With constant fear now sadly normalized, residents of Kyiv seem to be taking the war one day at a time. Cars circulate, people walk in streets and parks, and restaurants serve patrons even as sirens warn of a possible air raid. Asked about this new reality, Kadan responded with a profanity in Ukrainian: “Їбанé то їбанé.” (A more colorful way of saying: “If it will happen, it will happen.”) 

Or, as Kadan put it: “If a missile will hit, then it will hit, dammit, let’s not think about it.”

Editor’s Note: The author’s visit to Kyiv for curators and writers was organized by Insha Osvita, a nonprofit and professional community that develops educational programs and works with culture and art as forms of collective learning.

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