Ukrainian art and artists defy the impossible during the war with Russia

Ukrainian art and artists defy the impossible during the war with Russia

A day after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, Kyiv-based curator Maria Lanko put a small suitcase and three boxes of copper funnels in the trunk of her car and headed to the west. Traffic was heavy on the way to the Ivano-Frankivsk region, but she managed to drive to a small village of Pavshyno, where a friend put her up for a few nights. From there, Lanka headed for Eastern Europe, first crossing the Romanian border, then on to Hungary, Austria and northern Italy. Milan was the final destination of the curator’s mission to safely transfer the 78 funnels, which constitute Pavlo Makov’s work “The Fountain of Exhaustion, Acqua Alta (1995-2022)”, at the Ukrainian pavilion of the next Venice Biennale.

Funnels from Pavlo Makov’s work “The Fountain of Exhaustion” are evacuated from kyiv.

Maria Lanka

These days, Lanko and a team of designers and art managers are busy rebuilding the nearly 10ft by 10ft wall fountain that the Kyiv-based firm Form designed to poetically circulate water in a loop. Lanko and Lizaveta German, who are the co-founders of the beloved Kyiv art space The bare roomorganized the pavilion with Borys Filonenko, who runs the art book publisher IST edition. When the world exhibition opens on April 23, Lanko will be present at the pavilion to represent the work of Makov and his country, but the availability of his team members and the artist himself is unclear. German, who just had a baby, is still in Ukraine, as is Filonenko, who juggles her energy between helping friends and family and overseeing the printing of the exhibition catalog in Lithuania and the Netherlands.

“Artists are at the forefront of the resistance along with technicians, doctors, factory workers or teachers – everyone is in the same boat,” says Björn Geldhof, director of the influential arts institution from Kyiv. PinchukArtCentre, which is globally recognized for its prestigious Future Generation Art Prize. The collective commitment to defense is unlike anything he’s ever seen. “It’s a democracy in which many different options and heated debates can coexist, but today the country is unified,” he says from Belgium, where he has found refuge.

exhaustion fountain

“The Fountain of Exhaustion” by Pavlo Makov exhibited at the PinchukArtCentre in 2015.

Courtesy of PinchukArtCentre

Currently, the art sector in Ukraine is divided between safeguarding the nation’s art and artifacts and protecting their lands. Many galleries and art centers, such as Detenpyla Gallery and Lviv Art Centerturned into aid stations, and artists and craftsmen put their craftsmanship at the service of defence.

“Most of our artists are inventors who make do with few resources, and now they channel this knowledge to create barricades or weapons,” says Olya Balashova, director of a non-governmental organization committed to opening the first museum of contemporary art in Ukraine. (During our WhatsApp call, a bomb went off outside her sister’s apartment, where she was staying.) Prior to the invasion, Balashova and a group of cultural leaders had worked with the Ministry of Culture to create a home for local contemporary art. In fact, a museum dedicated to contemporary Ukrainian art was among President Zelensky’s promises when he was elected in 2019. “The works of art are kept in the living rooms, but, as the invasion shows, we need a permanent home to safeguard our art,” she said.

pavlo makov

The artist Pavlo Makov.

Courtesy of Pavlo Makov.

The capital’s art scene has flourished in recent years with local and international artists settling in trendy neighbors like Podil, and galleries setting up shop in the Shevchenkivskyi district. As Russian missiles continue to target cultural sites, such as the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial or the opera house, works of art are among the most vulnerable assets. The bombs, however, couldn’t stop the artistic voices: following the closure of the galleries, Facebook turned into an unlikely art gallery for many to exhibit new work. The immediacy of social media allows artists such as Vlada Ralko, Alevtina Kakhidze and Gertruda Meyer to expose their drawings of violence and atrocities to a wider audience and chronicle their observations through paper and paint.

Masha Khalizeva, who is also working to create what they describe as “a material MoCA” or Museum of Contemporary Art, in Kyiv, has helped cultural institutions like The Naked Room and Arsenal Mystetsky establish Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund. Since its launch on March 11, the platform has been providing stipends and housing to artists and cultural workers in addition to resources for other available funds. “We have received donations from all over the world, not only from other artists and collectors, but also House of Europe and the British Council“, she says from Cyprus where Khalizeva found herself stuck at the start of the war. The next step in their program is to launch an NFT sale for digital copies of works by local artists through online or physical exhibitions organized by international solidarity galleries.

lizaveta german, borys filonenko, pavlo makov, maria lankro

From left to right: Lizaveta German, Borys Filonenko, Pavlo Makov, Maria Lankro.

Valentin Kuzan

The response from the international art scene has been twofold. In addition to reaching out to Ukraine, many institutions have suspended relations with Russian collectors and public institutions. Sotheby’s and Christies’ have both canceled their spring Russian art auctions while Russian auction house Philips has received international condemnation.

The Russian art museums currently on display, meanwhile, are still trying to create their next step. The Victoria & Albert Museum Fabergé in London: from novel to revolution features many Imperial Eggs, including those that have never been displayed in the UK, as well as archival ephemera related to Carl Fabergé craftsmanship. The V&A declined to comment on the fate of the currently sold-out exhibition which is due to run until May 8. The Louis Vuitton Foundation, on the other hand, has extended the closing date of its exhibition. The Morozov Collection: Icons of Modern Art from February 22 to April 3. The expansive affair, which is organized in conjunction with the State Hermitage Museum of Russia, the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and the Tretyakov Gallery, includes two hundred French and Russian works of imperialist art and modern from the collection of the Morozov brothers. The Fondation Louis Vuitton’s former collaborative exhibition with Russian state museums, Shchukin Collection, welcomed 1.3 million visitors in 2016.

faberge egg

The ‘Romanov Tercentenary Egg’ pictured here is currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Justin TallisGetty Images

“The resilience of Ukrainians cannot be underestimated, and from this point of view, the resilience of Ukrainian art cannot be underestimated,” says Geldhof. A sign proved the director’s sentiment on March 9, during our conversation: artist Nikita Kadan won the prestigious national Taras Shevchenko award, the country’s highest in the cultural sector, for his exhibition PinchukArtCentre Stone hits stone on the post-Soviet legacy. Khalizeva and Balashova’s vision supports the resilience of the country’s artistic community. After the Venice Biennale, their hope is to participate in other international fairs, such as the documenta five-year exhibition in Kassel or the Manifesta European nomadic biennial. “We will continue our search for places to tell the stories of our artists and our people,” says Khalizeva.

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