In wartime Ukraine, contemporary art is thriving. Artists bear witness to horrific events and celebrate the past, while the future is being built.
In November, I visited Kyiv to meet some groups working on Ukraine’s revival and rebuilding. I went with some trepidation. I had already spent time in western Ukraine, which is much safer but, luckily, it turned out to be a relatively quiet week. Kyiv locals have had to get used to frequent attacks. They stoically shrug off the risks, the agony of broken sleep and background stress.
Kyiv has seen some changes – soldiers in uniform on the streets, sandbags protecting government buildings, monuments and statues covered up, an array of flags in the main Maidan Independence Square, each one representing a dead soldier. But normal life goes on. Restaurants and cafes do brisk business, people are busy with work and leisure. There is a sense of needing to make the best of life, to take opportunities.
Tenth anniversary of the Revolution of Dignity
My week in Kyiv coincided with the tenth anniversary of the Euromaidan, or Revolution of Dignity. The revolution started in November 2013, when the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Yanukovych reneged on a promise to sign an agreement with the EU, which was to start the process towards membership.
It started as a low-key peaceful demonstration in Maidan Independence Square in the centre of Kyiv. A few hundred people, mostly students, camped out in the square. As support grew, the government intervened brutally, attacking the demonstrators. Rather than suppressing the protest, this action led to a huge response, with eventually up to 200,000 people joining.
A protracted struggle
Local people brought food, blankets and medical aid. The occupation continued through the harsh winter months, punctuated by brutal confrontations with armed police. Nearby St Michael’s Monastery became a field hospital and sanctuary for the demonstrators. Doctors performed emergency surgery, supported by priests, monks and volunteers offering food and spiritual comfort.
Finally, in February 2014, the government committed to holding new elections. Yanukovych fled to Russia before the scale of his corruption was revealed, including his criminal past. Although the Revolution of Dignity marked a turning point for Ukraine’s democracy, the Russians took advantage while the country was in disarray. The Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent invasion of eastern Ukraine took place in February 2014, marking the true start of the current war.
The Heavenly Hundred
St Michael’s Monastery is the site of a memory wall for those who died, the Heavenly Hundred. For each of the fallen demonstrators there is a photograph, captioned by their name and dates. Poignantly, the wall has been augmented in recent years with pictures of soldiers who died defending their country against Russian invaders. It is a disorientating array of young and old, men and women, some in army uniform, others dressed casually or in work clothes. People bring flowers. Visiting dignitaries are brought here.
Wartime Ukraine: conflict inspires art
I saw an exhibition of art inspired by Euromaidan in the National Ukrainian House, an impressive socialist-realist building with a huge glass-domed atrium. There was an eclectic mixture of paintings, photography and installations. The exhibition revealed how they lived during those weeks, in makeshift tents, building fires to keep warm. In between confrontations with the armed security forces there was something positive happening, alongside music, talks and shared food.
I was particularly taken by a piano, painted in Ukrainian colours of yellow and blue and decorated with the stars of the European Union. It was installed on an open bus and played by a self-professed ‘piano extremist’, wearing a mask and bullet-proof vest. Several pianos appeared round the Maidan area, with musicians playing defiantly to entertain and uplift the demonstrators.
I visited three other contemporary art galleries in Kyiv. Everywhere was energy, anger and creativity. At the Pinchuk Art Centre, I saw a ‘blank statue’, a comment on Ukraine’s ongoing campaign to remove imperial symbolism from its streets.
Curating and remembering
On the edge of Sophia Square, overlooked by Saint Sophia Cathedral, I saw an array of captured, rusting Russian military technology. Ukrainians have a dark sense of humour. Last May, on the day Russia commemorates the end of the Second World War, these tanks and others were arranged in Khreshtatyk, the main street. The Russians had hoped to take Kyiv in a few days and hold a victory parade.
Instead, their destroyed hardware was exhibited, a small selection of which is now displayed permanently. Tourists and locals wander around. Small children clamber in and out of tanks and armoured cars. People have added graffiti. The statue of Princess Olha, one of the founders of Kyiv, has been dressed with a flak jacket. The future may be unpredictable, but the present is being recorded.