Mobilize Ukrainians to ‘reclaim our art, reclaim our artists’
Marta Trotsiuk has always loved Ukrainian contemporary art. Her personal collection illuminates her dark but warm living room in central Lviv, lit only by twinkling lights. Even when the electricity is on, saving energy has become a way of life in Ukraine.
When the Russian invasion took place almost a year ago, Trotsiuk realized that Ukrainian art and culture – and her connections as president of the Ukrainian Gallerists’ Union – could be the weapons with which she contributed to the war effort.
She says the conflict in Ukraine has highlighted the importance of art and how it can help document history while providing an insight into Ukraine’s dynamic culture. Trotsiuk hopes that art can also be used as a bargaining chip to end the war.
It took her just five days to bring like-minded Ukrainian artists and art curators together in a group she called Culture Against Aggression.
“We decided to sign up for this cultural diplomacy,” Trotsiuk said. “We decided to communicate with our colleagues abroad and first ask them to impose cultural sanctions on the Russian Federation, and then ask them to invite Ukrainians to speak at the international level through culture and art about the situation and the truth to speak we have here.”
She said the question seemed simple enough but initially met with a lot of resistance.
“When the war started, we saw that many of our colleagues abroad – in museums, cultural institutions – wanted to do something,” Trotsiuk said. “And they made a lot of mistakes.”
She says they wanted to bring Ukrainians together with Russians and Belarusians to show unity and show that art can be bigger than politics.
“It is impossible to have representatives of these three countries in one room. But our colleagues just didn’t get it,” she said.
Sanctions aim to put pressure on Russia
Trotsiuk was disappointed that some of Russia’s most famous and visible cultural figures failed to speak out against the violence perpetrated by their government. She said it was unacceptable that international institutions then gave them the limelight and that excluding individuals from their respective fields could put pressure on them to change their approach.
This week, Ukraine’s latest cultural sanctions request was to ban Russian athletes from the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics, a request backed by a growing list of countries from around the world, excluding Canada.
“This is a fundamental issue for the entire Ukrainian sports community,” said Ukraine’s Sports Minister Vadym Guttsait.
Trotsiuk said it wasn’t difficult to find examples to explain why Ukrainians and Russians standing next to each other on a stage can feel impossible. She points to a vibrant painting on her wall, painted in dramatic shades of pink. It was made by local artist Zirka Savka before the invasion.
“Your husband went to the army as a volunteer from the second day of the war. He is also an artist and traded his brush for a machine gun,” Trotsiuk said.
She said Savka traveled to Taiwan with Trotsiuk in late 2022 to present Ukrainian culture and the way of life, which Ukrainian soldiers are fighting to save. All the time she worried about whether her husband would live to see tomorrow. Trotsiuk said the idea that someone would ask this artist or any Ukrainian to then share a stage with a Russian was unthinkable.
“And their art has also changed as a result of the war,” Trotsiuk said.
Scrolling through Savka’s Instagram account, the bright pinks and purples are no longer there, but have now been replaced by shades of red, black, and orange. The images now appear much more visceral, graphic or violent.
CLOCK | Wrecked vehicles are used as artist canvases in Ukraine
The displacement of art in all its forms will document the timeline of this conflict, this dark chapter of Ukrainian history. The Ukrainian government has invested in a number of programs to capitalize on the country’s rich artistic resources.
One such program is the Metahistory Museum, which publishes an artwork each day of the war to document the course of the conflict from an artist’s perspective. These digital images are then sold as NFTs (non-fungible tokens) to raise funds for Ukrainian cultural institutions, many of which have been the target of Russian bombs.
For Alice Zhuravel, this project was a welcome opportunity to return to the art world. Zhuravel had been trying to make a name for herself as an artist, but last February she felt so compelled by the urgency to help her country that she switched to humanitarian work instead, sharing the experiences of Black Ukrainians and Ukrainians with various documented backgrounds.
“With humanitarian work, you can see your results the same day,” Zhuravel said. Initially it was what she needed, but a year later she’s eager to return to art in a public way. She’s been doing this all along as a way of reflection and self-care, and hopes to find more time and space for her art to evolve.
“Art is a very important field for me in the long term, the best for social change and for building a positive culture,” she said.
The work she submitted to the Metahistory Museum was a 3D digital piece intended to document the tragedy of the destruction of Ukrainian land.
“They destroyed our crops for many years,” Zhuravel said. “This grain and sunflower harvest, for example.”
The Metahistory Museum has raised more than $1.3 million to date.
This year, Ukrainian governments and citizens are conducting broad talks about how to remove Russian cultural influences from all aspects of Ukrainian life – the country’s descalation – from street names to the debate about removing the name of Russian poet and playwright Alexander Pushkin the theater in Kharkiv. Conversely, Ukrainians are trying to win back other famous artists who they say were previously identified as Soviets or Russians.
“It’s complicated because all the time Ukraine suffered, for a long time we couldn’t get our full independence,” Trotsiuk said. “But our culture has been with us all along and so has our identity. [And it is time] Reclaim our art, reclaim our artists.”