Ukrainian Contemporary Art: Defining Culture, Country, Language and History
From documenting war to expression of personal identity in times of instability through the medium of art, the works of Ukrainian contemporary artists span a wide spectrum.
Themes of conflict, territory and heritage are not new to those within the circle.
Often found throughout the country’s art history, their works criticise censorship and Soviet control – broaching ideas of activism (or artivism), questioning modern-day propaganda, and crossing between documentation and denouncement.
Ukrainian contemporary art also fluctuates from expression of personal and cultural identity, to identity as a country, language and history.
In this article:
- Ukrainian Contemporary Art and the Freedom of Expression
- Where to Support Ukrainian Contemporary Artists
- The Diversity of Ukrainian Contemporary Artists
- Ukrainian Contemporary Artists
UKRAINIAN CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
Art and self-expression through various mediums can offer stability in times of instability.
Physical exhibitions and installations, site-specific and interactive pieces, where touch and other senses are heightened, have the power to immerse the viewer into another dimension, a distraction from reality or the opposite, a wake-up call to view reality as it is.
Exhibitions and cultural events have the responsibility of maintaining the momentum in creating safe spaces of expression.
Indeed, through the arts, one can obtain a different perspective of current events, at times clearer than what is shown in the media.
WHERE TO SUPPORT UKRAINIAN CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS
Support in the art world is shown through the organisation of exhibitions of Ukrainian art, ensuring that the artists and their works have visibility and promotion, providing a platform for their voices to be heard and their art to be seen.
Recent exhibitions and fundraising in support of Ukraine and denouncing the Russian invasion include “Postost: Україна / Ukraine” organised by Stiftung Neue Kunst Berlin-Brandenburg; the online photography exhibition Ukrainian. Photographies, Unity: British and Ukrainian Art by The Art Unit in London; and the Research Grant Program for Ukrainian Lens-Based Artists and Researchers funded by EEP Berlin (Eastern European Photography), among others.
There is no time like the present to support the artists and makers further.
THE DIVERSITY OF UKRAINIAN CONTEMPORARY ART
Below is a selection of Ukrainian contemporary artists and art collectives, crossing the boundaries between various art mediums: visual arts, photography, video and multimedia.
Photography and video are useful tools in an era of digital consumption. However, it has become a period in which content is scrolled through at a rate that at times does not allow for the accompanying message to sink in.
The drastic is required to filter through and grab the attention of the viewer.
This use of drastic imagery has become the everyday as areas of Ukraine continue to smoulder, yet the makers and the viewers cannot let themselves become desensitised to these sights.
Since its invention in the late 19th century, photography has proved itself an indispensable medium in times of geopolitical conflict and capturing moments that not only document but also denounce actions and consequences, the camera can even become a weapon itself.
Ukraine’s visual artists have adapted their research and practice in recent months, motivated by their own anger and sadness, to document their surroundings, their fellow natives, and the progression of the war in their cities and territories afar.
UKRAINIAN CONTEMPORARY ARTISTS
Daily Lives Displaced, Igor Chekachkov
Photographers, such as Igor Chekachkov, open up intimate spaces, homes which have welcomed those in need of shelter.
With the project “Daily Lives of Displaced”, Chekachkov’s images focus on the everyday of those who have had to move away, who have lost their homes or were forced to flee due to the advancements of war.
Their banal activities, from taking a shower to talking over a cup of tea or playing games with the children, show both the vulnerability and the determination of humans.
The project is a progression from the Daily Lives series, where the artist or viewer views the cramped spaces shared by couples, friends or strangers – from a bird’s eye point of view.
Boris Mikhailov, a world-renowned photographer, represented the Ukrainian Pavilion during the 57th Biennale d’Arte with the project “Parliament” (2014-16).
Documenting broadcast footage of political figures debating in parliament, Mikhailov corrupts the image by moving toward glitch art. The distorted frames are a reflection of the use of mass media, individual resistance to its propaganda and increasing awareness of imperfection in the role of information distribution.
The viewer is invited to consider that over-consumption of the media requires time to digest.
TV in the heads, from Catch The Hero, 2021, Pavel Borshchenko
Pavel Borshchenko constructs abstract portraits of Ukrainian identity, exploring textiles, backgrounds and symbols which become the protagonists themselves – moving away from the central figure whose face is often obstructed from view.
Borshchenko plays with the use of symbolism, colour and form, reflecting on years of personal cultural confusion having grown up under Soviet rule and its subsequent collapse in the provincial town of Sumy, far from the advancements of metropolitan life.
Projects such as “Sorrow of My Days” and “Green Life” bring Ukrainian identity and lack thereof to the forefront of discussion.
11 March, Yevgenia Belorusets
“The War Diary” (2022) by artist-writer Yevgenia Belorusets follows daily events in Kyiv written in real-time from the end of February to the first days of April, a selection of images accompanies each entry.
The ongoing project is currently on show at the 59th Venice Biennale 2022, housed within the exhibition titled This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom.
Belorusets’ project prompts a dialogue between written and visual accounts of the war at a personal level, as a diary that desires to be read, shared and acted upon, progressing from passive observation to active resistance.
Belorusets moves between visual art, literature, journalism and activism, intertwining documentative and artistic languages.
ANDRII DOSTLIEV AND LIA DOSTLIEVA
#02 Weeks 13-24_Andrii Dostliev, Lia Dostlieva
“Licking War Wounds” (2016-2021) is an ongoing performative project by Andrii Dostliev and Lia Dostlieva.
The tank-shaped lamp, made of salt, is a souvenir originally bought in Bakhmut, an area in eastern Ukraine known for its salt mines and occupation by Donetsk People's Republic forces for a period in 2014.
Each day the salt lamp is licked by the artists working in collaboration, until the shape begins to break down, eventually disappearing entirely due to the continued action.
The process, documented in its entirety through a dedicated Instagram account, is a call to the slow nature of healing from trauma.
The Bridge, Sasha Kurmaz
Multimedia artists such as Sasha Kurmaz fluctuate between or integrate various mediums as a means of artistic investigation.
Kurmaz prioritises human rights and the contrast between man and his surroundings in works such as “The Bridge” (2019) and “I Sleep for a Revolution” (2013).
The former involves the construction of a wooden bridge over a wall on the border between the Lunik IX and Lunik VIII neighbourhoods in Kosice, Slovakia.
The wall in use is known as the anti-Roma wall, a structure made with the intention, yet denied, of distancing Roma families from the community. The latter is an example of one of Kurmaz’s video projects documenting activists asleep, in a state of vulnerability, during the Maidan Uprising protests in Kyiv in 2013.
Fountain of Exhaustion, Pavlo Makov. Photo by Sasha Maslov
The Ukrainian Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale d’Arte is represented by Pavlo Makov with the kinetic sculpture “Fountain of Exhaustion. Acqua Alta” (2022).
Known for his works with etching and printmaking, Makov’s presentation at the Venice Biennale relates back to his practice in the 1990s, with the photo documentation of the urban landscape of Kharkiv.
A particular incident in the city caused major flooding yet at the same time a blockage in the supply of drinking water; the irony of these two events in one location demonstrates the exhaustion of water in its role in vitality as it evolves into damage creation.
Reflecting on the symbolic values of urban and found materials, such as concrete, glass, stone and ceramics, Zhanna Kadyrova investigates the meaning of community, the relationship between artwork and viewer, and the space between the public and the private.
In June 2022, Galleria Continua in Paris inaugurated Palianytsia, both a solo show of Kadyrova’s recent works and a fundraising initiative to support Ukrainian citizens.
The exhibition’s title, which translates as bread in Ukrainian, refers both to the sculptural works, where found river stones take on the appearance of sliced bread, and to the symbolic use of its term in knowing friend from foe.
"Knowledge of immigrant women the wealth of the motherland" (2022, 3 × 4 m) from ‘The Value Of These Words Also Depends On You’ project. Photo: Michał Kaczyński
Yuriy Biley brings under the spotlight the theme of migration and his own personal journey and experience as a Ukrainian citizen living in Poland.
The Polish art gallery BWA Zielona Gora currently hosts a solo exhibition titled Came, Saw, Cried, which oversees Biley’s six years in Poland, documenting life for those who are considered non-Polish, and commenting on the difference in terminology between emigrant and refugee.
The exhibition includes the series The Value Of These Words Also Depends on You (2021-), which is based on the “roadside poetry” found in billboards and advertisements in 1970s Poland, however the artist questions how much has changed politically and/or socially regarding the propagandist messages in modern-day Poland.
It is also on show at Raster art gallery.
Biley is one of the founders of the art collective, Open Group.
Based in Paris and Kyiv, the art collective Socl:e aims to promote artistic freedom and creativity, organising exhibitions and cultural events. They are dedicated to supporting emerging artists, who like them are focused on community creation and preservation.
The collective recently presented a group show of contemporary Ukrainian photographers titled Ranok during the Boutographies photography festival in Montpellier.
The exhibition’s title translates to “morning” in Ukrainian, a reference to the start of the Russian invasion at 5am on Feb 24, 2022.
Liera Polianskova (SVITER art group), How to Live During an Air Alarm (March, 2022)
Artists Liera Polianskova, Max Robotov and Ivan Svitlychnyi make up the art group Sviter.
Initially established in 2008 in Kharkiv as a musical collaboration and experiment between actress and theatre historian Polianskova and engineer Robotov, the group later evolved to collaborate with visual artist Svitlychnyi.
Exploring a variety of disciplines, Sviter uses new media art, video, performance and VR.
In 2018 they founded Photoinus Studio, a community based in Kyiv for the development of new media arts.
Cover Credit: Untitled, from Sumy - Sorrow of my days, 2021, Pavel Borshchenko
Writer | Glesni Trefor Williams
Glesni Trefor Williams is a Bologna-based art journalist/translator from North Wales, who focuses her writing on contemporary art and interlinked exhibition spaces. She has written for Lampoon, Spinosa Magazine, and is an arts contributor on BBC Wales radio. @glesniw