Updated: Oct 7
Three Stories of Art and War I
коли гуркочуть гармати- музи замовкають
The Russian invasion catapulted the Ukrainian art world into crisis, and desperate measures were undertaken to secure staff, collections, and artists. Dreams are deferred but stubborn resilience manifests as a desire to not only protect cultural heritage, but also somehow provide opportunities for continued creativity. Three institutions from all regions of Ukraine—Central, East, and West—reflect on their current challenges, on how they are coping, and what might be in store for the future. When cannons roar, the muses will not fall silent.
Olesya Ostrovska-Liuta is the Director General of the National Art and Cultural Museum Complex ‘Mystetskyi Arsenal’.
Located in a magnificent eighteenth-century structure once devoted to the production and storage of artillery and ammunition in Kyiv’s historic Pechersk district, the Mystetskyi Arsenal (Art Arsenal) is Ukraine’s leading cultural institution, notable for its multidisciplinary programme in the visual and performing arts, as well as for its annual book fair.
Before her tenure at Mystetskyi Arsenal, Ms. Ostrovska-Liuta served in several leading roles in the development of Ukraine’s national strategy for culture and creative industries. She has been the First Deputy Minister of Culture of Ukraine, the First Deputy of the National Committee for UNESCO, and was on the board of the International Renaissance Foundation, the Ukrainian Institute, and numerous other professional bodies. She is also a freelance curator and writes on culture and cultural policy.
This interview was conducted on 21 April 2022.
Olesya Ostrovska-Liuta: I am at Arsenal right now, the air sirens are blaring, and I am in a corridor sitting between two walls.
Constance Uzwyshyn, for CJLPA: How are you able to work at the moment?
OOL: We have a very different set of challenges. Our team is scattered all across Ukraine and Europe and this is the challenge for all organisations. People are everywhere. We have to rebuild the processes and understand what the organisations are about now, what the cultural centre should do, and what is the most important task.
Yesterday, I had a meeting with a German writer from a Western European publication. It is very difficult to think about the idea of war, that this is possible, and it is very, very strange for Ukrainians to imagine as well. In 2014, we could not imagine the war. Even this summer, Constance, when you were here, you could not imagine it.
Consider Putin’s text of 12 July 2021, On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians. It is very explicit in what he thinks and what he is going to do. It seemed like a theory, like mythology, not an action as it turned out to be.
CU: What kind of programming can you have now that there is war?
OOL: We have multidisciplinary lines of approach.
Apologies, I have another call from security and must answer it. When you get a call from security you want to answer it.
We are a museum which holds a collection and the most important job for all museums in Ukraine is to protect the collection. This is very difficult because we were not prepared. There are no safe and prepared places in Ukraine to receive the collection. Museums are doing a lot and it cannot be discussed publicly where these collections are being safeguarded.
Peter Bejger, for CJLPA: There is lots of information about this in the press; some people think that collections are safer abroad in other countries. It is a delicate question. What are your thoughts about this?
OOL: It is safer for certain objects, and it needs to be decided at the governmental level and not by separate organisations. You cannot move objects easily out of Ukraine, you need governmental decisions and permissions. Most museums cannot move their collections because there simply has been no time to prepare.
We have a very tragic and bad situation in Mariupol, and also in Kharkiv and Chernihiv. Many cultural institutions have been purposefully destroyed (fig. 3) and collections have been looted (for example, Arkhip Kuindzhi artworks were stolen) (fig. 4). However, in Chernihiv, Russian troops have retreated. Furthermore, both Lviv and Chernivtsi are under threat but there are no Russian troops on the ground (they are targeted by long-range missiles), so it makes things different. Therefore, these institutions and their requirements need to be addressed differently. In some situations, it is wise to move a limited number of objects abroad.
Then you have the teams and the issues with people moving abroad. We need our people; we are being de-staffed. At the moment, we have connections with our staff, but the longer they stay abroad, the more they get immersed. It is very important to support programmes in Ukraine and it is difficult when the staff are not in Ukraine. However, there are exceptions. For example, our digital team is located outside of Ukraine and works well. An example of this is with the international book fairs. Our design team produces the designs for all the stands.
CU: Do you think the COVID experience in some way prepared for this remote work?
OOL: Yes, it has helped us cope with the situation right now because we learned how to work remotely and how to use technology to keep on working. We also learned that communication is key, and that we cannot rely on spontaneous communication as one does in an office.
Also, Ukraine is a country with very good internet connections, and the Internet has not been down since the invasion, except for the occupied areas like Bucha, Irpin, and Mariupol. That is also why the press knows so much about what is going on in Ukraine. This also supports us!
CU: When war began, as the director of the Arsenal, what was the first thing you did?
OOL: On 24 February, our first action was to inform our partners abroad. I woke up at 5:30 a.m. My husband first told my daughter the war had started. When you hear these words, you don’t believe it. You think this must be a mistake. It is macabre.
At 8:00 a.m. I met with my team, and we drafted an appeal to explain the situation to our partners, especially addressing book and literature circles which are a main component of our programme, in particular the International Book Arsenal Festival, a large literature and book festival. This was our first step. This festival was scheduled for May. Of course, we had to redirect our work to let people know, to explain what is happening in Ukraine, and to explain our point of view, especially why Ukraine does not want to be part of Russia, and why Ukrainians are not Russian (as Putin put it). Therefore, we focused on our presence at international book festivals…we started with Bologna, Tbilisi, London, and Paris.
In addition to the book fairs, the team is working with contemporary art and putting together art exhibitions outside of Ukraine. At the moment, the head of exhibitions fled to Paris with her teenage son. We have put together an exhibition which is at the Ukrainian Cultural Centre in Paris and another exhibition will be in Treviso.
In addition to the book fairs and art exhibitions, we are also creating an archive of artworks being produced in Ukraine during war. It is called ‘Ukraine Ablaze’. This has a special meaning because it refers to [Oleksandr] Dovzhenko’s film Ukraine in Flames (1943). We have also co-founded an art fund which deals with the consequences of the Russian invasion. It is the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund and raises funds to purchase Ukrainian art and support curators, art writers, art research, and much more through fundraising activities. As I said, Mystetskyi Arsenal has several programmes, but our programme has had to drastically change because of the war. We even have a legal department to assist us.
CU: Who funds Mystetskyi Arsenal now?
OOL: We still receive basic funding but have just had severe financial cuts and we do not know how we will succeed.
CU: Due to the war, what are your thoughts on decolonisation and art and how has this been addressed by you as Director of the Mystetskyi Arsenal?
OOL: First of all, Russian imperialism is something that is not unknown to Ukrainians. But there is a blind spot by other countries. Russian politics and policies here are seen as neo-colonial. Ukrainians are very sensitive to these narratives via Russian media and culture.
PB: Do you feel perhaps it is difficult to explain to Westerners, that is, to those who live in a post-modern society, decolonisation in Ukraine or Russian imperialism? They come from a different historical and cultural experience. How can you address these blind spots to western audiences?
OOL: It depends. When you look from Ukraine, especially from Kyiv, and see for example statements and declarations made from the German political arena, it is shocking. It is like there is no amount of reality that can convince a German politician.
There is a discussion in Ukraine, which I think is a good argument, but you might find this controversial. What is the reason why Western, especially European countries (it is different in America), refuse to notice the imperial nature of the Russian discourse? Also, why do they often not notice other cultures apart from Russia in these regions? Why is that?
A hypothesis arose that this has something to do with all the imperialisms in the world as well. Empires speaking to empires, important capitals speaking to other important capitals. Even at these meetings those other important capitals, for example the Russian capital, have legitimate spheres of interest.
What are legitimate spheres of interest? It means that another capital has the right to define other nations’ invasion choices. Why is it possible that a Western capital or nation is even capable of accepting this idea of legitimate spheres of interests? How could people accept that Russia has the right to define Ukraine’s future? One of the explanations is connected to the parallel imperialism still present in other countries.
PB: Do you think this is a hangover nostalgia (among the Left) for the USSR? Perhaps it is a modernisation project and has been affected by this view, which is present in Soviet art and transposed in current discourses?
O: The Soviet Union was definitely a modernisation project, which means modernisation is not always a good thing and can be a means of tolerating oppression. How do you measure good and evil? Was the Soviet Union good only because it opposed an evil side in the capitalist world? Is it enough to challenge the capitalist world to be good, no matter how many atrocities you bring with yourself? In our part of the world the answer is no. It is not enough. It can bring a greater evil. When your life is threatened, you might become melodramatic.
PB: Germany has a huge role in contemporary art, with their museums, fairs, and curators, but what do you think about the French, Italians, and other Europeans?
OOL: Regarding Germany, there is a gap, luckily, between politicians and professionals. Professionals are much more supportive and there is a feeling that the understanding is deeper, and the public is much more sympathetic to Ukraine. I am not saying Germany is bad. We also have to state we are very grateful for the reception to Ukrainian refugees. We could not have imagined Ukrainians crossing borders in huge numbers without passports or COVID restrictions, and with free transportation. This is great and should not be underestimated. This is very important to point out. We should not underestimate these efforts.
Regarding the political discourse, what is most striking to Ukrainians are the Germans and the French. Consider when [French president] Macron stated that events in Bucha might not qualify as genocide and in the end Ukrainians and Russians are brotherly nations. This sounds very alarming in Ukraine. First of all, this ‘brotherly nation’ is of course an imperial trope. This trope tells you that no one should interfere with those relations because they are a kind of family relations so let them decide by themselves because they are a ‘brotherly’ family. There is this family lexis, and this form of speaking camouflages international aggression and deprives Ukrainians of agency. If they are ‘brothers’, then they have no political agency to make their own political choices. Therefore, when a Ukrainian hears a French president state this, it sounds quite colonial as well.
Then the question arises, why would a French president take such a colonial position? That is really alarming in Ukraine. We heard nothing like this from the British.
I have the feeling the British and American are the most realistic. They understand what is going on. When it comes to southern Europe, there is a different history of relationships. The latest story with the Vatican and Rome [Pope Francis arranged a Ukrainian and Russian woman to carry the cross together during a Good Friday procession] was received very poorly.
All the international steps towards reconciliation are perceived as harming the victim and inflicting more suffering on Ukrainians. The time for reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians has not yet come. Russians have to first analyse their own political reality and their actions towards Ukrainians.
CU: Do you have any professional relations with Russian artists or Russian Institutes?
OOL: No one has reached out to us as an institution.
CU: With the war going on, the spotlight is now on Ukrainian art. Please comment on how Ukrainian art has changed during these last two months. First of all, what is Ukrainian Art?
OOL: Anything produced in Ukraine now or anything where an artist defines himself/herself as a Ukrainian artist. That would probably be my explanation of Ukrainian art.
CU: Do we need to re-examine and critically discuss the way art history defines and establishes Ukrainian-born or artists of Ukrainian descent as Russian? Let us consider, for example, Kazimir Malevich, Ivan Aivazovsky, Ilya Repin, Volodymyr Borovykovsky, David Burliuk, Aleksandra Ekster, or even Andy Warhol (a Carpatho-Rusyn). What does this say about art history and its practice?
OOL: This is a huge question, and a complex discussion is ahead of us. How do you define a Polish or even Russian artist today? At the moment, here is my own definition today, and it might change over time: a Ukrainian artist is any artist that made an impact on the Ukrainian art scene or was either produced in Ukraine or by individuals who identify themselves as Ukrainian artists. In this way, Malevich would also be Ukrainian because he was teaching in the Kyiv Academy. He was one of the founders of the Academy and he was an important cultural figure in Kyiv life. Therefore, he is a Ukrainian artist but also belongs to other communities and societies.
We are discussing this because Putin and the Russians put forward this question, not only whether Ukraine is a political entity, but do Ukrainians exist? Since Putin put this question forward—by the way, Ukrainians thought this question was long resolved—he made it into a huge issue, and therefore we speak about it. Thus, his text is genocidal in nature because what he is saying is Ukrainians do not exist. There is no such thing as Ukraine. Although I exist as a physical reality, his answers are Bucha, Irpin, and Borodianka. Those people, for him, should not exist physically. This is unexpected to anyone who knows about Ukrainian culture and history.
As for the question, are Ukrainians different from Russians? There are two different issues, in my opinion. Are Ukrainians different from Russians? The answer is yes, yes, and yes. Secondly, this question in itself is disgraceful. However, if you speak about Kyivan Rus', it is a medieval period that is neither Russian nor Ukrainian. It is like equating the Holy Roman Empire to being German.
PB: What is going to happen with the Arsenal Book Fair going forward?
OOL: It will not happen in May. It all depends on the war, and it is too early to say anything. We will have to do other things. We are developing a programme to connect Ukrainians and international publishers because the international scene is very interested in connecting with Ukrainian writers. We are working with the Frankfurt Book Fair, which is the most important global book fair.
We are not able to do any cultural activities in Ukraine because this is not possible for security reasons. We cannot have a mass public event, even in Lviv. It’s too dangerous. It is difficult to have a steady workflow because of sirens and you have to change your work schedule because of that. Kyiv is waking up at the moment, even hairdressers are starting to work…which is very exotic these days. The shops and markets are starting to function as well as the cafes…but there are no cultural or conference-related types of activities. We would love it, but it is just not possible.
CU: You are speaking at the Venice Biennale, can you tell us a bit about it?
OOL: There are two separate Ukrainian projects at the Biennale, the Ukrainian Pavilion and the Pinchuk project. It is a parallel programme, and Pinchuk’s projects are always well known. The Ukrainian Pavilion is organised by three curators and the artist Pavlo Makov. Makov stayed in Kharkiv, even under the shelling. Regarding the curators, one of them is a young man (he was originally not allowed to travel due to the war but was given special permission) and one of the females just gave birth in a bomb shelter in Western Ukraine. Their work routine was extremely complicated. It will be a miracle that it is even there.
CU: Why is Ukrainian art significant to other cultures?
OOL: One thing, but it is so reactive, is because Ukrainian culture understands the nuances of Russian culture and Russian imperialism and can translate it to others. But isn’t this a minor role, to be a translator? It is still part of colonialism…I feel uneasy about this.
CU: Perhaps Ukrainian artists represent values, integrity, and a morality which many in the West have lost. What do you stand for? Ukrainians are posing tough questions such as the purpose of NATO, the meaning of the United Nations, and so forth.
OOL: I agree, Ukraine is forcing people and societies to change their views. Artists such as Alevtina Kakhidze especially at the moment makes things uncomfortable for Westerners, with their previous views. They make people re-examine fundamentals, what people were there in Kyivan Rus' for example. In a sense Ukrainian art is a game changer, it challenges us.
Here is some small, good news. The sirens have stopped.
CU: Do you contemplate leaving Ukraine?
OOL: No. First of all, I am the director of Arsenal which means I am in charge, and I cannot leave. Legally I can, but morally no.
PB: How many staff are you?
OOL: We had eighty people in our pre-war regular staff. We are a large institution by square metres but are compact by the number of people. In Ukraine, there are around sixty. All the museum directors are still in Kyiv, but some people have moved to other cities, and a few are outside Ukraine, but not many.
PB: Do you have any concluding thoughts on what is to be done during this period? What is the moral imperative of artists right now in Ukraine?
OOL: It is important to pose questions, to try to be uncomfortable, to try to reflect on what is going on, to try to describe your experience…it is an extreme experience. How can you describe this other than through art? We will only see what the strategies are sometime later when we view it retrospectively. Some artists are trying to cope with reality through their art. Art is also about providing a voice, so many of them are voicing things, or example Alevtina. She says I am an artist, and I can ask unpleasant and uneasy questions to anyone. She challenges assumptions even for her western interlocutor, who does not want to change his/her lens.
Alevtina has a house in Kyiv, was very close to the front line, and spends most of the time in her basement with her dogs. The dogs were anxious and afraid; she spent most of her time in the basement because this was a space where her dogs were their calmest.
In her art, she draws all her impressions, thoughts, feelings…she writes questions and thoughts on her drawings in English. She said there are so many mistakes (in the grammar), but they are authentic, but I don’t think about correct expression. I just want to say something despite the ability to operate the language. It is not the translation made by a good translator, it is what I do, what I think, and she thinks about certain interlocutors, and she speaks to outsiders…Alevtina is powerful, her art is honest, and it is blunt.
This interview was conducted by Constance Uzwyshyn and Peter Bejger.
Constance Uzwyshyn is an expert on Ukrainian contemporary art. She founded Ukraine’s first foreign-owned professional art gallery, the ARTEast Gallery, in Kyiv. Having written a masters dissertation entitled The Emergence of the Ukrainian Contemporary Art Market, she is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge researching Ukrainian contemporary art. She is also CJLPA 2’s Executive Editor and the Ukrainian Institute of London’s Creative Industries Advisor.
Peter Bejger is an editor, filmmaker, and writer based in San Francisco. He was a Fulbright Research Scholar in Ukraine, where he wrote and produced a documentary film on Secession-era architecture of the city of Lviv. Previously, he lived in Kyiv for several years, where he worked as a journalist, media consultant, and cultural critic.
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