War stories are now being told by some of Ukraine’s leading female artists at the Fridman Gallery in New York, as well as at a gallery in Kyiv. The women are both activists and artists and respond through painting, photography and video to the Russian invasion and earlier conflicts over the annexation of Crimea. The powerful and haunting works prove that there is more to art than pretty images.
© Lesia Khomenko
Lesia Khomenko’s portrait of her new husband Max shows one of many Ukrainian men conscripted to fight against the Russians. He had been a musician and media artist before the war. He and Lesia were a couple. When Max joined the army, Lesia was able to leave the country.
Over the months of separation, he regularly sent her selfies. But during those months, she noticed changes in Max. “Now he’s totally in military uniform,” she said. And she paints a new tension in him. There is a scowl on his face. He stands as straight as possible, saluting. His expression is serious, determined and focused. Her clothes are too big. “I wonder if I can still recognize him,” she said.
Lesia spoke to NPR a day before her flight from New York to Ukraine, for a week-long visit. She had felt she had to leave her country, even if it meant being away from Max. “It’s too dangerous in Ukraine. I have a little girl and I’m very responsible for her. I can’t live with her in Ukraine.” Three times a day, she had to run to the basement to hide from the bombardments: “You are filled with fear.
But with the help of technology, she and Max managed to make the fear almost bearable. They got married online.
Other artists in the “Women at War” exhibition make works about history, politics, war and pain and its toll. They show the aftermath of rape – painful drawings of private parts, bloodied from the assault; a mother and her small children at the foot of a filthy basement staircase; the forbidding image of a psychiatric hospital. Surrounded by shelling and death, Ukrainian women make works of art.
“In every war there was artistic life,” says curator and art historian Monika Fabijanska, “either underground or aerial, as far as possible.” Creation is an essential outlet. “Art allows you to process and name our feelings, and find other people who feel and process them.”
In drawings, films, even handwritten writings on scraps of bed linen, these artists bear witness to the history of the realities of war: its daily life and its consequences.