In 2021, at the II Culture Congress in Lviv named “The Scene of the Future”, I interviewed Pascal Gielen, professor of sociology of art and politics at the Antwerp Research Institute for the Arts (Antwerp University, Belgium), and we touched on the importance of art residencies. His essay on Time and Space to Create and to Be Human was included in the Contemporary Artist Residencies Reclaiming Time and Space collection (2019): “Art residencies in this aspect offer practices of contemporary art involved in transnational social movements – when artists and participants of these movements work together over global issues such as the colonial legacy, the Anthropocene, etc. Art reflects more slowly than disasters unfold, but without these practices, it is impossible to make a complete picture of our ideas about them. They connect artists with experts and form unexpected and highly effective interdisciplinary collaborations that go beyond a specific residency.”
The pandemic added a new negative dimension by halting such residencies, and Gielen was deeply worried about it. Particularly, he emphasized that sometimes art residencies became the only shelter for artists fleeing repressive regimes or war zones, and no pandemic can deprive them of the opportunity to escape physical destruction. Gielen then gave examples of artistic resistance to the anti-democratic actions of the authorities. Who could have predicted that next year we would find ourselves in the very center of an invasion war, and this aspect of our conversation would be instantly relevant?
Many countries organized residencies for Ukrainian cultural figures — both for survival and for reflections on the topic of russian aggression against Ukraine. Many from the artistic circle took advantage of them. But Kherson was not lucky. It was occupied almost at once on February 28, 2022. We appeared besieged for an incredibly long nine months. Then the unique Residency story took place.
I was born and worked almost all my life in Kherson. In 2015, my colleague, architectural historian, and ethnographer Serhii Diachenko and I founded the Urban Re-Public NGO, which focused on urban planning, the promotion of cultural heritage, and contemporary art. Our projects have always had a socio-political dimension. We involved Kherson architects, artists, and creative people in reflecting on the issues of urban improvement, preserving unique local architecture, working with historical memory, and rethinking the collections of regional museums.
In the beginning, we felt shocked for about three weeks. Then I saw the first works on war by artists who appeared in a free territory, and I thought that the only mental salvation for us was to document everything that was happening to us through art. I talked to those artists with whom I often worked on our projects, and as a result, the first six people agreed to participate in a “Residency in the occupation.” Given that they had already begun to work out the new terrible reality, and not only in Kherson. Any tragic event became a trigger.
It was clear that we had to keep publicity to a minimum because collaborators gradually appeared who willingly helped FSB officers compile lists of ATO combatants, activists, and journalists, all people who seemed potentially disloyal to the “new government”. Before Bucha, we naively believed that people of culture were not particularly interesting to them because their external impact on the city authorities` decisions or the political atmosphere was not very visible. But it turned out that in russia, as in any totalitarian country, they understand perfectly well that genocide must begin with the destruction of the cultural sphere. The culture in an independent country that aspires to democracy is a place where opposition immediately ripens. I stayed in the city for another three weeks, and then I had a chance to leave and take my daughter-in-law to Odesa. There, during my forced nomadism, I supported the residents and looked for ways to help them, at least financially.
A colleague of mine and I wrote the Kherson Diary series for The Observer/The Guardian during the occupation, risking our lives, but it was a justified risk, so as not to go crazy from the occupation realities. When we left the occupation and later got to London for temporary residence, we were invited to meet the Observer editor, Paul Webster, who shook our hands and expressed his admiration for our courage.
My colleague and I wrote the Kherson Diary series for The Observer/The Guardian during the occupation, risking our lives. But it was a justified risk not to go crazy from the occupation realities. When we left the city and later got to London for temporary residence, we met the editor of The Observer, Paul Webster, who shook our hands and expressed his admiration with our courage.
We must constantly speak about the need for our independent voice to be heard clearly on the international cultural and art scene, where russia has dominated as a representative of Eastern European artistic practices for many years.
Paul Webster was moved by this and approved the idea of telling about the Kherson art resistance through the publication in the Observer. That is how the article «Kherson’s secret art society produces searing visions of life under Russian occupation» appeared. After its release, I received emails and messages from all over the world, demanding interviews and contact with artists, most of whom remained under occupation at the time. We postponed publicity until the de-occupation, understanding all the dire consequences.
In October, the AICA team informed me that my essay “Residency in the Occupation: Art under Threat of Death” took third place in the international competition AICA International Art Critics Prize 2022. The jury was impressed by Kherson artists who worked and continue working under occupation. However, the organizers of the contest maintain strict confidentiality regarding them, planning to make a closed presentation of the works of the Residency participants at the international AICA Congress “What are we talking about when we talk about criticism in the 21st century?”
Communicating with creative people of Kherson who currently live in different cities and countries, we, Urban Re-Public team, came up with the Animation of Art Resistance in Occupation project. Its goal is to create a series of short animated videos based on the original works of the residency participants to promote Kherson art more widely.
Those who are mostly representatives of Kherart (Kherson unique art) were selected for the project and created the widest palette of artistic reflections on war. Several people had been working in the occupation before the liberation of Kherson on November 11, so the project provided the strictest secrecy regarding information about them. For those who remain on the still-occupied left bank of the Kherson region or have family members there, these warnings remain valid, given the horrific stories of abductions and killings of civilians.
The first to respond was Oleksandr Zhukovsky, a naïve artist who became famous for his unique method of painting with bleach on fabrics. At that time, he had already started working on The Unwanted Guest:
“This is my first reflection on the full-scale russia invasion of Ukraine, which I created in the first month of the occupation. This work is symbolic; it shows how a killer wasp encroaches on one’s territory, trying to take over their land and homes, but receives a worthy rebuff from the united inhabitants of this “little house”. The combat coloring of the insects indicates who is who! The people of Ukraine are now so united that they can cope with any unwanted guests.”
His studio in the basement became our underground art shelter, where we gathered and discussed ideas, shared news, and encouraged each other. And when we saw the “invading wasp” on the wall, we appreciated his incredible courage: russians could break in there at any moment, as they were actively searching for partisans on the tip of collaborators.
Oleksandr’s second work in the poster format was “pukin” (the first version of the title – “putin Cock-A-Doodle-Doo!”). It was created a few hours after revealing the atrocities in Bucha. Zhukovsky rushed to his studio and very quickly made this poster in the best traditions of Kherart, using the prison inmate code as the only currently acceptable narrative about putin as a person not worthy of human treatment. The intolerance of the statement (putin is in makeup, dressed in feminine clothes, and ready “for use”) is based on the author’s thesis that for people like putin, with strong “spiritual clamps”, this is the most shameful way of punishment. Death is too merciful. Frankly, I was afraid that the Guardian would reject this painting, given its politically incorrect nature, but there was no protest from their side. Fortunately, they accepted the author’s arguments as justifying the harsh message:
“I created this work overwhelmed with bad feelings. I especially hated this inhuman when I saw all these terrible things that had happened in Bucha and in all the villages and towns where the bloody hands of the executors of putin’s evil will reach out, meaning the so-called “liberators” of free Ukraine. Picturing this monster behind bars, I wanted my wish to come true as soon as possible. At the same time, I anointed his forehead with brilliant green, which, according to russian criminal subculture, means to condemn someone to death. I think that many Ukrainians and other people share my desire.”
The third work is the Humanitarian ORCcupation:
“It was made at the height of the occupation, in May, when the Kherson resistance was suppressed – through grenade explosions, automatic rounds, gas attacks, kidnappings, intimidation, and physical violence mixed with “humanitarian aid” from the russian world in the form of poor food supplies. And all this was happening under the guise of salvation from some Nazis whom no one had ever seen in free Kherson.”
Oleksandr painted it upon an unfinished work, which was more than 20 years old, when he was still living in the village of Bilozerka, wishing to convey a message about marketing zombification that “holds people hostage to its lies.” But he never finished this work, completing it by about 50%. So, 20 years later, the artist matched it to the realities of today.
The image of the Woman of War, in my opinion, is a rather explicit allusion to the Whore of Babylon, who personifies the coming of the totalitarian Antichrist with all his infernal gifts. It is a sort of the latest eschatology, full of continuous wars bleeding our land. Now that Kherson is de-occupied, the fall of the Whore seems to be relevant to the prophecy.
By the way, many clerics, theologians, and other religious figures declared that Putin is the Antichrist, based not only on the revelations of Ion the Theologian but also on political discourse. Every time russia intervenes in the case, everyone says: “Ah, that’s the last conflict.” It is quite clear why he was so odiously “glorified”. The only critically important “but” is that we and the entire civilized world with us are unlikely to allow him to become an “earthly king.” People just need to outline the extent of his crimes. According to Matthew Sutton, a professor of history at the University of Washington and author of The American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism, the apocalyptic obsession ebbs and flows in moments of crisis: “We’re at another moment where prophecy is invoked to make sense of current events.” The literalism of metaphors also increases.
Marka Royal, an artist from an occupied village in the Kherson region, released all her pain into the Z-Notes by Mrs. Solodukha. Her first drawing with the telling title “It is impossible to leave or stay” opened Kherson’s secret art society that produces searing visions of life under Russian occupation.
I am presenting the artist’s story, with her consent, because she was not at all sure that she would live to our victory. We all know how the invaders treated village residents:
“My sister’s words in the receiver hit me like a blow on the head: “War!” I froze, shocked, and sat down on the bed. The first thought that occurred to my mind was: did my daughter have time to leave Odesa yesterday? She did, thank God. It was the day of dividing life into “before” and “after”. My youth and enthusiasm remained in “before.” And all plans for the future now flew up like smoke from explosions. It rang in my head: for what did you live and work? Why was all this? Now what? I rushed to the documents.
Then, realizing that art had ennobled my home and soul for more than 15 years, I grabbed my last paintings from the walls, lowering them into the basement, trying to save at least some of the canvases. But after I had almost buried them there, I understood I would not do that again. My heart was full of bitterness and fell into the abyss. I could not stop crying for three months. The food tasted like ash. Every day we browsed the news, shivering with terror, waiting for our turn, sitting on suitcases, or staying in the corridor.
I’ve gotten used to the bruises of fate. But war! I didn’t make any wishes for the New Year, and for the first time in my life, I celebrated it wearing a black dress. We hid in the basement due to active military operations around us. That was scary, especially at night, to hear the fighting and watch the bullets streaking from all sides. Russians burnt down two houses at the end of our street, not far from us. Neighboring villages were affected. We seemed to survive by miracle. We just once got tired of counting the military vehicles driving down the road from Kakhovka, and the armed combatants in the field. My anger at the war made me sick. Then I realized: aggression kills me from the inside. I cannot afford to get sick. Everything is closed.
After a month and a half of treatment, I began to philosophize: how does God plan to dispose of my life now? My dreams went wild. It was time to let everything and everyone go. The house turned into a waiting station and the bed – into the crow’s nest. Where you constantly listened to space and lay down without undressing. We decided not to hide in the basement because it could be destroyed with the building, and we would suffocate. The heart became drunk from constant explosions, news about the war, and tears. We sank into total apathy. Then all quickly went back in time. The atmosphere of the 90s prevailed. Many people moved around like zombies, dumbfounded and with deep gloom in their eyes. A lot of alcohol was sold directly from barrels in the markets. Pubs opened in the area, almost next to us. Today, wearing second-hand clothes, I drove on a scooter to get food at the nearest store. I don’t understand where many russians in civilian clothes came from. Two completely sober dudes were sitting on a bench. With the beer cans still unopened, they followed me and began waltzing around the store, improvising with jokes. Annoyed by their bad acting, I ran out of the store without buying anything. They went back to their bench. While I was starting the scooter, one of them, imitating the scooter’s roaring, shouted five times: “I haven’t fucked anyone today.” With his plate-sized eyes staring at me. I drove home, sadly thinking that their heads were filled with the same concrete that covered the road.
The war erased my whole life, but my tiny studio beckoned me. But how can you paint if you hear explosions? I started depicting the flowers and broke two spatulas at once. The flowers also resisted. I didn’t like them, they were annoying. I thought about who I was fooling and why if I failed to throw the war out of my soul and life.
Why do I distance myself from events even in creativity? It is necessary to record my own experiences on paper. The oldest woman in the family, 86-year-old Solodukha gave the title of the future sketchbook — “Z-Notes by Mrs. Solodukha” (ZNS). It triggered the first topic. I understand how the work in my conditions should be delicate and allegorical that still does not guarantee anything.
The topic is complicated, about war! And war is war even in the sketchbook. No matter how you obscure it. For the first time, I feel the powerful tentacles of asceticism in creativity. Now I have to think a hundred times before making sketches. The other day russians threatened reprisals against other creative amateurs. So sit quietly and stop tweeting, as they say. But it is immoral to shoot a sitting bird, no?
I’m going to make coffee again – fake, surrogate. They do not import anything else. My feet stop at the home library. From time to time, my gaze falls upon Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, and I stretch my lips to blow the dust off the pages again. Currently, I have free time to work on the ZNS. I wanted to have my series of experiences. After all, time is historical. It is a sick question for the future. Lots have left. And they will not return. Somewhere in my dreams, some ghost city is waiting for me, beckoning me. A barrier of countless “buts” blocks the way to it. Despite the compelling circumstances, the nervous pandemonium continues. Like my, I hope, artistic “epic” about the present-day reality. I trust only in the mercy of the gods.”
The Crossroads is a reference to the photo of the destroyed bridge connecting Irpin and Bucha with Kyiv, which spread around the world. The artist admitted that when she had done this work, she burst into tears: is it really happening to us?
“One should sometimes see the irony in my works. I do not incline to judge anyone, especially in my creativity. As an artist, I reflect what I observe, hear, see through my creative lens,” comments Marka on the work “Vasyl Pozhyva plans to return.”
About “Easter Motif in Chornobayivka“:
The topic arose two days before Easter: “Well, in what other city should this work be done, if not where one of the largest poultry farms in Europe with more than 4 million chickens ceased operations due to the war? And Chornobayivka itself became famous. All details coincided with Mrs. Solodukha’s Z-Notes.
To summarize: when a man puts on a soldier’s uniform and picks up a weapon, his name and facial features are practically erased from the chronicles of important information. It is about the dead. It has been observed that no explosion is heard on religious holidays. But the day before yesterday, russians got drunk, drove through the streets, shot into the air, and shouted: “Fuck this war!”
“The Vyshyvanka Day” is a true story. For Vyshyvanka Day, a teacher of Ukrainian language and literature, in full dress, as he did every year, stopped by Solodukha for a cup of coffee after working at the local museum. They decided to open a humanitarian food can, which the grandmother brought and strongly recommended to try it. The teacher cut himself…”
The tiles by Yuliia Danylevska are another terrifying chronicle. The artist depicts stories from life, her dreams, and gender-sensitive reflections with a marker in a comic-naive style, reflecting the hypermedia of our reality, which chokes on visible and hidden violence. Some pictures are almost memes, targeting pressure points in society. Her My (de)occupation diary includes both works created during the occupation and tiles from the pre-war period — as a documentation of the anxious state in which society has been since 2014.
“Snow Pickers. Mariupol is the first work I painted after the start of the war, near the end of March, – says the artist. – Then, little by little, paintings and diaries by Ukrainian artists dedicated to russia’s aggression against Ukraine began to appear in social media. I did not want to talk about it, even through visual images; the shock of what was happening around us was so strong that it seemed impossible to start drawing at once. Every day we lost a lot of people, and their families did not need art, and we did not know what would happen to us during the occupation. Thanks to the journalists who stayed in Mariupol for a while and private YouTube channels, Khersonites saw Mariupol decaying day after day under shelling. I was stunned when I learned that people collected snow to heat it and extract dirty water to survive. They used it to wash dishes, to cook pasta and porridge. The longer the snowy weather lasted, the longer people stayed alive. To remember this fact, I depicted the process of collecting as I thought it could be. After more than six months, I ask myself whether the same thing is likely to happen again. What if people are collecting snow in some other city this winter so as not to die of hunger and dehydration.”
Thanks to the journalists who stayed in Mariupol for a while and private YouTube channels, Khersonites saw Mariupol decaying day after day under shelling. I was stunned when I learned that people collected snow to heat it and extract dirty water to survive. They used it to wash dishes, to cook pasta and porridge. The longer the snowy weather lasted, the longer people stayed alive. To remember this fact, I depicted the process of collecting as I thought it could be. After more than six months, I ask myself whether the same thing is likely to happen again. What if people are collecting snow in some other city this winter so as not to die of hunger and dehydration.”
“In occupied Kherson, you hear no air alarm. But at the end of September, we still heard it several times a day. The air raid warning has already become part of the daily routine for residents of Ukrainian government-controlled territory. However, in September, we also hid from shelling by going to the basement and staying in the bathroom or the corridor because we learned the rule of two walls very well.”
“When I watched the actions of the occupiers straight from the middle of the history textbook, it seemed to me that destroying our homes, our cities, and our lives for the enemy army is some strange thrill; it is a sort of a cheap, hard drug that you get addicted to the first time. It is never “glamorous” and completely erases the personality of those who use it,” says Yuliia.
Yes, they have been hooked on us, on Kherson, on the thrill of unpunished violence, drunk on our blood – the heaviest and most inhumane drug of all time. I know of no better metaphor for their ideology than Yuliia’s interpretation.
“Who knows how many sinless and pure souls died because of russian aggression? Locked in shelters and their own homes, they waited too long. Their owners left their homes and never returned: some died, and others just betrayed their pets. Sorry, little ones, we, human beings, let you down again.
I decided to draw goldfish that are gradually dying… This is a euphemism because I would fail to depict skinny dogs and cats. In the background, you can see a window sealed with tape.
I dedicate this tile to all living beings that waited in vain for help.”
“The plot of this tile arose after we and the whole world learned about Bucha. After five days, I recovered a little and could draw at least this – a hand of a russian soldier violently tearing the earring out of an ear of a Ukrainian girl. I fail to depict the murder and rape of our people yet, even to make European viewers experience catharsis if they would see my works. But still, it is not difficult to guess what could happen to our women next. In the background, I drew a person who seemed to have moved here from the first picture (The Snow Pickers. Mariupol). There he looked at the destroyed building. On this tile, he is on the ground with his face down behind the girl, with his hands tied.
To depict this plot, I had to wear an earring we found in the street long ago. I haven’t worn earrings for probably ten years, I don’t really like jewelry. I love it when men wear hoop earrings. It turned out that my earring holes were closed. Almost…”
“A viral photo of the murdered russian paratrooper-marauder Denis Tsybenko inspired this plot. I wanted to draw attention to the contrast between the beauty of our nature in spring and dead bodies, the so-called cannon fodder. In intercepted telephone conversations with their wives, the russian military often admired trophies, stolen goods, good living conditions in the captured houses, and even the quality of local food. It was clear that they became so comfortable here, in the occupation, for a while that the war seemed to them an exciting adventure.
“Oh, you will sing even sweeter songs when everything starts to bloom profusely here, and the city streets will be full of sweet aromas of cherry and apricot orchards?” I thought. I wanted to show the absurdity of death, the impossibility of enjoying the beauty and fullness of life… However, this is a classic dualistic plot, where the unceasing rapid development, the awakening of flora and fauna down to their tiniest manifestations and… decay, anhedonia, and the end of all living things go side by side.
“Oh, these Ukrainians… and their ice cream is “delicious”, and juice, and a laptop in every home, and they eat Nutella… and the nature is also beautiful!”
“The image of Zmiy-Horynych, a fire-breathing dragon with three heads is easily recognizable even by children because it is a character from russian fairy tales, a symbol of meanness, greed, and rage, which only brings death and misery. It attacks our cities, destroys, and burns whole districts. I created this work under loud explosions in Kherson. The occupiers detonated an unknown projectile not far from my house to blame it on the Ukrainian Army, and 10 minutes later, the collaborative mass media were “working on the spot.”
Being constantly in terrible tension, people try to keep their sanity in different ways – some through hard work, others – through hedonism as the last refuge from the madness. Yuliia redrew the image of Dancing on Bones from the opening credits of Mulholland Dr. Looking at the leg kicking the skull, I can imagine how Lynch approvingly nods – “empathy exhaustion” is illustrated perfectly.
“There is such a saying – “dancing on bones”, it is a distorted version of another saying – “Life goes on.” I like to use literalism in my works from time to time. This one is an attempt to analyze where there is a line between daily life, which continues, at least for someone, and entertainment, fun, and hedonism. Who has the right to live their normal lives as if nothing happened, and who does not? Can we return to our daily routine after witnessing and becoming victims of hostilities? We ask ourselves similar questions every day, and every day we look for answers that are still temporary.”
“This simple drawing, *“Good luck with that”, is inspired by russian propagandist holidays and celebrations, which they started conducting after several months of occupation. Since the summer, tricolors began to appear not only on administrative buildings but anywhere in the city.
I was walking through the city square, where the celebration of a memorable date for the russians was taking place. There were many people: pensioners and armed soldiers. Teenagers performed Soviet hits on a small stage. I saw a drunken, unkempt man carrying a baby in his arms. He handed his son a small tricolor and said – “Come on, wave the flag. Do you like it?”
I decided to draw a possible continuation of this scene, but not to specify who cut off the hand – the so-called “us” for collaborationism, or the so-called “they”, because they really don’t care who to kill, even the most submissive people can fall into disfavor with the executioner.”
*”Good luck with that” refers to the Russian idiomatic expression “Take a flag in your hands!” (ironic prompting to take foolish chances).
“Oh, lovely maidens, fall in love, but not with Muscovites”* is inspired by a photo I took at the beginning of summer at a local cafe. One guy was a russian soldier, Caucasian in appearance; the other was with “slant eyes”. The occupiers invited local girls to the cafe. There is nothing unexpected in this. Close relations between the occupiers and the occupied were part of all wars. I asked my Facebook followers whether we have the right to condemn them. Opinions became divided, although none would openly justify the girls’ behavior. Is it permissible to have such a relationship during the war, or maybe such questions are kind of slut shaming**?”
*From the poem “Kateryna” by Taras Shevchenko, 1842
**Slut shaming means making a person (especially a woman) feel guilty or inferior for sexual activity, desires, expression, or circumstances that deviate from traditional or orthodox gender expectations or religious or cultural standards.
It is a brilliant example of Kherart-esque irony: “At school (and some students even at universities), Ukrainians are given the creative task of making ikebana and souvenir crafts on the themes of the golden autumn, the gifts of autumn, etc. The narratives of the harvest, the fertility of the Ukrainian land, and the beauty of nature are to be traced in them. According to the Ministry of Education, these are eternal topics for us. This year my son has again received the same task despite the war and distance learning. He decided to ignore it. It is me who drew the relevant picture – the way, I guess, these “gifts” should look like.”
The artist under the pseudonym of Mona works with painting. Her works echo her inner state. She is also a children’s book illustrator. Mona created a video art “…I want to scream”:
“I try to convey the tension and horror people are facing now. A series of losses, fears, screams, the roar of hail, and the whistling of missiles is a great pain. Unbearable pain.
I’m afraid. Every day is scary due to shelling, and even more so because of uncertainty. I don’t know what today will be like; I don’t know what tomorrow will be like. Russians have occupied Kherson. The city is supposedly alive, people are working, and traffic is moving. But I don’t feel at home. I don’t feel protected. I don’t feel free. The days merge and seem to be the same. There is a feeling of a closed cage. There is not enough air to breathe calmly. I want to scream.
February 24 became a black day on the calendar.
Rapid image change is the way we are living now. Now we need to cover more information to always be ready. Everything changes every second. The emotional state of people switches just as quickly.”
The artist created the Transition as a reaction to the missile attack on Odesa, due to which a family of three generations of women died: 3-month-old Kira, her mother Valeria, who was 28 years old, and Valeria’s mother. The baby in the painting turned into a newborn star.
Artist Olson Olberburg works with painting and collage. She preferred the latter, reflecting the reality of the occupation. Here is what she says about the Look series:
“This is the first computer work since the beginning of the war. After February 24, I grabbed the paints several times. It was painful, and I painted directly on the teardrops. Then there was a long pause of a month. Many of my artist friends started reflecting on the war, and I wanted to, too, and even tried, but I failed: my hands were shaking, and my eyes were full of tears. At that time, we were hiding from missiles, and there was still the Internet, so I decided to try to express my feelings in computer language.
In the first days of the war, we all tried to tell our friends and relatives from russia about what was happening. We thought it would help stop the war, but my relatives did not believe me. Many of them said, “Soon you will become russian, and you will have a good life.”
In my house, the neighboring entrance burned down, and people died. The occupiers fired at the building, and a fire started; they did not let the fire engine go, and the neighbors were scared, we were all on the phone, and people needed all their courage to dare to leave the apartment and save people…
Not all were saved. russians shot in front of the house cars with people who did not have time to leave the road along which the armored personnel carriers were advancing. I saw all this horror with my own eyes. I show them in russia, tell them, but they repeat: it’s all fake. Then I created the Look series, taking photos of destroyed Ukrainian cities and fragments from one of my hand-made collages. It was my inner cry.”
We chose for the official poster of the Animation of Art Resistance in the Occupation project the Freedom collage by Olson Olberburg, which she created in occupied Kherson on March 24: “It was intuitive work. I participated in several rallies, and when you see almost the entire city in yellow and blue around, hear singing and see resistance to the occupiers, you feel victorious. I tried to show the Kherson region, which can stand against everything.”
Indeed, this work represents the entire Kherson region because it incorporates well-known images: Cupid sculptures from the European hotel (1915), a wooden Cossack church in Beryslav, and seagulls – all of which are currently under occupation. The heel of one of the cupids became a symbol of the Kherson Museum of Contemporary Art, contributing to the creation of its logo and brand icons. It is also about the endurance of artistic traditions, the connection between the past and the present, and between the historical heritage and the Museum’s collection.
The occupiers mercilessly burned the Kherson Plavni – our point of pride because this is a wild nature area almost in the city, in the Dnieper delta with numerous swampy islands, small meadows, and floodplain forests. The townspeople could only look in powerless despair at the smoke that spread over the mutilated land. The artist Oleksandrina Khramtsova, who spent almost five months in the occupation with her husband Semen Khramtsov, an artist and curator of the Kherson Museum of Contemporary Art, and their baby son, was going to make a series of paintings dedicated to the destruction of the floats in the occupation. However, she implemented this idea only after escaping Kherson, within the Sorry No Rooms Available art residency curated by a local artist Petro Riaska in Uzhhorod.
Considering the sad story of Viacheslav Mashnytskyi, artist and director of the Kherson Museum of Contemporary Art, who went missing in his dacha in the Plavni (Potiomkin Island), I perceive the Plavni as a somewhat terrifying premonition of the fate of those who hid there from the occupiers.
Semen Khramtsov told how he and his friends (artists, musicians, creative people) tried to spend as much time as possible at Viacheslav’s dacha to avoid clashes with russians in the city. And then someone spread rumors that an enemy detachment had landed on the island, either 20 or 200 combatants. They waited for the russians to arrive for hours, devastated. At last, Semen decided to go to meet them. Everyone lined up (given the very narrow paths there) and went towards the pier, from where they could reach the city by boat. Almost immediately, they encountered machine gunners. It was impossible to move forward, and someone had to give way first. Semen was holding the baby in his arms, his adrenaline was running high, but he looked directly into their eyes: “May we pass?”. The soldiers stepped aside, and the dacha dwellers reached the pier in complete silence. It was such an obvious sign that no safe places existed anymore that the Khramtsov family began to develop an escape plan.
Almost all their friends also left the city, some managed to get to the free Ukrainian territories, and others made their way through Crimea to Europe.
Unfortunately, Viacheslav Mashnytskyi did not have time to do this, and, to be honest, he was not in a hurry. Being the museum director and owner of the valuable collection, which includes the works by leading Ukrainian authors of the 1990s, unique examples of Kherart of the 2000s and 2010s, and more than 50 works by recognized contemporary artists of Ukraine (a gift of the Open Group art association), felt a great responsibility and did not want the occupiers to somehow, through traitors, either destroy all of this or deliver it to an unknown direction, as they did it with two regional museums (fine arts and local history), just robbing them. That led to his tragic disappearance. We hope that the SBU will carefully investigate his case.
Oleksandrina says:“Each painting sizes 20×40 cm. Their final number is unknown. Each subsequent one should smoothly flow into the other, forming a cycle and closure. Everything else on the canvas loses its sense of existence, except the endless line of the horizon – the Plavni that stretches, seemingly without changing, focusing our gaze so much on this endlessness that the landscape becomes paradoxically static due to its frantic dynamics. However, there is not a single fragment repeated. And amid this tranquil beauty, explosions are heard, the Plavni are burning, and a thick blanket of black smoke covers the sky…
My husband, our baby, me, and the cat had to leave our home in Kherson, the city in southern Ukraine where I was born and lived before russia invaded Ukraine. russians occupied it on the first days of the war. After weighing all the risks, we decided to get out of Kherson to the controlled territory. After passing more than 30 russian checkpoints, we found ourselves safe in Zaporizhzhia. But we remained homeless and sought shelter in Nikopol, Dnipro, and Kyiv. We lived in Lviv and now in Uzhhorod, in western Ukraine. We are waiting for the de-occupation of Kherson to return home. This work is my reflection of the place where we spent so many happy days, and now it is being burned by the occupiers, who continue to destroy everything we love.”
Looking at these works, you can feel the smell of burning and the taste of ash on your lips. The horizontal line seems like a distant tragedy, but how many of our friends choked from that “smoke on the water.”
The Plavni series was presented at a joint exhibition as part of the Sorry No Rooms Available Residency in Uzhhorod. In addition to Oleksandrina, Semen Khramtsov and the artist from Mykolaiv Viktor Pokydanets participated in the project. The Southern View, according to Viktor. Indeed, they seem interconnected on many meaningful levels.
Khramtsov’s Black Circle, or The Dot is a series of statements: about the end of statements as such on his part, an allusion to Malevich’s Black Square, a black hole, which absorbs any attempt at an adequate artistic reflection. It is also an homage to the Slippers series by Pokydanets – an ironic intervention in Semen’s minimalism. Viktor picked out his shoes and pulled out black insoles that fit perfectly into the Black Circle – symbolizing the last thing you see when a pitiless hole rips you out of life. The feeling of normality literally showed its heels.
The work by Pokydanets continues to finalize and dispose of false high-spiritual messages of russian culture. A powerful image of mass shooting itself. Total self-cancellation. The artist from Uzhhorod, Oleksa Mann, presented Pokydanets with the book “The Kolomensk Benefactors” (a history of philanthropy in Kolomna in the 19th century) for his artistic practice. Calls to the russian capitalists to “do good by supporting the poor and needy” are now perceived with an overwhelming sense of disgust. Viktor’s trademark irony proved itself here, too – the bullets cut through the book from the In the Field of Education and Culture section. Churches, schools, museums, children, paintings, icons… everything was killed by the very essence of the empire. The viewers flipped through the “benefactors” and enjoyed every “targeting.”
Artist Kostiantyn Tereshchenko tells about his work: “When crowds of bad guys are told to go kill, and they go and kill — the hair stands on end. I see several generations of morally crippled, inferior people living in the condition of dogs on a chain. I see a state that has put them on a chain since childhood, a police state that grows “freaks” to please the infernal will of the minority, barely covering it up with bright ideals and the mission of God’s people. I see a family tree under which evil devils that have power have been shitting and pissing for centuries, and the generations poisoned in the womb are born. It is how a nation is born. I saw it, and then I drew it.”
“The One Who Gave His Honor*, who is he without it? Isn’t it a dive into the beastly layers of the psyche? And why do they so proudly give their honor? And how do these people commit murder and violence and then proudly report the completed task to the leadership? And then they write to their mothers: “Hi, mom, I’m fine, I’m a little tired, really. They fed well, today there was stew…”. Are they even human? And if not, who are they? Seriously, who?”
*To give one’s honor refers to a “salute”.
The photographer kept a kind of diary of the occupation routine on her Facebook account, worked on The Women in the Occupation documentary, made videos with the Kherson Residency participants, and documented our underground meetings. She also made the Home Maria photographic series that consisted of portraits of women and girls in the occupation, thus creating a new iconography of wartime.
“When friends ask me “how are you doing” I answer: “fine, we are holding up.”
Because I honestly don’t know how to tell briefly:
That the mobile network and the Internet may disappear for several days.
That my wisdom tooth has been torturing me for several days, and there is no medicine in town, namely painkillers.
That there are lots of checkpoints here.
That there are almost no citizens on the spring streets.
That russians brought “actors” from Crimea at 2 a.m. for the fake Russian Victory March movie.
That the forest is burning in the region. russians do not let it go out. Since yesterday, a veil of smoke has fallen on Kherson.
And it drags you down. But we are holding up. We stubbornly try to live. We still have to plant a new forest.”
“Today I’ve seen families having picnics in the courtyards of multi-story buildings. It was so unexpected. But it’s nice to watch this occupation pastoral: the improvised festive tables drown in new grass, warmed by the spring sun, people softened up, in a kind of calm contentment, with their children nearby. It was so beautiful, yes.
And maybe I’ve just projected my own joys, as I am going to my family’s meeting venue because such opportunities are worth their weight in gold (cross out).
Christ is risen! Ukraine will also rise!”
“It was a sharp reaction in the form of performance with a text full of incredible pain:
The rest of the words become scarce and worthless.”
On November 11, the Ukrainian Armed Forces entered Kherson. One can only imagine how people met them, how our flags flew all over the city at once. While Khersonites and everyone who supports us in the world celebrated this historic moment, BBC Ukraine reposted the animated Time of the Watermelon Harvest by the comic writer Volodymyr Rainhearth and broadcast it live all evening.
Watermelon became the monopoly brand of the Kherson region, and its dissemination reached an almost global scale, giving life to many memes and designs. Not surprising that on such a day, the media chose this image as a symbol of the indomitability of Khersonites. Well, we have reaped a rich harvest.
We published the Attack of Watermelon Avengers the next day and dedicated it to the desired and inevitable liberation of the entire Kherson region.
The project is ongoing. Some participants in the Residency go on to create artistic works related to the war in one way or another. Someone took a break to take root in a new place. The artists who survived the occupation until November 11 are currently experiencing many emotions — from euphoria to complete emotional exhaustion. Added to this are extreme everyday circumstances: the city still has no electricity, water, or centralized heating and suffers an acute shortage of fuel and bread. But the providers are already setting up a mobile connection, and Khersonites can share news about life in the liberated city. Although the Residency is no longer “underground”, its activity does not end, and we collect the works of its participants to continue the project.
You can view all the animations on the Urban Re Public Facebook page, which is constantly updated.
The Animation of Art Resistance in Occupation project is supported as a result of the (re)connection UA Open Call, a pilot project implemented by the MOCA NGO in partnership with UNESCO and funded through the UNESCO Heritage Emergency Fund.
The (re)connection UA aims at supporting the continuation of artistic creation and access to cultural life in Ukraine and values artists as essential actors in safeguarding Ukraine’s cultural diversity and identity and the role of cultural expressions for collective trauma healing, unity, and cohesion.