Jtraditional Ukrainian embroidery with rifles and military helicopters; a graffiti portrait of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin; photographs of smartly dressed graduates standing in the ruins of a bombed-out building in Kharkiv: all feature in an exhibition of the latest Ukrainian artwork.
While the country’s art is perhaps attracting more attention than ever, The Captured House exhibition, which opened in Brussels last week, stands out as 90% of the works have been created since the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24.
In the early days of the war, Ukrainian artists were in shock. “For about three to four weeks, nobody did anything,” said Kate Taylor, the exhibit’s curator. “Artists no longer felt the usefulness of art.”
Then in April, she noticed a boom of new work on her Instagram. And that was the genesis of a traveling exhibition that traveled to Berlin, Rome and Amsterdam, and opened last week in the EU capital.
With paintings, sculptures and photographs by some fifty Ukrainian artists, Taylor hopes to show the cruel reality of war as it is felt on a daily basis. “The exhibition is not about war per se – it is about a humanitarian catastrophe that people are going through.”
Counting every child killed in the war is the goal of Daria Koltsova, a Kharkiv-born artist who fled Odessa when the conflict broke out. Having fled to Palermo via Moldova, she felt lost, flipping through the news endlessly, overwhelmed with minute-by-minute updates on the bombings of Ukrainian cities and the murders of children. She started making little heads out of clay. “It was the pressure that I felt every day, because every day I was getting these messages. It was really painful and it was all about my way of living it all, a kind of artistic sublimation.
When the exhibition opened in Berlin, she sat for three hours a day in the basement art space making the heads, each representing a child killed in the war.
Haunting images taken during this time are now part of the Brussels exhibit. Dressed in a simple, antique Ukrainian dress, she carefully sculpts the clay to make eyes, then a nose. Seemingly reluctant to let go, she adds another small head to the pile of screaming faces. “Every time the sculpture is done, I say goodbye and let it go,” she said. She works to the chords of an updated version of a traditional Ukrainian lullaby, Oy Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon (The dream wanders through the window). And while sculpting, she thinks of the children who will never grow up.
As of July 28, 358 children had died and 693 were injured according to official sources quoted by the Ukrinform news agency, although the true toll is probably much higher.
The artist plans to create a new face for every child killed in the war: “So many people have died that we don’t have enough time to honor the dead as they should be.
Other works consider the aggressor, such as Ihor Husev’s images of Russian classics distorted by graffiti. A portrait of Pushkin, the national poet taught in all Russian schools, has been scrawled with Zs – the symbol of the Russian attack. The grandiose and restless seascape, The Ninth Wave, by 19th-century artist Ivan Aivazovsky, is scrawled with the slogan “Russian warship, fuck you” – the response of Ukrainian defenders to a Russian navy ship that has become a national rallying cry.
These works are part of the “Cancel Russia” movement that has led Ukrainian cities to remove sculptures and rename public spaces. But challenging Russian high culture is not universally popular in Ukraine, nor is it straightforward. Aivazovsky was born in Feodosia in Crimea, part of occupied Ukraine then annexed in 2014.
The exhibition also highlights photojournalists, whose images brought the horror of war to the world, such as Maksim Levin, a longtime Reuters contributor who was killed near Kyiv during the first weeks of the war, and Evgeniy Maloletka, an AP photographer who, together with fellow video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, remained in beleaguered Mariupol while all other international media had left, to document the relentless attacks on civilians, such as heavily pregnant women who escaped from a bombed maternity ward.
The final exhibit is not a work of art, but a steel door from a house in Irpin. The occupants of the house, a family with two children, fled on foot to Kyiv, 25 km away. They survived. Their house was reduced to ashes, except for the front door. When the gate arrived in Berlin for the exhibition in early May, it was thick with dust and the smell of fire. “It was in a sense amazing,” recalls Taylor, the curator. “I feel a certain power in the art and in these original pieces that it will no longer be possible to show or give away in five years.”
Transforming a monotonous house entrance into a war-torn museum exhibit in less than three months underscores the breakneck speed of the artistic response to war. “I’ve always thought artists need time and distance to reflect, especially on something like war, but we don’t have that time and distance,” Taylor said.
The exhibition, funded by the Ukrainian government, is part of Kyiv’s cultural diplomacy, aimed at countering arguments that the war was caused by NATO or Kyiv expansion. Such stories the team encountered mostly in Italy, Taylor said, where polls show people are less likely to blame Russia for the war than elsewhere in the EU.
In Berlin, people left the exhibit in tears, while in Rome “our social work” was more important, Taylor said, referring to visitors to the exhibit who blamed the war on NATO. “And I have nothing to say about that because you have to come to Mariupol and have this conversation.”
After the exhibit closes in Brussels on Sunday, the team hopes to travel to New York, Washington and San Francisco next year, bringing the reality of war to American audiences. “We are not here [in Brussels] ask for money or weapons,” Taylor said. “But we are here for people to make their choices when they choose their politicians, when they vote at any decision-making level.”