“By making it real, representing our country with dignity at a high international level we show that Ukraine is not only a victim, we have a powerful international voice, and we have something to show and speak out about,” says Liza German. She is the co-curator of the Ukrainian Pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale. “We are still in a state of war, we are still living under cities of attack, but we will start over. The war will be over,” she continues. German joins us over Zoom from Lviv where she has fled with her husband and baby. She feels that ensuring the show in Venice will take place is a step in reconstructing her country.
German and her co-curators Maria Lanko and Borys Filonenko worked hard to make the Ukrainian Pavilion a possibility. Without support from the government, they raised funds from private initiatives, many female-led. Before the invasion started German asked her co-curator Lanko, both based in Kyiv, if she could bring the artwork for the pavilion out of the country as they were planning for Russia’s invasion. Lanko brought “The Fountain of Exhaustion,” a kinetic sculpture by Pavlo Makov in her car.
I met German and Ukrainian artist Maria Kulikovska in “Let the women end the war ,” a talk organized by Polish curator Joanna Warsza at the Stockholm-based art school Konstfack. The conversation was centered around considering the role of women in the war and artistic practice. Topics that, in a time of crisis, confusion, and when a country is under attack, are tertiary in the public discourse. Warsza set up the conversation under the idiom that the second world war should never repeat itself. But also asked the audience to consider: “If there were more women in power, would there be less aggression?”
Kulikovska, who lives between Kyiv and Stockholm, was emotionally ready for the war since the invasion of Crimea in 2014. She is from the region that was invaded and annexed. “Not if, but when the war starts,” she told friends and colleagues abroad. The war has taken an immense emotional toll on the artist, she tells us about a reoccurring dream where she is standing in a high building and a huge bomb hits her apartment and she sees the buildings around her crumble. “I want to make an image that shows how tired I am. I want to create but do not know how,” the artist said during the talk.
When I connect with Kulikovska a couple of weeks later she is considering making art. By invitation from Alfred Weidinger, the director of Linz Museum, she is at a residency in the Austrian town. She lives in an apartment with her seven-month-year-old baby, mother, and father. “I am taking care of three children now,” she jokes. The residency will last only a couple of months. She is concerned about the future and is struggling to map out long-term solutions. Her partner has remained in Ukraine; men of the conscription age, aged 18 to 60, are banned from leaving the country. Crisis and war seem to turn back time; the Ukrainian government is assigning tasks based on gender and not capability. “Is it impossible to believe that a trained female soldier is a better soldier than an untrained male soldier?“ Kulikovska says.
“How can we help Ukrainians?” I ask. “We need real work abroad, not just domestic work,” says Kulikovska.
The women have sympathy but no emotional bandwidth to engage with Russian cultural workers or artists, at least not right now. “No human deserves isolation,” German says, but reminds us not to forget the ”collective guilt” that should be placed upon Russians who have tolerated their government and Putin for years. German believes that: “Art is an act of hope, but can also serve as a witness. Evidence of our emotional states, not politicians, but how people see and experience the war. This evidence might be the truest, sincere, and untouched.”
Continuing on the topic of women. German comments, that when Zelensky speaks to his people he addresses both men and women. Which, despite the circumstances, is a significant development in recognizing women through government communications.
Language is a vital component in the messaging of this war. Putin has said that every person who speaks Russian is Russian. Which to the 22-32% of Ukrainians that speak Russian is a conflict. I connect over the phone with Ukrainian artist Julia Beliaeva who together with her husband has decided to abandon their Russian mother tongue in favor of Ukrainian. “It is a conflict between my imperial versus Ukrainian roots and with the invasion I needed to stand up for Ukraine.”
As tensions were building, before the invasion, I interviewed Beliaeva in conjunction with a commission from the Goethe Institute, Ukrainian arts publication Artslooker, and Austrian-based non-profit Curator’s Agenda. A couple of days after the invasion she fled Kyiv to go to the Ukrainian countryside and finally decided to leave the country to protect her seven-year-old son. To reach their destination they crossed multiple borders, from Ukraine to Moldova and Moldova to Romania. Along the way, they were helped by volunteers. Then they boarded a flight to Copenhagen where her gallery Sabsey hosted them.
Now, she is in Linz where Weidinger, as he did with Kulikovska, has set her up with a residency. ”The Donau river runs through Linz and it also runs through Ukraine,” she says. The location, close to Ukraine, and the connecting river provide some comfort. She also sends me pictures from the local ceramic factory where she will fabricate new works. In Kyiv she was working with ceramics. She missed her husband who is with her mother and mother-in-law in Ukraine, but they are working together on design projects through their agency. “Zelensky has encouraged Ukrainians to keep on working,” she says.
Beliaeva finds that Europeans have much interest in Ukrainian artists. The opportunities she is being offered are ones she dreamt about before the war. Now she just longs to return to Kyiv. At times, her son thinks they are on vacation. “We are refugees,” Beliaeva corrects.
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Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Send your inquiries, tips, and pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.