New York gallery exhibits works by female artists who fled war in Ukraine

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Iliya Fridman, owner of the Fridman Gallery in New York, stands in front of a 1963 portrait of Ivan Svitlychny by Alla Horska, the earliest of dozens of artworks by women who have fled Ukraine since the invasion of Russia in February. Photo by Adam Schrader/UPI

NEW YORK, July 22 (UPI) — A Ukrainian soldier wearing combat boots stands to attention with his right arm raised to his forehead in salute, a life-size painting included in a New York art gallery as part of an exhibition highlighting the work of female artists who fled the war with Russia.

The work of Lesia Khomenko Max in the army was painted in March, just weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, and depicts the artist’s partner, an artist himself who joined the military after the outbreak of war .

Khomenko, from Kyiv, fled Ukraine and is now in the United States.

The painting is one of dozens of pieces by 12 artists on display at the Fridman Gallery in lower Manhattan through August 26 as part of Polish-American curator Monika Fabijanska’s “Women at War” exhibition.

“Initially, she fled to western Ukraine, to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk, and there she organized temporary studios for other displaced artists,” said Iliya Fridman, owner from the gallery, to UPI in an interview Thursday night.

Fridman said Khomenko has helped about 30 other Ukrainian women to continue working on art through the residency she has established, which will itself become an exhibition at some point.

After establishing this residence in Ivano-Frankivsk, Khomenko moved to Warsaw, where she made works exhibited as part of the Venice Biennale and has since been granted an artist residency in the United States, where she lives with her 11-year-old daughter.

“She and her partner, Max, whom she portrayed in the show’s painting, got married online earlier this summer to her from the United States and to him from the front lines in eastern Ukraine,” Fridman said.

“She’s actually just had the opportunity to see him for the first time in five months. She’s moved back to western Ukraine, where he was stationed briefly.”

Fridman said the exhibition came after he contacted Fabijanska, an independent curator known for her well-researched exhibitions pairing underappreciated older artists with younger ones, last year to offer her a residency with his gallery. .

“When the war broke out on February 24, we changed gears and decided to do this show about the war and by Ukrainian artists and their response to the war,” Fridman said. “She did the job that would normally take over a year in three months. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Lesia Khomenko’s ‘Max in the Army’, painted in March, just weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, is pictured at the Fridman Gallery in New York. Dozens of works of art made by women who have fled Ukraine since the start of the war are on display. Photo courtesy of Fridman Gallery

Gallery visitors are greeted with a 7-minute film by artist Oksana Chepelyk composed by the Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha called Letter from Ukraine. The film, made in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, depicts a mother and child running through the empty streets of an Italian town.

“They’re clearly running from something and they don’t belong,” Fridman said. “It’s a metaphor for the displacement, forced migration and psychological trauma that millions of Ukrainians are going through here right now, in the United States, Europe and western Ukraine.”

Opposite this film in the gallery is a photograph of paper anti-tank hedgehogs in a snowy Ukrainian landscape which Fridman says highlights “how futile efforts to protect human life are in times of war”.

Fridman said the exhibit is entirely dedicated to Ukrainian women artists because “men fight” and therefore were unable to do new work about the war.

“Male performers in Ukraine have joined the military. Men who are not conscripted are not allowed to leave Ukraine currently to be conscripted. Only women can leave the country, travel and maintain some semblance of practice in studio,” Fridman said. said.

A 2017 photograph of paper anti-tank hedgehogs in a snowy Ukrainian landscape titled “Defense” can be seen at the Fridman Gallery in New York. Photo courtesy Olia Fedorova

He noted that all of the works on display were physically made in Ukraine and that two of the artists still live there. Transport problems caused by the war even delayed the timely arrival of one of the pieces, a freestone sculpture representing a loaf of bread, at the gallery.

“The artists had friends take their works to Poland and we had them shipped to the gallery. We had them framed here in New York. The photographs were printed and mounted here,” Fridman said.

Zhanna Kadyrova’s stone sculpture titled palianytsia was made this year from large river-smoothed stones in western Ukraine, one of the world’s largest wheat exporters, and looks like a typical bread from the country.

A photo from the poetic film “Letter to a Turtledove” is seen at the Fridman Gallery in New York. Photo courtesy of Dana Kavelina

In a series of 10 drawings, Alevtina Kakhidze describes how her mother made an annual pilgrimage from the Donbass region, largely held by Russian-backed separatists since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, to unoccupied Ukraine to reclaim her pension checks.

“Obviously, the Russian-backed separatists were not honoring the pensions the Ukrainian government was paying. People had to travel for many hours each time through several checkpoints, including a so-called demarcation line that they had to cross on foot,” he added. Friman said.

“They were getting off a bus on one side of the border, crossing and boarding a bus on the other side of the border. The visual story ends with the final drawing depicting the artist’s mother dying of a heart attack while queuing at a checkpoint on his last trip to collect his pension.”

Fabijanska wrote in her curatorial notes on the exhibition that a 20-minute poetic film presented on the lower level of the gallery by artist Dana Kavelina documents “the loss of personality through the torture of repeated rapes that drove the women beyond the limit of humanity” in the Donbass region since the Second World War.

This film, titled Letter to a dovewas completed in 2020 and includes archival and amateur footage from the 1930s through the 1990s.

Fridman said Kavelina, whom he described as “an exceptional artist”, was also involved in the research and production of a four-part feature film on rape as a weapon of war.

“As art professionals, this is probably the best we can do in terms of resistance and contribution to the war effort, because even if we send money and arms to Ukraine, few people in this country know Ukrainian culture,” Fridman said.

“This war is an attempt by the Russian government to erase Ukrainian culture as a unique and independent phenomenon.”

Fridman said the exhibit will move to a gallery at Eastern Connecticut State University, where it will be shown in September and October. He hopes that he will continue to tour in other institutions.

“I hope the American public will learn that there is a distinct and unique Ukrainian culture, including visual art,” Fridman said.

“It is not easy for Americans to imagine the utter devastation that large-scale war causes. Several generations, tens of millions of people are scarred for life at the same time. Physically scarred for sure and even more psychologically scarred.

On Wednesday, the gallery held a screening presented by the New York-based nonprofit Locus29 of the 1930 silent film Zemlia by Ukrainian master filmmaker Oleksandr Dovzhenko.

“This is the essential work for Ukrainian cinematography. Everyone knows many directors from the USSR as pioneers, but not everyone knows Dovzhenko,” Locus29 founder and director Anna Zinenko told UPI. , in an interview.

Zinenko added that “the time has come to show Ukrainian films because imperialist culture has always pushed back Ukrainian cultural projects” and that Dovzhenko “was the example of this Ukrainian voice”.

The film depicts Ukrainian farmers leading peaceful lives until disturbed by collectivization – the Soviet policy of expropriating land from private owners. In the film, some peasants voluntarily comply, while others are forced to give up their property for common use in collective farms.

The film was banned by Josef Stalin’s Soviet Union just eight days after its release and the original negatives on which the film was recorded were destroyed in a German air raid during World War II.

Zinenko said the film reflected the current situation in Ukraine and said agriculture “is going to be a very touchy subject soon.”

“The harvest has stopped. They can’t keep harvesting the grain and also the part, the occupied part of Ukraine, everything they produce, they’re going to send it to Russia again, so it’s is very the same and Europe is also suffering because of this situation,” she said.

However Zemlia was created as a silent film, it was scored by Ukrainian band DhakaBrakha in 2012, which Zinenko says made the film “a double masterpiece”.

Zinenko’s mother, from Kyiv, was in the audience when the film was shown on Wednesday. She had fled Ukraine just weeks after the outbreak of war with the help of her daughter.

“Almost all my friends are in Ukraine right now, and I am in constant contact every day, a few times a day, with them because it is an abnormal situation, where you have to check with your friends and see if they are still alive,” Zinenko said.

“We keep trying to live life, but it’s a summer that has no smell. This summer that should be happy for us full of watermelon, but we’re all checking each other if we’re in life, but we also feel guilty for all the moments of joy.

“For people who are abroad, we feel guilty because we cannot change the situation. We try to help as much as we can, but it doesn’t seem to be enough. And people who are in Ukraine , they just don’t enjoy the summer because how are you going to enjoy the summer with non-stop alarms every day.”

Julia P. Cluff