A screenshot from Marynka Dovhanych's animation. The blue symbols that double as the soldiers' eyes also double as the Ukrainian trident.
The culture war between Russia and Ukraine has been playing out for decades. As always, one of the key battlefields is language. Russian was the de facto official language of the Soviet Union and it wasn’t until 1989 that Ukrainian was declared the official language of Ukraine. Two years later, the Soviet Union collapsed. Almost simultaneously, Ukraine declared independence. These important junctures can be seen as a very (very) short story in the long (long) history of Ukraine and Russia.
In the current war in Ukraine, these same junctures are at play again. As with the fall of the USSR, the relationship between language, culture and sovereignty is an essential one. Language has become a weapon used to shape the narrative of war, with Russia claiming that ‘the majority of Ukrainians want to be Russian’. Most explicitly, the Kremlin used the prevalence of the Russian language in the Donbas border region as evidence of the pro-Russian sentiment. This is just one example of Russia attempting to erase Ukraine's independent identity.
While the histories of Russia and Ukraine may, at times, be intertwined, Ukraine is a nation with a unique identity, worthy of respect and sovereignty. Many modern Ukrainian artists are seeking to excavate this complicated history and create a language in which to exist. A language - visual, lyrical and textual - that reinforces Ukraine’s independence. Here are a few that we’ve had our eye on over the last few months.
- Pavlo Makov
Makov speaking at Donetsk Regional Art Museum in 2011.
The Fountain of Exhaustion’, featured in the Ukrainian Pavilion, for the 2022 Venice Biennale
Many international cultural events highlight the relationship between art and politics. The Venice Biennale is no exception. This year, the centrepiece of Ukraine’s pavilion is a piece by Pavlo Makov, called ‘The Fountain of Exhaustion’. Superficially, it is a triangle of twelve tiers made up of 78 bronze funnels that split streams of water. But it also operates as an apt message for the world: we are exhausted, yet we continue.
The journey the piece took to make it to Venice mirrors this message of resilience. When war broke out in February, Makov and his team all but pulled out of the exhibition. Thankfully, conditions were such that it went ahead. Curator Maria Lanko hid the metal funnels in the boot of her car, and drove from city to city in Ukraine, before finally making it to Austria. Speaking at a press conference in Venice, she said was motivated by a determination “to remind the world that Ukraine is an independent nation with its own identity". Makov’s own words reinforce this message. Speaking to the Associated Press, Makov explained:
"This war in Ukraine is not an ethnic conflict…It is a conflict of cultures. They want to destroy, to demolish, to eliminate Ukrainian culture so that Ukraine doesn’t exist.”
Pavlo Makov goes on to describe his work as "a metaphor for contemporary life", with a universal message. The continual bifurcation of liquid could symbolise many kinds of division. The shape of the triangle could also signify the growth of a family tree or even a nation. The scale of time is flexible. The work simultaneously makes a poignant comment on the current conflict, while also referencing the universal issue of exhausting resources in the world.
Makov’s other recent work is also worth checking out. They show a continual mirroring and duplication, almost like architectural sketches, which draw the eye and centre the viewer in the stark contrast of black and white.
'A page from Abracadabra 2', 2020
Zoomed in section of 'Avenir', 2021
2. Waone Interensni Kazki
In the suburbs of Kyiv, there is a mural that draws the eye. Four stories high, it shows a flowing green verge under a starry sky. A six-armed fisherman tries to land his catch: a snake with Putin’s head. Another snake creature, this time with an entire male torso, encircles a levitating globe in the centre of the image. Various other creatures proliferate the scene, too numerous and bizarre to describe. This is the work of Waonne Interensni Kazki.
‘Time for Change’, 2014
Based in Kyiv, Kazki has been using his social media to document his experience of war from the beginning of the Russian invasion. Early on in the conflict, he also created an NFT to raise funds for the Ukrainian army and has spoken out regularly against the conflict.
A serpent with Putin's head in the 'Time for Change' mural, 2014
His creatures that people his work defy description. It is no wonder, then, that his recent book is titled ‘Worlds of Phastasmagoria’. The works are fantastical, exuberant and entertaining. To see more check out the artist’s website.
NFT initiative at the beginning of the conflict.
3. Marynka Dovhanych
Marynka Dovhanych is an animation artist from Ukraine who has been releasing a new work every day since the beginning of the war on her Instagram profile. Each short video highlights an event from Dovhanych past 24-hours. Marynka lives in Ukraine, and her animations often come from her own experiences and feelings. They combine the minutiae of everyday life with the incomprehensibility of war, creating an uncomfortable dissonance for the viewer. Weaving in memories of childhood, symbols of the Ukraine, conflict etc. the series operates almost like a stream of consciousness. Disarming and direct, these posts reveal the female perspective of the conflict.
4. Nicole and Michelle Feldman
The duo known as the ‘Sestry Feldman’ primarily worked as street artists up until a couple of months ago. During the pandemic, they branched out and created a short animation in which round-headed people are forced to become square heads.
The sisters explained that this process this ‘square-heading’ was to make people better suited to ‘the machine’. Later in their cartoon series, the visual language became more precise, with the figure of Putin becoming the leader of the square heads and his particular brand of authoritarianism the machine that grinds people down. The sisters elaborated further when talking to The Guardian:
“There is a special machine that makes them square so they’re more suitable for the system. But in cutting part of the head, they’ve lost many of their emotions, like empathy. This is why we represented Putin in that way.”
Darkly irreverent the Feldman sisters create narratives that show Putin romancing an atom bomb, walking down a corridor decorated with portraits of Hitler and editing films of himself in a bunker. You would laugh if you weren’t already grimacing.
The sisters have also been putting together a series of tarot cards, each showcasing a different part of Ukrainian culture. Pictured below, are cossacks, traditional dancers and singers. More of these works can be found on the sisters’ Instagram.
5. Dakha Brakha
Dakha Brakha is a fusion of several ethnic groups. They describe their music as ‘enthno-chaos’, with its use of traditional Ukrainian melodies with Indian, Arabic, African, Russian and Australian instrumentation. Oh, and they wear fantastic hats.
Speaking to the NY Times earlier this year, they explained the uniting ethos behind their music:
“DakhaBrakha has produced songs from many different regions of Ukraine, and we tried to unite our country in this way, through music. At our concerts, during the last year, we played at each concert a song for people who defend our freedom.”
If you want to listen to a radio station which plays Dakha Brakha and 50 Cent in the same session, check out Radio Aristocrats: Радио Аристократы. This is a Ukrainian radio station established in 2014 that combines Euro-pop with Ukrainian artists and world music.
If you would like to donate in some way to Ukraine please take a look at this resource, which will show a variety of areas where you can help.