Ilya Fridman, owner of the Fridman Gallery in New York City, stands in front of a 1963 portrait of Ivan Svitlychny by Alla Horska, the oldest of dozens of artworks created by women who have left Ukraine since February’s Russian invasion have fled. Photo by Adam Schrader/UPI
NEW YORK, July 22 (UPI) — A Ukrainian soldier in combat boots stands with his right arm raised in a forehead salute, a life-size painting on display at a New York art gallery as part of an exhibition highlighting the work of women artists who fled the war with Russia.
The work of Lesia Khomenko Maxi 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 among dozens of works by 12 artists on view through August 26 at the Fridman Gallery in Lower Manhattan as part of Polish curator Monika Fabijanska’s exhibition Women at War.
“First she fled to the city of Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine and organized temporary studio facilities there for other displaced artists,” Ilya Fridman, the gallery’s owner, told UPI in an interview late Thursday.
Fridman said Khomenko has helped about 30 other women from Ukraine continue working on art through the residency she founded, which itself will eventually become an exhibition.
After establishing this residency in Ivano-Frankivsk, Khomenko moved to Warsaw, where she made works exhibited as part of the Venice Biennale and has since been granted 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 painting on the show, got married online earlier this summer with her from the United States and him from the front lines in eastern Ukraine,” Fridman said.
“She just had the chance to see him for the first time in five months. She traveled back to western Ukraine, where he was stationed briefly.”
Fridman said the show came after he reached out last year to Fabijanska, an independent curator known for well-researched shows that brings underappreciated older artists together with younger artists, to offer her a residency with his gallery.
“When the war broke out on February 24, we switched gears and decided to do this show about the war and about Ukrainian artists and their reaction to the war,” Fridman said. “She completed the work 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 City. Dozens of artworks by women who fled Ukraine since the start of the war are on display. Photo courtesy of Fridman Gallery
Visitors to the gallery are greeted with a 7-minute film by artist Oksana Chepelyk, set to music by Ukrainian quartet DakhaBrakha called Letter from Ukraine. The film, shot in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea, shows a mother and child running through the empty streets of an Italian town.
“They’re clearly running away from something and they’re out of place, too,” Fridman said. “This is a metaphor for displacement, forced migration, and psychological trauma experienced by millions of Ukrainians here, as we speak, in the United States, in Europe, and in western Ukraine.”
Opposite this film in the gallery is a photo of paper armored hedgehogs in a snowy Ukrainian landscape, which Fridman says underscores “the futility of efforts to protect human life in time of war.”
Fridman said the exhibition was dedicated exclusively to Ukrainian women artists because “the men are fighting” and therefore could not make new works about the war.
“The male artists in Ukraine have joined the army. Men who have not been drafted are currently not allowed to leave Ukraine to be drafted. Only the women can leave the country, travel and maintain the semblance of a studio practice,” Fridman said.
A 2017 photo of paper armored hedgehogs in a snowy Ukrainian landscape titled “Defense” is on display at the Fridman Gallery in New York City. Photo courtesy of 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. War-related delivery difficulties even delayed the timely arrival of one of the works, a carved stone sculpture depicting a loaf of bread, at the gallery.
“The artists had friends drive 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 assembled here,” Fridman said.
Zhanna Kadyrova’s stone sculpture titled Palianyzia was made this year from large stones smoothed by a river in western Ukraine, one of the world’s largest wheat exporters, and resembles a typical loaf of bread in the country.
A still from the poetic film Letter to a Turtledove is on display at the Fridman Gallery in New York City. Photo courtesy of Dana Kavelina
In a series of 10 drawings, Alevtina Kakhidze describes how her mother makes an annual pilgrimage from the Donbass region, largely held by Russian-backed separatists since the 2014 annexation of Crimea, to unoccupied Ukraine to collect her pension checks.
“Apparently, the Russian-backed separatists did not honor the pensions paid by the Ukrainian government. People had to travel through multiple checkpoints for many hours each time, including a so-called demarcation line that they had to cross on foot,” Fridmann said.
“They got off a bus on one side of the border, walked across and got on a bus on the other side of the border. The visual story ends with the final drawing showing the artist’s mother dying of a heart attack and queuing at a checkpoint on her final journey to collect her pension.”
Fabijanska wrote in her curation notes on the exhibition that a 20-minute poetic film by artist Dana Kavelina, shown in the gallery’s basement, “documents the loss of personality through the torture of repeated rapes that pushed women beyond the limits of humanity.” in the Donbass region since World War II.
This movie titled Letter to a Turtle Dovewas completed in 2020 and contains archival and amateur material from the 1930s to the 1990s.
Fridman said Kavelina, who he described as “an extraordinary artist,” also helped research and produce a four-part feature film about rape as a weapon of war.
“As art professionals, this is probably the best thing we can do to resist and contribute to the war effort because even though we send money and weapons to Ukraine, not many people in that country know anything about Ukrainian culture,” Fridman said.
“What this war is about is an attempt by the Russian government to eradicate Ukrainian culture as a unique, independent phenomenon.”
Fridman said the exhibit will be moved to a gallery at Eastern Connecticut State University, where it will be presented in September and October. He hopes it will continue touring to other institutions.
“I hope US audiences will learn that there is a separate and unique Ukrainian culture, including the fine arts,” Fridman said.
“It is not easy for Americans to envision the total devastation that full-scale war would bring. Several generations, tens of millions of people marked for life at the same time.
On Wednesday, the gallery hosted a screening of the 1930 silent film presented by the Ukrainian organization Locus29 Zemlya by Ukrainian filmmaker Oleksandr Dovzhenko.
“This is the essential work for Ukrainian cinematography. Everyone knows many directors from the Soviet USSR as pioneers, but not everyone knows Dovzhenko,” Locus29 founder and director Anna Zinenko said in an interview with UPI.
Zinenko added that “right now is the time to show Ukrainian films because imperialist culture has always suppressed Ukrainian cultural projects” and that Dovzhenko “was the example of this Ukrainian voice”.
The film shows Ukrainian peasants living peacefully until they are disturbed by collectivization – the Soviet policy of expropriating land from private owners. In the film, some peasants obey voluntarily, while others are forced to give up their property for communal use in kolkhozes.
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 shot were destroyed in a German air raid during World War II.
Zinenko said the film reflects the current situation in Ukraine, saying that agriculture “is going to be a very sensitive issue soon.”
“The harvest has stopped. They can’t keep working to harvest the grain and also the part, the occupied part of Ukraine, everything they produce they will send to Russia again, so it’s very identical and Europe is also suffering from this situation,” he said you.
Even though Zemlya created as a silent film, it was scored by Ukrainian group DhakaBrakha in 2012, making the film a “double masterpiece” according to Zinenko.
Zinenko’s mother, a native of Kiev, was in the audience when the film was shown on Wednesday. She had fled Ukraine with the help of her daughter just a few weeks after the outbreak of war.
“Almost all my friends are in Ukraine right now and I am in constant contact with them every day, a few times a day, because this is an unusual situation where you need to check with your friends if they are still on are lives,” Sinenko said.
“We keep trying to live life, but this is a summer that has no smell. This summer should be full of watermelons for us, but we’re all checking each other out to make sure we’re alive. But we also feel guilty about all the joyful moments.
“For people who are abroad, we feel guilty because we cannot change the situation. We try to help as much as possible but it doesn’t feel like enough. And people who are in Ukraine just don’t enjoy summer because how are you going to enjoy summer with non-stop alarm every day?