Ukraine’s Art Community Remains Defiant in the Face of War

Maria Sibirtseva
Mar 1, 2022 7:40PM

Installation view of works by Nina Murashkina and Dzmitryi Kashtalyan at Tuasho Gallery. Courtesy of Tuasho Gallery.

It was still dark outside when thousands of people across Ukraine began packing survival kits and preparing to evacuate. Many of us fell asleep the night prior with aspirations for the future and faith that a full-scale attack from Russia was unlikely. We woke up from the sounds of explosions. In an instant, the worst possibility we could have imagined became an inescapable reality.

On February 24th, the lives of Ukrainians were suddenly divided into a before and an after. “At 5 a.m. I said to my husband, ‘Good morning, the war has begun,’” said Anna Avetova, the founder of Tuasho Gallery. “I managed to stop by my gallery that is in the very center of Kyiv to pick up documents, a cat, and a couple of antique books. Just before the war, we gave almost all of the works to projects or artists, but the rest remain in the gallery.”

Interior view of Tuasho Gallery. Courtesy of Tuasho Gallery.


In the hours before the invasion, life seemed on track for most Ukrainians. Despite the escalated tension with Russia, artists, galleries, and cultural institutions planned schedules for the entire year ahead. Many expected to continue their operations as planned, particularly as the international spotlight was finally on Ukraine, albeit under terrible circumstances.

“When we started in 2015, we aimed to build an artistic bridge between Ukrainian art and the world,” said Cornélia Schmidmayr, co-founder and managing director at ArtEast Gallery in an interview prior to the invasion. The gallery is based in both Kyiv and Berlin. Before the attack, Schmidmayer expressed that while the situation between Ukraine and Russia made things harder, it also made their efforts more significant. “Now we’re building a logistic bridge,” said Schmidmayr. “We aim to ensure that we will be taking Ukrainian art to different corners of the world. If we can’t by plane, we’ll go by truck from Kyiv to Berlin. And from there, to other countries. It’s important to showcase Ukraine positively but not only through the glass of crisis and war. Ukraine is a wonderful country with talented people and rich art.”

In recent years, the Ukrainian art market has been slowly developing. It has faced numerous challenges, including logistical issues and a lack of new exhibition spaces to showcase emerging talent. But unlike the war, these obstacles never threatened millions of human lives, and gallerists always found a way to bring their ideas to life, whether by refurbishing their offices into galleries or by placing artworks directly in venues themselves.

“In late 2021, I decided to open a gallery right in my office because I was tired of looking and not finding any platforms to showcase new and emerging artists,” said Avetova. “I realized that this moment might never have come if I had waited any longer. So I launched a gallery, and it was the right thing to do. Hundreds of people have come to see the art during the last months.”

Interior view of ArtEast Gallery. Courtesy of ArtEast Gallery.

To support the country and its burgeoning art scene during the pandemic, Ukrainians eagerly got acquainted with emerging and contemporary voices in secret spots such as Avangarden Gallery & Wine Bar in Kyiv. There, people were able to discover the works of artists like Artem Volokitin, Vasylyna Buryanyk, and Sergei Kondratyuk while meeting with friends and escaping anxiety. Thanks to venues like these, art was becoming more accessible and popular throughout the city.

All of that vanished overnight. In what seemed like an instant, the future Ukrainians had been building for themselves was completely upended. On February 23rd, galleries in Kyiv like Tuasho Gallery, ArtEast Gallery, ArtCult, Triptych, Abramovych Art, Voloshyn Gallery, and many others closed for the evening and did not open the following day. Sitting in shelters and shaking from the sounds of explosions and gunfire, gallery owners communicated their faith in the unbreakable Ukrainian spirit and army and reached out to the global community to ask for support.

Interior view of ArtEast Gallery. Courtesy of ArtEast Gallery.

On Facebook, ARTAREA posted an image of a waving Ukrainian flag with the caption: “See you after the victory! We are wholeheartedly confident in the Ukrainian army, wholeheartedly confident in our victory! But…when the weapon thunders, the muses are silent. ARTAREA art space painfully announces that our doors will be temporarily closed. All tickets sold remain valid, and we will be happy to meet you in our halls when peace reigns in Ukraine again. Glory to Ukraine! Glory to our brave Armed Forces! Victory will be ours!”

Meanwhile, M17 Contemporary Art Center changed its profile picture to an image designed by the Ukrainian graphic arts project Commercial Public Art. Accompanying it are the words: “Ukraine will stand, like all of us!”

Mystetskyi Arsenal, the largest cultural institution in Ukraine, sent out an email in English explaining the horrifying events in detail and included guidelines on how the world can support the country. In addition, the museum encouraged readers to highlight Ukrainian art as a way to communicate the nation’s spirit, ideas, and values.

“Our thousand-year-old culture that was the intersection of a huge number of countries and continents—Kievan Rus—and existed when Russia was not yet in sight has overcome many challenges,” Avetova reflected. “Its people, culture, and language were banned, exterminated, and ignored for centuries, but the country proved to be indestructible. We have always survived and will survive today. Whatever happens next, we will live, create, and develop.”

It has been less than a week since the war started in Ukraine. Sounds of air raids, missiles, gunshots, and carnage are thundering in the streets. But in the rare minutes of silence, Ukrainians can clearly hear their inner voice asserting: “Ukraine will stand, so will its art.”

Maria Sibirtseva