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Chien-Chi Chang, Lviv, Ukraine, March 10, 2022
Chien-Chi Chang, Lviv, Ukraine, March 10, 2022

The artists fighting to protect treasured artworks in wartime

In the shelled-out cities of Ukraine and beyond, artists continue to create in the face of devastating conflict. Here, artists from across the globe explain why they’re willing to risk their lives to salvage meaning from the rubble

Taken from the summer 2022 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.

“Wake up, the war has begun.” These are the words that artist Anastasiia Nekypila and her fellow Ukrainians heard on the morning of February 24, 2022. It is also the title of a new series of drawings Nekypila has been working on since Putin’s invasion. “Since then, mornings have ceased to be good,” she says. Previously, Nekypila painted on canvas in a colourful, childlike style inspired by nationally beloved folk artist, Maria Primachenko, 25 of whose paintings were destroyed in the bombing of the Ivankiv Museum on February 28. Now, she works mostly with the colour black and makes digital rather than physical works. “War has made me realise that I shouldn’t get attached to anything, because it can be taken away at any moment. For now, drawing in digital feels less painful and more secure,” she says. Like so many other artists who have fled violence in Ukraine, she had no choice but to leave her collection of paintings behind. “I am preparing for the fact that I may lose them forever.”

All over Ukraine, monuments are being sandbagged, museum exhibits are being evacuated and artworks are being relocated to bomb shelters and basement bunkers, in an urgent attempt to preserve the country’s cultural heritage from looting and destruction. In recent weeks, more than 1,300 remote volunteers have united to form SUCHO (Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online), an organisation dedicated to archiving and digitising artworks from Ukraine’s heritage institutions, in the event of their physical loss. “Museum workers are continuing to go to work under bombing and without pay to save their collections,” says Olha Honchar, founder of Ukraine’s Museum Crisis Centre, which offers financial support to cultural workers who are, in some cases, risking their lives to salvage art and artefacts. “Some museum workers are even sleeping next to the artworks, in hopes of protecting them.” While major institutions have more manpower and financial support to safeguard works of tremendous value, artists who lack resources are often left without recourse.

Artist Gabrielle Tesfaye has not spoken to her family in the Tigray region of Ethiopia since June 2021. “Due to the phone and internet being cut, speaking to them has been impossible since the war started,” she says. In 2020, conflict erupted between the Ethiopian government and rebel forces in the northern region of Tigray, resulting in a war that has killed thousands, displaced millions and caused widespread famine. Tesfaye straddles the line between artist, activist and advocate, creating works that both channel the pain and increase the visibility of a conflict that is little discussed in western media. “Our world seems to be desensitised by images of suffering,” she says. “Art can fill these gaps in outreach.” The painter and filmmaker is also a co-founder of the Tigray Art Collective, which unites Ethiopian artists in the diaspora in an effort to increase awareness of the conflict. Together, they fundraise for the war effort by selling NFTs, designing travelling exhibitions and creating protest art for public use. “The revolution will be painted, sung, danced, written, performed and filmed.”

Art is a crucial tool in the effort to inform and breed empathy, but it is also a platform for provoking inquiry about the dominant discourses surrounding war. In the face of governmental oppression, it becomes a critical vessel of disruption. For Dana Barqawi, a Palestinian artist based in Jordan, painting presents an opportunity to rewrite history. “Art gives me the power to reach people, to trigger emotions and to challenge colonial narratives in places like Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Egypt,” she says. In her series A Land Without a People, Barqawi combines vintage photographs and antiques that incorporate the work of the late Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim, an outspoken opponent of racism and oppression in the Middle East.

“Our world seems to be desensitised by images of suffering” – Gabrielle Tesfaye

“If you’re an Afghan between the ages of 20 and 45, you’ve only ever heard of war as being synonymous with our country,” says Shamayel Shalizi, an artist whose plans to move back to Kabul were derailed in August 2021, when the Taliban took control of the city. “War is part of who we are, but it isn’t everything.” Over Zoom, Shalizi shares anecdotes about how conflict has helped breed creativity in Afghan culture, mentioning war rugs and the oral poetry tradition of Landay. In addition to helping her parse the feelings of homesickness that accompany displacement, Shalizi explains that her artistic practice is motivated by a desire to “dismantle Afghan stereotypes formed in the western gaze”. In a country where violence all too often makes headlines, Shalizi says that shedding light on the “seldom discussed beauty of Afghanistan is a radical act. 

The establishment of South Sudan – which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 – was engineered to end Africa’s longest civil war. Despite this hard-earned victory, peace did not persist in South Sudan, where another civil war erupted in 2013. The filmmaker Akuol de Mabior is, like Shalizi, motivated by a desire to add depth and nuance to both the international understanding and cultural canon of the place she calls home. “There’s a morbid expectation of South Sudanese stories, given the way we are viewed on the world stage,” she says. “I don’t want to dismiss the fact that there are really terrible, tragic and chaotic things happening and that have happened there, but there is so much more to South Sudan. I want to contribute to that ‘more’.”

Art created during or in relation to conflict needn’t always serve a political end, disrupt a critical gaze or provide an alternative narrative, however. For many artists, it is a method of self-preservation. “Ten years ago, no one was talking about mental health,” says Samar Hazboun, a photographer from Palestine, who has found healing through her self-portraiture practice. “I recently read a quote that [went], ‘If the world is chaos, art is pattern.’ When things around you are so dark and hectic, art becomes a tiny piece of your life that brings you a sense of order.” When asked how she thinks her artistic practice would be different if she had been raised elsewhere, Hazboun says, “When you wake up every day with your heart pounding and you live in constant fear, you are grateful to have art as an outlet – but I would never thank war for my creativity.” 

While chaos breeds a compulsion to create for some, it also robs many others of their desire or ability. “So far, it’s been hard for me and my fellow artists to even pick up a pencil. It feels unacceptable, even wrong,” says Ukrainian painter Sofiia Yesakova. When not helping to evacuate artworks, curator Anna Potyomkina of Asortymentna kimnata also runs a residency programme for displaced artists in Ivano-Frankivsk. “The idea was to gather people who were still in shock and make a space that would allow them to start working, thinking and reflecting – to help them regain their subjectivity. During war, you become an object, an object of information and an object of violence,” she explains. The uncertainty that comes with creating art in times of conflict and distress is natural, according to Potyomkina.

“When things around you are so dark and hectic, art becomes a tiny piece of your life that brings you a sense of order” – Samar Hazboun

“It’s a common dilemma to ask yourself if it’s right to create art in a moment like this because art is not a short-term help. Its impact on society happens over a longer period of time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t useful.” Conceptual artist Olia Fedorova does not know when she will be able to return to the field outside of Kharkiv where she films her performances. “It could be covered with mines,” she says. “I have no idea if I’ll ever go back.” The day before, Fedorova was one of many young volunteers who helped sandbag the statue of the poet Taras Shevchenko in her hometown. “Shevchenko is a symbol of Ukrainian identity and our fight for freedom and independence throughout the centuries.” The monument, Fedorova says, still bears the marks of bullet holes from the German occupation during the second world war. “It felt like history was repeating itself. Our ancestors were doing exactly the same thing – uniting to protect our history and culture.”

To those who ask, ‘How can we think about art in a time like this?’, an answer is: we must. Art is a crystallisation of history and heritage, a foundation of identity and means for solidarity – meaning the preservation and production of art during war is the preservation of power in the face of adversity. After spending weeks living in the Voloshyn Gallery in Kyiv, which was converted into a bomb shelter, Nikita Kadan is now one of the artists in residence at the Asortymentna kimnata. “Saving art and culture is about us wanting to do more than just survive,” he says from his new studio. “It’s about our desire to live.”