Traditional Ukrainian embroidery featuring guns and military helicopters; a graffitied portrait of the Russian poet Alexander Pushkin; photographs of smartly dressed school leavers standing in the ruins of a shelled building in Kharkiv: all feature in an exhibition of Ukraine’s newest artwork.
While the country’s art is perhaps getting more attention than ever before, The Captured House exhibition, which opened in Brussels last week, stands out because 90% of the works have been created since the Russian invasion began on 24 February.
In the first days of the war, Ukraine’s artists were in shock. “For about three to four weeks nobody did anything,” said Kate Taylor, the curator of the exhibition. “Artists didn’t feel the use of the art any more.”
Then in April she noticed a boom of new work on her Instagram. And this was the genesis of a traveling exhibition that has been to Berlin, Rome and Amsterdam, and which opened last week in the EU capital.
With paintings, sculptures and photographs from about 50 Ukrainian artists, Taylor hopes to show the cruel reality of war as it is felt every day. “The exhibition is not about the war in itself – it is about a humanitarian catastrophe that people are going through.”
Counting every child killed in the war is the aim of Daria Koltsova, a Kharkiv-born artist who fled Odesa when the conflict started. Having escaped to Palermo via Moldova, she felt lost, endlessly scrolling through the news, overwhelmed by minute-by-minute updates on the bombing of Ukrainian cities and the killing of children. She started to make little heads from clay. “It was the pressure that I felt every day, because every day I got those messages. It was really painful and it all started from my way to live out all that, a kind of artistic sublimation.”
When the exhibition opened in Berlin, she sat for three hours a day in the basement art space making the heads, each one representing a child killed in the war.
Haunting footage taken during this time has become part of the Brussels exhibition. Dressed in a plain antique Ukrainian gown, she carefully sculpts the clay to make eyes, then a nose. Seemingly reluctant to let go, she adds another little head to the pile of screaming faces. “Every time the sculpture is done, I say goodbye and I let it go,” she said. She works to the strains of an updated version of a traditional Ukrainian lullaby, Oy Khodyt Son Kolo Vikon (The Dream is Wandering by the Window). And as she sculpts, she thinks about the children who will never grow up.
As of 28 July, 358 children had died and 693 were reported as injured according to official sources cited by the news agency Ukrinform, although the actual toll is likely to be much higher.
The artist plans to create a new head for every child killed in the war: “So many people have died that we don’t have enough time to honor the deaths the way they should be honored.”
Other works consider the aggressor, such as Ihor Husev’s images of Russian classics warped with graffiti. A portrait of Pushkin, the national poet taught in every Russian school, has been scribbled over with Zs – the symbol of the Russian attack. The roiling grandiose seascape, The Ninth Wave, by the 19th-century artist Ivan Aivazovsky, is scrawled with the slogan “Russian warship go fuck yourself” – the response of Ukrainian defenders to a Russian navy vessel that has become a national rallying cry.
These works are part of the “cancel Russia” movement that has led to Ukrainian cities removing sculptures and renaming public spaces. But the questioning of Russian high culture is not universally popular in Ukraine, nor straightforward. Aivazovsky was born in Feodosia in Crimea, part of Ukraine that was occupied and then annexed in 2014.
The exhibition also highlights photojournalists, whose images brought the horror of the war to the world, such as Maxim Levina longtime contributor to Reuters who was killed near Kyiv during the first weeks of the war, and Evgeniy Maloletka, an AP photographer who, along with his video colleague journalist Mstyslav Chernov, remained in besieged Mariupol When all other international media had gone, to document the relentless attacks on civilians, such as heavily pregnant women escaping a bombed maternity hospital.
The final exhibit is not a work of art, but a steel door from a house in Irpin. The occupants of the house, a family with two children, escaped on foot to Kyiv, 15 miles (25km) away. They survived. Their house was bombed to rubble, except the front door. When the door arrived in Berlin for the exhibition in early May, it was thick with dust and the smell of fire. “It was in a sense amazing,” recalls Taylor, the curator. “I feel a certain power in the art and in those original pieces that it will not be possible to show or give in five years.”
The transformation from humdrum house entrance to war-torn museum exhibit in under three months underscores the dizzying speed of the artistic response to the war. “I always thought that the artists needed the time and distance to have reflection, especially on a subject such as a war, but we don’t have that time and distance,” Taylor said.
The exhibition, funded by Ukraine’s government, is part of Kyiv’s cultural diplomacy, aiming to counter arguments that the war was provoked by Nato expansion or Kyiv. Such narratives the team encountered above all in Italy, Taylor said, where polls show people are less likely to see Russia as responsible for the war than elsewhere in the EU.
In Berlin, people left the exhibition in tears, while in Rome “our social work” was more important, Taylor said, referring to exhibition-goers who put the blame for the war on Nato. “And I have nothing to say to that because you need to come to Mariupol and have this conversation.”
After the exhibition closes in Brussels on Sunday, the team hope it will go to New York, Washington and San Francisco next year, to show the reality of war to a US audience. “We are not here [in Brussels] to ask for money or weapons,” Taylor said. “But we are here for people to make their choices when they choose their politicians, when they vote at whatever level of decisions.”