War in Donbass and its influence on art

IZOLYATSIA. Platform for Cultural Initiatives (Kyiv, Ukraine, 2014)

The outbreak of the war in the eastern Ukraine led to some significant changes in the fields of art and culture, both in the war area and in the whole country. A substantial number of artists and cultural activists left Donbass because they did not share the views nor the ideology of the separatists. Some of those who did not have the opportunity to leave the area taken over by the separatists stayed in Donbass. However, it does not mean that they share the views of the separatists or collaborate with them.

The war had the immediate effect not only on the artists, but also on the cultural institutions. One of such institutions is IZOLYATSIA – Platform for Cultural Initiatives, a non-governmental organisation dedicated to contemporary art and culture. It was founded in 2010 on the premises of a former insulation factory in Donetsk. In four years, the industrial rooms, transformed into exhibition and workshop space, have become an important cultural centre in the eastern Ukraine. IZOLYATSIA has exhibited works by Ukrainian as well as the renowned foreign artists. The activities organised by the platform helped to forge an artistic community and made the exchange of ideas and cooperation possible.

”On 9th June 2014 the territory was taken over by self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, allegedly in order to keep so-called ‘humanitarian aid’ that was coming from Russia. At the moment the platform premises comprise of fighters’ training base, prison and execution site. As a result of the aforementioned events, IZOLYATSIA has moved to the shipyard in Kyiv. The platform still continues to organise cultural projects to support socially engaged artists and curators; it is also involved in the development of contemporary art in Kyiv, Ukraine, and worldwide. The foundation functions also as a source of information for international curators, researchers, artists and other people working in culture.”1

Among the most interesting projects carried out after the relocation of IZOLYATSIA to Kyiv is the exhibition Reconstruction of Memory that took place at the turn of February and March 2016 and was curated by Lia and Andrii Dostliev. Due to the war, the artists, together with their underage son, could not return to their family home in Donetsk. The exhibition included the works of twelve Ukrainian artists who migrated from Donbass and Crimea and settled in various cities in Ukraine and abroad.

Lia Dostlieva, Continuity, Installation, video, transparent paper (18 m), pencil, 2015.

”Russian occupation of Crimea and military invasion into Eastern Ukraine forced half a million people to abandon their homes and flee in order to escape military actions and prosecution for their political views. Today, 18 months later, when many refugees have already settled into new homes, it becomes clear that the problems caused by the involuntary resettlement are not limited to material losses. Occupation has not only forced people out of their homes, they were thrown out of continuity of their personal histories. While packing documents and money in a hurry, they have left scattered grandmother’s photo albums, mother’s bijouterie, and their first toys, all those trinkets that used to mark their progress in time. Those are the things that no one would rescue, they are useless for settling down in a new place and would not make the new life better. For many years, people have been stockpiling those silent witnesses of their existence only to abandon them in a critical moment, thus depriving themselves of material memories. The scale of this trauma is yet to be estimated. Cut off from their roots, deprived of past, uncertain about future, lacking support in the present, the forced migrants are unable to move further until this loss is apprehended, described, and analysed, and until the emptiness caused by it is filled again. Each participant of the project tells about loss experience in the first person as someone personally involved in a traumatic incident.”2

In general, the project has a romantic atmosphere that changes, mythicises and pays attention to small details. It is a voice of a person who looks to his or her future and sees what he or she no longer possesses. The works created are not intent on reconstructing the memory; they have become an endless space for reflection on experiencing the future. In her work Continuity, displayed at the exhibition Reconstruction of Memory, Lia Dostlieva tells us about a painful symbol of irreversibility, about violent changes that happened in her family, and about losing a photograph album that belonged to them. More than one hundred years of history of the artist’s family stayed in the flat that may not even exist today. The loss of a documented past and fading of physical memory mean the loss of the continuity of one’s own history.3

Ukrainian pavilion exhibiting "Hope!" during 56th Venice Biennale. 2015, Venice, Italy

Open Group, Synonym for «wait», live streaming video, performance, 210 x 210 cm, 2015, Venice, Italy

The conflict in Donbass caused an immediate response among the artists, not only in the occupied territory, but in the entire Ukraine. As a result, more and more critical anti-war works were created.

The conflict in Donbass caused an immediate response among the artists, not only in the occupied territory, but in the entire Ukraine. As a result, more and more critical anti-war works were created. Especially worthy of attention is the project War. 11 Portraits by Taras Polataiko in which the artist raises the issue of mutilation and trauma, but also the works of Serhiy Savchenko who created a series of paintings Earth that speak metaphorically about the memory of geographical territories in which military clashes took place. However, the phenomena is especially discernible in the works of artists aged 25-35, born in the 1980s during the artistically active years of “Ukrainian New Wave.” This generation could then be called “Second Wave.” These are people who, despite being born in Soviet Ukraine, were growing up in an independent country that was aiming at freedom and democracy.

The artist Alevtina Kakhidze is worth mentioning as an example. Her work Phone Calls from the Cemetery and Other Stories touches upon the relations in a family divided by war, distance and ideology. Another example is the IOD Group and their installation Global Warming concerned with the increase of military tensions and the rising “temperature” of the conflicts. Anonymous street art artist Sociopath makes critical anti-war graffiti in various Ukrainian cities. Lubomyr Tymkiv created a “Caponier” gallery in a trench while he was  stationed on the front in the Luhansk Oblast. Alexey Salmanov – an artist, but also a Russian living in Ukraine, created a performance Self-Bombing. When talking about the young generation, worth noticing are also the works of such artists as: Yevgenia Belorusets, Nikita Kadan, Zhanna Kadyrova, Mykola Ridnyi, Artem Volokitin and Anna Zvyagintseva.

Open Group, photo from the archives of the project Synonym for «wait», 2015, Ukraine

Especially interesting are the works of the Ukrainian collective Open Group. Soon four years will pass since the opening of the “Hope!” exhibition in the Ukrainian pavilion during the 56th Venice Biennale. Open Group presented there their work Synonym for ‘wait’, a live broadcast from nine cameras placed above the doors of Ukrainian soldiers’ homes, and a performance in which each of the artists refused to eat. The work focuses on the painful experience of Ukrainian families waiting for their loved ones to return from war.4 This year Open Group will represent Ukraine in Venice again, this time with a project “The shadow of dream cast upon Giardini Della Biennale” – a flight of the biggest freight airplane over the Giardini gardens which are one of the main sites of Venice Biennale. According to the creators, information on all the contemporary Ukrainian artists is going to be available inside the airplane.5

The acts of war in the eastern Ukraine are still going on. Families are waiting for their loved ones, and despite the fact that the conflict has been generally normalized, the wounds remain open.

1 Foundation, [in:],  (last access: 01.03.2016)

2 Reconstruction of Memory, [in:], 04.02.2016, (last access: 11.03.2019)

3 Лесь Виноградов, Мистецтво переселенців: Інвентаризація спогадів, [in:] 16.02.2016, (last access: 22.03.2016)

4 Synonym for «wait», [in:], 06.05.2015, (last access: 05.03.2019)

5 The shadow of dream cast upon Giardini Della Biennale [in:], (last access: 05.03.2019)


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