Ukrainian female artists tell the ugly truth about the war exhibition in New York

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NEW YORK – From the outside, the war in Ukraine is a disconnected stream of videos, sudden convulsions of fire, flames and smoke, or images of gaping hollow buildings with views of offices, apartments and abandoned classrooms. Or it’s a man – almost always a man, and usually a retired general – standing in front of a multi-colored map, analyzing gains and losses, supply lines and shifting battlefronts.

A small but powerful exhibition at the Fridman Gallery, “Women at War,” presents a much messier and more intimate understanding of destruction. War is felt in the body, it alters identity, shatters domestic life and disrupts the habits that are the basis of our mental health. She is ubiquitous and ubiquitous; changing channels won’t make it go away.

Curated by Monika Fabijanska, the exhibition includes the work of 11 living female artists from Ukraine, some of them made since Russia began its brutal siege on February 24, and most since Vladimir Putin occupied the Crimea in 2014 and began a grinding proxy war in the country’s industrialized eastern region. But there are no bookends to war, which has raged in Ukraine for much of its history, with particular ferocity in the 20th century. And war is just one of the forms of violence that has ravaged the country. Over the centuries, it has been invaded, colonized and partitioned, subjected to orchestrated famine during the Soviets, and demoralized by decades of internal strife and corruption since its independence in 1991.

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So there is a tension between works that show the particular disruption of present-day war and works that suggest war as a larger metaphor, or as an organic presence, almost as if embedded in the landscape and texture of the ordinary life. Oksana Chepelyk’s 2014 film “Letter from Ukraine” shows a woman and child moving frantically through a densely built urban center. They reenact the search for safe places as imaginary shells fall around them. The video was shot in Italy, hence the title (“from Ukraine”) problematic, unless, of course, one understands their fear as something that travels with them. The fear becomes a trauma, imprinted and indelible.

Zhanna Kadyrova accompanies another video, “Palianytsia”, with a bread sculpture, made by cutting a bread-shaped rock into slices. It is the most powerful object in the series, connecting the details of the current war to larger themes of burden and sustenance. The word palianytsia means bread, and the artist says it is difficult for Russians to pronounce. Thus, it became a shibboleth: a means of sorting friend from foe. The bread itself is a river rock, smooth and flat by water, and is both a natural and a man-made object, its shape suggesting the bread’s power to keep the body alive, while its weight suggests the burden of living under Russian occupation.

The longer history of the war and its representation in art, including its glamorization in painting and by artists with overtly nationalist agendas, overshadow many of the works on display. Lesia Khomenko nods to tradition and deflates it with a portrait of her partner and fellow artist, “Max in the Army.” He wears an ill-fitting uniform, his long pants rolled up over his boots, and salutes awkwardly. The large-scale canvas is a vertical portrait, a lone man with his shadow, rotated 90 degrees from the cinematic horizontal war paintings that can be found on the walls of most state museums across the country. Europe.

Anna Scherbyna retains the horizontal format for her three small watercolor landscapes of ruins in the Donbass region, but scales them down and drapes them in gray fabric (a light-shielding device more commonly found in European museums). They’re small, almost so small you can’t quite read them, but maybe that’s the point. The ruins are not spectacular, as they might be in a monumental landscape painting by a male artist. On the contrary, you must work to find and decipher them. And if you don’t lift the gray fabric panels that hide them, they become entirely abstract and minimalist, blank rectangles on a white wall that challenge you to do the conceptual work of imposing meaning.

Unsaid, but unavoidable, is the question of whether this art of women could only be done by women, and if so, what does this tell us about women artists in general? An essay by the curator touches on the longer history of feminism in Ukraine, including the give-and-take feminism of the Soviet years, when women sometimes enjoyed greater political autonomy but still had to adapt their lives to a patriarchal system brutal and authoritarian. In Soviet art, women were muscular, empowered and heroic; in reality, they were instruments of the state’s campaign for industrial and military production, and agents of population growth.

What kind of feminism comes after this distorted manipulation of women’s identity? What kind of feminism makes sense when there is no distinction between the home front and the front, when women fight in the Ukrainian army, when men are also victims of rape and the destruction of life home trauma for everyone, regardless of sex or gender identity?

The artists seen here choose liberation on their own terms, inventing multiple feminisms to meet a range of needs and goals. Kateryna Yermolaeva photographs herself as non-binary, in one image seated next to a washing machine and in another with her legs spread apart as she sits in a filthy stairwell. They are images of refusal – refusal to conform to predefined ideas of gender and refusal to be categorized as victims of war.

The denial of victimhood is the most pervasive idea that unites these works, even in images that deal directly with rape as a tool of war. This requires resistance not only to contemporary ideas and labels, but at narrative ideas and poetic images as old as civilization: that women are the receptacles of the traumas of war and their bodies a canvas on which men write history with the lacerating pen of violence. Thus, Euripides in 415 BC. J.-C. in “Les Troyennes”: “And ahead, behold, the women go, / The crown of War, the crown of Misfortune, / To bear the children of the enemy…”

Dana Kavelina fights poetry with poetry, in a hypnotically sad video entitled “Letter to a dove”. Over historical and contemporary images of Donbass, an incantatory voice recites a remix of these ancient tropes, reimagining them for a new age, with astonishing power. Like the best anti-war literature, Kavelina’s video makes war increasingly strange, even absurd, no longer an obvious tool in the toolbox of geopolitics, but something so foreign and unnecessary that one wonders who invented it and for what supernatural purpose?

One of the first and last images viewers will see is a 2017 photograph by Olia Fedorova of anti-tank “hedgehogs,” usually made of metal beams welded together to form a spiky obstacle. But the ones seen here are made of paper, set on a gentle, snow-covered slope of open ground. With a little wind, they would fly away. Placed near the entrance and exit, his photograph offers a double sense of war: that it is a kind of theater, and that it is ephemeral and could easily be erased from the landscape.

Take that last thought with you. There may be little truth in this, but there is hope.

women at war Until August 26 at the Fridman Gallery, 169 Bowery, New York. fridmangallery.com.

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