Ukrainians Turn to the Arts in a Time of Upheaval
APRIL 29, 2014
KIEV, Ukraine — The National Art Museum of Ukraine has just opened an exhibition of objects from the compound of former President Viktor F. Yanukovych, including a folk-art portrait of him made of poppy seeds and beans. A folk-rock group, all women, performs a raucous cabaret at night, while other artists busily produce videos about the aftermath of the mass uprising.
It’s been just a couple of months since Mr. Yanukovych was driven out, in late February, by a groundswell of popular anger at his government’s corruption, its move toward Russia and away from Europe, and the deaths of more than 100 protesters in huge antigovernment demonstrations. But even in the darkest moments, when snipers shot citizens, and the streets were slick with smoke-darkened ice, those protests surged with creative fervor; musicians performed onstage, and artists transformed the main square, Maidan, into living theater.
The demonstrations have ended, for now, but Ukrainians continue to turn to culture to assert and define themselves in a time of upheaval, just as their counterparts have in recent years after uprisings from Cairo to Rio de Janeiro. The fate of Ukraine remains uncertain, and the tension with Russia is escalating, but already remnants of the Maidan demonstrations are being collected and codified here. To visit Kiev today is to witness the fragile moment when the present becomes history.
Aleksandr Roytburd, 52, a painter, chuckled last week as he scrutinized the poppy seed portrait of Mr. Yanukovych, a gift to the former president that is one of 500 objects in an exhibition at the National Art Museum, which opened on Saturday to record attendance and which Mr. Roytburd helped organized. “It looks like a joke from the Stalinist time,” he said, puffing on an electronic cigarette. “A gift for Comrade Stalin.”
Just up the street from the National Art Museum, past the Parliament building, where an interim government bides its time until national elections on May 25, a state-run folk art center has begun collecting and warehousing artifacts from the uprising with the aim of eventually creating a Maidan museum.
“Mostly, museums are about the past, but now we have a chance to fix the history of today,” said Ihor Poshyvailo, 46, the deputy director of the Ivan Honchar Museum, which opened here in 1993 and is filled with ethnic artifacts, like Cossack musical instruments, that were suppressed in Soviet times.
With formal recognition from the city, Mr. Poshyvailo and other co-curators have collected hand-painted banners; makeshift shields made from traffic signs; stretchers; helmets; a large catapult; and even Molotov cocktails emptied of gasoline. “People say, ‘Maidan hasn’t ended.’ So we tried to take everything,” he said.
It has not been easy for Kiev’s state-run museums to contend with antigovernment demonstrations and now a government in flux. “Many museums were very, very shy” at first, Mr. Poshyvailo said. Now he and other organizers want to collect testimony and stories, to tell history from the ground up. “We have a conception: tangible and intangible,” he added.
At the Yanukovych exhibition, “The Mezhigorye Codex” (named for the former president’s compound outside Kiev), a grouping of glass vases is mischievously titled “The Book of Transparency,” and many portraits of the former president hang in a section called “The Book of Vanity,” along with a certificate for a star named after Mr. Yanukovych, near those named after Nietzsche, John Lennon and the Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov.
There is also a portrait taken from the home of Ukraine’s former state prosecutor that shows his blond wife dressed like a member of the ancien régime French aristocracy — a triumph of post-Soviet, crony-capitalist kitsch.
Surveying the array of objects, from the elegant to the grotesque, “it was clear that Yanukovych couldn’t identify which things were valuable and which weren’t,” Mr. Roytburd said. The exhibition was “definitely an attempt at criticism through ironic analysis.”
Many of the works were gifts to the president, but the museum won’t make the list of givers public. That is still in the hands of Ukrainian prosecutors.
Today, Maidan Square has largely returned to its everyday bustle, but the burnt-out buildings and makeshift memorials to the dead have also transformed it into a grim, living installation. On a street with Benetton and Gap stores, vendors sell Ukrainian flags and gold toilet magnets, inspired by a rumor that a golden toilet was found in Mr. Yanukovych’s mansion.
The demonstrations came with a surge in national pride in Ukraine, where today, Cossacks are less likely to stir up pogroms than to collect folk music. Cossack hairstyles, buzz cuts with a splash of bangs, have come back into fashion. Posters commemorating the 200th anniversary of the birth of the Ukrainian national poet Taras Shevchenko are ubiquitous in Kiev.
Eastern Ukraine, where today Russia continues to nip at the border, has long looked to Russian culture as much as to Ukrainian. During Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, pro-Russian Ukrainian activists set up speakers and blasted “Soldier,” a popular 2000 song by the Russian rock group Lyube, about a battalion heading to war. Russian dramas, often set during World War II, are a mainstay of Ukrainian television.
But in Kiev, at least, the creative energy is as much about Ukrainian identity as about opposition to Russia. One night last week, the Dakh Daughters, a seven-woman folk-rock group, performed a cabaret here that included a Brezhnev-era song and the monologue of a grandmother from the Carpathian Mountains that evolved into a rap.
One sang, “Russian women only know 10 sexual positions, and in Ukraine, those are already old-fashioned.” The group performed in St. Petersburg this month. Its song about a Russian soldier was met with cheers there, while the Kiev audience last week saw it as a sendup. The band sees its work as “healthy, constructive” patriotism, said Tanya Hawrylyuk, 26, a member. “It’s about how cool it is to be Ukrainian.”
While some of the artwork is provocative, it is the politicians, not the artists, who are playing up Ukraine’s divisions, said Kateryna Botanova, the director of the Foundation Center for Contemporary Art here. Artists, she said, have been exploring various elements of society to find common ground. “I don’t think it’s divided — it’s very multifaceted,” she said of Ukraine.
Ukrainians are still grappling with the meaning of Maidan. Matvey Veisberg, 55, a painter in Kiev, made 32 small paintings when the protests were at their most violent. Inspired by Goya’s Black Paintings, they invoke blood, fire and fear, but also a sense of expectation.
The final painting shows a patch of blue sky above the square. “It is blue sky, but it didn’t make me feel any better,” Mr. Veisberg said last week, sitting in his studio. “There is no catharsis.”