“Warriors of Light”
By Goran Buldioski & Cornélia Marang-Schmidmayr
For a long time, art and culture from Ukraine did not play a role in the eyes of Western collectors, gallery owners, or critics. Russia’s full-scale invasion a year ago has changed perceptions dramatically. Exhibitions and cultural events organized in Europe since the beginning of the war have, in many cases, familiarized European audiences with the rich Ukrainian cultural scene for the first time. They illustrate the commitment of artists who have become resistance fighters in the struggle against the Russian occupation.
Ukrainian artists Anna Khodkova and Kristina Yarosh—whose work was displayed in the recent group exhibition The Time Has Come in Berlin, organized by ArtEast Gallery and Open Society Foundations—had to ship art pieces to each other from Kyiv to Lviv while working on a joint project in 2022, as they were hiding out in different places. “We always worked together, and when the war started, we were separated for two months,” Khodkova said. They couldn’t get to their studios because public transport was disrupted or suspended entirely. “It was work that kept us going.”
The fundamental work of cultural decolonization, initiated by the Ukrainian art world and its representatives in recent years and accelerated since the all-out invasion of 2022, helps open our eyes to the aggressive cultural annexation carried out in the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. It also shows us how little most of us know of Ukrainian history and culture—and points the way for other oppressed peoples across the globe to initiate similar changes.
One of the works by Khodkova and Yarosh shown in Berlin, an etching entitled Train Station, was created before the war but has become symbolic for many Ukrainian people and their plight. As the attacks began in February 2022, the train station or underground metro station became a safe shelter from bombs and missile attacks. Even today, some people hide there with families and pets. The stations have become their temporary home.
The artists of Ukraine, with their visionary power, today play a central role on many levels. As “warriors of light,” as Ukrainian sculptor Mikhaïl Reva recently called them, artists and others involved in the Ukrainian cultural scene lead the way toward a society they want to see resurrected after the war. Political and economic leaders should draw inspiration from these impulses when working on broader reconstruction plans for Ukraine.
The imagination, creativity, and vision to which the works bear witness are sources of inspiration for future reconstruction conferences, which must include but should not be limited to purely security-oriented ideas. Art and culture are the foundation and showcase of a society. Though today they are being used as a weapon to erase a people and destroy their past, identity, and future, these forces contain qualities that can serve peace.
Since the war in Ukraine is cultural and identitarian, art and culture must also be at the heart of reconstruction. This includes but is not limited to protecting and reconstructing cultural heritage. More broadly, the permanent integration of Ukraine into the European cultural sphere must be a priority. “It is quite sad that only after the war the world suddenly expressed interest in Ukrainian art,” said Khodkova. Both she and Yarosh are currently outside of Ukraine doing their part to introduce Ukrainian art to the world.
The dissemination of Ukrainian art in all its forms, however, is not enough. To give Ukrainian culture a permanent place in the European sphere, more must be done. Cooperation between public and private institutions, galleries, theaters, and other cultural institutions must pave the way for structural collaboration. All this must be based on the conviction and realization that building such lasting relationships is not just an act of solidarity but constitutes an economic enrichment for both partners.
The country has the potential to become an important trading center for Europe in the long term, not only for traditional industries but also in the creative sphere, such as design, fashion, music, and art. Galleries abroad can find young, hitherto little-known artists and high-quality works in Ukraine, whose prices are not driven by an overheated art market. On the other hand, the foreign art market is still underrepresented in Ukraine: Ukrainian galleries sell mostly Ukrainian artists. Yet there is great potential here for foreign artists, fairs, and galleries. In short: the Ukrainian art world deserves to be taken seriously.
Culture is never an end in itself. It provides a breeding ground for experiments and pilot projects that can be used in other areas for the country's reconstruction. Throughout the past year, Ukrainians have asserted their statehood in the eyes of a brutal and unjustified invasion. The war became a daily reality for many Ukrainian artists. It had become challenging and unsafe to work. As sirens wailed in the background and the electricity was interrupted, many artists decided to fight at the forefront for Ukraine’s victory and future.
We, too, must think ahead and build the foundation for a sustainable reconstruction and a peaceful, prosperous Ukraine. Now is the moment, especially for Western countries like France and Germany, to seize on the renewed interest in Ukrainian culture. We need to do our part in the cultural reconstruction and build relationships with a new, rejuvenating country. As Khodkova put it, “the future is in freedom and hope.”
Goran Buldioski is acting executive director of Open Society–Europe and Central Asia.
Cornélia Marang-Schmidmayr is managing director of ArtEast Gallery and president of the Peace for Art Foundation.