Fighting for Ukrainian Independence Through Art

Curator Nina Mdivani in conversation with three Ukrainian artists: Vasylyna Buryanyk,Margo Sarkisova, and Olga Stein. New York, USA – Ukraine March 2022

Published in print-only version of JANE Magazine Australia, Issue Eleven. Except of the article.

Women have been consistently good at defiance, defying patriarchy, age, and gender limitations, as well as defying violence through the power of intention and defying fear through creating beauty. Connecting with these Ukrainian artists from the tranquillity of a New York apartment felt odd to me. What could be asked of these women whose country is being pul- verised by an invader, whose male family members all defend their home- land with their guns while also having to hide in bomb shelters several times a day? Yet the artists stand tall and strong by staying true to them- selves and by fighting through their art. They are the faces of Ukraine be- cause they reinvent traditions and fashion a feminist identity. All three insist on a re-evaluation of post-Soviet traumas, perceiving the ongoing armed conflict as a direct result of this shared past. And all three continually create a unique, independent, idiosyncratic Ukrainian artistic identity. They may feel helpless for not holding weapons during the Russian invasion, but they are using their art as means of both defiance and salvation.

NINA MDIVANI: Let’s start with the origins of your art and what your mediums and methods are.
VASYLYNA BURYANYK: From when I was seven years old, I could not imagine myself being anyone other than an artist. But then I had to try var- ious mediums. After studying painting and graphic design, I went to study textiles at the Lviv Academy of Arts. There I began engaging with weaving, and it was not an easy fit for me, working with this somewhat utilitarian ap- proach to textiles. The generation of Ukrainian artists before me had started transforming the textile tradition of the Soviet Union, making it less about usefulness or interior design. They had already started to create pannos, art objects that could be absorbed in a purely aesthetic sense.

Moving from pannos to experiments, I started trying different things, like looking at how fabric was behaving in water. Preserving its weightlessness was like witchcraft. In my case, everything comes from the medium, not from an idea. It’s experimenting; it’s some technological insights, and then I look for a context in these technical insights. What can we say with these new effects? For example, when I saw the beauty of the movement of this fabric, I started to look into how it could be preserved, and that’s how I arrived at using salt. I salted the water, and it gave me an opportunity to preserve these sculptures so that nothing could deteriorate or disintegrate for several weeks. But then I observed another layer of witchcraft. When salt began to crystallise, some details started to rust or change colour. Some fabric would shed colour over these weeks, colouring the water. Then the salt would push this faintly perceptible colour onto the surface. And then I realised that I found something that was mine, something that I want to de- velop further. In this, I am not just a dominant force; I am another element of nature. And this is an active state in which I not only create but I also observe, analyse, and am taken on a journey. This inquiry led me to investi- gate how it would look if I used fans to simulate wind. What would happen if I put a transparent fabric or a wool into the boiling water? How will the wool contract and react to it? These are different types of experiments where there is chemistry, physics, and the influence of natural elements.

OLGA STEIN: I was never planning to become a painter, intending instead to follow my parents’ expectations to become a physicist. My mother got very sick when I was eleven, and because my dad totally switched to caring for her, he became less vigilant with me. I was left to my own devices and started to become serious about art. Although I always loved art, it was only then that I realised I could make art my active choice. I did not risk applying for the painting faculty at the academy because I did not have enough skills, so I selected the most technical faculty: art conservation. I studied at the Lviv Academy of Arts and completed my graduate degree in Kyiv. Lviv is a very sacred city in Ukraine; there are many churches here and a lot of believers. Studying at the faculty of conservation, which should have been a similar experience across the country, is different between Kyiv and Lviv.

My mother’s illness affected me a lot, and I am an active member of the Orthodox Christian Church, so going to services every Sunday is a large part of my life. In addition, when I was studying, we were really diving deeply into iconography. We researched and studied the most complex and old techniques of iconography. Half of them are now forgotten, but nonetheless we created our own paints, we were adding gold leaf, we looked at old naïve iconography of frescoes. To be able to work as a conservator, you need to know quite a lot of techniques. You need to know how to work with tempera, with watercolours, with oil and different types of glues, because works from the 14th or 17th or 21st century might come your way one after another, and you need to adapt to their visual and technical languages. It could be metal or wood. And obviously, what I have learnt I am now using in my works.

I was learning all this in Lviv and then in Kyiv, but then while working at Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra as a conservator, I had a moment of truth when I real- ised that when works show the patina of time, they are more complex; they were aesthetically closer to me. During my practicums at these sacred plac- es, I sometimes met churchmen whose idea of saving art objects actually destroyed them. By beautifying and cleaning these objects, we sometimes had to destroy their essence. This was a negative experience that affected me, and I decided to pursue my own artistic practice.

The work published here are for a series of iconostasis. Before the war at least, I had a plan to create a real iconostasis, using its visual language and the visual format with which the Eastern Orthodox Church works. It is very much in line with a contemporary iconography that is very characteristic of Ukraine as a country. I do not know any other place where the con- temporary iconography is as developed and looks as cool as contemporary art. Over the centuries, artists worked with biblical stories and transformed them based on their individual stories and inclinations. And very often, these interpretations outlined the state in which humanity lived at that mo- ment—their individual relationships with themselves.

I often go to church and study the Bible, but simultaneously feminism is very dear to my heart, as is accepting yourself as you are. Based on this, I believe that the vision of iconography needs to change and develop, too, and have the same contemporary outlook as the rest of contemporary art. For example, early in the history of iconography, women were portrayed as naked—as are men—but over time this has changed because it was not acceptable and they needed to look more modest. I wanted to create an ico- nostasis as a new way of looking at the body within this religious tradition, and to tell a story in the format that it’s given. Iconostasis is an important part of Eastern Orthodox Church structure, and it follows a specific rule of representation, where every storyline is given its own place, and one can re- flect on that specific storyline. But in my practice, spirituality plays a large role. It is something I am addressing, not always directly through biblical stories, but I am interested in how inner and outer personas work together, and I look at it through storytelling provided by iconography.

MARGO SARKISOVA: My origins have long roots; they are Assyrian. My family is mixed, as my mother is Ukrainian. My Ukrainian mother always insisted on me getting an education, while my father was against it. But this is pretty common for Assyrian families, where men get an education while women don’t and stay at home. It is an old culture, originating with the Sumerians, and then converting to Christianity in the first century. As a persecuted minority from Iran, Iraq, and across the Middle East, we do not have our own land. And so, we stick to a very rigid structure of gender and family roles, hoping that this will help to preserve our ethnic identity.

My father insisted on me and my sister getting an education only if we did not have to pay for it. In 2013, I started my studies at the Donetsk Art College, and in 2014, when the war with Russia started, we moved to Kharkiv for school. There, I got accepted into the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts and studied printmaking. I had ongoing conflict with my father about my education. I had to prove to him over and over again that I was serious about the path I have chosen. Only in 2018 when I had my first exhibition did he accept that I am an artist; until then, to him, I was wasting my time. It was a stereotypical patriarchal position…

Full text of the article available through the JANE Magazine website or email the author.