Ira Melkonyan is a scientist, performance artist, and a member of the performance collective rubberbodies. In her artistic practice, she has been interested in exploring non-human actors, transitions, fluidity, and the ephemeral – until recently. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, where she was born and completed a degree in microbiology in Odesa, the last large city on the Black Sea that remains in Ukrainian control. In conversation with the editors of V/A, Melkonyan discussed how she suddenly found herself confronted with her Ukrainian heritage, which previously had not necessarily been of great importance to her. Pressing questions arose: what to do now, and how could things continue – for art, for work, and for the country itself? At the time the conversation took place, Melkonyan was certain only about one fact: Ukrainian voices and perspectives deserve to be heard. Faced with a rupture that not only touches but shakes her to her core, Melkonyan created a personal map of voices in her head: An attempt to make sense by way of a list of people and positions that speak of things difficult to put into words.
In April 2022, the editors of V/A asked me to map out Ukrainian voices that deserve to be heard, witnessed, and paid attention to: a private sphere of influence. Some of these people I know personally, some I admire from a distance and read from afar. It is a very tiny portion of artists, critical thinkers, and cultural sector workers who are contributing to the sense of solidarity and empowerment needed in war time. Some are famous or influencers, others barely known, but their voices are important for me personally and hence my desire to share their names here. These are predominantly women’s voices, a couple of representatives of the continuing Ukrainian diaspora. Some references to the artistic network from my hometown Odesa. All of these people are present (some more actively than the others) on social media, and this is my main way of “hearing their voices” in the public sphere since I myself have lived outside of the country for over a decade. There is some logic in this selection, yet it is an intuitive map of Ukrainian voices in my head.
Alevtina Kakhidze has been drawing a war diary. Almost daily visual posts of things that caught her attention and have been translated into drawing through her strong visual sensitivity. I believe in the past what struck me in Alevtina’s art practice were the botanical references. In fact she says, “I am an artist who is also a gardener.” Over the past month, her comic-like drawings moved me—even if they sometimes clashed with my preference for nuanced perspectives. I am convinced that creating space for complexities is the only way to go on and survive “at the end of the world.” Today, Alevtina is one of the artists of the parallel program of the Ukrainian pavilion at Venice Biennale titled Decolonizing Art. Beyond the Obvious among other practitioners, curators, public intellectuals, and researchers.
Kateryna Babkina is a writer, poet, and activist. While she mainly publishes in Ukrainian, I grew to highly appreciate her mix of the poetic and practical. She documents an enormous amount of volunteer work and children-related causes to donate for: reflective words on emotional survival in the form of “black&white stories,” along with personal updates of raising her baby-girl as a single mum, and, of course, her own poems. One of those starts with words I have repeated in my head multiple times over the last months: “Don’t ask me how I am, ask me something simpler…For all these things there is no time, no place, no dimensions. Still all of it takes place here and now, among quiet markets, school yards and suburban buildings.”
Another heart-breaking and lyrical war diary is by Asia Bazdyrieva. Available on her social media and in English, it proves to be very popular and was even advised to be followed by the New York Times. I understand why: Asia’s voice is poignant and sharp; it truly deserves to be read and heard, and my algorithms have learnt that I am an attentive witness to her testimonies. “Day 58. What day is it? I’m not lost, I’m blank. The past few days I was trying to recover my sleep with heavy medication; otherwise spoke a lot with S. and was mainly writing… Sirens are ongoing but there is silence. Now I rarely receive messages asking, ‘how are you?’ … now when there is some distance between the initial shock and the interpretation, the abyss gets deeper and darker. The land and the people are here equated and they are here to die; some will still be offered a ride, others will be inconvenient with their voices, westsplained and gaslighted, they will be told: run, surrender, be humble! We spoke of Chomsky. He embodies what makes me sick about Western fatigue of Ukraine’s resistance.”
Darya Bassel is a producer and film curator at Docudays UA, the international documentary film festival on human rights. Genuinely dedicated to the work she does and deeply rooted in the capital’s cultural life, her voice has become an important reminder for people like me who live abroad – a reminder of many things, people, activities, and causes that matter in Ukraine right now. Knowing her personally, I trust and follow her. Lately, together with her former colleague Anna Koriagina, who currently is a freelance film programmer and intercultural mediator based in Paris, Darya was speaking out loudly in favor of stopping any cultural cooperation with Russian art makers. While I acknowledge that the call has been received as “radical” in the West, I trust that these are women that lay their arguments clearly and insistently.
Natasha Masharova and Anatoli Ulyanov are Ukrainian artists who had fled the country as refugees in 2009 and have now settled in Los Angeles. Natasha’s media are photography and documentary filmmaking, while Anatoli is much more outspoken and “verbally present” in the online world through his writing and cultural criticism. While Anatoli is considered to be a controversial artist, I am particularly interested in reading his texts now given the couple was censored, prosecuted, and exiled from the country for their “anti-nationalistic” views, political activism, and LGBTQI+ support. I trust this point of view is especially intriguing today when nationalism is the main source of unity and solidarity that fuels the much-needed resistance to the aggressor.
Unlike most of the above, Kseniia Stoianova’s position is a bit more subtle. She is a painter and, among so many other artists, she has been creating work to raise money and support the Ukrainian defense efforts, volunteering, knitting a community of like-minded people, giving away artworks for free to support causes and events all over the world. But there is also a clear spiritual motive in her work, which for me represents another important group of voices. A recurring element in her paintings is a golden hand coming down from the skies. These works ooze divine guidance and joy of life despite the horrifying reality they are inspired by. For me, personally, they are a soulful treat in these dark times.
I think what is extremely important for me in hearing out Maria Kulikovskaya is her very personal and very “non-heroic” backdrop to art-making. On the road with a few-months-old baby, coughing and sick, learning to be the new mother first in stinking basements and parking lots, later in other people’s homes behind the border. It is often highlighted in Maria’s self-narratives that it is the second time in her life she has been forced to flee, having become a refugee for the first time after the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Maria’s soap sculptures of naked women filled with flowers and bullets have received considerable recognition, but it is her political activism she currently is committed to after arriving in Berlin. As a re-enactment of her performance “254” she lies on the steps of the Neue Nationalgalerie three times a day wrapped into the Ukrainian flag as a sign of solidarity and a reminder of collective trauma.
This personal map deserves to have many more brave voices included. I am navigating the current harmonies and cacophony, trying to be truthful to the spirit of collective resistance and multiplicity, imagining the collective body of all us artists fighting on our fronts with the many limbs we’ve mutated to grow, imaging the collective “I” currently being born; here are the final words of my text from Anatoli Ulyanov’s recent post: “It is difficult to have my body ‘here,’ and my heart ‘there’; in between blooming palm trees and bomb explosions. To walk down this peaceful street in war times. To see laughing people, kissing schoolchildren, funny dogs. I am angry at their light-heartedness, and I envy it.”