Kherson’s Secret Art Society Produces Striking Visions of Life Under Russian Occupation | Ukraine

Under the threat of imprisonment, interrogations and the constant pressure of searches by Russian soldiers, six artists met in secret in a basement in the occupied Ukrainian city of Kherson.

In the months following the capture of their homes by Putin’s forces, the artists formed a residency during which they created dozens of works, including drawings, paintings, videos, photographs, diary entries and plays.

The findings, which they named Residency in Occupation, offer a harrowing insight into the horrors endured by millions of Ukrainians living under Russian invasion.

The footage shows agonizing embraces in train stations, families sheltering in basements – death looms behind them – houses on fire and figures dancing, human skeletons underfoot.

When it became too dangerous to meet in person, the artists continued to work individually. Some have since fled the city but others remain, risking their lives.

The group wants to exhibit its works, but doing so in Kherson, which has been occupied since February, is impossible. The residence’s curator, Yuliia Manukian, who is now in Odessa after fleeing Kherson, said the art can act as a powerful act of resistance.

The severed hand holding a Russian flag. 06/19/2022, by Yulia Danylevska. Photography: Occupied Art Residence

“I see how our artists tell the world the truth about war through the language of the arts. It is also important for me to convey how cultural resistance takes place, because it is no less powerful than physical resistance, because the front of culture is the place where a free future is worked out,” he said. she stated.

“Much has already been written about the need for a clear sound of our independent voice in the international cultural and artistic arena, where for many years Russia dominated as the representative of Eastern European artistic practices. . It is therefore time to express it more than ever.

Since 2002, Kherson has developed its own artistic movement, known as “kher-art”, embracing irony, sarcasm, audacity and going against the grain.

During the first three weeks of the occupation, Manukian said they were “in shock”. But after encountering the first works in response to the war from artists outside Kherson, she began to see art as imperative for “mental salvation” and brought together six local artists.

ZHUK, a well-known naive artist working under a pseudonym, had already started work The unwanted guest, a huge hornet painted in acrylic on an old tablecloth, to represent the destroyer and the invader. And hours after Bucha’s atrocities came to light, he created a poster titled Poutine Cock-a-doodle-doo.

An artist working in an occupied village near Kherson by the name of Marka Royal created an art diary titled Z-Notes by Ms. Solodukha. “The war crossed my whole life but my little workshop beckoned me”, she writes. “But how could you draw if you heard explosions? I thought: Who am I kidding and why? You can’t pretend that the war is somewhere beyond. You need to document a series of your experiences on paper.

One of Li Biletska's portraits of women and girls living under occupation.
One of Li Biletska’s portraits of women and girls living under occupation. Photography: Occupied Art Residence

His artistic documentation included sketches titled Impossible to stay/leave 04/18/2022 and Nine people in the basement 04/15/2022.

Yulia Danylevska avoids directly describing the atrocities. His works include images of fleeing Mariupol residents scooping up snow to melt it into water, a Russian soldier’s hand removing a gold earring from a Ukrainian woman’s ear, a severed hand holding a Russian flag and in its picture Dancing on bones from last month, she redraws a screenshot of the David Lynch film Mulholland Drive.

Photographer Li Biletska, who is now in Kyiv, is working on a documentary, Women in the Occupation, and created the photographic series Home Mary, featuring portraits of women and girls living under occupation.

In a Facebook post, she said: “Since yesterday, a pall of smoke has descended on Kherson. And it pulls you down. But we hold on. We stubbornly try to live. We still have to plant a forest.

A young artist and children’s book illustrator working as Mona has created a series of paintings to reflect her inner state, and video art titled … I want to shout. She dedicated her work Transition to three generations of women killed by a Russian missile in Odessa in April.

Artur Sumarokov, playwright and film critic, created two plays, Captivity (part one) and Captivity (part two), after 45 days under Russian occupation. “How does it feel to be under occupation? he wrote. “It is to stop being afraid of death. Sometimes I’ve had the insane thought that there might be something more honest about having you and your house razed to the ground than being held hostage by a polite sadist. And I started writing the play in this depressed state. Not because I wanted to. But only to save my spirit from destruction.

Putin behind bars in an array of ZHUK
Putin’s Cock-a-doodle-doo by ZHUK. Photography: Occupied Art Residence

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