In Lviv, Displaced Artists Help People Cope With War Trauma

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LVIV, Ukraine — When one of Ukraine’s most renowned visual artists left her home in kyiv in the early days of the Russian invasion, she headed to the Lviv Municipal Art Center. Vlada Ralko settled among the hundreds of displaced people who took refuge in the settlement last month.

Now it’s an art gallery again, showcasing the war work of artists from across Ukraine, including Ralko, who spent several weeks here in silence, producing more than 100 drawings depicting the invasion.

At the same time, Stepan Burban, a 27-year-old rapper from Lviv, is adding to his soon-to-be-released album a track that amounts to a call to arms for Ukrainians. He replaced the intended cover with one of Ralko’s recent drawings, showing a bomb landing on a crushed uterus.

“The first week I felt very angry,” Burban said. “Now it’s just constant hate.”

Daily Ukrainian life away from the front lines over the past two months has seen a massive rejection of all things Russian, coupled with a need to tell the world – and especially Russians – what happened here. The country’s contemporary artists, who for years fought an uphill battle against a Soviet legacy of rigidity governing freedom of expression, now find themselves at the forefront of this storytelling mission.

Ukrainians abandon Russian language and culture

Street posters in Lviv, which has become a gathering place for displaced artists from across the country, depict Ukrainians as white knights, noble siege defenders in medieval armor or mounted men wielding tridents. Russians are depicted as bloodthirsty bears, snakes, dead-eyed zombies, and red-skinned goons.

While artistic reaction in Ukrainian metropolitan centers has been swift, arrivals from the East lament the lack of a similar response to Russian aggression eight years ago when the Federation invaded the Crimean peninsula and started the war in the Donbass.

Vitaliy Matukhno was 15 in the Luhansk region of eastern Ukraine when Crimea was annexed. He spent his formative years watching Russian-backed separatists and pro-Russian elements subdue Ukrainian authority and suppress all traces of Western culture.

“They destroyed our city from the inside so people would remember things in the Soviet Union were better,” said Matukhno, now 23.

Prior to the invasion, Matukhno was an activist, organizer, artist and publisher. He hosted raves, planned art festivals, and published a zine showcasing the work of his peers. A few months ago, in an abandoned TV station in Lysychansk, he discovered a wealth of recordings from 2002. He plans to create a compilation of scenes from life in the region before the war in Donbass.

“You have these European liberals saying, ‘We want peace,'” Matukhno said. “They are trying to create a dialogue between Russians and Ukrainians. It’s totally [nonsense].”

“Every Russian is guilty of what is happening right now. We have the right to hate them. They are destroying my country.

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At the National Academy of Arts in Lviv, students have transformed a campus bomb shelter into an art gallery, partly to boost morale and partly to entice apathetic and fatalistic students to use the shelter when the The city’s air raid sirens sounded. Upon entering, visitors are greeted with a red bell and a sign reading “Ring for Putin’s Death.”

The tenor of the gallery changes as one travels through narrow corridors that testify to what has been lost. An exhibit asks visitors to draw something they miss in homes many cannot return to on a small piece of paper and slip it into a matchbox painted with the Ukrainian flag.

A student who was in Kharkiv when the shelling began recorded what he could hear from his balcony for 24 hours during the invasion. Throughout the recording, the chirping of the birds is interrupted by explosions. Over time, moments of peace only produce anxiety, knowing that the other shoe will drop again shortly.

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The rector of the Kharkiv State Academy of Design and Arts, Oleksandr Soboliev, now lives in Lviv and works in an office at the academy. He said more than 30 of the academy’s 1,036 students are missing and missing, with one confirmed dead. The students have submitted war-related posters to an initiative launched by the school and are working to get them seen by Russians on social media.

“Today we give students a lot more freedom when it comes to dark humor,” he said. “In peacetime it was not allowed. Now it’s the opposite, in fact. A popular theme: the words of the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island who said to a Russian warship ‘Go [expletive] yourself!” The ship has since sunk; Ukraine has claimed responsibility.

Ukraine this week released a postage stamp with a design of a soldier making an obscene gesture towards the ship.

At the Municipal Art Center, where Ralko stayed before leaving for Germany, and where Burban now works on his laptop to produce music, the walls that once featured exhibits on Lithuanian pottery and photography are now covered in depictions of violence. Among the first works that welcome visitors: a drawing of children transported on a river by demonic boatmen; and across the hall, a drawing of a woman curled up on the floor with four soldiers standing in a semicircle around her, one without pants.

kyiv comes to life with a mix of heartbreak, dark humor and triumph

Burban’s music once openly mocked Ukrainian civic leadership. That political environment seems far away now, he said.

“The words of my last songs about people are no longer relevant. Something is changing because people are now united,” Burban said. “I don’t know what awaits us after the war. When we need to live in peace and dedicate ourselves to certain ideas and values, it becomes difficult to be that united body.

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