From Ukraine’s Independence Square, the art of the revolution


Members of an activist group called the Civil Sector of Maidan stand in front of the police, holding mirrors in this protest performance called "The Kingdom of Darkness Is Surrendered.” (Civil Sector of Maidan/Civil Sector of Maidan)
May 2

An older woman in a knit cap stands next to a young girl wearing a traditional Ukrainian flower crown. Dozens of women and men hold torso-size mirrors in their hands, reflecting the wall of riot police standing before them.

A group calling itself “Civil Sector of the Maidan” produced the performance — titled “The Kingdom of Darkness Is Surrendered” — last winter as protests broke out in Ukraine over the pro-Russian policies of President Viktor Yanukovych. Protesters placed stickers with phrases such as “God, is it me?” on each mirror.

“It was absolutely nonviolent, a visually beautiful moment,” said Konstantin Akinsha, a Ukrainian art historian, curator and writer. “The police held their shields, and the mirrors were a counterbalance to those shields.”

From the earliest days of the protests in Kiev, which began in November, the Maidan, or Independence Square, was the location of political performance married to a prolific kind of folk art. The protest came to be called “Euromaidan,” after the hopes of the protesters to forge closer ties with Europe.

In February, after weeks of demonstrations against Yanukovych’s policies, special police units used force to try to disperse the crowds and violence erupted.

Demonstrators resisted and Yanukovych quickly fell and fled into exile as a new government formed in the capital. Russia’s annexation of Crimea on the Black Sea followed in March, and the violence and turmoil continues in eastern Ukraine as pro-Russian forces and the new government in Kiev vie for control.

Now that the capital is quieter and the crisis has moved east, Ukrainian artists and curators have been feverishly collecting the images and artifacts of the past few months to process what happened and show an international audience the art of the revolution.

The first formal show of this art, titled “I Am a Drop in the Ocean,” is on exhibit at the Künstlerhaus, a cultural center in Vienna. The show includes photographs, paintings, murals and decorative folk art from the streets.

The exhibit, curated by Akinsha and Alisa Lozhkina, an art historian and curator who lives in Kiev, runs through the end of May; the artists hope that the exhibit will be shown this summer in the United States.

“I Am a Drop in the Ocean” is an expression that became the popular mantra of the revolution. A group of designers created a poster, minimalist in its construction, with the slogan inside a blue teardrop.

“When it started, no one expected there would be this mobilization,” Akinsha said. The slogan represents the idea that “while a drop can’t do anything, the ocean is a force that can wash out the system.”

From the earliest days of the protest, there appeared to be a homegrown aesthetic that observers said was absent in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution against political corruption in 2004. Protesters bought helmets at hardware and utility stores; they painted their helmets, customizing them with decorations and ornaments. Professional artists painted the detritus they found, including shields and bullet casings, making works from whatever they came across, including burning tires. Performances occurred every day on the streets, which became informal “road galleries” blossoming with posters and images of the revolution. One day, all the protesters brought stuffed animals from home and threw or placed them in front of riot police, taking photos of the juxtaposition of riot gear and Winnie the Pooh.

Masha Pavlenko is a 29-year-old visual artist and photographer who lives in Kiev. “The art of the Euromaidan was done by simple Ukrainians,” she said. “The artists were really in the background. In a way, we [the artists] were a bit lost, because the protests were also a kind of artwork and installation that had a life of its own. It was created by the Ukrainian nation. We were in the background, looking at everything and saying, ‘Wow.’ ”

Pavlenko’s conceptual works from that time include a series of powerful photos of medical workers who cared for people inside the city’s main cathedral. “The Nurse” is a beautifully haunting portrait of a young woman in her paper medical gown in front of trash bags in the church. The work almost resembles a medieval religious icon.

Among the most moving and popular performances on the Euromaidan was a concert by the young Markiyan Matsekh of Lviv, an image of which is included in the current exhibit. Matsekh played John Lennon’s “Imagine” in the square on a piano painted in the colors of Ukraine and the European Union. The riot police stood facing him, a clearly rapt audience that nonetheless stayed in formation.

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