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Women artists tell an ugly truth: The war within may never be over

A small exhibition in New York is recasting the way outsiders think about the trauma in Ukraine

In New York City, "Women at War," a new exhibition of Ukrainian women artists, depicts the current Russian invasion of Ukraine as well as the longstanding war. (Video: Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)
7 min

NEW YORK — From the outside, the war in Ukraine is a disconnected stream of videos, sudden convulsions of fire, flame and smoke, or images of hollowed-out buildings gaping with views of abandoned offices, apartments and schoolrooms. Or it is a man — almost always a man, and usually a retired general — standing before a map of many colors, parsing the gains and losses, the supply lines and shifting fronts of battle.

A small but potent exhibition at the Fridman Gallery, “Women at War,” presents a far messier, more intimate understanding of the destruction. War is felt in the body, it alters identity, shatters domesticity and disrupts the habits that are foundational to our sanity. It is pervasive and omnipresent; changing the channel won’t make it go away.

Curated by Monika Fabijanska, the exhibition includes the work of 11 living women artists from Ukraine, some of it made since Russia began its brutal siege on Feb. 24, and the bulk of it made since Vladimir Putin occupied Crimea in 2014 and began a grinding proxy war in the country’s industrialized eastern region. But there are no neat bookends to war, which has raged over Ukraine for much of its history, with particular ferocity in the 20th century. And war is only one species of violence that has wracked the country. Over the centuries, it has been invaded, colonized and partitioned, subject to an orchestrated famine during the Soviet era, and demoralized by decades of internal strife and corruption since it became independent in 1991.

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So, there is a tension between works that show the particular disruption of the current war, and works that suggest war as a larger metaphor, or as an organic presence, almost as if it is embedded in the landscape and texture of ordinary life. Oksana Chepelyk’s 2014 film, “Letter from Ukraine,” shows a woman and child frantically moving around in a densely built urban center. They reenact the search for safe places as imaginary shells fall around them. The video was filmed in Italy, which makes the title (“from Ukraine”) problematic, unless, of course, one understands their fear as something that travels with them. Fear becomes trauma, imprinted and indelible.

Zhanna Kadyrova accompanies another video, “Palianytsia,” with a sculpture of bread, made by carving a bread-shaped rock into slices. It is the single most potent object in the show, connecting the particulars of the current war with larger themes of burden and sustenance. The word palianytsia means bread, and the artist says it is difficult for Russians to pronounce. Thus, it became a shibboleth: a means of sorting friend from foe. The bread itself is a river rock, worn smooth and flat by water, and is both a natural object and a man-made one, its shape suggesting the power of bread to keep the body alive, while its weight suggests the burden of living under Russian occupation.

Shadowing many of the works on view is the longer history of war and its representation in art, including its glamorization in painting and by artists with overtly nationalist agendas. Lesia Khomenko nods to the tradition, and deflates it, with a portrait of her partner and fellow artist, “Max in the Army.” He wears an ill-fitting uniform, his long pants bunched up above his boots, and salutes awkwardly. The large-scale canvas is a vertical portrait, a man alone with his shadow, rotated 90 degrees from the cinematic horizontal paintings of war one can find on the walls of most state museums around Europe.

Anna Scherbyna keeps to the horizontal format for her three small watercolor landscapes of ruins from Donbas region, but she downsizes them and drapes them with gray fabric (a protective device against light that is more commonly found in European museums). They are small, almost so small that you can’t quite read them, but that may be the point. The ruins aren’t spectacular, as they might be in a monumental landscape painting by a male artist. Rather, you must work to find and decipher them. And if you don’t raise the gray fabric panels that hide them, they become entirely abstract and minimalist, blank rectangles on a white wall that challenge you to do the conceptual work of imposing meaning.

Unspoken, but inescapable, is the question of whether this art by women could only be made by women, and if so, what does that tell us about women artists in general? An essay by the curator raises the longer history of feminism in Ukraine, including the giveth and taketh-away feminism of the Soviet years, when women sometimes enjoyed greater political autonomy, yet had to fit their lives into a brutal and overbearing patriarchal system. In Soviet art, women were muscular, autonomous and heroic; in reality, they were instruments in the state’s campaign for industrial and military production, and agents of population growth.

What kind of feminism comes after that distorted manipulation of women’s identity? What kind of feminism makes sense when there is no distinction between the home front and the front lines, when women are fighting in the Ukrainian army, when men are also subject to rape and the destruction of domesticity is trauma for everyone, regardless of gender or gender identity?

The artists seen here choose liberation on their own terms, inventing multiple feminisms to serve a range of needs and purposes. Kateryna Yermolaeva photographs herself as nonbinary, in one image sitting primly next to a washing machine and in another with her legs spread wide as she sits in a grungy stairwell. These are images of refusal — refusal to conform to predefined ideas of gender and refusal to be slotted into the category of war victim.

The refusal of victimhood is the most pervasive idea uniting these works, even in images that deal directly with rape as a tool of war. This requires resistance not just to contemporary ideas and labels, but to narrative ideas and poetic images as old as civilization: that women are the vessels of wartime trauma and their bodies a canvas on which men write history with the lacerating quill of violence. Thus, Euripides in 415 B.C. in “The Trojan Women”: “And forth, lo, the women go,/The crown of War, the crown of Woe,/To bear the children of the foe …”

Dana Kavelina fights poetry with poetry, in a hypnotically sad video called “Letter to a Turtledove.” Over historic and contemporary images of Donbas, an incantatory voice recites a remix of these old tropes, reimagining them for a new age, with astonishing power. Like the best antiwar literature, Kavelina’s video makes war seem increasingly strange, even absurd, no longer an obvious tool in the toolbox of geopolitics, but something so alien and unnecessary one wonders who invented it, and for what unearthly purpose?

One of the first and last images viewers will see is a 2017 photograph by Olia Fedorova, of antitank “hedgehogs,” usually made of metal beams welded together to form a bristling obstacle. But the ones seen here are made of paper, installed on a gentle, snow-covered slope of open field. With a little wind, they would blow away. Placed near the entrance and exit, her photograph offers a double sense of war — that it is a kind of theater, and that it is ephemeral and we might easily erase it from the landscape.

Take that last thought with you. There may be little truth to it, but there is hope.

Women at War Through Aug. 26 at the Fridman Gallery, 169 Bowery, New York.