Artists fight to protect valuable works of art in times of war

In bombed cities in Ukraine and elsewhere, artists continue to create in the face of devastating conflict. Here, artists from around the world explain why they’re willing to risk their lives to save meaning from the rubble

From the Summer 2022 issue of Dazed. You can purchase a copy of our latest issue here.

“Wake up, the war has begun.” These are the words that artist Anastasiia Nekypila and her fellow Ukrainians heard on the morning of February 24, 2022. It is also the title of a new series of drawings that Nekypila has been working on since Putin’s invasion. “Since then, the mornings have stopped being good,” she says. Previously, Nekypila painted on canvas in a colorful, childlike style inspired by the nationally beloved folk artist, Maria Primachenko, 25 of whose paintings were destroyed in the Feb. 28 Ivankiv Museum bombing. Now she mainly works with black color and does digital rather than physical works. “The war made me realize that you shouldn’t get attached to anything, because it can be taken away from me at any time. For now, drawing digitally is less painful and safer,” she says. Like so many other artists who fled violence in Ukraine, she had no choice but to leave her collection of paintings behind. “I prepare myself for the fact that I could lose them forever.”

Across Ukraine, monuments are ransacked, museum exhibits are evacuated and works of art are moved to bomb shelters and basement bunkers, in an urgent bid to preserve the country’s cultural heritage from looting. and destruction. In recent weeks, more than 1,300 remote volunteers have united to form SUCHO (Saving Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Online), an organization dedicated to archiving and digitizing works of art from Ukrainian heritage institutions, in case of loss. physical. “Museum workers continue to go to work under bombardment and without being paid to save their collections,” says Olha Honchar, founder of the Museum Crisis Center of Ukraine, which offers financial support to cultural workers who, in some cases, risk their lives to save art and artifacts. “Some museum workers even sleep next to the artworks, hoping to protect them.” While larger institutions have more manpower and financial support to safeguard invaluable works, artists who lack resources are often left without recourse.

Artist Gabrielle Tesfaye has not spoken to her family in the Tigray region of Ethiopia since June 2021. “Due to the telephone and internet cut off, it has been impossible to speak to them since the beginning of the war” , she says. In 2020, conflict erupted between the Ethiopian government and rebel forces in the northern Tigray region, resulting in a war that killed thousands, displaced millions, and caused widespread famine. Tesfaye straddles the line between artist, activist and advocate, creating works that both channel pain and increase the visibility of a conflict that is little talked about in Western media. “Our world seems to be desensitized by the images of suffering,” she says. “Art can fill these gaps in awareness.” The painter and filmmaker is also a co-founder of the Tigray Art Collective, which brings together Ethiopian artists from the diaspora in an effort to raise awareness of the conflict. Together, they raise money for the war effort by selling NFTs, designing traveling exhibits, and creating protest art for public use. “The revolution will be painted, sung, danced, written, interpreted and filmed.”

Art is a crucial tool in the effort to inform and elicit empathy, but it is also a platform to provoke inquiry into the dominant discourses surrounding war. In the face of government oppression, it becomes a critical vector of disruption. For Dana Barqawi, a Palestinian artist based in Jordan, painting is an opportunity to rewrite history. “Art gives me the power to reach people, trigger emotions and challenge colonial narratives in places like Palestine, Iraq, Syria and Egypt,” she says. In his series A land without peopleBarqawi combines vintage photographs and antiques that incorporate the work of the late Palestinian poet Samih al-Qasim, an outspoken opponent of racism and oppression in the Middle East.

“Our world seems to be desensitized by images of suffering” – Gabrielle Tesfaye

“If you’re an Afghan between the ages of 20 and 45, you’ve only ever heard of war as synonymous with our country,” says Shamayel Shalizi, an artist whose plans to return to Kabul were derailed in August 2021, when the Taliban took over the city. “War is part of who we are, but it’s not everything.” On Zoom, Shalizi shares anecdotes of how the conflict helped engender creativity in Afghan culture, mentioning the war mats and Landay’s oral poetry tradition. In addition to helping her analyze the feelings of homesickness that accompany displacement, Shalizi explains that her artistic practice is driven by a desire to “dismantle the Afghan stereotypes formed in the Western gaze.” In a country where violence is too often in the headlines, Shalizi says shedding light on “the seldom talked about beauty of Afghanistan is a radical act.

The creation of South Sudan – which gained independence from Sudan in 2011 – was designed to end Africa’s longest civil war. Despite this hard-won victory, peace has not lingered in South Sudan, where another civil war erupted in 2013. Filmmaker Akuol de Mabior is, like Shalizi, driven by a desire to add depth and nuance to both international understanding and the cultural canon. of the place she calls home. “There is a morbid expectation of South Sudanese stories, given how we are perceived on the world stage,” she says. “I don’t want to ignore the fact that there are really terrible, tragic and chaotic things happening there, but there is so much more to South Sudan. I want to contribute to this “more”.

However, art created during or in relation to conflict does not always need to serve a political purpose, disrupt critical gaze, or provide an alternative narrative. For many artists, it is a method of self-preservation. “Ten years ago, nobody talked about mental health,” says Samar Hazboun, a Palestinian photographer, who found healing through her practice of self-portraiture. “I recently read a quote that [went], ‘If the world is chaos, art is model.’ When things around you are so dark and hectic, art becomes a little piece of your life that brings you a sense of order. When asked how she thinks her artistic practice would have been different had she been raised elsewhere, Hazboun said, “When you wake up every day with your heart racing and you live in constant fear, you are grateful to have art as an outlet – but I would never thank war for my creativity.

While chaos breeds a compulsion to create for some, it also robs many others of their desire or ability. “So far, it has been difficult for me and my fellow artists to even pick up a pencil. This is unacceptable, if not unacceptable,” says Ukrainian painter Sofia Yesakova. art, curator Anna Potyomkina of Asortymentna kimnata also runs a residency program for displaced artists in Ivano-Frankivsk.”The idea was to bring together people still in shock and create a space that would allow them to start work, think and reflect – to help them rediscover their subjectivity. During war, you become an object, an object of information and an object of violence,” she explains. The uncertainty that accompanies artistic creation in times of conflict and distress is natural, according to Potyomkina.

“When things around you are so dark and hectic, art becomes a little piece of your life that brings you a sense of order” – Samar Hazboun

“It’s a common dilemma to wonder if it’s right to create art at a time like this, because art is not a short-term help. Its impact on society occurs over a longer period of time, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t helpful. Concept artist Olia Fedorova does not know when she will be able to return to the field outside Kharkiv where she is filming her performances. “It could be covered in mines,” she said. “I don’t know if I will ever go back.” The day before, Fedorova was one of many young volunteers who helped put sand on the statue of poet Taras Shevchenko in her hometown. “Shevchenko is a symbol of Ukrainian identity and our struggle for freedom and independence throughout the centuries.” The monument, says Fedorova, still bears the marks of bullet holes from the German occupation during World War II. “I felt like history was repeating itself. Our ancestors did exactly the same thing: unite to protect our history and our culture.

To those who ask, “How can we think of art in a time like this?” one answer is: we have to. Art is a crystallization of history and heritage, a foundation of identity and a means of solidarity – which means that the preservation and production of art during war is the preservation of power in the face of war. ‘adversity. After living for weeks in the Voloshyn gallery in Kyiv, which has been transformed into an air-raid shelter, Nikita Kadan is now one of the artists in residence at the Asortymentna kimnata. “To save art and culture, we want to do more than just survive,” he says from his new studio. “It’s about our desire to live.”

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