The country and people of Ukraine are in crisis. Unprovoked, they have been invaded by Russia and as result, thousands of innocent Ukrainian people have been wounded and killed or left homeless and displaced from their cities, towns and villages now destroyed. Until now, there is no end in sight, with the West and NATO unable to send troops in to support the Ukrainians who continue to defend themselves against a ruthless neighbor. This war has been going on since the Maidan Uprising (or Euromaidan) in Kiev and the Russian annexation of the Crimea in 2014. The Maidan uprising led a wave of protests and civil unrest across Ukraine, sparked by both the Ukrainian government's sudden decision not to sign the European Union-Ukrainian Association Agreement, and bowing to Russian pressure to reject it.
Unfolding Landscapes, an exhibition of two generations of Ukrainian artists, opens in this context at the Kunstcentret | Art Center Silkeborg Bad in Denmark. The exhibition reminds us that Ukraine is a civilized country where culture and art are integral to its fabric and well-being. More than that it should remind us that Ukrainian art has been around a long time. Some of the most pre-eminent early modernists were Ukraine by birth. Many went to Moscow to study but returned home like Malevich. Some of the earliest modernist exhibitions were held in Ukraine or by Ukrainians, in 1908, an exhibition Zveno (The Link) opened in Kiev with a group of artists, including David Burliuk, Wladimir Burliuk, Aleksadra Ekster (Exter), Yevgeny Agafonov, Volodmyr Denisov and Oleksandr Bohomazov). Then, in 1914, Ekster, together with her fellow-Ukrainians, Vladimir Baranov-Rossiné, Malevich and the Burliuk brothers, exhibited at the Société des Artistes Indépendants in Paris and then, with Archipenko, in the Esposizione Libera Futurista Internazionale in Rome.
The majority of artists included in Unfolding Landscapes were born in the 1980s, at a time of Chernobyl in 1986, Gorbachev and the Soviet collapse in 1991. They were active as artists at the time of Maidan, the majority having studied in Kiev but, were from all over Ukraine, including its major cities and villages. Two catalogue essays by the exhibition curator Faye Dowling and consultant and art historian Natalia Matsenko, introduce Unolding Landscapes. Dowling writes pointedly:
In Ukraine to be an artist is also to be an activist. Inherent in the practice of these artists is a unique paradigm of perception. An urge to protest and question space and its boundaries. A deep connection with the symbolic meanings of territory, of public and private space. And an innate understanding of the potential to change and evolve, to merge or to be reborn, and to flourish.
The exhibition includes 42 artists, who represent two generations working in painting, graphics, drawing, sculpture, installation and video. The work chosen is broad but offers insight into different movements and approaches. It includes artists who were founding members or members of important art groups and collectives. This includes the Kharkiv School of Photography that had begun as Vremya (Time), founded in 1971 by Boris Mikhailov, Evgeniy Pavlov and Yuri Rupin amongst others; or the REP (Revolutionary Experimental Space), notably Zhanna Kadyrova and Ksenia Hnylytka (1984) and the multi-disciplinary collective Hudrada; or more recently, the New Wave movement that developed across Ukraine around 1990. The exhibition showcases powerful work, for example Oleksiy Sai, whose prints on paper and metal capture the destruction of the Eastern Ukraine, Yevgen Nikiforov whose work includes his series on the deconstruction of Communist monuments that were approved by the Ukrainian parliament in 2015; Tiberiy Silvashi, an austere post-conceptual artist or Vlada Ralko whose saturated palette creates an intensely expressive portrait of the Ukrainian landscape.
Of course, the group of artists selected for this exhibition far from includes all of the most distinguished or significant contemporary artists now working in the Ukraine, but it gives us a rich glimpse of its breadth and strength as much as its ongoing value today.