Art, culture, trauma and solidarity in wartime Ukraine

Art, culture, trauma and solidarity in wartime Ukraine
After a year of full-scale war, young Ukrainians are fighting with everything they have to keep their nation, their culture and their values alive.

Thousands of young Ukrainians are packed into a cavernous warehouse in Lviv, swaying to the rolling beat of hard techno. The revellers and concrete-panelled walls are sporadically bathed in the red light emanating from an impromptu DJ booth, which Lviv party crew Night Ambassadors constructed in front of a JCB. It’s easy to get lost in the dance and forget where you are, until curfew approaches, the music stops and everyone must make their way home. There is still a war raging and despite these precious moments of escape, that’s impossible to forget.

Bombs, missiles, artillery and drone strikes have not stopped falling on Ukraine for an entire year now. But living, laughing, dancing, painting, techno and punk music are all acts of defiance against Russian aggression these days.

This war has severely affected everyone. At many times since Russia’s full scale invasion on February 24, 2022, Ukraine has been united in moments of terror and intense grief, such as the revelations of Russian massacres in Bucha, Irpin and, most recently, Izyum. Art and culture have become vital outlets for trauma, while art studios and dance floors have become spaces for personal and collective healing.

“Music is a form of escapism,” explains Darko Lisen aka Lstn, a core member of Night Ambassadors, who continues to DJ throughout Ukraine. “People desperately need something like this. Without the parties, life would be much harder – the resting and regrouping time is really important. After a party, people go back to their work, some return to volunteering like crazy, others who returned on leave from the war soon go back to the front. You can receive bad news about friends or loved ones at any time. There are some days that that even music can’t help, like when we learned about the massacre in Bucha. It was impossible to listen to anything then.”

When the full-scale invasion began, all levels of Ukrainian society responded immediately. “Our local Club151 started to make Molotovs in those first days and later became a collection point for all kinds of necessary items,” Darko remembers. “Closer Connections DJ School in the basement of People Place Bar (Night Ambassadors HQ) became a shelter during air raid alerts. Those who didn’t go straight into the army began to volunteer and Night Ambassadors was transformed into a volunteer organisation.”

Most cultural events in Ukraine today raise funds for humanitarian relief or supplies for the army. Days after the Night Ambassadors party in August, the team filled a truck bound for Kharkiv with food and supplies, while their latest monthly event gathered supplies for Bakhmut, where some of the most intense fighting of the war so far continues to rage.

“You can’t just sit at home doing nothing,” explains Chad Zoratly, owner of People Place Bar and co-founder of Night Ambassadors. “Some days are good, some days are bad. Everyone is working to keep life in balance and stay fit and healthy, in case they get called up for military service – as many of our friends have been.”

Chad Zoratly

Six months into the conflict, on Ukraine’s Independence Day, August 24, 2022, we travelled to Lviv to explore how artists, activists and cultural figures had responded to full-scale war. We experienced a thrilling cultural resistance, acts of defiance big and small everywhere, and a certainty that Ukraine will be victorious. We found bars and cafés full, thriving art and music scenes, and even football fans enjoying the first matches of the season. Six months later, as the war reaches a full year, coming together through art, music and culture remains as vital as ever – and the spirit of defiance is undimmed.

“We’re here tonight to celebrate the openness of Ukraine and freedom of expression,” Denys Strelchuk, lead singer of Odessa punk band Superflat, barked into the mic at a benefit gig at Kotelnja Ruin Bar in August, before pointedly kissing a male member of the crowd. “We’re fighting for a culture that is truly free and supports all types of freedom: the freedom to be whoever you are, to live exactly how you want and identify however you want.”

Denys Strelchuk

As opera houses, cultural centres and universities have been been destroyed, there is now overwhelming evidence that Russia is deliberately targeting not just military installations but civilian infrastructure and cultural institutions. Taken together with Putin’s denials of the existence of a Ukrainian nation and Russification campaigns in occupied areas, Ukrainians are in no doubt that Russia is attempting to wipe out their language and culture – waging a war of cultural genocide. With Ukrainian identity, heritage and culture all under attack, not only soldiers but artists, creatives and musicians – the guardians of contemporary Ukrainian culture – are all engaged in their nation’s fight for survival.

Young Ukrainians see art and culture as weapons in a wider struggle between two radically different visions of society: a forward-looking Ukraine built on free expression and democratic values, versus Russian imperialism, censorship and cultural conservatism. The artists and activists we spoke to are determined to keep a vibrant cultural life alive, despite ever-present threats and the psychological toll of ongoing conflict.

“Everything is changing so fast now and all we can do is try to support everyone who is defending our right to live and be free,” Denys explains. “We have so many talented and openminded people in Ukraine who are expressing themselves in so many non-standard ways. We continue to play because we know that gigs and cultural events help people feel like our society is healthy, we can support each other and no-one will feel alone or abandoned. Mentally, it helps people get through the tough times.”

“Fuck it, I want to do this because I might die soon: the war made me really take my art seriously,” explains Oxana Tronza, an artist displaced from Kharkiv. “Doing so much volunteering and social work in the early months of the war exhausted me. I turned to art to make work just for myself, initially. But now I feel I can help more by creating art than I could by volunteering.”

Inside a former Soviet radio factory in Lviv, OSRZ-4 is a work, gallery and performance space. Founded by artist Paul Klymenko, it’s populated by young artists displaced from Odesa, Kyiv and Kharkiv. As well as creating a collective space to process trauma through art, they organise shows and sell created works to raise money for humanitarian relief.

Oxana Tronza

“In the beginning, we decided to volunteer and not make art because art would not help,” explains artist Kseniia Shcherbakova, who was forced to leave Odesa. “But I can’t express emotions in other ways. Only through art.”

Rather than buying materials, they salvage waste materials from their surroundings. “It’s both more conceptual and ecologically friendly to re-use materials,” Ksenia explains. “There are more interesting influences when you work with materials that have a history, rather than just buying something new. The whole process is like going to the forest and foraging for mushrooms and other ingredients to cook your dinner.”

Kseniia Shcherbakova

Dariia Chechushkova

A year of war has created ample dark materials for the artists to work with. While a long way from the front lines, Lviv has been repeatedly targeted by air strikes that have crippled the power network, leading to regular blackouts through the harsh winter months. Missile fragments aren’t hard to find. Paul and Viixiii make lamps from bullets, incense stands from military charges and recycle other war trash into objects of peace at their Beauty Studio project, located in the frontline city of Mykolaiv, which has been attacked almost non-stop site the first days of the war.

“Josef Beuys said that every person is an artist,” Oxana says. “I see I’m not the only one who decided to create meaning out of the doomsday that was the February 24, 2022. We were all left with debris from our exploded lives. Volunteers, warriors, moms, dads, drifters – all Ukrainians have been forced to reframe a new world for ourselves, as an artistic collaborative work, full of love, optimism and lust for life.”

Ukrainians are adamant this is not just a war of national defence but a struggle for values: democracy, freedom and inclusion. Culture and creativity are a means to hold each other close but also to heal psychological wounds. Everyone we speak to is contributing to the war effort in their own ways, from enlisting in the army to fundraising techno parties and collecting humanitarian aid to creating sanctuaries for internally displaced artists and families.

On the anniversary of the full-scale invasion, there’s little to celebrate. It’s a day of sadness, of reflection. But everyone continues to fight in their own way. And there will always be a place for for art and culture, even in the darkest times.

Oxana left Lviv and is now working through the cold winter and repeated blackouts in a small village in the Carpathian mountains. “Artists are going along with society, shoulder-to-shoulder, hand-in-hand,” she reflects. “The memories of the OSRZ-4 community also kept me warm through this winter. The sincere dreamers I met there changed me forever. As Paul says, it’s not the place that matters, it’s the people. As long as humanistic ideals are alive in some hearts, and as long as these hearts are still beating, we are saved.”

Follow Jules Slütsky on Instagram. 

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