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Making Art in Ukraine During War

Artists in Zaporizhzhia are coping with the trauma of war by digging into their roots and creating beauty.

Words: Terrell Jermaine Starr
Pictures: Bogdan Karlenko
Date:

More than a year and a half into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a group of artists in the southern city of Zaporizhzhia are refusing to give in to nuclear fears and missile strikes. 

They paint, mold cups, and draw live models through the stress of missile and drone strikes that air defenses fail to catch.

Sergii Vakunov invited me one Sunday afternoon in July to talk about the project, which he leads. Meleen Creative Platform was founded in 2015 to promote Ukrainian art and host public activities that improve civic life. Their meeting place consists of several floors with expansive rooms inside an old, rundown industrial mill. Several times a week, they convene for what they call “draw and chill” events and small concerts where they can enjoy music that drowns out the sounds of war. Around 150 people members show up to events each week and pay a membership fee to support programming. 

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Sergii Vakunov showing off some of the workspaces of the Meleen Creative Platform inside of an old industrial mill in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on July 30, 2023. Photo by Terrell Jermaine Starr.

Many residents fled the city of more than 700,000 since the war began, but those who stay are finding solace in resisting Russian colonialism.

“Before, we were using just what Russia gave us in art and music,” Vakunov said as he showed me around different large rooms the collective plans to renovate for community activities. “Now, there’s a boom in Ukrainian music and culture, and it really works. Many more people started singing (in Ukrainian). We are separate (people). We have everything that we need in us. Not somewhere in (Russia).” 

Indeed, nearly 8 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022. But for those who choose to stay, living in constant fear is not an option. Vakunov walked me from floor to floor, showing me rooms that are in desperate need of renovation, but that’s the point: They will be renovated.

He showed me one expansive space he said would be an art gallery. The bright sun beamed intensely through the broken windows hit by Russian missile strikes from the following fall. People in Zaporizhzhia, and Ukraine in general, are aware that much of the Western media coverage of their country is of people in agony and pain. Vakunov made a point of telling me that the media reports we see in the West hardly reflect the spirit of the people.

Everyone has their own way of coping with the trauma of war here in Ukraine. 

“We’re still living life,” he said. “Not like before because the war changed everything. Missiles change your mind when they come to your city and the places you’re working every day. It’s dangerous to work in these places, but you understand that you should live and keep life in the city.”

Vakunov explained that art defines a people’s culture and that centuries of Russian colonialism has harmed Ukrainian creative thought. But the war has made many artists ditch Russian and resurrect their Ukrainian to embrace their nation’s literature. Ukrainians have also spoken out against what they said have been Russian attempts to present Ukrainian artists as Russian. Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to make Ukraine a Russian oblast. Ukrainians resisted and dug deeper into their own cultural roots instead. 

An engineer during his day job and a concert promoter as his side gig, Vakunov said that Meleen Creative Platform provides a space for artists to build an artistic community and resist Russian cultural influence. Before the war, the platform members came together to forge something of a regional renaissance of Ukrainian artistry. Vakunov told me that many Ukrainians in Zaporizhzhia, in addition to not speaking their mother tongue of Ukrainian, were also trapped in the practice of honoring Russian artists instead of their own.

The war has changed all of that.

“We’re just trying to show people that we are not Russia,” he said. “Many of our Ukrainian artists were taken by Russia. They were even killed and repressed by the Soviet government. That’s why we should show everyone that Ukrainians are not a small part of Russia. We are a separate country with our own artists, musicians with a culture much richer than Russia.”

Alona Zakharova, a ceramics artist whose pottery work lines the wall in a small room where she creates her art, shared those sentiments when I met her on another floor where she was working. She has been part of the project since the fall and has never left the city. She reflected on the fact that while many people have left Zaporizhzhia, several internally displaced people from the worst-hit or occupied areas of Ukraine have replaced them. 

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Alona talking about her ceramics work she completed at the Meleen Creative Platform in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on July 30, 2023. Photo by Terrell Jermaine Starr.

What keeps her sane, Zakharova says, is knowing she has a community in her hometown with which to practice her art.

“It helps with anxiety, she told me. “It is really calming. You can put away all of your thoughts and just go deep into art and think about some cup you’re making or some ways you can put all your feelings into some physical object, and it makes you feel better.”

Everyone has their own way of coping with the trauma of war here in Ukraine. 

Living During War

It’s not uncommon to see people jogging the streets of Kyiv as air sirens blare in the background. Old men gather in parks to play intense games of chess in defiance of missile strikes. People — especially in bigger cities — don’t rush to bomb shelters like they used to because Western air defense systems defend the skies so well. And although the country is under martial law, daily life goes on pretty much as normal, especially for those who don’t live near the front lines.

But life in Zaporizhzhia is a bit more precarious. The city lives under constant threat of missile strikes. Europe’s biggest nuclear power plant is a few hours away from the city and is occupied by Russian troops who have reportedly minded the facility. News reports of a possible Chornobyl 2.0. dominated Western media for a time, but Inkstick Media previously reported those fears were unfounded.

Russia tried to capture Zaporizhzhia early on in the war, but Ukrainian forces have been able to secure it. Known as a factory town, the city is full of tree-lined streets and public parks where you can catch parents tending to their children. Wine bars, Italian restaurants, and war-themed cafes, like HIMARS, dot the main boulevards and are full of customers. 

Vakunov took me to a room where six artists were seated around a male model, dressed only in short tights, and posed in different positions for 30 minutes or so. After the session, they all told me creating art is a form of therapy. “It helps me not to think about the war,” Gregory, the model, told me.

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Members of the Meleen Creative Platform drawing a male model in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine on July 30, 2023. Photo by Terrell Jermaine Starr.

Most of the artists, like Liliia Martyniuk, say they fear missile strikes more than a nuclear disaster. A children’s book illustrator who creates stories for children who live through the war, Martyniuk said she doubts Russian soldiers would compromise the plant.

“I don’t know. I think the Russians are stupid, but not that stupid because it’ll affect them also,” Martyniuk added. 

After a few hours of painting and drawing, the artists collected their things and started heading home. Zakharova, the ceramics artist, left me with some final words that define the resilience of her and the other artists who decided to stay in Zaporizhzhia.

“They want to take our lives, but we don’t let them,” she said of the Russian occupiers. “We still have fun, make love, and show them that we will not break.”

Terrell Jermaine Starr

Terrell Jermaine Starr is the host and founder of Black Diplomats, a podcast that discusses foreign policy from a social justice perspective. He is also a resident of Inkstick’s and Bombshelltoe’s Creative Capsule Residency.

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