Since Russia invaded Ukraine six months ago, more than 12 million Ukrainians have fled the country. As Ukrainians continue to be displaced across Europe, there is also the very real fear of Russia’s plans to completely displace Ukrainian culture.
Even before declaring its independence in 1991, Ukraine has always differentiated its own culture from that of Russia. Food, language and art are unique to Ukraine, despite Russian propaganda claiming otherwise. The Russian army targeted Ukrainian schools, hospitals and homes, but also destroyed Ukrainian art galleries and looted around 2,000 works of art. The Cultural Heritage Monitoring Lab, operated by the Virginia Museum of Natural History in association with the Smithsonian, has already recorded more than 110 memorials destroyed by Russian weapons.
Art can be dismissed as something frivolous, especially in times of war. However, art offers a lens to understand a situation that seems incomprehensible. It can be a way to rekindle optimism during tough times and even a way to fight back without using weapons.
Since the invasion, many Ukrainian artists have gone on fundraising tours, performed poetry at the Grammys, and even joined the war itself. We spoke to three Ukrainian artists from different disciplines to hear their thoughts on creating art and their hopes for a better future.
Fo Sho, musicians
The Ukrainian hip-hop trio fled Kyiv for Germany at the start of the war. During this time. sisters Betty, Miriam, and Siona Endale didn’t write any new raps or songs, nor did they turn on the radio. “You can imagine we’re musicians and couldn’t listen to music,” Betty says. “We constantly watch the news, chat with our people. We are also working on the evacuation of people and the collection of donations for the needs of the army. But this invasion hardly surprises them. For Fo Sho, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Crimea in 2014 hinted at larger plans for the future. And this intuition led them to write the song “U Cry Now” for the Eurovision Song Contest in 2020.
They didn’t win. But Betty says they knew Ukraine would become a “hot topic”.
“The song has become so relevant now,” she says. “It’s exactly about the war.” As hip-hop artists, the roots of their music are rooted in rebellion and protest. The war has not defeated them, but only gives them more ammunition to pursue their target: Putin. But for now, the group is focusing its efforts on helping in any way possible. It’s a common thought that artists are supposed to conceptualize a crisis as quickly as they can. But for Fo Sho, they won’t be entering the studio anytime soon as they’d rather wait for the dust to finally settle.
“At first, my first reaction was anger. I was really mad so I wrote a rap about Putin, but I’ll finish that song later,” Betty says. “I want to release it when we’re a little closer to a win, because the song is very bold. It’s a protest song.
Like everyone else, poet and author Yelena Moskovich read and learned more about the history that led to the war in Ukraine. And she notes that as an artist, she feels able to be a sort of political ambassador for her country. “Questions like ‘how are you’ are well-meaning, but also tiring, because not only are you sharing how you are, but you’re also kind of the representative of the geopolitical situation,” she says.
Moskovich’s outlet made personal collages with photos of his family in Ukraine. “It was a little unexpected,” she says. “It came quite intuitively.” And that has been central to Moskovich’s approach to creating in times of crisis. “There is nothing wrong with struggling or backing down. I don’t know why we have such pressure to create regardless,” she says of not immediately turning around art about Ukraine for public consumption.
“There’s a time to cry and there’s a time to be unproductive,” she says. “Why not use this time to reconnect even to a dignity in this state that seems completely unproductive?”
Lika Spivakovska, artist
Before the war, Lika Spivakovska owned two art galleries in Ukraine. And as an artist herself, she understands the importance of preserving art. Many galleries have rushed to move their works to safer locations as buildings continue to be destroyed. But Spivakovska thought art would be even safer elsewhere: on the Internet. When the Russians decided to burn down her art gallery, she and others escaped with what they could. She asked Ukrainian artists to submit their works and she partnered with an NFT gallery in Puerto Rico to auction them off with proceeds going to help Ukraine.
“I’ll tell you, I had no idea how NFTs worked,” Spivakovska says. “But time was passing quickly, so I did.” The Ukraine Gallery is on OpenSea and has collected nearly 600 works, which Spivakovska considers an ongoing chronicle of the conflict.
“It’s war in the eyes of our artists and our children who suffer from war,” she says. “We show the world what we face, what we think and feel. I think it just proves that Ukrainians are very talented people with good hearts and beautiful souls – we even scream and cry while making art.