Ukrainian women artists are shaking up the male-centric war narrative

women at war is an attempt to reconceptualize the historiography of war by placing women at the center of the narrative. This heartbreaking exhibition – a collaboration between curator Monika Fabijanska, New York’s Fridman Gallery and the formerly Kyiv-based and now nomadic Voloshyn Gallery – achieves this through a thoughtful selection of works by important contemporary Ukrainian artists, the majority created between 2014 and today. By featuring the artists’ stories, the show exposes the struggles that women in Eastern Europe have been waging for 60 years. Yet the current Russian aggression brings tragic overtones to these struggles as artists fight not only for their lives, but also against the annihilation of Ukrainian heritage and the whitewashing of their history. The resulting exhibition brings together living historical documents of ongoing battles and symbolic representations of transgenerational trauma.

In addition to fighting a Russia that seeks to re-establish its political and ideological borders, Ukrainian women artists challenge the traditional patriarchal system of Eastern Europe. As their country has become a place of mourning, where each family accounts for their losses, women at war focuses on artists’ individual visions of strength and challenge, which drive greater agency and accurate storytelling. Through the exhibition, the artists dismantle traditional male-centric war narratives that position men as war heroes while women are silent and often anonymous victims of atrocities and rape, mothers and wives bereaved, daughters of a devastated homeland. Each victim has a story and a name that goes with it.

Dana Kavelina, “the woman kills the son of the enemy” from Communications. Exit to blind spot series (2019), graphite and colored pencil on paper, 12.5 x 11.75 inches
(© Dava Kavelina, courtesy of the artist)

Three works in the exhibition are particularly representative of this theme. Alla Horska’s stunning red linocut, “Portrait of Ivan Svitlychny” (1963) – the first work in the exhibition, on loan from the Ukrainian Institute of New York – is a concise and fluid account of a poet and literary critic who fought tirelessly for the preservation of Ukrainian culture and language under the unifying communist yoke. Horska, herself a dissident and human rights activist, was assassinated by the KGB at the age of 41. Her name was later adopted by one of the Guerrilla Girls.

Dana Kavelina’s masterful drawings from the series Communications. Exit to blind spot (2019), based on the artist’s research on the Bosnian ‘rape camps’ of the 1990s, are poignant and accurate in their depictions of pain. The artist looks at the destroyed identities of raped women forever traumatized by forced pregnancies, necessary abortions and post-memory. Kavelina’s “Letter to a Dove” (2020) – a brilliant experimental stream-of-consciousness poem in film form – features a female protagonist meandering among archival footage from Ukraine’s Donbass region. The work fills a gap of a century and the tragedies the region has continually endured.

women at war draws attention to the ongoing war and the struggle for a Ukrainian national feminist identity, but it also examines broader and geographically broad issues of history and its authorship. We owe this reconsideration to all women in war.

Alevtina Kakhidze, “Strawberry Andreevna #4” (2014), ink drawing, 16.5 x 15 inches (© Alevtina Kakhidze, courtesy the artist)
Olia Fedorova, “Defense” (2017), archival inkjet print documenting a site-specific paper sculpture, 30 x 45 inches (© Olia Fedorova, courtesy the artist)

women at war continues at the Fridman Gallery (169 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 26. The exhibition was curated by Monika Fabijanska.