Ukrainian museum director Olesia Ostrovska-Liuta has gotten used to the sound of air raid sirens. That's because in Kyiv, where she lives, they face airstrikes almost daily. “Last night, there was a massive missile attack and what you do then is you wake up, go to the corridor, and sleep there,” she tells Playbill, matter-of-factly, like she was talking about the weather.
On February 24, 2022, Russia invaded Ukraine in hopes of furthering its imperialist project. Throughout this past year, Ostrovska-Liuta has been a part of the Ukrainian resistance. She serves as Director General of Mystetskyi Arsenal, referred to in English as Art Arsenal, a national art and museum complex in Kyiv that focuses on contemporary and multidisciplinary art, particularly Ukrainian art and artists of the 20th century. She also recently served as the keynote speaker for the International Society for Performing Arts’ 2023 conference in New York, giving a speech she drafted from the floor of the corridor in her Kyiv apartment during a missile attack.
While international news continues to cover the fighting, there’s a less visible war also waging. “It’s really an extreme cultural war because Russia is waging an imperial war, and they are fighting to remain an empire,” says Ostrovska-Liuta. “And for that they need to homogenize Ukraine with Russia. You need to get rid of Ukrainian culture, right? So, doing any culture [work] today is an act of resistance, and that's how people see it.”
Ostrovska-Liuta’s husband was in the middle of writing a book about 18th century philosopher Hryhorii Skovoroda when Kyiv was besieged last year and they had to flee their home in the suburb of Bucha (a town name which has become synonymous with the atrocities committed by Russian soldiers). They sent their 16-year-old daughter with a friend who was fleeing with her own children to Western Ukraine—it was about nine months until they saw her again.
Following the invasion, Ostrovska-Liuta’s husband “felt even more incentive to write this book,” Ostrovska-Liuta says. “He would venture out to get books from our home library for his work, and that was a whole adventure because you couldn't get into the neighborhoods easily; you had to produce your passport and only then they would let you in because it was very closely guarded.” Skovoroda was born in what would now be modern-day Ukraine, but he is claimed by Russia as an integral figure to Russian philosophy. The fight to claim Skovoroda is a microcosm for how the war between Ukraine and Russia is playing out, on a cultural scale.
When speaking about the importance of fighting for cultural heritage, Ostrovska-Liuta posits, “How do you protect yourself in a situation like that? You do not let yourself be silenced.”
Such resistance comes with great risk. In her speech for the ISPA conference, Ostrovska-Liuta spoke about Yuri Kerpatenko, the principal conductor of Kherson Music and Drama Theatre. Located in Southern Ukraine, the city of Kherson was occupied by Russia until late last fall. “Kerpatenko refused to collaborate with the occupying forces and was shot to death at his home,” Ostrovska-Liuta revealed during her keynote address. It’s only one such tale, out of many, of artists being murdered that Ostrovska-Liuta shared.
She asked the audience, “If these are the threats that individual creators are facing, if that is the price, what is the importance of their work?” To her, it's now the cultural institutions’ responsibility to give artists working in such circumstances the platform to connect with the world and reflect.
There’s another way that continuing to do cultural and artistic work furthers the act of resistance: creating human connection during an inhumane time. This concept is at the heart of Art Arsenal’s An Exhibition About Our Feelings, which explores what it was like living through the Battle of Kyiv until Ukrainian forces recaptured the region last April. “We realized that there was a huge need to talk about the experience, to gather in one place where people could speak about the experience, or think about and reflect on the experience and feel that someone else shares it,” explains Ostrovska-Liuta. “We couldn't come up with the title, so we thought we will just name it the way we were referring to it ourselves … You try to add to the resilience of your community through providing a place, a space to reflect on a common experience.”
Art Arsenal’s current exhibition, which can also be viewed online, is called Heart of Earth. Inspired in part by Ukrainian’s use of the same word for land, earth, and soil (zemlya) the exhibition explores the triangular relationship between land, humans, and food. That relationship is one way of delving into Ukraine’s history and its abuse by Russia. The threads being pulled on in Heart of Earth include: Holodomor, a man-made famine in 1932 while Ukraine was under Stalin’s regime which led to 4 million deaths and further horrors; the role of food in post-WWII Ukraine; the ecological disaster of Chernobyl in 1986; the current invasion’s impact on the ability for Ukraine, one of the world’s largest grain producers, to export food to the Global South; the impact of having over 40 percent of the country contaminated with landmines; and the ecological impact of the current war.
“There is heavy mechanical and chemical pollution resulting from fighting. The waters are polluted by missile fuel. The Russian army, they famously do not evacuate their dead,” Ostrovska-Liuta details. “So, it's a huge thing. How is that impacting food production for the future? Food production is basically life production.” The exhibition was prepared through last fall, often while hunkered down in bomb shelters as missiles hit Kyiv’s electricity grids. “That made the process of operating an exhibit much more complicated: after each attack, you do not know when electricity will be provided and what your opening hours should be. But we experiment,” she said in her speech in NYC.
Ostrovska-Liuta also points to Ukraine Ablaze, a project that's collecting art reacting to war that was developed by her colleague Natasha Chychasova. Displaced first in 2014 from her home in Donetsk to Kyiv, Chychasova has had to flee Kyiv because of the current war. “This is like an ancient Greek tragedy, the way you kind of perceive it in the moment,” Ostrovska-Liuta says. “What Natasha wants to focus on is the material side of art resulting from the experience. When you lose your workshop, your study, your studio—you lose some of your works, you are displaced. You can't take your works with you to the country where you are fleeing, right? Your economic situation is very different." The project is an open call for other artists to send their reflections on war, and the continuing archive will serve as the basis for the next exhibition at Art Arsenal.
Ostrovska-Liuta hopes it will open in April, though she can't say for sure, “because today in Ukraine, you do not plan—you hope.”
One artist who has taken her resistance to a different level is sculptor Zhanna Kadyrova. Making sculptures which look like bread loaves out of stones, Kadyrova is an internationally well-known Ukrainian artist who started the series, titled palianytsia, as a way of saying the Russians aren’t welcome. Traditionally a symbol of hospitality, the bread loaves’ inedible material is how Kadyrova turns the gesture on its head, underlined by using river stones from her village which she took when she fled. The artist donates all the money she earns from those sculptures, which are selling in galleries across Europe, to the Ukrainian army.
“That is actually a very ordinary, everyday activity so many people do. It's quite easy,” Ostrovska-Liuta says. She explains that the Ukrainian army isn’t really separated from Ukrainian society. “These are normal people serving, right? Those who do not serve, try to support.” As an example, she talks about a writer who saves up money and then purchases vehicles for the army, then drives them to the front lines himself. “I think he purchased more than 100. He does that all the time,” she says. It’s a look into the lives of the artists which puts their work into startling context.
One thing that Ostrovska-Liuta wants to make clear is that she can only speak to what it’s like working in the arts in wartime Kyiv as the conflict affects different regions of Ukraine with varying intensity. There are the frontlines which she describes as “the kind of front line you see in the movies with trenches and a lot of firing and corpses everywhere.” Some cities have been “erased totally.” By contrast, some parts of Ukraine near the borders with Hungary and Romania are almost peaceful.
That means the logistics of Ostrovska-Liuta’s work have become vastly more complicated. “It’s just harder to get to the artworks themselves, especially if the artist fled and they work now, but in other countries. And it's hard just to transport the artworks,” she says. Much of the artwork at Ukraine’s major museums is now being protected or evacuated. As Ostrovska-Liuta puts it, “the burden of serving as a kind of vehicle for public discourse is now on contemporary art.”
At the bottom of Art Arsenal’s exhibition pages, it includes the following information for those making plans to visit: “We care about everyone’s safety, so in case of an air raid alert, the exhibition will be closed. At this time, you can go to the nearest shelter. The exhibition will start working after the end of an air raid alert. If you do not have time to view the exhibition due to an air raid alert, your ticket will be valid on any other day of the exhibition.” Despite the warning, the people are still coming. Because even in times of war, the art remains.