Cherson’s Secret Art Society Produces Searing Visions of Life Under Russian Occupation | Ukraine

Under threat of imprisonment, interrogation and constant search pressure from Russian soldiers, six artists met secretly in a basement studio in the occupied Ukrainian city of Cherson.

In the months after their homes were taken over by Putin’s troops, the artists established a residence where they created dozens of works, including drawings, paintings, videos, photographs, diary entries, and stage plays.

The findings, which they dubbed Residency in Occupation, offer a staggering glimpse into the horrors endured by millions of Ukrainians living under the Russian invasion.

Pictures show painful hugs at train stations, families hiding in basements – death looms behind them – burning houses and dancing figures, human skeletons underfoot.

When it became too dangerous to meet in person, the artists continued to work individually. Some have since fled the city, while others remain and risk their lives.

The group wants to exhibit their works, but that’s not possible in Cherson, which has been occupied since February. The residence’s curator, Yuliia Manukian, who is now in Odessa after fleeing Kherson, said art can act as a powerful act of resistance.

The severed hand holding a Russian flag.  June 19, 2022, by Julia Danylewska.
The severed hand holding a Russian flag. June 19, 2022, by Julia Danylewska. Photo: Art Residency in Profession

“I see our artists telling the world the truth about war through the language of art. It is also important for me to convey how cultural resistance takes place, as it is no less powerful than the physical one, because the front of culture is where a free future is worked out,” she said.

“Much has been written about the need for our independent voice to be heard clearly in the international cultural and artistic arena, where Russia has dominated for many years as a representative of Eastern European artistic practices. So it is time to express that more than ever.”

Since 2002, Kherson has developed his own art movement, known as “Kher-Art”, which embraces irony, sarcasm, boldness and goes against the mainstream.

For the first three weeks of the occupation, Manukian said they were “in shock.” But after encountering the first works in response to the war by artists outside of Kherson, she began to see art as essential to “spiritual salvation” and brought together six local artists.

ZHUK, a well-known naïve artist working under a pseudonym, had already started work The unwanted guest, a giant hornet painted in acrylic on an old tablecloth to represent the destroyer and invader. And within hours of the Bucha atrocities being exposed, he created a poster with the title Putin Cock-a-doodle-doo.

An artist working under the name of Marka Royal in a squatted village near Kherson created an art diary entitled Z-Notes by Ms. Solodukha. “The war cut my life short, but my tiny workshop lured me,” she wrote. “But how could you draw when you heard explosions? I thought: Who am I kidding and why? You can’t pretend the war is somewhere behind. You have to document a number of your experiences on paper.”

One of Li Biletska's portraits of women and girls living under occupation.
One of Li Biletska’s portraits of women and girls living under occupation. Photo: Art Residency in Profession

Her artistic documentation included sketches titled Stay/departure on April 18, 2022 not possible and Nine people in the basement 04/15/2022.

Yulia Danylevska avoids depicting atrocities directly. Her works include images of escaped Mariupol residents gathering snow to melt into water, a Russian soldier’s hand removing a gold earring from a Ukrainian woman’s ear, a severed hand holding a Russian flag, and in her picture dancing on bones from last month she redraws a screenshot from David Lynch’s film Mulholland Drive.

Photographer Li Biletska, now based in Kyiv, is working on a documentary women at work, and created the photographic series home Mary, with portraits of women and girls living under occupation.

In a diary on Facebook, she said: “Since yesterday there has been a veil of smoke on Kherson. And it pulls you down But we persevere. We try to live stubbornly. We still have to plant a forest.”

A young artist and children’s book illustrator working under the name Mona has created a series of paintings reflecting her inner state entitled Video Art … I want to scream. She is dedicated to her work crossing three generations of women killed by a Russian missile in Odessa in April.

Artur Sumarokov, a playwright and film critic, created two plays, The Captivity (Part One) and The Captivity (Part Two), after 45 days under Russian occupation. “What’s it like being under occupation?” he wrote. “It should stop being afraid of death. Sometimes I had the crazy thought that razing you and your house to the ground might be more honest than being held hostage by a suave sadist. And I started writing the play in this depressed state. Not because I wanted to. But only to keep my spirit from destruction.”

Putin behind bars in a painting by ZHUK
Putin Cock-a-doodle-doo by ZHUK Photo: Art Residency in Profession

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