Icons on the Barricades: Incredible Ukrainian Protest Art

Artists have been at the center of the protests in Ukraine, offering murals, performances, and a golden “throne”

In January, the clashes between Ukrainian anti-government protesters and police and special forces erupted into violence. The center of Kyiv became a battlefield, with smoke from burning tires drifting overhead. Police bullets and gas grenades were met by Molotov cocktails and paving stones. During the last days of the month, while the street battle raged, masked and helmeted protesters and police in full riot gear saw a surreal sight.

Seemingly oblivious of the chaos surrounding him, a young man set up an easel between the opposing forces and worked furiously for a few hours on an oil sketch of the city in revolt. The artist, Maksim Vegera, said later that he couldn’t resist the call of history. In the tradition of Delacroix or Daumier, he found inspiration on the barricades. He wasn’t the only one. From the earliest days of the Ukrainian protests, artists have been at the center of events.

In a sense, they even predicted the turmoil. The Ukrainian equivalent of Dalí’s Premonition of Civil War was an ill-fated mural painted by Volodymyr Kuznetsov on the wall of the Mystetskyi Arsenal (Art Arsenal) last summer. The museum commissioned the work, called Koliyivshchyna: The Last Judgment, for an exhibition dedicated to the 1025th anniversary of the baptism of Kyivan Rus, the precursor of the Russian state.

Volodymyr Kuznetsov’s unfinished mural, Koliyivshchyna: The Last Judgment, was dubbed immoral and covered with black paint. COURTESY VOLODYMYR KUZNETSOV

Volodymyr Kuznetsov’s unfinished mural, Koliyivshchyna: The Last Judgment, was dubbed immoral and covered with black paint.COURTESY VOLODYMYR KUZNETSOV

It wasn’t what museum director Natalia Zabolotna was expecting. The mural depicted the revolutionary masses, guided by the figure of Christ from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and a member of Pussy Riot wearing a balaclava. In front of the people’s avengers was the cauldron of hell, into which police generals, church leaders, and a long black car carrying, among others, President Viktor Yanukovych, were plunging headlong. The title Koliyivshchyna refers to a violent 18th-century peasant uprising.

Zabolotna denounced the unfinished mural as “immoral” and ordered it painted over. She was clearly unprepared for the ensuing scandal. It rocked the Ukrainian art world.

Vasilii Tsagolov, a well-known Kyiv painter, was another who documented the growing strains in Ukrainian society. He has been working since 2012 on a series of monumental paintings called “The Ghost of Revolution.” Four of them, depicting battles between police and protesters, were exhibited just a month before the unrest began.

Mykola Ridnyi’s response to the increasing repression was simple and eloquent. In a group exhibition at the PinchukArtCentre in Kyiv in November, he showed a row of roughly sculpted police boots.

When the demonstrations began in Maidan (Independence Square), artists began to produce works that were destined not for galleries but for the street. A few days before the first attack of riot police on peaceful protesters, artist Yevgen Samborsky, a member of the Open Group, and his friends Marta Lininskaia, Yaroslav Yakubovskii, and Pavel Osadchuk created a papier-mâché sculpture called Revolutionary, intended as a collective portrait of the protesters. It traveled with the artists around the barricades and was repeatedly knocked over by the police but survived and stood for weeks near the Trade Union Building, which was occupied by protesters and turned into their headquarters until it was burned down during the battle on the night of February 18.

Revolutionary, created by Yevgen Samborsky, traveled around the barricades with the artist and his friends.  COURTESY YEVGEN SAMBORSKY

Revolutionary, created by Yevgen Samborsky, traveled around the barricades with the artist and his friends.COURTESY YEVGEN SAMBORSKY

Another attempt to inject art into the thick of the action was made by the group of anarchist-artists lead by Oleksa Mann and Ivan Semesyuk, whose usual gathering place is a fringe art gallery called Bacterium. Believing that their time had come, they decided to seize the moment. They built a roofless plywood shack close to the barricades, which they called the Artistic Barbican, referring to a medieval fortified tower. On its rough walls they exhibited works in the revolutionary spirit, such as an ironic image of Nestor Makhno, the legendary Ukrainian anarchist leader of the civil war period (1918–1921), along with anarchist slogans—“Freedom or Death”—in combination with expletives. It was a popular spot with both artists and protesters.

Not all the protest-inspired art had such rough political overtones. Lesia Khomenko, a young artist from the group R.E.P. (Revolutionary Experimental Space), spent many days on Maidan drawing conventional pencil portraits and giving them away. She says that her work gave people psychological support and at the same time “shows them their importance and demonstrates that what is happening now is history.”

Ivan Semesyuk’s ironic image of Ukrainian anarchist leader Nestor Makhno framed by slogans and expletives.COURTESY IVAN SEMESYUK

Ivan Semesyuk’s ironic image of Ukrainian anarchist leader Nestor Makhno framed by slogans and expletives.COURTESY IVAN SEMESYUK

Alina Yakubenko came to Maidan with small squares of blank paper glued to tiny wooden sticks and asked protesters to write down their thoughts and ideas. She wanted people to create their own individual mini-slogans. The little squares looked quite strange among the large anti-government posters carried by many in the crowd. Yakubenko’s aim was to demonstrate that the people gathered together for political protest remained individuals and even retained their sense of humor.

Some of the art was gallery-bound. Mykyta Shalenyi’s “Where is Your Brother,” a series of staged photo-based works shown in the Art SVIT Gallery in Dnepropetrovsk in January, included a reworking of The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, with masked members of the special forces replacing Rembrandt’s doctor and medical students. The series referred to the wave of kidnappings and torture that had become an everyday reality.

Satirical images of President Yanukovych were also popular. Ksenia Gnilitskaia, another R.E.P. member, painted a mocking icon of the president, depicting all stages of his life from his birth and early imprisonment for criminal offenses to his glorious leadership. The work, which calls to mind some examples of Soviet Sots-art, has become extremely popular and is frequently reproduced in oppositional media.

Ilia Isupov uses Facebook to disseminate his ironic graphic works. His Christmas card depicting Yanukovych wearing a Santa Claus hat and carrying a hunting gun, surrounded by slaughtered piglets with masses of riot police in the background, became an instant social-media hit. Isupov got the idea when he heard in a news broadcast that Yanukovych was boar hunting in the forest while riot police were attacking students on Maidan.

Undoubtedly the most popular artworks inspired by Maidan were the performances. Mariyan Mitsik, a musician from Lviv, installed a piano painted in the national colors, blue and yellow, in front of the line of police guarding the presidential administration building, sat down, and proceeded to play Chopin. The image of the young musician seemingly unaware of the helmeted policemen in anti-riot gear became an icon of the protests.

Performances authored by individuals sometimes turned into examples of collective creativity. The parliament’s adoption of dictatorial laws prohibiting peaceful protest and limiting civil liberties inspired a performance piece, Ukrainian Women Against a Future of Slavery. The idea belonged to Maria Dragina, a scriptwriter. A group of women approached the building of the presidential administration, she recalls, “carrying soft toys, children’s clothes and shoes—things they had bought for their children. The new laws deprive us of a future, which means that we do not need these things anymore.” The toys and clothes were thrown into the ranks of helmeted police, and teddy bears hung incongruously over the barriers.

One protest performance was entirely collective. Organized by a group that called itself Civil Sector of Maidan, the performance was titled The Kingdom of Darkness Is Surrendered. Dozens of people young and old formed a line facing the ranked riot police. They held mirrors that echoed the shields carried by the police. Some mirrors had the words “God, is it me?” inscribed on them. The police were forced to look at their own reflections.

The Kingdom of Darkness Is Surrendered forced police to see themselves reflected in the mirrors held by protesters.COURTESY CIVIL SECTOR OF MAIDAN

The Kingdom of Darkness Is Surrendered forced police to see themselves reflected in the mirrors held by protesters.COURTESY CIVIL SECTOR OF MAIDAN

The civil activists who prepared the performance saw it as an artwork as much as a political act. When the idea of using mirrors was expressed in a tweet, one excited commenter wrote that the performance would be better than anything appearing in the Saatchi Gallery in London.

When the demonstrations began, a statue of Lenin on Shevchenko Boulevard was toppled by protesters. In February, the youth organization of the opposition Fatherland party and other youth groups installed a golden toilet on the empty pedestal. This gilded throne was seen as a reference to Yanukovych’s taste for luxury; it was rumored—and the rumor was later confirmed—that his suburban residence has similar facilities. The action was also conceived as a reminder to the ruling party’s MPs of the kind of idol they served.

At the beginning of the protests, Ukrainians overthrew the symbol of a vanished ideology, but liberating themselves from the Golden Throne proved more costly. On February 18, violence erupted again as police and special forces, on orders from the president, tried to disperse the crowds on Maidan using live bullets. Yet even as the dead piled up, artists continued their struggle with brushes instead of Molotov cocktails. A group of young women painters succeeded in decorating police trucks in psychedelic colors, adding an extra surreal overtone to the scene of burning Kyiv on the most violent day of its modern history. On February 20, Yanukovych fled the city, and two days later he was ousted by parliament.

Konstantin Akinsha is a contributing editor of ARTnews. Alisa Lozhkina is an art historian and curator in Kyiv.

A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 34 under the same title.

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