Women at War
New YorkFridman Gallery
Presented In Collaboration With Voloshyn Gallery
Women At War
July 6 – August 26, 2022
Women at War is an exhibition, a history lesson, and an effort to preserve Ukrainian nationalism and culture. Hosted by Fridman Gallery and presented with Voloshyn Gallery, the group show features leading Ukrainian women artists who tell complex stories of war and life in Ukraine. Curated by Monika Fabijanska, Women at War addresses over a century of conflict, touching on the impact of both World Wars, the eight years of fighting that followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the present-day war. This context is an important reminder that war has been a part of life in Ukraine since long before the Russian invasion that began on February 24th. Along with Fabijanska, the artists educate an international audience, asking viewers to consider how women fit within the history of war and to better understand the longer legacy of conflict in Ukraine.
Providing a broader context for the current war with Russia, the show includes several earlier works that focus on the years leading up to 2022. In a series of ink drawings on paper from 2014 to 2019, Alevtina Kakhidze narrates conversations with her mother, who remained in the occupied territories of Donbas after the fighting between the National Guard and the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) began in 2014. Titled “Strawberry Andreevna,” the simple line drawings are paired with descriptions, handwritten in English, that document the artist’s phone calls with her mother, called Strawberry. Traveling by foot to the only place where she found cell service—the local cemetery—Strawberry called frequently to let her daughter know she was still alive. The series documents conversations for over four years, the final work depicting Strawberry’s death by cardiac arrest along the demarcation line between Ukraine and the DPR.
Kakhidze’s series underscores how women in Ukraine have become both victims and storytellers of war. Her drawings tell of the legacy of displacement and conflict in Donbas. Strawberry was one of half a million Ukrainian pensioners who were living in the separatist territory and registered as displaced in order to receive their pension, traveling between the DPR and Ukraine to do so. Strawberry died on this journey. Kakhidze is one of many artists in the show seeking to honor humanity and preserve the memory of those impacted by war.
The artist purposefully wrote the text in her works in English to speak to an international audience. Indeed, throughout the exhibition, there is a conscious effort to educate the viewer. In an essay accompanying the exhibition, Fabijanska introduces complex topics, discussing gender roles, Ukrainian feminism, and the connection between Ukraine’s fight for independence and women’s equality. In works where text is in Ukrainian, Fabijanska wrote translations directly on the gallery wall. A thorough wall panel accompanies each piece, explaining the work and giving background on the artists. A heartbreaking reminder of the people behind the works on view, some artists have also opted to include where they are currently taking refuge.
Dana Kavelina champions feminist notions that Fabijanska introduces and argues that history should be written from a collective perspective. Included in the show is Kavelina’s harrowing experimental film, Letter to a Turtledove (2020), that depicts archival and amateur footage of Donbas from the 1930s to 1990s combined with staged and animated clips in the form of a stream-of-consciousness poem. Kavelina’s work in general highlights the brutal history of women as victims of war crimes, in particular rape, and connects the exploitation of women to that of land and nation. Underscoring the nearly century-long conflict in the region, Kavelina argues that the Soviet history of Ukraine, with all of its tragedies and complexities, should be addressed as part of a larger, more complex national identity.
Depicting the current conflict is Lesia Khomenko, whose husband, Max, enlisted in the army when Russia invaded. Khomenko paints life-size portraits of soldiers, who are prohibited from sharing photographs of themselves for safety. Khomenko therefore uses images shared by the media, which are often pixelated to protect identities and blur injuries, as well as descriptions from her phone calls with Max. Some of her paintings maintain this pixelation as commentary on the dehumanization of those who are fighting. Faces are obscured, uniforms are smeared, and bodies are reduced to blurs. Soldiers are stripped of their identities and become bodies and numbers, symbols of the army and larger conflict.
Seeking to restore this humanity, Khomenko has also painted a clear likeness of her husband in Max in the Army (2022). Standing tall in clothes that are not quite civilian, but not quite military, Max represents the duality of identity that Ukrainians are now facing. Khomenko explained at the exhibition opening that, without photography, she had to invent much of the context in her head. She imagined Max standing strong and saluting, but with a facial expression that looks lost, emphasizing this uncertainty of identity.
Also documenting present day Ukraine is Zhanna Kadyrova, whose film Palianytsia (2022) is included in the show. Palianytsia is the Ukrainian word for bread, specifically a round wheat bread. Difficult for Russians to pronounce, the word became a marker of enemies that was particularly useful in identifying spies who were sent to survey territories before troops invaded.
Kadyrova’s film documents her creation of an installation reflecting on the symbolism of palianytsia. After being forced to leave Kyiv, the artist and her family embarked on a days-long search for housing and a studio in the villages protected by the Carpathian Mountains. Within the many mountain rivers, Kadyrova found smooth, round rocks that resemble palianytsia, which she collected and, with the help of her partner Denis Ruban, cut into slices as a symbol of Ukrainian resilience and their cunning use of language to determine friend from foe. Kadyrova sold the sculptures, along with drawings of locals, at exhibitions in Venice and Berlin to raise funds for volunteer organizations and for her friends who stayed to defend Kyiv. Interspersed in the clips of Kadyrova preparing and exhibiting her stone palianytsia are air raid sirens and conversations between the artist and fellow refugees sharing stories of the days leading up to war.
Women at War is powerful, sensitive, and heartbreaking. It takes on a complex, emotional task that is far beyond the scope of one review. Every work teaches the viewer a story. The wall labels, the essay by Fabijanska, and the works themselves make sure that the viewer leaves understanding something deeper about the historic and present-day wars in Ukraine. If there were ever a need to take the time to fully experience an exhibition, this is it.