Spotlight on Ukraine 4

Dealing with the Russian Aggression against Ukraine through Art

by Alina Mozolevska 22/02/2024

Many Ukrainian artists are grappling in their works with the devastating consequences of Russia's attacks on their country. In particular, the destruction and loss of home has emerged as a common visual metaphor for the trauma of war – and a powerful instrument for sharing the pain of that loss with others.

Figure 1. © Masha Foya (@foya_illustrations)

For the past two years, Ukrainians have been immersed in the harsh realities of the full-scale war, enduring the daily challenges for more than 700 days filled with uncertainty and loss. Russia’s war against Ukraine has robbed millions of Ukrainians of their previous lives which once seemed stable and predictable. Long-term plans have become an impossibility as the changeable nature of war continues to disrupt every aspect of daily existence, causing massive destruction and displacement. More then 2.5 million Ukrainians have lost their homes, around 5 million Ukrainians are internally displaced, and an additional 6,5 million have become refugees abroad, their homes reduced to memories and their lives forever altered.

Role of Popular Art in Wartime

It is not surprising that the tragic events caused by Russian aggression and the significant challenges for millions of Ukrainians have not only mobilised the government and civilian population to resist but also boosted the creativity of Ukrainian cultural elites, triggering deep transformations of existing cultural and value paradigms. Wartime art in the form of visuals, including photography, illustrations, paintings, collages, street art and digital art, constituted one of the first immediate reactions to the war. Sometimes the artworks were short-lived and easily forgettable, but in other cases they have provoked profound reactions, echoing far beyond the borders of Ukraine. Topically relevant for the most part, the responses of digital participatory culture were often intended to circulate sensitive visual content, especially in the first days of the war. Later, they started to offer more nuanced and elaborate interpretations of events, creating and co-creating war narratives. This popular visual art served not only to illustrate the scale of the war, but also to frame it in the human dimensions of resistance, resilience or bravery while expressing the unspeakable suffering and pain caused by this violent aggression. Among the thousands of images showing the heroism and resistance of Ukrainians, trauma also found its expression. The artworks, representing individual and collective war experiences, demonstrate the shocking, changing reality of millions of Ukrainians and help to share emotional experiences of the war with others.

Home as a Visual Metaphor of War Trauma

The visual representation of home, recurrent in Ukrainian popular wartime art disseminated across social media platforms, emerges as a powerful symbol encapsulating the essence of the striking difference between pre-war and wartime life. Expressing the deep connection to the place, to the land and to the people who inhabit it, the image of lost home reflects the emotions of millions of Ukrainians displaced by the war. The home imagery is often combined with the colours of the Ukrainian national flag or national symbols to intensify a collective sense of unity and share the feelings of loss and nostalgic longing for the past (Figure 1 and 2).

Abb. 2 © Lisa Yablonska (@yablonska.mykhailus)

The depiction of the spatial dimension of war is also employed to illustrate the drastic transformations of the lives of Ukrainians and their feelings of disorientation. The physical destruction of houses and buildings in many Ukrainian cities and villages during the war is reflected in many artists’ digital works. The transformed landscapes of urban spaces reflect the complexity of the war’s impact on the city spaces and also show the close connection between places and individuals. Images of destroyed buildings populated by peaceful civilians before the war represent the sufferings of all Ukrainians by contrasting life before and after the war. Repeatedly, Ukrainian artists use poignant images of destroyed homes to illustrate the feelings of ordinary Ukrainians who have experienced such loss or who have had to abandon their homes because of Russian aggression. Often, the collective image of the self is fused with the representations of home or other symbols of loss and suffering to show deep emotional attachment to Ukraine and the profoundness of the trauma (Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3. © Olenka Zahorodnyk (@alekonkart)
Figure 4. © Lisa Yablonska (@yablonska.mykhailus)

This wartime art not only serves as a collective expression of trauma. In the digital age, it becomes a voice for those who have experienced this trauma, providing the opportunity to share the pain of loss and make others 'live' and understand it from a distance, thousands of miles away from the war zone. Thus, visual imagery, capable of encapsulating many layers of meaning, becomes a potent force for representation and narration of experiences during war.

Alina Mozolevska is a fellow at the Ukraine Research Network@ZOiS, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.