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The Ukrainian women who make art in the face of war

Lesia Khomenko, <em>Max in the Army</em>, 2022. Oil on canvas, 84.5 x 57.5 inches
© Lesia Khomenko
Lesia Khomenko, Max in the Army, 2022. Oil on canvas, 84.5 x 57.5 inches

Stories of war are being told now by some of Ukraine's leading female artists at New York's Fridman Gallery, as well as a gallery in Kyiv. The women are activists as well as artists, and are responding in paint, photographs and videos to the Russian invasion, and earlier conflicts over the annexation of Crimea. The powerful, haunting works prove that art is not just about pretty pictures.

Lesia Khomenko's portrait of her new husband Max shows one of the many Ukrainian men drafted to fight against the Russians. He'd been a musician and media artist before the war. He and Lesia were a couple. When Max entered the army, Lesia was able to leave the country.

Over the months of separation, he regularly sent her selfies. But during those months, she noticed changes in Max. "Now, he is totally in military uniform" she says. And she paints a new tension in him. There's a scowl on his face. He stands as straight as possible, saluting. His expression is serious — determined and focused. His clothes are too big. "I wonder if I can still recognize him," she says.

Lesia spoke to NPR a day before she flew from New York back to Ukraine, for just a week-long visit. She'd felt she had to leave her country, even though it meant being away from Max. "It's too dangerous in Ukraine. I have a small daughter and I am very responsible for her. I can't live with her in Ukraine." Three times a day she'd had to run to the basement to hide from shelling: "You're filled with fear."

But with help from technology, she and Max were able to make the fear almost bearable. They got married online.

Other artists in the exhibition "Women at War" make works about history, politics, war and the pain and toll of it. They show the aftermath of rapes — painful drawings of private parts, bloodied by aggression; a mother and small children at the foot of a filthy basement staircase; the forbidding image of a psychiatric hospital. Surrounded by shelling and death, the Ukrainian women make artworks.

"In every war, there was artistic life," says curator and art historian Monika Fabijanska, "either underground or above ground, wherever possible." Creating is an essential outlet. "Art allows you to process and name our feelings, and find other people who feel it and process it."

In drawings, film, even handwriting on scraps of bed linen, these artists are history's witnesses to the realities of war: its dailiness and the toll it takes.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Susan Stamberg
Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.