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How Freedom Shaped Ukrainian Art, At Home and Abroad

The exhibition 'Reality Check' celebrates 25 years of Ukrainian independence and the effects of freedom.
Silencing The Cacophony, 2015, Yulia Pinkusevich. Acrylic, spray paint, oil, vinyl, marker on linen. 69 x 161 inches. Photos courtesy of the artist

With Reality Check, exhibition curator and SAIC lecturer Adrienne Kochman seeks to explore the effect a quarter century of Ukrainian independence has had on artists both from the country and its wider diaspora. On display at the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (in Chicago's Ukrainian Village, of course) in celebration of the 25th anniversary of Ukrainian independence, the works, including sculptures, paintings, and installations, demonstrate the dramatic impact of the nation's sovereignty on the work of both its native born and émigré artist communities.


The immigrants who fled the Soviet Union were for the most part prohibited from returning to their home country. In their new homes, many were raised in communities that “worked very actively to keep Ukrainian culture and tradition alive,” Kochman says. “Including language, schooling, music, a lot of really cultural endeavors. Because those were the aspects of Ukrainian culture that were Sovietized and Russified, were forcibly changed.”

Communication with Ukraine was tightly policed; this, in combination with the vibrant but insular Ukrainian communities the immigrants raised in, created for artists a strong sense of place for a place they had never been.

“They had certain ideas about what is was like in Ukraine,” Kochman, whose mother was a Cold War Ukrainian immigrant, says. “Virtually immediately, [they] went to Ukraine once independence was declared, and wanted to witness it themselves. They were interested in different aspects of Ukrainian culture and what has changed, and maybe what was retained. It really was a reality check, which is why I named the exhibition the way I did, because you are testing your belief system. You are trying to ascertain, is it accurate? Has it changed? How do I reconnect to this culture that I'm very attached to, that kind of feels like home, but you never stepped on the land, because you couldn't?”


Bear (T)hugs, 2015, Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak. Felted bear, 5 painted wooden nesting dolls. 10 x 14 x 6 inches

Émigré artists created works related to what they found when their idea of Ukraine met the real thing, incorporating traditional aspects of Ukrainian culture and addressing the impact of Russia and the Soviet Union. Cleveland-born Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak's Bear (T)hugs features a plush bear—symbol of Russia—holding nesting dolls of Putin, Stalin, Lenin, Rasputin, and vermin, while her In The Nests series use animals to explore socio-political and economic themes, for example a baby bird being fed a Russian coin. New Jersey native Natalka Husar’s paintings of Ukrainian men dressing like Russian gangsters calls to question identity, both culturally, politically, and as it pertains to masculine gender roles.


The opening of borders and communication worked both ways, however. “The artists from Ukraine were interested in branching out into styles or developments that were developing in the West, and have gone with that in their careers,” Kochman says.


Aurora, 2015, Anna Bogatin. Acrylic on canvas. 48 x 48 inches

Anna Bogatin had lived in numerous parts of the Soviet Union before moving to America in 1992, a cultural shift reflected in her practice's blending of the high and low tech. Picture of nature are subjected to digital studies, before being painted painstakingly by hand. The end result is a prismatic abstraction, an infographic of the natural. Yulia Pinkusevich, born in a part of eastern Ukraine that is currently contested, created the massive and mesmerizing Silencing The Cacophony as she witnessed the upheaval of her homeland from California; the drone and media sourced images, in combination with dazzle camouflage and smoke which pours off the canvas and onto the walls, attests to the modern vision of war as an aesthetic event, while sandbags sit on the gallery floor, physical remains of Euromaidan and the revolution.


Natalka Husar, Why They Behave Like Russians, 2015. Oil on book cover. 8.5 x 12 inches

The 25th anniversary of Ukrainian Independence is a tense one; Reality Check is opening in a world wherein a great swath of the country have been invaded, and the dormant sabres of the Cold War are beginning to rattle again. Signs in the windows of the Ukrainian businesses around the UIMA, blue and yellow and declaring a stand for a united and free country, are a reminder of how fragile the freedom that inspired Reality Check can be; the art itself, a reminder of how important it is.


Find more information on the full Reality Check exhibit, here.


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