Exhibition Reviews | Visual Arts

Art in a War Zone: 10 Ukrainian Women Photographers at SUMA

Yulia Krivich, “Lesson of Courage II,” 2016, 17 x 24 in.

Like so much that has to do with Ukraine, the Southern Utah Museum of Art’s exhibition of Ukrainian photographers, up through Dec. 23, can’t help but be subsumed by the massive pain and destruction caused by the Russian aggression against the country. In May of this year, when SUU art history professor Joanna Matuszak began working on an exhibition centered on women photographers in Ukraine carving out a space for themselves in a male-dominated field, the Russian invasion was already raging, with no predictable end in sight. Because five months later that situation still holds, Reclaiming Agency: Ukrainian Women Photographers Today also becomes an exhibit about photographers carving out a space for themselves in a war-torn country. A year ago, this same exhibit would have been of specific professional interest to Matuszak (her background is in Russian and Soviet post-war art) and of somewhat broader interest to those viewing contemporary art through a feminist lens (though its specific subject still might have felt out of place in a small college town in rural Utah); but coming in the fall of 2022, the exhibit feels achingly timely and universally compelling. 

During the Soviet era, fine art photography, not considered an acceptable medium, was almost nonexistent in Ukraine. And even when a small group of artists eventually pushed against these barriers, its practitioners were all male; and remained so well into the 21st century. In the past decade and a half, however, a growing number of women in the country have been drawn to the medium, despite the fact that they have few opportunities for anything like a systematic education in the field, and the marketplace for their work has been feeble. That same period has been a time of tremendous tumult in Ukraine, a country pulled by two strong gravitational forces: Europe in the west and Russia in the east. The Maidan Uprising of 2013 and Maidan Revolution of 2014, Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea, The War in Donbas, and now the country-wide struggle against Russian aggression means the artists in Reclaiming Agency have worked for almost a decade in a country of upheaval. Several of the artists  have had to flee their homes (sometimes more than once) and many have recently lived abroad, as refugees, or in artistic residencies. 

Alena Grom, “Hole caused by a shell explosion in a shopping mall,” 2022, 25 x 16 2/3 in.

The tumultuous years in which these artists have come into their own are all too evident in their photographs. Yulia Krivich’s image of a teenage boy posing in front of sandbags that partially block a window, and another image of an outstretched arm holding an undetonated bomb in front of a chalkboard — both from her “Daring & Youth Series” — could be from yesterday, though they were shot in 2016: a reminder that Ukraine’s has been a long and enduring conflict. Alena Grom’s photographs are from yesterday. After fleeing the Donbas in 2014, she relocated to Bucha, but had to leave there when the Russians invaded in the spring. She has since gone back, and her images were all shot in the last several months. In one, a visibly grief-stricken woman in layers of clothes clasps a cat in a protective embrace. In another, a building torn apart by a shell feels just as traumatic, and in its own inanimate way, just as human:  because of our exposure to so many police procedurals and violent movies, the massive hole reads like an exit wound on someone’s head.

Olia Koval, “Everything Will Flow,” 2019, 33.5 x 18 in. (courtesy the artist)

But art is never simply political response, no matter how dire the politics; even as bombs rain down, the human experience remains varied; and the artists in Reclaiming Agency are a heterogenous group, following individual impulses and interests.  These range from the seemingly mundane, in Bella Logachova’s documentarian works, to the unsettling, surreal works of Olia Koval and Polina Polikarpova. Many of the artists work in series: Olena Morozova’s “Granny” series creates an open-ended psychological narrative with the image of a passive elderly woman and two young children; Marin Frolova examines issues of identity in her “Ugly” project; and Olena Bulygina and the L∞K Group deal with historical reckonings — through Soviet-era architecture and interiors in the former’s case, and collaged and tinted historical photographs in the latter. 

In what ways do these women photographers differ from their male peers? The exhibit itself provides little context (though some of these issues are explored in an accompanying catalogue, which includes a roundtable discussion with some of the artists). But it wouldn’t be difficult to view these works through a feminist lens and discover plenty of enriching details and nuances. Just as likely, though, we’ll come to it with lenses crafted by newspaper headlines and find in the works additional resonances as we see talented artists making art in a war zone.

L∞K Group, “Bunnies,” 2013, archival inkjet print of a photocollage, 16 x 24 in.


Reclaiming Agency, Southern Utah Museum of Art, Cedar City, through Dec. 23

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