How Ukrainian folk art became a tool of resistance against Russia

Olya Haydamaka, “Чернігів. Сильне коріння. (Chernihiv. Strong Roots)(2022) (image courtesy of the artist)

Last year, when I was writing my thesis on the history of the Ukrainian people, my research found a repeated pattern: despite long histories of suppression, erasure and destruction, Ukrainians often used folk art as a tool of resistance and a symbol of hope. and preservation. During the Soviet era, artists found sneaky ways to incorporate folk art into their work, despite the possibility of serious consequences. During the Euromaidan revolution, vyshyvankas (traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts) have become extremely popular and have become part of everyday fashion, despite the garment’s history of marginalization and association with “the other”. Now, more than 100 days after the start of the war, there is a resurgence of Ukrainian folk art symbols in Ukrainian media, art and daily life. And for the first time, the international community uses Ukrainian folk art to show its solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Ukrainians react to war the same way they have reacted to oppression, war and famine throughout Ukrainian history: they use folk art, music, traditions and practices to bring communities together, resist war and nurture hope.

Pysanky are one of the most recognizable Ukrainian folk art forms. Decorative eggs are an indigenous art associated with Carpatho-Rusyn women in western Ukraine; they were often planted in the ground to promote fertility and growth. Legend has it that the fate of the world depended on the pysanka. Every year, an evil monster, chained to a mountain cliff, sent his henchmen to see how many pysanky were created in the land. If the number of pysanky was high, the chains of the monster would tighten. If the number of pysanky decreased, then the monster would unleash to sow destruction. As long as the Ukrainians continue to create pysanky, the world continues to exist.

A mix of traditional, diasporic and original Ukrainian pysanky (Ukrainian Easter eggs), (2011) (photo by Luba Petrusha via Wikimedia)

Sofika Zielyk, Ukrainian ethnographer and Pysanka artist, curated the exhibition The Pysanka: a symbol of hope at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York. Zielyk collected the eggs from contributors, some children, around the world. Once the war is over, the eggs will be transported to Ukraine and planted in the ground, to help rebuild and fertilize Ukraine, according to ancient tradition. The religious significance behind the eggs means that the craft was banned during the USSR and the art of pysanky almost disappeared. However, the Ukrainian diaspora has kept the practice alive. Today, when Ukrainian culture is once again threatened with permanent erasure, pysanka take on a new meaning.

Ukrainian artists are also increasingly highlighting and incorporating folk art practices and motifs into their anti-war art. Olya Haydamaka is a Kyiv-based illustrator whose work is influenced by traditional clothing. In response to the Russian invasion, Haydamaka created multiple illustrations of women in traditional dress acting as protectors and healers of Ukraine. In “Чернігів. Сильне коріння. (Chernihiv. Strong Roots.)” (2022), Haydamka responds to the particularly brutal attacks on Chernihiv in northern Ukraine. The woman wears a traditional embroidered vyshyvanka with exaggerated embroidered sleeves, as well as a traditional red coral namemysto (Necklace). The iconic St. Catherine’s Church levitates in the air, with deep red roots hanging below. This piece not only showcases Ukrainian folk clothing, but also elevates the clothing to be from another world and “healing”. This contrasts sharply with the symbol of otherness that Soviet propaganda and policy gave to traditional Ukrainian clothing.

Danylo Movchan, “Struggle” (2022), watercolor on paper (image courtesy of the artist)

Danylo Movchan, a contemporary painter from Kyiv, created “Struggle” (2022) in response to news of the destruction of 25 paintings by Maria Pryimachenko, Ukraine’s most beloved folk artist. In this work, Movchan painted a Pryimachenko-inspired creature in yellow and blue, with a tongue attacking a dark figure to the right of the composition. Movchan uses the recognizable figure of Pryimachenko to represent Ukraine and its strength and fighting spirit against Russia.

It is not only Ukrainian artists who have been affected by the destruction of Pryimashenko’s works. The international community has also used his illustrations to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people. The group Justice Murals, which uses the medium of murals to inspire change and action, has partnered with the Ukrainian Institute to project works by Pryimachenko onto buildings in California. Murals depicting Pryimachenko’s work were displayed in Oakland and San Francisco, with text that read: “Art bombed by Putin. Boycott Russia.

Maria Prymachencko, “A dove has spread her wings and asks for peace” (1982) (image courtesy of Justice Murals)

The international music community also seeks inspiration from Ukrainian folk art. Florence Welch of Florence and the Machine recently released a new music video called “Free”, featuring British actor Bill Nighy. In parts of the video, Nighy and Welsh can be seen sitting in front of a backdrop of petrykivka-style flowers, painted by Ukrainian artist Katerina Konovalova. At the end of the clip, Florence Welsh makes the connection between the title, Ukrainian folk art paintings and the war by dedicating the song to “the spirit, creativity and perseverance of our brave Ukrainian friends”.

Ukrainian folk art has been neglected, suppressed and erased. But now people recognize how closely Ukrainian folk art is tied to Ukraine’s struggle for sovereignty and independence. While the atrocities of Bucha, Chernihiv and Mariupol are revealed, Russia’s intentions have also become clearer. Based on Russia’s long history of imperialism and colonialism, this war is yet another attempt to erase the Ukrainian people, our culture, our history and our language. Ukrainian folk art must continue to be a tool of resistance before it, too, is erased forever.

About Wesley Williamson

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