A protest against Russia's invasion of Ukraine in New York on February 24, 2022 (photo by Andriy Yatsykiv via Flickr)

On Wednesday, February 23, Volo Bevza, a Ukrainian artist based in Berlin, was all set for his solo exhibition Soft Image, slated to open the next day at the WT Foundation in Kyiv. Though fears of a Russian invasion of the city were intensifying, Bevza was determined to open the exhibition on Thursday evening as planned to send a message of resistance.

“I saw it as a kind of protest against Russian aggression,” Bevza told Hyperallergic in a conversation via WhatsApp. “Spreading panic, misinformation, disorientation, and fear is at the core of the Russian hybrid war against Ukraine. So we thought we’ll just continue doing our job, as small and unimportant it may seem to be.”

But hours later, on the early morning of Thursday, Russian forces invaded Ukraine and started advancing toward Kyiv, making the opening of Bevza’s exhibition impossible.

Ukrainian artist Volo Bevza’s solo exhibition at Kyiv’s WT Foundation was canceled after Russian troops invaded the country on the day of the opening (courtesy the artist)

“Everyone was ordered by the government to stay home and remain calm,” the artist said. “We heard explosions and helicopters in the air.”

Setting ideals aside, Bevza canceled the opening of his exhibition and took shelter at his brother’s house in Vyshneve, a suburb of Kyiv, anticipating a difficult night ahead.

“We barricaded the windows to protect ourselves from crashing glass and got ready to hide in the cellar at any time, should the airstrike on Kyiv begin,” he said.

Like many Ukrainians who tried their best to remain calm and go on with their normal lives despite the escalating tensions of the past few weeks, Bevza found himself living in a city under siege.

“I’m worried about my family, loved ones, and all the people around here. But I try to stay present and cold-minded,” he said, adding that many civilians in his hometown have picked up arms to protect their homes and community from Russian forces.

Yesterday, protesters took to the streets of New York, Los Angeles, and other cities around the world to denounce Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression against Ukraine. In Manhattan, hundreds waved Ukrainian flags and chanted “Stop Putin Now” as they marched from Times Square to the Russian Mission to the United Nations on the Upper East Side. 

One of those protesters was Luba Drozd, a Brooklyn-based Ukrainian artist who immigrated to the United States when she was a teenager. Drozd’s immediate family lives in the city of Lviv in western Ukraine, close to the border with Poland, and other members of the family are based in Kyiv.

“I haven’t slept in days,” Drozd told Hyperallergic in a phone conversation after the protest. Her voice broke when she said, “Everything feels futile.”

Yesterday, air raid sirens sounded in Lviv for the first time since World War II, sending residents into war shelters and basements. Drozd said she urged her family to join the many locals who have crossed the border to Poland to seek refuge.

“Since Friday, I was absolutely sure that a vicious attack is about to come,” she said. “I told my family to leave the city immediately but the lines at the border are endless and my father was hesitant to make such a life-changing decision.”

Now, as the threat to Lviv has become more immediate, Drozd said her family has begun accepting the possibility of being displaced from their home.

In the past few weeks, Drozd has been using her Instagram account to share reports from the ground, raise awareness about the situation in Ukraine, and fight what she called “Russian disinformation.”

“We’ve been screaming into the void for years,” she said. “Russia has terrorized Ukraine since 2014. Putin and others around him just want to drain Ukraine out of its resources. The way to do it is to install their own government.”

Meanwhile, Ukrainian museums are scrambling to protect their collections from imminent attacks. Aleksandra Kovalchuk, the director of the Odesa Fine Arts Museum, told the New York Times that staffers were “hiding” art in the basement and “trying to arrange security,” mentioning “barbed wire.”

And yesterday, the organizers of the Ukrainian Pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale announced they had been forced to pause their preparations for the exhibition.

“We call for the international artistic community to use all our impact in order to stop the Russian invasion of Ukraine,” they wrote in a statement. “Guns may hurt our bodies, but culture changes our minds. This war is a clash of civilizations — a free and civilized world is attacked by the barbarian and aggressive one. If we continue being passive observers of the situation, we will lose everything we work for and all the heritage of our predecessors.”

In Russia, mass anti-war protests erupted in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other cities across the country. More than 1,800 protesters have been arrested, according to the latest reports.

“Seeing Russia do this is a moral injury,” Yola Monakhov Stockton, a Russian-American artist and educator based in Buffalo, New York, told Hyperallergic in an interview. “I feel powerless to see such aggression from a country with which I identify.”

Stockton shared with Hyperallergic a letter she sent to her children’s school in Buffalo, expressing her views about the invasion of Ukraine.

“If it is in the name of the people of Russia, it is not in my name, not in the names of my children, and not in the names of my diasporic family,” she wrote in her letter. “Whether we live in Russia or around the world, as Russian artists, as Russian women, we are compelled to speak out against the needless bloodshed, against this brutal war of territorial expansion.”

Though heart-warmed by such displays of solidarity, Drozd doubts domestic and international pressure would deter Putin from pursuing his plan to take over Ukraine.

“It’s all coming a bit too late, including the West’s sanctions against Russia,” she said. “Something substantial needs to be done. I think that things will only get worse from now on.”

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Hakim Bishara

Hakim Bishara is Co-Editor of News at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative...