Last Thursday, after tens of thousands of Russian troops stationed at the Ukrainian border launched a full-fledged attack on the country, artist Faith Holland asked the state-backed Multimedia Art Museum (MAMM) in Moscow to remove her work “Touchscreen” (2020) from its ongoing international biennial, Art for the future.
“With direct ties and funding coming from the Russian government, it was untenable to have my work exhibited with the museum at this time,” Holland, who is based in New York, told Hyperallergic. “I am partially of Ukrainian descent; my maternal great-grandmother and great-grandfather fled because of pogroms. This small gesture is the least that I could do in solidarity with Ukraine and I hope other artists follow suit.”
Holland was responding to a call to boycott cultural institutions supported by the Kremlin that was tweeted by Constant Dullaart, an artist based between Amsterdam and Berlin who also asked that his work be removed from MAMM. Both artists said the museum responded immediately and complied with their requests.
This morning, February 28, Ukrainian officials said dozens of civilians were killed by Russian rockets deployed in a residential area of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, while the first round of talks between the two nations failed to achieve a ceasefire. According to the UN Refugee Agency, over half a million Ukrainians have fled into neighboring countries in the past week. And as the invasion and loss of life intensify, members of the arts community worldwide are sending a clear message: They will not associate with an authoritarian regime carrying on a senseless war.
Some cultural workers and organizations, like Moscow’s Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, have ceased operations and made public anti-war statements. Others have chosen the fundraising route: Nadya Tolokonnikova of the Russian performance art and protest group Pussy Riot partnered with Trippy Labs, FreeRossDAO, and PleasrDAO to mint and sell an NFT of a Ukrainian flag whose proceeds will benefit Come Back Alive, a Ukrainian nonprofit that helps the nation’s military and their families. (The latest bid stands at 1,102.5 ETH, about $3 million.)
Still others, like Holland and Dullaart, are actively divesting from Russian state institutions and exhibitions in solidarity with Ukrainians. Among them are Raimundas Malasauskas, Kirill Savchenkov, and Alexandra Sukhareva, who announced their resignation as curators of the Russian Pavilion for this year’s Venice Biennale yesterday.
In a statement posted on Instagram, Malasauskas described the war as “politically and emotionally unbearable.”
“As you know, I was born and formed in Lithuania when it was part of the Soviet Union. I have lived through the Soviet Union’s dissolution in 1989, and have witnessed and enjoyed my country’s development ever since,” Malasauskas wrote. “The idea of going back to or forward with living under a Russian or any other empire is simply intolerable.”
Savchenkov, a Russian-born artist living and working in Moscow, shared a separate statement on Instagram, writing: “There is no place for art when civilians are dying under the fire of missiles, when citizens of Ukraine are hiding in shelters, when Russian protesters are getting silenced.”
While acknowledging the symbolic value of a cultural boycott against the backdrop of bloodshed and displacement, the authors of these recent actions embody a refusal to participate in the so-called “artwashing” of human rights violations. Their positions echo those of hundreds of arts workers who supported a de-authoring of artwork acquired by Zabludowicz Art Trust, an institution whose founder has ties a pro-Israel lobby and the Israeli Air Force, amid escalating violence against Palestinians last year; or the artists and activists who have advocated for New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) to oust board members tied to violent transgressions in Palestine, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere.
For Dullaart, who requested to have his works removed from both MAMM and Moscow’s State Tretyakov Gallery, it could not have been otherwise: “While people are dying, hiding underground and we are offering our home to refugees fleeing deadly and oppressive imperialist ambitions it cannot be that business continues as usual,” he said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic.
At the Tretyakov Gallery, his sculptural piece titled “Target Audience Banners” (2018-2021), which examines the scourge of online disinformation, was taken down from the exhibition Diversity United at his request. The work features images of Instagram profiles along with the flag of the nation where the accounts originated, including Russia and Ukraine; a surreal video Dullaart posted on Twitter shows workers at the museum pulling down the countries’ banners one by one, leaving behind a starkly bare wall.
“My work has previously been censored in countries with authoritarian regimes, so before that happens in this case I call to sanction any cultural framework related to, or supported by this current Russian government,” Dullaart said in a statement shared with Hyperallergic. “I’ve been listening to Ukrainian radio these last days, where heartbreakingly epic music is mixed with emergency warnings. The fear is palpable.”
Dullaart added that Russian institutions working independently of the Kremlin “deserve all possible support to break through this detrimental status quo.”
That sentiment was emphasized by Sergey Guschin and Anton Svyatsky, co-founders of Fragment Gallery in Moscow and New York.
“We as a community need to act and give artists from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia the resources and the platforms to be visible on par with Western artists,” Guschin and Svyatsky told Hyperallergic.
On the evening of Sunday, February 27, Svyatsky and curator Jeanette Bisschops moderated a community meeting at the gallery’s Manhattan space, gathering 40 people including artists from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and elsewhere to share personal stories and discuss ways to support Ukraine. The gallery has also put together a public Google document with resources, including links to donate and tools to avoid censorship in Russia.
“People are living in a very scary situation. My mom right now is in Kyiv and all my family is there as well,” said Kate Goltseva, a Ukrainian artist, during the meeting at Fragment Gallery. Goltseva added that she plans on creating an exhibition of her works and donating the proceeds to aid organizations.
“I don’t fully think the world understands that Ukraine has its own cultural heritage, its history, its art history,” Goltseva said. “I think people should educate one another.”
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