The School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York (Via Wikimedia Commons)

After facing criticism, SVA Galleries, a trio of Manhattan art galleries that belongs to the School of Visual Arts (SVA), has withdrawn from an exhibition that claimed to be in solidarity with Ukrainians. The show addressed the plight of Russian artists facing persecution and banned images of the war, which some viewed as co-opting the suffering of Ukraine.

Curated by the Moscow-based Russian artist and illustrator Natasha Konyukova, the exhibition Perevorot (Revolution) Illustrated was scheduled to be held in early April at multiple locations worldwide, including a space in Moscow and SVA’s Flatiron Gallery in Midtown Manhattan.

An open call for artist submissions posted on SVA’s Instagram account last week introduced the project, originally themed after the notion of “revolution,” as an “international exhibition showing solidarity with the people of Ukraine.” However, the open call also stated that the exhibition “protests the repression of Russian artists, journalists and citizens for voicing their opposition to the war in Ukraine” and instructed applicants that “photographs may not contain documentary images of the war in Ukraine,” underlining the words for emphasis. The announcement also specified that the submitted artwork (comics, illustrations, and photography) must be “wordless” and in black and white.

The announcement prompted furious reactions in the comment section of the post. Luba Drozd, a New York-based Ukrainian artist who has been vocal against Russian propaganda, commented: “Solidarity with people of Ukraine is giving Ukrainians voices and space!! Are you out of your mind?” In another comment, she asked: “Why are you exploiting Ukrainian pain and flag to promote Russian voices?”

Irina Arnaut, an American artist and filmmaker who was born in the former USSR, wrote: “Either @sva_galleries are clueless and, out of sheer intellectual laziness, let themselves be led astray by this curator, or @sva_galleries consciously prefers to deflect from the atrocities committed by the Russian military in Ukraine against Ukrainian civilians, all the while performing solidarity with the very people whose images they won’t allow in their show. Which is it @sva_galleries?”

Ukrainian artist Valerie Malaja wrote in a comment that the show “has nothing to do with support to Ukraine!”

“If you want to support us, give voice to our artists, speak about Ukrainians, show pictures from the war! it’s not a time to feel sorry for «poor suffering» russian intelligentsia,” Malaja added, ending with an angry emoji.

The reactions on Instagram to an open call for the exhibition Perevorot (Revolution) Illustrated at SVA Galleries (via Instagram; used with permission)

On Monday, March 21, Drozd posted an online petition condemning SVA Galleries, and the school itself, for “supporting, giving space, and promoting an exhibition that exploits Ukrainian pain, genocide, and devastation caused by Russian aggression.”

The petition demanded that SVA “remove the Ukrainian flag and any mention of Ukraine” from the exhibition, which it described as “performative allyship.”

The next day, SVA Galleries announced that it had withdrawn from the show.

“The intention of the exhibition was for artists of many countries to show solidarity with the people of Ukraine who are suffering from the atrocities of war in their country,” SVA Galleries explained in a statement. “However, the emphasis in the call for entries on the repression of Russian artists, journalists and citizens vocalizing their opposition to the war created understandable confusion and pain among members of our community.”

“We hope our withdrawal from the exhibition reflects the sincerity of our regret,” the statement continued.

Natasha Konyukova, “Voiceless” (2022). The artist posted the work on her Instagram account to criticize the Russian government’s censorship laws. (courtesy the artist)

Speaking with Hyperallergic via Instagram chat from Moscow, Konyukova said that she still intends to hold iterations of the exhibition in Russia (Moscow and Saint Petersburg) and at locations in the capital cities of Armenia, Georgia, and the Czech Republic.

“What can I say to the Ukrainian artists who are against the show … I don’t know,” Konyukova wrote. “I think they are full of pain and they do not want to hear [anything] from me or any other Russian. I never imagined that could happen.”

Konyukova was measured in her words, in light of Russia’s new draconian laws to stifle free speech and its banning of Instagram just two days ago. However, she explained that her instruction in the open call to avoid images of the war was intended to avoid persecution by the Russian government.

“We are trying to be careful. I am not a hero,” she wrote. “As an organizer of this show, I could get 15 years in prison.”

“I can’t compare my troubles with the catastrophic war in Ukraine,” Konyukova continued. “I am just trying to do something to help.” Feeling helpless in the face of the criticism against her show, she added: “Today I am not Natasha who is against Putin and the war. Today, I am a Russian who shares responsibility for the war.”

After SVA posted its statement announcing its withdrawal from the show, Drozd shared an update to her petition saying that the school’s decision “makes it clear that the exhibition wouldn’t be possible without appropriating the struggle of Ukraine.”

“The statement from the organizers mentions that many of us were ‘confused,'” Drozd said. “We were not. We knew what was wrong and we spoke up.”

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor 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 Capital...