Ukrainian girls who had escaped the war play outside the offices of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Poland (all images by Tamuna Chkareuli)

WARSAW — The once-austere first floor of the head office of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw has been, for weeks, a hive of activity. On one day, standing at two fold-out tables lined up edge to edge, half a dozen volunteers create an assembly line for sandwiches, making as many as 1,500 a day, which are then shipped to shelters for Ukrainian refugees in the Polish capital. A few feet away, behind the metal webbing of famed Polish artist Monika Sosnowska’s installation “Grating” (2009), displaced children play with toys and draw sunflowers, a national symbol of Ukraine.

On another day, a little later in the week, the children’s toys and sandwich station are gone. In their place is a crowd of families lined up to have their photos taken and to receive help with filling out documents necessary for official Polish IDs that will give them access to healthcare and other government services. Sosnowska’s installation is by now adorned with those same children’s drawings, and there are also new places to sit — light foam blocks made to look like stone, created by Greek artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis as part of his ongoing series of installations, Demos.  

A quiet moment at the Museum of Modern Art’s children’s play area.
Volunteers make sandwiches for Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw.

As Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine continues into its second month, and Poland faces the brunt of the worst refugee crisis Europe has seen since the Second World War, the museum has snapped into action, creating an “institution within an institution” in the words of Chief Curator Sebastian Cichocki, to help some of more than two million Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland.

Cichocki told Hyperallergic that the museum’s response has evolved since the first days of the war in late February, from a haphazard drive to gather medicines and prepare food they have begun to build something that they plan to establish on a more long-term basis, and have already hosted Ukrainian poetry readings, stress relief workshops, Ukrainian-language classes for volunteers, and have a more organized collection of medical supplies that are regularly sent to Ukraine.

“We wanted to transform our activities into something more scheduled and prepared,” Cichocki said, adding that they hope to transform the first floor of the office into a “community center” — somewhat unsurprisingly, they call it “The Sunflower.”

Through the efforts of Ukrainian children, Monika Sosnowska’s installation Grating (2009) has turned into a field of sunflowers.

The efforts of the museum are far from a Polish-only affair, with Ukrainian residents of Poland and refugees both taking part. One of the key figures in getting the Sunflower off the ground is Taras Gembik, a Ukraine-born artist and activist living in Warsaw.

For Gembik, volunteering in the relief effort is little more than doing his duty, just as his family is at home. His parents are still in Ukraine, in a small town in the province of Volyn, near the border with Belarus. 

Taras Gembik, a Ukraine-born artist and activist living in Warsaw

“The air raid sirens constantly scream,” he told Hyperallergic. “Everyone’s tired of running into basements. Everyone’s just angry now. The fear is over. They are ready to face the invaders with their bare hands.”

His 50-year-old father, he said, has joined a local territorial defense unit. His 64-year-old mother, a professional violinist, now spends her time making Molotov cocktails. 

“I think the finger exercises one has to do to remain a nimble violinist have become useful for stuffing a bottle with styrofoam,” Gembik said, referring to one of the key steps in the making of the homemade incendiary device.

Protest banners against the war. They were later plastered all over the museum’s windows.

More than just a place where refugees can receive aid, the museum’s office has also become a place for victims of Putin’s war to rediscover their agency.

“It’s much more comfortable here than in Kyiv,” 17-year-old, first-year university student Olya Balyk, who fled Ukraine after the first week of fighting, told Hyperallergic. “Here at least you feel you’re doing something. You’re helping somehow.”

Though, like many of her compatriots, Balyk hopes that she will not have to volunteer at the Sunflower for long. “For some reason, I believe that my university will remain standing. Even if one by one, universities throughout the country get hit again, and again, and some have already been destroyed,” she said.

While she remains in Poland, 17-year-old student Olya Balyk spends her days helping other refugees.

As the Museum for Modern Art in Warsaw is starting to settle into a new rhythm, they are planning further cooperation with artists, writers, and activists in Ukraine itself — as well as the wider region. Provisionally titled “Sunflower Power” the museum is working on creating a journal of what Cichocki terms “counter-propaganda.” The journal will not only be a means to send funds to besieged Ukrainians but will also aim to be a corrective to some of the reductive narratives about the conflict.

“We feel this urgency to create a language to talk about things,” Cichocki said. “We are totally disappointed with the Western left, the level of ‘West-splaining.’”

This report was written by Peter Liakhov with photos by Tamuna Chkareuli.

Peter Liakhov is a journalist based in the South Caucasus. He is Senior Editor at OC Media, a news outlet that covers events in Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. You can follow him on Twitter at...

Tamuna Chkareuli is a Caucasus-based documentary photographer. She was a 2021 fellow of the RFE/RL Georgian Service regional journalism program and has also been awarded the 2020 EU Prize for Journalism...