Timely dual exhibitions put beauty, brutality on display
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The beauty of art and the horrors of war are shown one after the other in two new immersive art exhibitions opening Monday at Oseredok, Winnipeg’s leading Ukrainian cultural centre and museum.
The first, The Immersive World of Ukrainian Art, looks at the country’s rich cultural past through the lenses of two of its most famous artists: Maria Prymachenko, a 20th-century painter whom Pablo Picasso described as “an artistic miracle,” and Taras Shevchenko, the 19th-century writer and painter who is called Ukraine’s poet laureate.
Shevchenko’s fame and his connection to Ukraine is known around the world — there are Shevchenko monuments all over, including two in Winnipeg. Prymachenko’s is no less vital, Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine’s former ambassador to Canada, said Wednesday night at a special reception at Oseredok.
“This lady survived the Holodomor, World War II, survived the Communists… she had so much faith and compassion and it’s amazing to see those bright colours at the tip of her paintbrush today,” said Shevchenko, who dedicated the exhibitions to his brother, a military commander who was killed in the fighting in July.
“When you put together all these pieces, optimism, perseverance, faith and compassion, that tells you a lot about Ukraine today: brave Ukraine and brave Ukrainians.”
The Ukrainian people’s courage and determination is on display in the second immersive exhibition, Ukraine: Home of the Brave, which includes frightening footage compiled from work by journalists, photographers and artists during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which began Feb. 24.
It also shows the sorrow and carnage of the aftermath of the attacks, which have killed thousands of civilians and made millions more homeless, some of whom have fled to Manitoba.
Among those who have remained in Ukraine and persevered is Taisiia Poda, creative director with Kostyuk Productions, which produced the exhibitions in Kyiv in conjunction with Oseredok in Winnipeg.
The company had finished most of The Immersive World of Ukrainian Art before the invasion, but had to put the final touches on it amid missile strikes and electricity blackouts.
“We had to deliver the project and we literally did not have electricity and also we did not have water,” Poda said at the reception, the reason she and the rest of Kostyuk’s team are in Canada for a week before they return to Ukraine.
“Finally, two last portions of the content, my guys had to use a gasoline generator.”
The Immersive World of Ukrainian Art reveals a different view of Shevchenko, and that his poetry, which often relates to Ukraine’s hopes for independence, remain as relevant as ever today.
“Taras Shevchenko, this is a man with a big moustache, an old grandfather who is always very sad. That’s the way the Soviet Union showed us,” Poda says. “We did this exhibition just to show how different his personality was, how controversial he was… He was very human, he liked life and he liked people.
“For me, Shevchenko is the prophet. He is the spiritual symbol of the Ukrainian people. He told us things 100 years ago… and when I read his lines, it means exactly the same thing (today).”
Alexandra Shkandrij, Oseredok’s curator, says The Immersive World of Ukrainian Art gives viewers a rare opportunity to view Shevchenko’s art, which is now in storage, packed in the same crates that protected the works during the Second World War.
Poda and the Kostyuk team began working with Oseredok in 2021 on The Immersive World of Ukrainian Art, which has become the largest immersive exhibition of Ukrainian art in North America and the largest exhibition in Oseredok’s 78-year history.
The Immersive World also includes works from Oseredok’s collection of more than 900 pieces, which include paintings, photographs of the Prairies and Winnipeg, textiles, pysanky (painted eggs) and books that date back to the 17th century.
“We don’t have an artworks budget. Everything here at Oseredok is the result of the community’s generosity,” Shkandrij says. “This was the vision behind the project, to show some items from our collection.”
The exhibitions are located in Oseredok’s main gallery and are similar to immersive-art exhibitions such as the Beyond Van Gogh exhibition, which showed the Dutch master’s paintings in a giant salon at the RBC Convention Centre this summer.
Poda at first had difficulty viewing all the raw footage that went into Ukraine: Home of the Brave — the edited version is gripping, yet challenging — but a colleague urged her on.
“It was a very traumatic experience. I watched this material for three months and the problem is that there continued to be more and more and more because the most awful things continued to happen,” she remembers. “I cried a lot of times, but one friend of mine told me, ‘Hey, what are you doing? You should shut up and go and work. A lot of people experienced all this and managed to survive, and you’re complaining about how it’s difficult to you? You don’t have a right to complain.’
“I was so ashamed and embarrassed… and then I started and that’s how I did it.”
Ukraine: Home of the Brave carries a warning for the brutality of its war footage and the efforts to save those wounded in the attacks. Poda agrees, but says the war has affected Ukrainians of all ages and people mustn’t turn away from what’s going on.
“My son, some parts of the war he’s seen on the TV every day, and he’s only seven years old,” she says.
“There is one simple thing. (Russia) does not want Ukraine to exist.”
Alan Small has been a journalist at the Free Press for more than 22 years in a variety of roles, the latest being a reporter in the Arts and Life section.