WILLIMANTIC — For artist Lesia Khomenko, painting life-size portraits of Ukrainian soldiers was a way of keeping herself calm and distancing herself from the war raging around her.
“I produce distance to the problem, and it helps me to survive as a human,” Khomenko told onlookers on Wednesday at The Art Gallery at Eastern Connecticut State University.
Khomenko, a resident of Kyiv, said she moved about 20 times in the six months after Russia attacked Ukraine on February 24, before coming to the United States. Her husband, Max, a sound artist and musician turned soldier, remains in Ukraine. In one of her oil paintings, he stands in a gray jacket and pants, his hand to his forehead in a salute.
Khomenko is one of 14 female artists featured in a new exhibition, “Women at War.”
The exhibition, which features photographs of life in a war zone, ink drawings describing childhood in an occupied town in eastern Ukraine and graphic depictions of wartime violence against women, originally opened at the Fridman Gallery in New York.
Monika Fabijanska, the curator, told CT Examiner that she hoped the exhibition would refocus the public’s attention on the war, after summer vacations and the passing time.
ECSU Curator Julia Witner said she felt the exhibition would expose students to a part of the world that they wouldn’t otherwise have access to in their “quiet corner” of the state.
“Our students are often Connecticut-based and Connecticut-born and Connecticut-raised,” said Witner. “So for them to see the real artwork that [were] produced recently in reflection on this current war is maybe a lifetime experience … an eye-opener event.”
The exhibition includes four of Khomenko’s paintings: the portrait of her husband and three paintings of soldiers’ faces that have been masked or pixelated. Khomenko said she based these paintings off of selfies that she found on the internet, which soldiers often take when they receive aid packages. But the soldiers or outside groups providing aid to Ukrainian blur the faces of the soldiers because it would be too dangerous for them to be recognized.
Khomenko said that she saw these photos — pixelated, blurred and edited — as almost a new kind of human that was part robot. She said she wanted her paintings to be “a little bit scary” to emphasize the dehumanization in these photographs. She compared war photographs that have flooded the internet to “pornography.”
“Our internet is full of disgusting dead bodies. And we as a society since March, every day are looking at bodies,” she said. “I think that in next years … it will change society — not only Ukrainian society.”
“Everybody is a loser”
The artwork dates back to 2014 and the initial Russian invasion of Crimea, and the ongoing conflict in eastern region of Ukraine, known as the Donbas, between Russians, Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian soldiers. Winter noted that Ukrainians see the most recent invasion not as a new war, but as a continuation of that eight-year-old conflict.
The choice to focus on women artists came in part from Fabijanska’s own background as a feminist art historian. She said that women’s narratives often get lost in historical tellings of events, and that war is a central part of human history.
“I’m really curious [to hear] their voice and imagining them as witnesses and as those who write history, because of course, art is also a document of history,” she said.
Witner pointed out that women represented about 25 percent of the fighters in Ukraine now, as well as having to take care of homes and children. She said this is a testament to the strength of women.
“Even in times when it’s peace and there is no war … we women have more strength that we know about. And I think we should just be more assertive and take more power in everything we do and certainly be proud of ourselves in every part of our life,” she said.
Fabijanska said that one common theme among several artists was the desire to tell the story of the war from the lens of the people who suffered its consequences, rather than the “winners.”
“They focus not on the concept of victory, but they oppose the concept of victory itself and they focus on the defeated. They say that everybody is a loser in war … and they focus particularly on groups of the society, which are the poorest, the more disadvantaged, left behind,” she said.
One exhibit, a series of photographs of life in the Eastern region of Ukraine from 2014 to 2017, highlights this theme with its title, ‘Victories of the Defeated.’ The artist, Yevgenia Belorusets, focused her work on female coal miners in the Ukrainian region of Luhansk in the East, and how they resisted military rule.
In an artist’s statement, Belorusets noted that since the bombing in 2022, conditions in the city have only worsened — the railroad linking the region to central Ukraine was bombed in March, many places have lost electricity and communication lines have been cut.
“An acquaintance who left Lysychansk in the days following February 24 told me about her friend, an elderly teacher, who had been buried by her son in a small garden, in the courtyard of their house. She had died in the bombardment, but reporting her death was complicated, the family only switched on their telephone for a few hours each week,” Belorusets wrote.
Artist Alana Grom takes on a similar theme from a different vantage point, with her photographs of women who gave birth and raised children in the war zone in Donbas. According to Fabijanska’s essay, many of these women stayed with their babies “in cold, damp cellars for month.” One of the photos displayed at Eastern shows two children, a girl and a boy, holding hands and looking upward from the bottom of a cellar.
Grom herself lost her home in 2014 and became internally displaced.
Fabijanska wrote in an essay accompanying the exhibition that the understanding of feminism in the former Soviet Union countries is different than that of the West — post-World War II, when Western women were returning to the domestic sphere, Eastern European women were expected to continue taking on the roles of men in the labor force while also taking care of the home, leaving them exhausted and still without the same rights as men.
Historically, Fabijanska explained, women in the West mobilized on the “home front,” while women in the East took part in uprisings, since “every war was fought at home.” Yet their stories, she said, don’t make it into the record.
“Women are generally absent from the historical accounts of war, but violating a woman is seen as a violation of land and nation,” she wrote in her essay.
Another series of drawings, by artist Dana Kavelina, underscores the effects that rape, a tool of war, has not only on women but on society. One shows a man with his hands covered in blood and a woman with her lower body covered in blood; over the man is written “honor” and over the woman “dishonor.” A second piece underscores that the word “nation” comes from the Latin root meaning “to give birth” and a third shows a picture of hands tied together with red thread leading to a woman’s vaginal area.
The accompanying text reads “we are all tied now.”
“Save me from the horrible nightmares”
Many times, the artists’ personal stories become part of their work. Fabijanska noted that while the majority of the artists lived and worked in Kiev, many of them were born in eastern Ukraine. When she first started curating the exhibit back in the spring, nearly all of the artists were still in Ukraine. Now, only two or three remain there.
The split between family members who have fled and those who have elected to stay in their homes — many elderly — is the topic of Strawberry Andreevna.
Alevtina Kakhidze drew a series of graphic-novel-like panels depicting phone conversations she had with her mother over the course of five years, from 2015 to 2019. In one panel, she sketches the scene of people standing in the local cemetery talking on their mobile phones — it was the only place that had cell reception.
Fabijanska said that of the approximately 3 million Ukrainians who remain in the Donbas region, about 1.2 million are elderly. These retirees have to cross to the Ukrainian side of the demarcation line every two weeks to receive their pensions.
“There are checkpoints. Their documents are being checked by the military people on both sides of the line. This is an extremely stressful situation,” said Fabijanska.
During one of these excursions, Kakhidze’s mother died at a military checkpoint from cardiac arrest in 2019.
Another artist, Olia Fedorova, spent nearly three months going between her apartment and a bomb shelter in her home city of Kharkiv, which was shelled constantly from February 24 through May 13. Left without any materials that she could use to make art, she resorted to writing poetry with felt-tip pens on scraps of bed-linen. The result was a series of nine poems, called the “Tablets of Rage.” The one displayed at Eastern, called “May You Choke on My Soil” is a curse on the Russian soldiers who are invading Ukraine.
Fabijanska said that the series of poems begin with several addressing the enemy. Then, they shift tone. The final poem, written ten days before she fled to Austria, is addressed to God.
Don’t let me ever forget my roots,
But also don’t let the past engulf me.
Give me enough rage to keep fighting,
And may pain and anger not poison my soul anymore ….
Give me the merciful dreams and save me from horrible nightmares.
“Women at War” is open until Oct. 15 at The Art Gallery at Eastern Connecticut State University