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Letters from Ukraine: 11/04/22 – House of Art

In this dispatch from Irpin, George Gittoes finds an emblem for the cultural lives and histories of Ukrainian people which have also become targets in the war.

We made the decision, back in Australia, to try to stay at Maidan – the square of the 2013-4 heroic Euromaidan protests, where after months of protest through a freezing winter and many deaths and disappearances, the pro-Putin President Viktor Yanukovych was forced to make a midnight flight to Russia. The Euromaidan protesters combined beautiful youths full of idealism with Orthodox priests and older people, including grandmothers and grandfathers. They were prepared to die for freedom from Russian control, and many did die. It was such a heroic stand that I have continually wondered if we have a right to make a film here, in the shadow of these heroes. People power that rose up and won, but at a terrible price. We walk around the Maidan, feel the ghosts, and are overcome with awe for those who stood up for right against power. Yanukovych won his election by promising to join the EU, but did a secret deal with Putin to bind Ukraine back with Russia like Belarus. The protesters saw their future: free of Russia and part members of the European community.

Few people outside Ukraine know the history of Maidan. The reason their soldiers, many volunteers, are so willing risk their lives is that they intend to retain what the Maidan martyrs fought to gain. When do I interviews from Kyiv I am asked, “What makes this different to all the other wars you have experienced?” I answer, “The passion of a whole population that is willing to fight the Russians to the end, even if it means losing everything.” So many have already lost everything. As we drive the back blocks of Bucha and Irpin, the house-by-house destruction begins to sink in. The media have been taken to designated areas that show spectacular damage and loss of life, but it is possible that these were places of intense battle, and the surrounding areas could be intact. Our driver, Kate, knows Irpin well, as it is where her grandmother lived. Kate keeps repeating to herself but out loud, “I can’t adjust, I can’t believe any of this – I know it as it was and now it is gone.” We pass the University which has been gutted – the Russian V sign sprayed over bullet-holed walls – and then a colourful children’s playground beside a destroyed café, where parents were able to have a coffee and chat while their kids played. The fence around the blackened structure is made up of short palings with pointed tips, painted like large, coloured pencils. Knowing I am an artist, Kate wanted me to see the House of Art.

The House of Art has been a made a target with every kind of ordinance in the Russian arsenal fired at it. The roof is gone, and the inside charred.

There are two white Soviet-era statues between the front columns – a man on the right who could be a singer, a performer, or a painter, but definitely and artist, and on the left a mother at looking us as if into a bright future, and holding an infant on her shoulder who has an outstretched arm in a gesture towards the sky. The child’s little fingers have been shot off and the man on the other side has a bullet hole over his heart. 

Men like Trump and Putin surround themselves with gilded, ornate furniture and expensive gaudiness. As true barbarians, they hate what they do not understand, and art is at the top of their hate list. They like whatever is gold and glitters as affirmation of their wealth and power. Putin would like to oversee the destruction of European and Russian culture.  

I found a tin bucket, turned it upside down for a seat and drew the House of Art. I will develop it into a painting – a metaphor for this war on culture. As returning residents of Irpin passed, on the way back, to search through the rubble of their homes, they went out of their way to come and look over my shoulder, all saying how glad they were that art is happening again in this place of culture. As we drove out, we saw several of them beginning to make repairs to their bombed homes, and we waved to them.

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