Letters from Ukraine: 25/06/22 – Bonnie and Clyde

In his final dispatch from Ukraine, George Gittoes recalls the challenges and successes of the House of Art exhibition and his journey, with Hellen Rose, out of Ukraine – and imagines what shape the duo's work will take in the future.

Kate took a platform snap of Hellen and I leaning back on the departure train from Kyiv – it was like the shots of Bonnie and Clyde posing with their guns against a getaway car. We have that outlaw look. I often say that what we do is not much different to robbing banks. Back in March, we were told not to cross the border from Poland by Australian consular authorities – that it would be at our own risk, and it was totally against their wishes.

We booked the four bunks of a second-class sleeping carriage so we would have room for all our luggage. Our collaboration with Ave has turned us both on to miniature drawing. Hellen has a black pad and I have a white pad, each with thirty-two pieces of square paper 90 x 90 mm. I am using black ink pen to draw heads in a series I’m calling Facing Evil, while Hellen is working in white to depict images from her experiences in Ukraine. Ave’s graphics have had the strongest influence on me by a living artist since the Yellow House days with Martin Sharp, Franklin Johnson and Brett Whiteley. Ave’s visual language is so close to my own; she has gotten under my skin in the most positive way. As we chug along past the Ukraine countryside, I cannot get one of her images out of my mind. It depicts a Russian couple with skull faces in black hoodies sitting back on a lounge that drips blood. They are watching a screen which sucks their attention into a black-hole-like vortex. The man holds a bottle of vodka, and the woman a TV remote. They are ignoring missiles destroying a Ukrainian city, which is happening on the far horizon. Ukrainians all have friends and family in Russia who are so brainwashed by Putin’s propaganda that they refuse to accept there is a war going on in Ukraine. The Russians stop emailing and block social media after becoming abusive about what they see as lies and fake news being sent from Ukraine. Ave has created a new graphic work every day since the war started. She works on tiny 180 x 130 mm sheets. I first saw her work in Odessa with other artists curated by Uma and taped to the walls of the book market. I assumed the originals would be as large or larger than Uma’s prints, and was stunned to discover they are a fraction of the size. Ave gave me a pad and I started working beside her at the destroyed House of Art. When she sent me scans of my drawings it was a revelation. Working on this scale I am freer and more imaginative, and my lines are firmer and more confident. Each new idea could be completed in under an hour.  I said to myself, “This is going to be fantastic when travelling or waiting at transit terminals, I can complete a whole series throughout the journey with just a pen and a small pad.” That is what Hellen and I are doing now on the train out to Poland. Thanks Ave!

While doing our show at the House of Art we agreed to let a Mexican photojournalist and documentarist, Narciso Bravo, make a short film about us. Unlike a lot of political journalists, Ciso has an extensive knowledge of the history of art and literature. He observed everything we were doing intently. He particularly loved Hellen’s performance with her long yellow and blue train and winged headpiece. Ciso kept comparing Hellen to Frida Kahlo. At the end of the last day, he shot a extended interview as we walked around the ninety works in the show, explaining the stories behind every work. As we finished taking about the art, Kate and Alex would take them down and pack them into the waiting truck. When Ciso was leaving he turned and said, “Diego and Frida did their paintings and they were all good, but the great cultural gift they gave to Mexico was their lives and the wonderful love story of their collaboration. They were dead before I was born but meeting you and Hellen is like meeting them – please, let’s stay friends.”

These few last weeks have been totally focused on the Victory show at Irpin’s House of Art. We have pushed ourselves to exhaustion and hope this long train journey would be a time to unwind and rest. Hellen’s performance piece ran over two days and the collaborations inside with Ave another three days. Between preparing the exhibition space, I worked at the site of the car graveyard finishing the bridge painting which would be the centrepiece of the show as it has such tragic significance to the local community.

The show was open to the public for four days from twentieth to the night of twenty-third. Attendance was good with the highlights being the visit of the council manager and Miss Ukraine.

Had we thought about it we might have considered it impossible to make this event succeed with just Hellen, Kate, and I doing all the work. But help materialised out of nowhere. I met Alex when I was painting the dead Russian inside a destroyed tank at Bucha. He offered to be of assistance any way he could, and turned out to be amazing. 

On the twenty-first, after a successful morning with many visitors, there was a hurricane-strength wind and rainstorm. I was lifted up in the air when carrying one of the canvases. It broke into a dozen pieces and Alex offered to fix it overnight. When we arrived the next morning, he was in the last stage of screwing it together. We had another helper – Olga – who is a university student and saw what we were doing from a bus, and got out and helped solidly for two days. Kate was tireless as always.

On the drive back to Kyiv on the night of twenty-third, we were all close to chronic exhaustion.  

The pace has not decreased, so we have been counting on getting some rest on the train. 

The narrow bunks in our cabin are reasonably comfortable, and we got some broken sleep as the carriages rattled and bumped through the night. All our fears of a problematic journey vanished until the train stopped nine hours ago.

It is 25 June, and we have been in Ukraine for over three months and are craving to get home to our beachfront house, two dogs, and comfortable bed. But our train is stuck five kilometres from the Polish border. It was due to arrive in Przemyśl at 7:30 after twelve hours in transit. It is now 4:30 pm and nine hours late. 

The guy we have organised to drive us from Przemyśl to Krakow, Mateusz, is getting impatient. When we call him with updates, he is saying he has urgent things he must get back to. He has been waiting at the station since early morning. Our hold on him is tenuous as he no longer works for the Australian company he was employed by when he drove us to the border in March. This is a personal favour to us out of the goodness of his own heart, but the long wait is stretching the friendship.

The carriage is full of families, many with small children. We have not heard any crying or complaining, they are being remarkably well behaved. 

No one has eaten since we left Kyiv at 7:30 pm yesterday. Besides our bottle of Ukrainian vodka, which we have slowly been consuming, Hellen has some thinly sliced cheese and a packet of sunflower seeds. I’ve just watched her sprinkling a core of seeds down the centre of a slice and rolling it into a snack. I was offered a bite but will not accept another one. It is the peak of summer, making the carriages into hotboxes. When we headed here, it was snowing outside and we were rugged up to the max with thermal underwear; now we are stripped down. Hellen just said, “It is sweaty and horrible, claustrophobic, and the children will start going crazy. If we must walk out, what will we leave behind?” 

I have seven canvases rolled together in cling-wrap – they are two metres long and weigh as much as a fallen tree. I imagine carrying them on my shoulder Christ-like, over the five kilometres to the border, and then the additional twenty kilometres to Przemyśl, while dragging our camera gear with my free arm.

A loudspeaker keeps telling us all to stay in the train, but the containment has gotten to be “too much” and people have begun to trickle out onto the platform. I’ve joined them, wandering over to sit on some “bum burning” tiles and enjoy a bit of sun while the other passengers stand in the strip of shade made by the carriages. I am the only person outside who is not holding a mobile phone. More than anything else their phones are a security blanket to clutch onto. 

The news from the phones is that the Russians fired forty missiles from Belarus last night with one hitting a military base near Lviv. 

While the train was still rolling, I heard sirens and an explosive thump. After living through the bombardment of Kyiv that has become normal, and I went back to sleep. What I had heard was a missile exploding above the train and damaging its electrical contacts. Engineers have been on the roof trying to make repairs since we stopped but the railway guards are saying nothing. The official reason we cannot move is that there is only one track and there is another train sitting in the station in Poland. We have been told it has to pass before we can go forward. 

Putin’s forces are beginning to win ground because they have vastly superior fire power. The West is sending military aid and using the trains to carry it. I am thinking that if the other train is loaded up with rockets and artillery needed to slow the Russian advance in Donbas, it would be an obvious target and would not want to move until night, using the cover of darkness. Our train only has human cargo but that does not matter to Putin and his generals. We could be stalled here indefinitely.

Waiting in the heat. I never thought Europe could get as hot as an Australian summer, but it is scorching outside. Since there is no food or water on the train, people have begun to rebel and wander off to forage. Hellen and I decided to follow them into a village with two tiny roadside shops. The first one had a long queue, which Hellen joined and suggested I try the second one. I grabbed a selection of homemade biscuits from some wicker baskets and bottled water. As the shop lady was putting the biscuits into a paper bag the train siren sounded urgently. A teenaged boy in the queue panicked and said, “We have to run, the train is leaving in five minutes.” I had to assume Hellen was running ahead of me and if she was not, I could try to hold the train until she arrived. Back at the train there was no movement and people were still milling around on the platform. Hellen arrived and threw up her hands, dismayed that we had run for nothing. We found some shade under a tree with other passengers. Small red cherries had fallen from it and were scattered around us. We ate the cherries along with the biscuits and quenched our thirst with my bottled water. 

6:30 pm. We are still stuck and seem to have lost our ride from Przemyśl. Mateusz has phoned to say he has already waited twelve hours and now has to leave for other commitments. We have so much luggage we cannot move freely if and when we get there – the hotels are all full and there is no certainty we can pay a taxi to drive us the four hours to our hotel in Krakow.

There has been an announcement confirming that the reason for the delay is damage by the Russian missile to the contacts – these trains are electric and the contacts brush along the overhead wires. The other train is still at the station.  The general theory among passengers is that they are waiting until dark so we can travel in greater safety. 

It is 8:00 pm and there has been a second announcement the train is about to leave. No one believes this until the wheels start moving, and we all cheer with relief and joy, only to be disappointed as it lurches and stops.

It is 8:30 pm and the train is slowly moving out of the platform, and everyone is cheering again. Hellen has rung Mateusz. He is prepared to wait another hour. 

The train has travelled a few kilometres and stopped. We are told it has completely broken down and we will have to get off. 

Hellen gets onto Mateusz with her phone and tells him the bad news and that he should stop waiting and go. We begin to accept our fate – stuck on the side of the railway line in a no-man’s-land with too much luggage to carry, left on our own and no way of reaching Krakow. Then Hellen’s phone rings and it is Mateusz asking us to find out if we are in Poland. Not even the train guards have any idea of where we are, but Hellen finds our location on Google Maps and sends it to Mateusz. Heroically, he volunteers to try to come and get us. 

After Polish immigration soldiers check out passports and stamp them, everyone is told to leave the train. I am helping women and children out with their luggage, leaving ours until the carriage is empty, when we see the smiling face of our saviour Mateusz and start handing bags down to him.

As we drive out, we pass the other 500 passengers with their possessions on the side of the road. We have gotten to know many of them, especially the children, and feel like we are betraying them but there is no way we can help.

As we approach the border there is a fifteen-kilometre queue of cars waiting to get back in.

It has been a very close call. If it had not been for Mateusz, we would still be on the side of the tracks with all our luggage and no solution.

Kate, our assistant in Ukraine, often commented “You are always so lucky.” Kate was constantly amazed to see how things came together, often making difficulties and obstructions vanish against the odds. I improvise according to the signs I discover along the way and have a blind faith in the path they guide me along. 

When I was young, like so many of the ’60s generation, I read everything I could find to help discover the meaning of existence. An idea contained in a thin book by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin titled Hymn to the Universe made more sense than anything else. I have not read it again since, but I still treasure its lesson. De Chardin was both a Jesuit and an evolutionist. He was part of the team that discovered the missing link, Peking Man, and was condemned by conservatives in the Catholic Church. In Hymn to the Universe, he points out that all life, from the first simple cells that formed in the sea, has kept developing towards having abilities that enable a greater understanding of the self and the Universe. He suggested there is force he calls the Omega Point that attracts life and consciousness forward to attain greater complexity, and to be able to understand the ultimate truths of creation and being. As a Jesuit, de Chardin identifies this magnetic force as Christ, and that is where I begin to feel uncomfortable with his vision. But I do agree that there is something pushing us to evolve as a species. There has never been a time in human history where more is at stake. If we do not stop doing war, spending on weapons of destruction, and ignoring the health of our planet, the whole human experiment could end.

While in the Ukraine, I began to have a semi-religious idea of my own. What if a central point of enlightenment, similar to what de Chardin describes, is drawing all consciousness towards it? Most Ukrainians believe that Putin and his gang have forced the population of Russia to devolve while, since independence, Ukraine has evolved at a great rate. That their fight is to continue to evolve and not be forced backwards. It is a struggle between light and darkness. This is a struggle we are seeing, to different degrees, all over the planet. 

We have now checked into the sixth floor of the Mercure hotel in Krakow. We are sitting out on a balcony watching four spiders building webs, with great difficulty, as a hot breeze keeps blowing them against the clear Perspex balustrade. There is something strange about these spiders. They have two fake eyes on their abdomen, so when upside down it resembles a head with a tiny alien body hanging below – like sinister fairies. The lights and advertisements of a mega mall reflect behind them. It is as if one of my or Ave’s insect graphics has materialised. 

When we get back, we will be asked how damaging the Ukraine experience has been and what level of post-traumatic stress are we dealing with. My friends are always puzzled when I say, “I am OK,” and think I am hiding the truth from them.

The human mind has more capabilities for self-protection than it is credited with. It is possible to learn to block inner harm while remaining sensitive. The popular belief is that those who are exposed to horrendous experiences in war either become hardened and detached, or they are crippled by PTSD. It is important to explain that there is a third way. Concerned people, especially empathic artists, should not be discouraged from going to the frontline of human conflict out of fear that this will do them lasting psychological harm. They should never feel the need to follow the reply, “No I am not messed up; I are happy to have been there!” with an apology. 

Hellen will express this in her own words, but I know her time in Ukraine, like the many times in Afghanistan when she has witnessed shocking things, will not deter her from returning. 

The Kibeho massacre in Rwanda was the harshest experience of my life 

As I hitched a ride back to Kigali in a military ambulance, I looked over to the two paramedics who were working to keep some seriously wounded women and children breathing and thought, “This has been a terrible thing to see, but if we had not been here those, we have managed to save would be dead. Plus, I have the films and drawings in my bag which will mean the atrocities committed in this massacre will not be forgotten or hidden.” In Ukraine, Hellen and I have absorbed the carnage and destruction of comparable war crimes, but we are leaving knowing that by doing the performances and show at the House of Art in Irpin we brought a sense of hope and victory amidst the death and destruction. We used art and not guns to defy the Russians and it will be by maintaining the spirit of the Ukraine people that the Russians will be defeated. We are proud to have contributed and will return to do more. That two people journeyed all the way from the safety of Australia, at a time when it looked like Kyiv would fall within days, and created something inspirational, meant a lot to a lot of Ukrainians. 

When we are away, we dream about the moment on the drive from the airport when we will look down from Kiama Heights to our little village of Gerringong and our house facing Werri Beach. We have made it home again but there is something missing: our two dogs, Star and Snug, are not there to greet us. Hellen has decided to do the three-hour drive to Bodalla where they are being minded by the ceramicist Cameron Williams and his family. I will be worried until she is back safely and has not fallen asleep at the wheel.  

We will not be home for long as we are heading back within a couple of weeks to our Yellow House in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. The whole time we have been in Ukraine we have been conflicted knowing we are needed, possibly more, in Afghanistan.

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