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Art with Meaning: Ukrainian Crisis Reflected on Canvas

One of the things even most avid travelers overlook too often is being a tourist in your own city. Since I just recently moved to Houston, I try diligently to build a network and go to different types of events around the city. When I found out there will be an exhibit of art selections from Glassell School of Art faculty members, and one of them is of Ukrainian origin, I knew it was worth an hour-long drive in I-45 traffic during rush hour.

 

The Art Studio of University of Houston Clear Lake was packed with people, and for a good reason: the art pieces in the Reflecting/Reimagining exhibit were as varied as they were though-provoking. From a Vit-a-Man installation calling our attention to the “pill for every ill” society we live in, to a painting that simply said “Worship Yourself” – all the works made you really, really think about your own life and the world around.

 

But I of course was there for the works of the artist with Ukrainian roots, as I was itching to see whether her works had anything to do with, or in any way inspired by, Ukraine. Oh, I was in for much more than I bargained for. Two monumental artworks took up the entire back wall of the art gallery. From afar it was hard to tell what was on them, as they seemed to be layered on and on with different mediums and images. Upon closer look, I realized that they were made in three layer combinations. The first layer was a mosaic of magazine articles that had to do with events the artwork was dedicated to (in this case, one was dedicated to the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity  and one to Russia invading Ukraine and taking away Crimea); the second layer was a symbolic image executed in resin; and the third layer was an overlay of text done in charcoal. Together, the layers created such a depth of perception and meaning that it was impossible to take your eyes away from the pieces for quite some time.

 

What most of the attendees of American origin missed, however, was the meaning of the text, as it was in Ukrainian. One of the works was especially poignant, and resonated with me on such a deep level that I came home and cried for a little while pondering the fate of my country and how it has been tortured by its bully of a neighbor for centuries now. And the end never seems to come. The piece, titled “And Europe was Silent”, is themed around the recent events of Russia annexing Crimea and invading eastern Ukraine, while the world stood by in silence and watched Russia act in blatant disregard of the 1994 Budapest Manifesto that guaranteed Ukraine her territorial integrity. So much for that.

In an incredible bout of luck I was able to meet Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak, the artist herself, and ask her about her work, her connections with Ukraine, and her artistic process. While Lydia was born in the US, the plight of Ukrainian people is near and dear to hear heart as her own parents escaped Holodomor (famine extermination) organized by Stalin and resulting in deaths of more than 7 million Ukrainian people. Lydia’s art touches on Holodomor, the catastrophe of Chornobyl nuclear explosion, Orange Revolution, and, now, the Russian invasion. Looking at all her pieces together, it is hard not to break into tears. As a Ukrainian myself, I cannot believe that my country has been tortured, battered, and bruised by the same “neighbor” for literally centuries… As I stood there, picking out every detail of the painting with my tear-filled eyes, I wondered: WILL THEY EVER STOP?

Lydia was also kind to share with me the poem she overlaid on the “And Europe was silent”. Written by a Ukrainian poet Oleksandr Oles about the famine extermination caused by Stalin in 1932-1933, this poem is breathtakingly relevant to the recent invasion events. History does repeat itself, but at what price? Will anyone ever help Ukraine become truly free, like we’ve tried to become since the 13th century? And the question about Russia aggression towards Ukraine remains the same: WILL THEY EVER STOP?

 

Poem translated from Ukrainian by Lydia herself

Remember by Oleksandr Oles

When Ukraine fought for life,

Battling her hangman, living an dying,

And waiting in vain for some sign of compassion,

Europe was silent.

When Ukraine, in unfairly weighted battles,

Drained of blood, drenched in tears,

Looked to friends for survival,

Europe was silent.

When gripped in chains and brute force,

Ukraine was enslaved, not a master of the land she tilled,

When her cries even stirred the immutable cliffs,

Europe was silent.

When Ukraine reaped a harvest of sorrow

For her lord executioner,

Herself dying of hunger and unable to speak,

Europe was silent.

When Ukraine was accursed,

And replaces with mass graves,

When the demon himself has shed tears for her plight,

Europe was silent.

Please pray for Ukraine.

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