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War in Ukraine through visual arts: when a picture is worth a thousand words

Art has always been a way to express one’s feelings, reflect on unprecedented events and communicate important messages. Amidst the full-scale Russia’s war in Ukraine, visual art became a powerful tool that helps Ukrainians to share their emotions and stories. Both to unite people and to touch hearts all over the world. After all, a picture can be worth a thousand words.

In this article we gathered illustrations, murals, children’s paintings on the walls of bomb shelters, and even a video, created by Ukrainians in the middle of the war. And despite it.

A series of illustrations called “I miss you” by a 15-year-old Ukrainian girl Khrystyna Danko

Illustrations depict one family – a mother, a wife, and a daughter – that deal with the loss of their son, husband and father, a Ukrainian soldier who died in the war. The series incredibly humanizes the statistics and the number of casualties by showing that each serviceperson is, first and foremost, an ordinary human that may have a family, waiting for him or her at home.

In the illustrations, the members of the fallen soldier’s family keep his uniform close, trying to find comfort in it. There is blood on the Ukrainian flag chevron, symbolizing the price that Ukrainians pay for their freedom and independence.

The fact that such deep and tragic illustrations were created by a teenager says a lot. Ukrainian children were forced to grow up very quickly.

Painted walls of the bomb shelters as another example of children’s creative expression amidst the war

Initially, many bomb shelters in Ukraine were rather dull with plain gray walls. For 9 months now, Ukrainian kids have been forced to spend hours there, waiting for an air raid alert to be over. And surely, they started brightening up those spaces in hospitals, schools, and kindergartens. Kids paintings are often in blue and yellow colors, children in bomb shelters often dance and sing together, showing the true Ukrainian spirit.

“Stefania” music video by Eurovision winners Kalush Orchestra

The music video, directed by Maksym Ksonda, depicts Ukrainian women at war – volunteering, trying to save their children, fighting on the frontline and more. Among them, we see a young woman in a military uniform taking her daughter to the priest, letting her go and crying. The little girl was probably killed by the shelling.

Later we see that the girl’s mother came to the priest again and reunited with her daughter. To understand all the symbolism, we recommend watching the video multiple times.

The video was filmed in Irpin, Bucha, Hostomel, and Borodianka – towns near Kyiv which survived Russian occupation. All the destroyed and burnt buildings or cars there are not the decorations or props – they are all real.

Special illustrations of the Ukrainian artist Olha Wilson

Those who lost a family member, a friend or a pet during the war write to Olga asking to draw an illustration in memory of them. The artist creates portraits of war victims for free and, with permission, shares them together with the story.

Illustration by Olha Wilson

Olga often gets requests to draw pets, which Russian soldiers killed on purpose.
Here’s a particular message she received:

“Hello. I am from Mariupol (a city which has been almost entirely destroyed by Russian forces). Please, draw my dog Amur. He lost his hearing due to constant shelling in March, and in April Russian soldiers shot him dead. They took away not only my hometown, they also took away my best friend”.

Unfortunately, pets and their owners alike become innocent victims of Russian aggression.
After one of the attacks on Dnipro, the entire family was killed by a Russian rocket that hit their home. Only a dog named Krym (Ukrainian for Crimea) survived: he was found sitting on the ruins, blind and deaf from shell shock. The dog was crying.

Illustration by Olha Wilson

He was named Krym (Crimea) for a reason. The family adopted him 9 years ago as a little puppy, when they were leaving the temporarily occupied peninsula, and named the dog after Crimea, their home. This story touched the hearts of millions of people around the world and was reflected in one of Olga’s works. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks after the rescue, Krym died in a shelter.

Ukrainian animal rights and eco activists keep fighting to save innocent animals and call to recognize Russian actions as ecocide.

Illustrations by Oleksandr Grekhov that push for a change

There are many LGBTQA+ community members in the Ukrainian military and they speak up about their rights to marry their partner, be allowed to enter an intensive care unit as a family member, take custody of children, etc. The petition to the president to legalize same-sex marriages in Ukraine was signed by more than 25 000 people.

Illustration by Oleksandr Grekhov

To promote the petition, Ukrainian illustrator Oleksandr Grekhov created an artwork depicting a same-sex couple, where one of the partners is a soldier. The text on the illustration says: “They love each other, but have no rights if something happens to a partner”.

Oleksandr Grekhov also regularly create illustations that in the inventive visual way reflect on news and complex Ukrainian reality in general.

“Cultural forces” bring life back to the de-occupied territories

Ukrainian artists gathered in a team to lift the morale of people in the recently liberated settlements. In particular, they play musical instruments and create artworks in public spaces around the cities and villages. Artists share their works alone with the stories of the brave and unbreakable Ukrainians they meet on social media.

The story of this particular artwork is very special. In the recently liberated village Malynivka in the Kharkiv region, artists wanted to paint a symbol of a village, but were struggling with ideas. Then suddenly they heard the sounds of accordion.

It was auntie Olia playing. The villagers told servicemen that she is the real symbol of the village. Olia has been a director of the local House of Culture for more than 40 years and organized cultural events for the locals. During the occupation, she wasn’t afraid to play Ukrainian melodies on her accordion in the very center of the village, when possible.
The servicemen immediately decided to draw a cat with an accordion, which greatly resembles auntie Olia herself.

Varvara Lohvyn, artist from Kyiv, turns anti-tank obstacles into pieces of аrt

Today, anti-tank obstacles that resemble hedgehogs can be seen in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities at every step. Black metal constructions, which make you feel somewhat scared and uncomfortable. But should it be so? Ukrainian artists turn those anti-tank obstacles into pieces of art and make them look less intimidating by painting bright Ukrainian traditional ornaments on them.

Photo: Ukrainska Pravda
Photo: Ukrainska Pravda

At the same time, those pieces leave room for the discussion: while many Ukrainians seem happy about the creative decision, some still believe that war shouldn’t be romanticized and intimidating anti-tank obstacles should remain intimidating.

Those are just a few examples of art pieces, created by talented Ukrainians since the full-scale Russian invasion. Today, they reflect the new Ukrainian reality and help to share it both with each other and the world. But tomorrow, they will hopefully become a part of global heritage that speaks to the future generations about war, loss, hope, and freedom.