Memory Re-flash: the War Paintings of Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi
Israeli artist Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi rose to prominence owing to her two series of paintings. One of them is about her repatriation to Israel in the 1990s. The other tells the stories from her childhood in Soviet Ukraine. Zoya’s paintings depict children waiting for their parents to come back from work, gossiping crones, and bread queues. Her artistic style is often described as social realism, but Zoya prefers not to put any labels on it. The full-on invasion of Russia in Ukraine prompted her to start a new series. In it, the characters from her earlier peacetime paintings are killed under shelling or take shelter in the metro during an air raid alarm. Zoya told Bird in Flight about her new paintings and what subjects resonated with her the most.
A Ukrainian-born Israeli painter. Her works are exhibited in the Tel-Aviv Museum of Art and the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
— The morning of the 24th of February shocked me sh*tless. Before, I was confident that Putin’s claims were nothing but weapon-rattling, and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the stories about the Kyiv bombings. I used to live in the Obolon District, I remember how picturesque it was, and I can’t believe the tanks made it there.
At first, I did underestimate the danger, recommending my relatives just to go two floors below and stay calm. The shellings are less destructive here in Israel — I’m not even that scared when they begin. However, when I saw the utterly ruined house in the photos, I realized my experience was irrelevant. Now that my sister’s family is here in Israel, I spend a lot of time with them. Some of my relatives and friends are still in Kyiv, though.
I am a citizen of Ukraine, but I have been living away from it for many years, so I intentionally did not comment on the developments. Still, the invasion has made it clear who the bad and good guys are. Aside from a crowd of weirdos, everyone in Israel supports Ukraine. Everyone I know is involved in volunteering, and I fell out with the people who could have different views on this many years ago. So, people in the streets overwhelmingly support Ukraine, but the government is limited in what it can do.
It was hard to do anything in this situation, but I managed to pull myself together. This is how my first war-themed painting came to be. I put it up on Facebook and announced I would give it away for a donation to a charity helping Ukraine. The buyer donated $1,200 to the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Since then, there have been many charity sales in Israel, and I participated wherever I was invited.
I’m not nostalgic about the USSR, but I spent my childhood there, so it’s a complicated topic for me, like for most of my subscribers. Russia’s manipulations around the Soviet values are especially insidious. They are just stealing symbols because they are unable to create anything original.
Russia’s manipulations around the Soviet values are especially insidious. They are just stealing symbols because they are unable to create anything original.
One of my paintings depicts people sheltering in Kyiv’s Shuliavska metro station from the shelling. That station was actually designed by my grandfather Anatoliy Cherkassky. Therefore, this image struck me the most when I saw it on the news. The photos of old ladies and overcrowded train carriages also resonated with me — you can see them in my paintings.
I believe I might add a few more paintings to this series, but I do intend to keep it short and sweet. I don’t want it to become a run-of-the-mill thing. It’s hard to say now what other paintings I will do going forward. Art is an emotional reaction, and it is hard to predict.