A Friend Among the Strangers: Pictures by an Artist from Occupied Kherson

Yulia Danylevska has long used sharpies to draw on the white tiles. A story per each tile. In the last few months, these stories have included Mariupol, looters, a dead paratrooper, a burning house and other wartime symbols.
Yulia Danylevska

A Ukrainian artist from Kherson. Been drawing since 2015. She is now living under the russian occupation.

— It is pretty weird to live under occupation, at times it seems as if you’re somewhere in Cuba — it’s always blazing hot and nothing is clear. When the invasion started, my husband and I took our son to my parents, because their house has a large basement. Every day, we witnessed all those tanks and armoured vehicles through the window. It was scary, I even started having panic attacks. I was furious with myself and frustrated at the fact that the only thing I could do was drawing. Besides, I couldn’t do it but in my own style. I understood that painting wasn’t what was needed at the time, but rather the understanding of geography, knowing how to dress wounds or to drive a car — the skills that will help your family survive.

I was furious with myself that the only thing I could do was drawing.

It soon became obvious that the russians wouldn’t at least bomb the city in order not to fire at their own troop. So we got back home, and it got much easier. Now every day we either cash out or looking for the shops where we can pay with a card — in a word, taking up some daily challenges.

Most of the art community has left Kherson, so it is a bit lonely here. At first, I was shocked, I thought I would be the only one staying here, like a Little Prince on an asteroid. But one gets used to everything. The only thing that’s crucial is the internet availability, as the communication with colleagues went online and became even more intense.

At home I found white tiles and sharpies — my work tools, and images started coming to my head. I came to terms with the fact that I am not the kind of person who could save someone, but rather the one who will be saved. I accepted it and decided to do at least what I am capable of.

First, I created a picture about people collecting snow. At the beginning of the invasion, it was very cold in Kherson, and I kept waiting for the heat to finally come up so that the people in the basements would be warm. And then I learned that the people of Mariupol, on the contrary, want it to snow every day, because it is their water source. It struck me that what I wanted could be wrong. Lots of friends reposted my work on this matter, and I realized someone needed it.

I didn’t want to paint piles of corpses, and decided to show some subtle moments that could remain unnoticed compared to the other crimes of the Russian army. For example, I have a picture where the occupier’s hand removes a gold earring from the ear of a Ukrainian woman.

I didn’t want to paint piles of corpses, and decided to show moments that could remain unnoticed compared to the other crimes of the Russian army.

The main thing is to do everything sincerely and not to approach creativity as a conjuncture, not to manipulate certain topics. I have to be sure that my art will not make anyone worse off. At first it was difficult to depict the war, it seemed that I did not have the right to it, because I personally did not live through it all. Of course, Kherson is also dangerous, there are tanks and people with machine guns everywhere, but at least it has been nothing like Bucha. I can’t create my work based on someone’s suffering, so even when I approach some difficult topics, it is done through metaphors or surreal images, and not by realistic depiction of violence.

However, I still allowed myself to draw a dead Russian paratrooper lying in flowers. In one of the intercepted russian military conversations, there was one fighter telling his wife that the Ukrainians have, quote, “delicious ice cream”, and that we also produce the delicious juice. I immediately imagined them starting to think what a beautiful nature these Ukrainians have in April — sweet cherry blossoms at every corner.

I’m not afraid of drawing it and posting to social media. Yes, people are kidnapped in Kherson and not all of them come back. But I am a “no-name” for them, as they are not aware of the modern art. In order to cross the occupants, one must either be a representative of a public organization, or hold some government position, or be connected to the military. It is unlikely that I would get captured right on the street. But, just in case, I leave my phone at home, because my Instagram account, for example, has a picture of a severed hand holding a russian flag.

I am not afraid, even though people are being kidnapped in Kherson, and not all of them come back. But for the occupants I am a “no-name”, they are not aware of the modern art.

I have not yet found an answer to the question of whether I have the right to wish death to the russians. Because it seems as if there could be some “good russians”, but they also have a childish mindset. And my artwork with the hand i mentioned is not only about my desire to cause them some loss. It is also about the fact that even if you joyfully welcome the invaders, this rink can run over you. They will spare no one.

My first six tiles were bought by some artist. He said that he would also book my other wartime works. Then I wondered when this wartime period would end: would it be before the victory or much later? Obviously, I will be preoccupied with these topics long after everything ends. But I always used to draw everything I saw, so my style and technique have not changed much.

I don’t have an art degree, but Kherson has always had a strong community of artists. Nevertheless, we have a very contemptuous attitude towards modern art. If the genitals are drawn somewhere, that’s the end of the word. Stas Volyazlovsky has heard a lot of criticism of himself, and now it was passed on to us, the new generation of Kherson artists. But at the same time, “nudity”, when a beautiful woman is in some elegant pose, is still admirable here. For me, I also roughly differentiate between “serious” and “non-serious” art, but in my view they are vice versa. I wouldn’t say that modern art is the future, but it definitely defines the present — that’s why it’s called modern.

My work is sometimes compared to the Kinder Album, and she influenced me indeed. In 2015, there was a festival in Kherson, and that’s where I saw her works. At the time, It struck me how simple and cool it was. I already tried to draw by then, but I did not have my unique style. Artistic profession always scared me with the necessity to prime canvases, hire models and so on. This “adult” painting pushed me away, but then I realized that there is an option to create graphics. I faced my fears, and the work began.

painter and performer from Kherson, who created as he himself defined it – chanson art

I also tried to embroider. Simply because I had a calling to create something, and everything my hand reached for became a tool. Even the threads I used weren’t meant for embroidery, they were the ordinary black ones, used for sewing. But I liked the result, although now I look down on those works. Embroidery takes a lot of time, while on tiles you can draw everything you can think of in an evening — so the idea does not get lost. And so far these are my main techniques.

Now there is literally one square white tile left at home — it is very difficult to find such in stores for some reason now. The last time, my friends gave me twenty pieces for my birthday. But I still have the rectangular ones, so I’m already thinking about how to create new works in this format.

I tried to make a large picture out of six tiles, but I didn’t like it. Because I am still attracted to the very format when one tile is a separate story, like an episode of “Black Mirror”. These stories are often on the verge of being a meme, a comic, and a caricature. For example, I like to use the technique of literalism — I draw Jesus with a dandelion, because of a phrase “God’s dandelion” (used to describe an elderly who is peaceful, naive and harmless – Translator’s note), or a literal depiction of “dancing on bones”. I even tried to create comics during the residency visit dedicated to the artist from Oleshki Polina Raiko. But still I try not to cross this line, because I don’t want to do someone else’s work. I mean, we already have a strong segment of illustrators and designers who do it better.

One tile is a separate story, like an episode of Black Mirror. These stories are often on the verge of being a meme, a comic, and a caricature.

There have always been artists susceptible to social processes, as well as those who painted, let’s say, flowers and cats. I can’t tell you how it should be, but I personally don’t understand art in which the artist distances himself from everything. One can follow the principles of romanticism and depict eternal topics of love or nature. But I am relieved when I manage to find a good image to express my stance. I believe that it is important to have a dialogue with the viewer, and being uninvolved in everything is not a winning position.

I don’t know whether the local russian military are aware of the crimes committed by their “colleagues” in other cities, nor how they normalize it all in their heads, but here they deem themselves to be almost similar to messiahs. They see people standing in line for the humanitarian goods, all these grandmothers nostalgic for the Soviet past, and think that everyone here is like that, that they are saving us.

I don’t know whether the local russian military are aware of the crimes committed by their “colleagues”, but here they deem themselves close to messiahs.

I also see long queues for humanitarian aid on an almost daily basis. I would divide the people standing there into two groups. Some are well-dressed and even park their cars nearby, others clearly come from dysfunctional families. Indeed, there are those who are glad about all that’s going on in the city as if they are under some kind of hypnosis.

I still have six works bought by the artist I mentioned. “Nova Poshta” does not work here, and it is too difficult to deliver anything by bus — in case of emergency no one would save my tiles. So I think I’ll have to wait a few more months until we are de-occupied, and send them afterwards. I am very curious about what the future holds, what we will do after the war, at least after the active phase of it. When you pay such a high price, you want literally everything to change, cities to be reviwed.

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