By Guest Writer Emma McDonnell
Art is a means to document, a means to capture emotions, feelings, and history. Art has the capacity to chronicle and tell the story of a bygone era—to depict events and places which the world no longer knows of. And ultimately, art is a marker of the past, present, and future. As such, it ties us to periods and moments–persevering through devastating and disastrous times such as war and conflict.
Hosted by the Harriman Institute together with the President’s Office of Columbia University, Art in Time of War: Celebrating the Resilience of Ukrainian Culture celebrated the strength and talent of Ukrainian culture through a variety of artistic mediums. The event combined music, poetry, film, art, and conversation to showcase Ukrainian creativity and artistic talent.
The event began with opening remarks from the Director of the Harriman Institute, Valentina Izmirlieva, followed by remarks from the Executive Vice President for Columbia Global, Waffaa El-Sadr. Both highlighted what a unique, monumental, and necessary event this was.
The first of the artistic performances was a string quartet concert. Music has the ability to completely tune out the danger and noise of the outside world and serve as a distraction, with many citing its healing properties. The performance was curated by musical director Anna Stavychenko and performed by Ihor Baryin (violinist), Lavina Paulish (violist), Valeriya Sholokhova (cellist), and Nikita Yermak (violinist). The quartet performed Zoltan Almashi’s String Quartet n.4 “Polltava” (2018), and Stanislav Lyudkevych’s Ballada for String Quartet (1959). It was a momentous recital, especially considering how this was the first ever performance of String Quartet n.4 “Polltava” in America. Prior to the musical performance, Musical Director, Anna Stavychenko, emphasized the importance of Ukrainian music. She mentioned that in order to keep Ukrainian music alive, it is necessary that people continue to listen to it and to ask musical directors, organizations, or associations to incorporate Ukrainian music into their programming.
The string quartet was followed by a poetry reading of “Wine of Angels” by Natalka Bilotserkivets in Ukrainian. The decision to recite the poem in Ukrainian, accompanied by a projected translation of the piece in English, emphasized the need to preserve Ukrainian art in the language of the Ukrainian people.
Next, projected on two screens at the front of the rotunda was a screening of Diorama (2018), a film produced by Zoya Laktionova. The film highlights the city of Mariupol, Ukraine and presents a sharp contrast between the past and present of the city. The beginning of the film begins with narrations which describe the idyllic memories of people’s childhoods in the city. Eventually, the visuals shift to show a different Mariupol, one that is deserted and quiet. The film is filled with clips of birds, sand, and other beach elements. At the end of the film, the audience sees that these clips are not taken on a beach in Mariupol, but rather from a museum diorama, a physical preservation of a beach. Laktionova explains that while this film was produced in 2018, the theme of the film has significant relevance today. Today, the war in Ukraine has changed what was once a blissful, holiday town, into a warzone. All that remained both in 2018 and today, are the memories.
Dora Chomiak, President of Razom for Ukraine, also provided remarks and reflections on the event. She described the non-profit’s efforts to build a democratic and flourishing Ukraine and highlighted the organizations’ contributions to supporting Ukrainians during the war. Razom (which means “together” in Ukrainian), underscored her message of how only together we can further the mission and goal of a flourishing and independent Ukraine.
Throughout each of the remarks and art presentations, a slideshow of art was projected on each of the four pillars in the rotunda at Low Memorial Library. The decision to project the art was thoughtful, as explained by a filmmaker and art expert, Tetiana Khodakivska. She described how each of the pillars represented a different period in Ukrainian history, ranging from the collapse of the Soviet Union to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Each collection was intended to evoke different emotions, for instance the art which represented the fall of the former USSR has undertones of hope and possibilities.
The collections were carefully tailored (ranging from photography and paintings) to evoke an emotional response, something which Khodakivska says is necessary and important. Her words reaffirm the belief that even though certain pieces might evoke emotions of sadness and hardship. These works, and these emotions, are equally significant in furthering the discussion of Ukraine and its history by inviting the viewer to partake in the Ukrainian story and history itself.
The art presentations were followed by a panel discussion moderated by Valentina Izmirlieva (Director of the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies), and included Anna Stavychenko (Musical Director), Zoya Laktionova (Filmmaker), Ivan Krastev (Chairman of the Board of the Center for Liberal Strategies and founder of the European Council on Foreign Relations). The discussion centered around the role of the artist and the impact of war in the time of war. Both Ms. Laktionova and Ms. Stavychenko’s audiences have grown in scope as more people continue to be involved and support Ukraine in the war.
The various art forms throughout the evening underlined the importance of preserving and upholding the Ukrainian identity. The variety offered through these performances allowed individuals to express themselves through the arts. These themes of identity flowed into the conversation as well, as Mr. Krastev described that the current invasion of Ukraine is a war of identity. He noted how Russia is attempting to destroy any sense of Ukrainian birthright and citizenship. However, Russia significantly underestimated Ukrainian identity. It was the Ukrainians’ unifying culture which has fueled Ukraine’s perseverance and resilience in this war.
Being surrounded by art evokes memories and experiences, many of which are unique to a person while also being symbolic of a culture. Sitting together that evening, the audience partook and furthered the Ukrainian story and struggle. Through music, poetry, film, discussion, and art, Art in Time of War fluidly showcased the very best of Ukrainian culture and history, highlighting the resilience and perseverance of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.