Women at War is an attempt to re-conceptualize the historiography of war by placing women at the center of the narrative. This heart-rending show — a collaboration between curator Monika Fabijanska, New York’s Fridman Gallery, and formerly Kyiv-based, now nomadic Voloshyn Gallery — achieves this through a thoughtful selection of artworks by important contemporary Ukrainian women artists, the majority created between 2014 and today. By presenting the artists’ stories, the show exposes the struggles that women of Eastern Europe have been undergoing for the last 60 years. Yet the current Russian aggression brings tragic overtones to these struggles as artists fight not only for their lives, but also against annihilation of Ukrainian heritage and the whitewashing of their history. The resulting exhibition brings together living historical documents of ongoing battles and symbolic representations of trans-generational trauma.
In addition to fighting a Russia that seeks to re-establish its political and ideological borders Ukrainian women artists are challenging Eastern Europe’s traditional patriarchal system. While their country has become a site of mourning, as every family accounts for its losses, Women at War focuses on individual visions of strength and defiance by the artists, who push for greater agency, and for an accurate historical record. Across the exhibition the artists dismantle traditional male-centered war narratives that position men as war heroes while women are silent and often anonymous victims of atrocities and rape, bereaved mothers and wives, daughters of a devastated homeland. Each victim has a story and a name to go along with it.
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Three works in the exhibition are especially representative of this theme. Alla Horska’s striking red linocut, “Portrait of Ivan Svitlychny” (1963) — the show’s earliest work, on loan from the Ukrainian Institute in New York — is a concise and fluid testament to a poet and literary critic who tirelessly fought for the preservation of Ukrainian culture and language under the unifying communist yoke. Horska, herself a dissident and human rights activist, was murdered by the KGB at the age of 41. Her name was later adopted by one of the Guerrilla Girls.
Dana Kavelina’s masterful drawings from the series Communications. Exit to the Blind Spot (2019), based on the artist’s research into Bosnian “rape camps” of the 1990s, are poignant and precise in their portrayals of pain. The artist looks at destroyed identities of raped women forever traumatized by forced pregnancies, necessary abortions, and the postmemory. Kavelina’s “ Letter to a Turtledove”(2020) — a brilliant experimental stream-of-consciousness poem in the form of a film — features a female protagonist meandering among archival footage of the Donbas region of Ukraine. The work bridges a gap of a century, and tragedies that the area has continuously endured.
Women at War draws attention to ongoing war and the fight for a Ukrainian national feminist identity, but it also examines larger, geographically broad questions of history and its authorship. We owe all women at war this reexamination.
Women at War continues at Fridman Gallery (169 Bowery, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through August 26. The exhibition was curated by Monika Fabijanska.