Ukrainian art project draws the best street artists to Kyiv

It has been two years since Ukrainian crisis struck and the country continues to undergo many cultural, political and social changes. Today, positive initiatives are welcomed not only by citizens, but officials as well. A unique urban art project was launched recently in Kyiv. ArtUnitedUs mediates hope and dedication for change and better future.

By Andreas Pedersen & Dominika Píhová

Rows of battered high, grey buildings are surrounded by both rusty and polished cars that look like from a vintage car model kit. Children are walking on the sidewalks with school bags on their backs and old grandmothers are watering their little provisory gardens which they created around housing estate built during housing boom in the eighties. This is the ordinary picture of Kharkivskyi neighbourhood in Kyiv.

In between an uncountable amount of gloomy buildings, there is one standing out. Painted on the high wall of one of the panel houses is a mural by Ernesto Maranje, a Miami-based artist.

Ernesto chose to paint a giant florid bird composed of many different coloured parts. The artist believes that art can bring people together and allow them to see the bigger picture of events and their own lives.

That is also what his new piece on a side of a panel house represents. “It is basically a lot of small individual independent parts that joined to make one image,” says Ernesto who came to Kyiv to create a mural as a part of a bigger Ukrainian project, ArtUnitedUs which launched this spring in Kyiv.


Artist Ernesto Maranje talks about locals’ reaction to his new art piece in Kyiv

Silent dialect between artist and people

While creating his latest mural, Ernesto made many people interested. Residents were stopping by on their way from work, observing the progress of the mural day by day. Some wondered where he was from, some asked why he is doing such a thing. Ernesto admits himself that first reactions aren’t always the most positive.

“But then with time I put in the smaller pieces, and it becomes more pleasing for the eyes to understand. Then it almost becomes a silent dialect between me, the artwork and the people in the environment around the artwork. So little by little without talking we all kind of understand what is going on,” he adds.

“I think that this picture is the best that I have ever seen. When I saw Ernesto, I understood he is a true artist. I am always glad for a change because all the buildings in our region are the same. So something bright and cool like this is always better,” says Alexander Kulabuhov, who lives in the area.

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Ernesto Maranje’s mural in Kharkivskyi neighbourhood in Kyiv

Art as a tool and a weapon

The ArtUnitedUs project was founded by four young Ukrainian cultural figures Geo Leros, Iryna Kanishcheva, Waone Interesni Kazki and Ilya Sagaidak with an aim to unite the creative powers that will battle the forces of evil and destruction to promote peace in the community.

The project was launched in late March this year with a mural painted by a Russian street artist Rustam QBic. Since then, new murals are being created in Ukrainian capital every week.

Besides fighting the conflict with art, ArtUnitedUs also wants to draw attention back to Ukraine and show that it is much more than a war zone and corrupt country.

“Many other countries started forgetting that there is still war in Ukraine. People die, but not so many in order to report about them on TV,” explains one of the founders, photographer Iryna Karnisheva.

“People still live, work and do all that is possible for cultural and economical development in Ukraine and its revitalising. We want to tell people about it. We want to show, that despite all the war pressure we still can be great,” Iryna says about the project’s aims.

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First mural called Labyrinth painted in Kyiv as a part of project ArtUnited Us. By Russian artist Rustam QBic

The biggest urban art project

200 world class artists are included in the project with plans to paint over 200 murals during the next 2 years, not only in Ukraine but also worldwide. ArtUnitedUs aspires to become the biggest urban art project in the world.

After finishing its first year of painting murals in Ukraine, organisers plan to expand to other countries and create a “ring of peace” that has its beginning and will have its end in Kyiv.

As another founder and street artist known as Waone Interesni Kazki says, artists from all over the world are happy to accept organizers’ invitation to come to Kyiv.

“One thing is the Maidan revolution that attracts them. Another thing is the Soviet history that they are interested in,” adds Waone.

About art project ArtUnitedUs (source: artunitedus.com)
About art project ArtUnitedUs (source: artunitedus.com)

New mural every week

One of the newest murals can be seen on a building standing next to Kyiv’s velodrome. The mural named “Red bicycle” was painted by Canadian artist, Young Jarus who believes this project will especially attract young people to the country.

“Ukraine isn’t necessarily a hot travel destination. But all of the biggest street artists are travelling to Ukraine right now to paint. New murals are coming out every week, so people are like: ‘What is going on in Ukraine?’ I feel like we are actually making a difference.”

In Jarus’ eyes, the murals will give people hope and pass on an important message. “It is for people to realise that things change, and they can get out of the regular box where they feel trapped. Hopefully, they will see the light at the end of the tunnel because of the artwork,” Jarus says.

And he isn’t the only one who perceives the strength of such an art project in relation to the current situation in Ukraine.

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Mural in Kyiv by street artist Alex Maksiov

Hope and belief for change were gone

Along with organisers and artists, many others believe that art is the right focus for Ukraine in these crucial times. More than two years since the Ukrainian crisis begun, the country is still at the beginning of a journey to a brighter future, democracy and an uncorrupted, self-organized society.

Although many things have already changed and Ukraine has made a lot of progress during the last two years, there is still long way to go. But according to Ukraine’s Ambassador at Large Dmytro Kuleba, the most significant change has already happened.

“The biggest and most important change is in the people,” he explains. In Kuleba’s point of view, before the Euromaidan and the 2014 revolution, there was a general perception that the country was heading in the wrong direction, but there was no hope for change.

“Ukrainians believed everything was pre-decided, there was no vibrant society or way to change the direction, the overall discourse.”

The Euromaidan together with 2014 revolution and the following events culminating in the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, series of changes in government and the restoration of the previous constitution have all led to a reassessment of rooted orders in the country and minds of Ukrainians themselves.

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The tallest mural in Europe made by artist Never 2501 in Kyiv as a part of project ArtUnitedUs

“What has returned after the revolution is the hope and the belief in change. This is critical. When people believe in change they start changing reality themselves; you don’t have to run the change. It is happening because people get engaged in it. People want to build an efficient state without corruption, based on democracy and European values and norms,“ says Kuleba.

Creative energy in society

During the prolonged crisis in the country, Ukrainians also began to stress the nation’s identity and authenticity together with things Ukraine can offer to the world.

Many new projects are continuously being launched; numerous exhibitions take place and new brands are born. According to Kuleba, people also became fans of label “made in Ukraine”.

This approach is also adopted by the new Ukrainian government. As Kuleba explains, the main goal in 2015 was to promote and strengthen cultural diplomacy by communicating Ukraine through art.

“The best way to explain the country is to make the foreigners fall in love with the art of the country,” says Kuleba.

Art is important for Ukraine in order to change, says Ambassador at Large Dmytro Kuleba

Thanks to this way of thinking, art projects such as ArtUnitedUs can take place in the country. Despite the fact street art and murals are often viewed as controversial, the project got support and approval and from the City Council of Kyiv.

The founders of the project are confident the City Council actually understands the importance of it. “There are a lot of buildings in Kiev that need to be at least painted, we are happy to bring more colour to all the neighbourhoods. Sometimes we even receive requests from people to paint their house,” says the founder Iryna Kanishcheva.

Citizens themselves appreciate the change and new colour appearing in their neighbourhoods.

“People are going to work and they don’t see the same grey buildings. But they see such a beautiful bird instead. It is going to make people happier,” says citizen Alexander Kulabuhov.

“I’m a little bit tired of that we express our patriotic feelings using yellow and blue like our flag,” he adds.

New ideas, new hopes

Alya Shandra, the managing editor at Euromaidanpress.com, an online English written newspaper founded in 2014 in Kyiv, agrees and stresses that such projects create new hope for the whole society.

In her opinion, there is still a lot of corrupt people in the old Ukrainian system, and there are few people inciting real and lasting change from it’s ingrained Soviet past.

“I think this project will give Ukrainians hope, a feeling of integrity and will to live on. I think it is very important for everybody who is affected by the war right now and who is affected by this transition period that we have right now,” says Alya Shandra.

“We have something good happening here, we have something that’s worthy for the world to notice,” she adds.

Democratic civil society

In favor of country’s approach to present itself through art with initiatives such as ArtUnitedUs are not only Ukrainians.

Associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Denmark and Ukraine expert Søren Riishøj is convinced that projects like ArtUnitedUs will create a new image of Ukrainians in foreign countries and help Ukrainian society to get closer to a democratic system.

Liqen
Mural painted by Spanish artist Liqen in Kyiv

“All such things are positive. It’s part of it and I have also met Ukrainians that talk about education and the arts, which should show that Ukraine is more than just a corrupt nation. Then if you combine it with an active civil society, it meets the requirements of a democratic civil society,” he explains.

Aiming for European values

Getting closer to a democratic system and reaching European values is what Ukraine is trying to achieve in last couple years, but the ideas of what Europe and its values are to Ukrainians differ among them.

While most people in Kyiv wish for further integration with the European Union, many outside the capital aren’t that happy about it.

According to a journalist Alya Shandra, a pessimistic opinion about Europe and the European Union is often coming from Russian television, that is very influential and can be still the main source of news for some.

“From the Russian media, people in South are told that the European Union is a nation of paedophiles and gay parades. They are being told that the EU is a ‘bad man’,” she says.

Despite this, an overall positive point of view of the European Union persists. Alya Shandra believes the excitement about closer integration can even be too optimistic.

The question still is, what people really imagine when talking about Europe and European Union.

“It isn’t even about the European Union, but the way of life. To Ukrainians, the European way of life is when there are no corrupt politicians, when the roads are good and you don’t have paddles every half metre. People, of course, don’t see all the problems. They don’t know enough. They don’t know enough,” Alya explains.

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Mural by artist Ricky Lee Gordon

Professor Riishøj agrees with her. Being optimistic about integration with Europe isn’t a problem, but what people imagine about Europe and if there is a reality behind it that can become an issue.

“About 80 percent of the population have not visited any other European country and been outside Ukraine. Perhaps, many associate the EU with a Santa Claus who shares big money and gifts. So it is important that there is reality behind these European attitudes,” Riishøj says.

Future of Ukraine, future of ArtUnitedUs

However the image of Europe and the European Union differ in minds of Ukrainians, the desire to resemble such a way of life and values is helping rebuilding and changing their own country in a way that hasn’t been seen before.

The project ArtUnitedUs is maybe just a small part of a long journey, but it is a significant element that is creating an attractive environment in Ukraine for foreigners and gives Ukrainians hope and will to continue in their reformatory efforts.

“It is going to give people something to look at and talk about. And hopefully to grow as individuals and a country as a whole,” says the artist Ernesto Maranje.

Although many challenges are waiting for the country but there is strong will to continue the battle. ArtUnitedUs provide Kyiv with another year of transformation and then will expand to other countries in the world to create a “ring of peace”.

This visionary ring will represent everything that the founders of the project wanted to depict: strength of art, community and raising public awareness and attention to the problems of war, aggression and violence.

Ukrainian crisis
Infographic about the Ukrainian crisis (click to open an enlarged version)