Colors of Ukraine

Updated: 2014-12-06 06:59

By Chitralekha Basu(HK Edition)

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 Colors of Ukraine

Traditional elements of Ukrainian culture, such as the blue kokoshnik headgear, is combined with Japanese manga-style eyes in this painting from the Utopia Project.

Fairy tale, punk culture, psycho pop, anime and satire - the first exposition of contemporary Ukrainian art in HK has a bit of everything reflecting the strange and multifarious experiences Ukraine is going through. Chitralekha Basu reports.

Nevalyashka dolls are probably not the first things that come to mind when one thinks of Ukraine, especially at this moment of political crisis in a country occupied by foreign powers throughout most of its history. Yet, at the first large-scale, representative exposition of contemporary Ukrainian art in Hong Kong, at Gallery Les Noms on Hollywood Road until Dec 9, those dolls appear like a leitmotif, in a series developed by a clutch of artists from Odessa.

This might as well have been Lewis Carroll territory. In artworks by Andriy Djevaga, Oleg Lubimcev, Ripsime Davtyan and Ivan Stoyanov - collectively called the Utopia Project - rabbits sit daintily in flowing nightgowns cradling TV sets and anteaters have vintage gramophones with oversize horns perched on their backs. Nevalyashka dolls with rotund faces, huge pop-out eyes, bulging rose-tinted cheeks and tiny red mouths are dressed up in elegant fishtail gowns and elaborate headgear, and paired up with prototypes of seemingly ordinary human beings - the writer and the beekeeper. In this fantasy world, dominated by soft shades of pink, mauve and cerulean blue, there is indeed a little bit of Ukraine, if you know where to look for it.

"When you think Ukraine, think folklore," says Mariya Gutsu, a fresh graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz, who curated the show. She points to the ornamental blue Kokoshnik worn by one of the idealized figures with large Manga eyes. "This is how we have traditionally represented our culture," she says. In the contemporary Ukrainian artist's world view, however, the traditional tropes are manipulated to make a comment on the present realities. The subdued husband sprouts a television set in the place of his head, dinosaurs wear headphones, a horse dons a soldier's uniform and rides a swan.

Scary dolls

Lewis Carroll appears again in the works of Bondero, one of Ukraine's leading artists, with a dedicated following in European art circuits. His interpretation of the children's classic, Alice in Wonderland, is more on the lines of psycho pop - loud, surreal and slightly unnerving in the way the doll-like figures with oversized heads hold objects in their gaze. They are perhaps more sinister than Bondero's head study of Picasso and the rebel poet Mayakovsky who returns the viewer's gaze with a formidable intensity.

Colors of Ukraine

Bondero, who draws inspiration from his reading of modern masterpieces of fiction, such as Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis and Julio Cortazar's Axoltol, says he is "attracted to irrational strategy and aesthetics of artificial grotesque". The current show covers a wide range of his works. Cheerful, Christmas card-style images of people frolicking in the snow, fairy-tale figures, robots, punks and caricatures of heads of state - there is a bit of everything he has painted over a decade or so. "If you look closely, the visual language in my works has a constant continuity and development," says the artist, in an e-mail interview. "The world is full of aggressive images attacking consciousness and sub-consciousness of a human being. Their phantoms settle in our memory leaving behind the string of tangled emotions." Bondero's artistic project, he says, is to cull different meanings from "this orgy of screaming visualization of emptiness" and "interpret them through the key of abstract surrealism".

Bondero's partner, Irina Berezhko, who came to painting relatively late and caused a sensation almost instantly with her images of human figures with their skins peeled off, says, the idea was to "explore the issues of morality and modern existence". "A human being who is undressed up to the muscles is more tangible, materialistic and has no identity," she adds.

It also probably has to do with trying to figure who she - as an artist and Ukrainian - really is. "Ukrainians themselves consider their own soul a kind of mystery. It is misunderstood and obscure to the end," says Berezhko. "For Ukrainian people and art, the past has gone forever and the present is still forming. It's a moment to form myths that organize society."

Rapture with the past

With Bondero, Berezhko has been trying to take material from the current chaos, turning the psychological rapture into material for creating "a new mental world", one in which "the essence of things, the depth of all processes that are taking place in Ukraine" might be revealed. Chinese art connoisseurs, she hopes, will get to know and appreciate "the myths and legends of the newly-formed Ukraine" through the Hong Kong show.

It seems such optimism is not entirely unfounded. Yuriy Gutsu, the man responsible for bringing Ukrainian art to China in recent years, says the responses, at Art Basel two years ago, followed by an October showing in Macao, have been quite overwhelming. "There is a big market for contemporary Ukrainian art in Hong Kong and the audience is extremely well-informed about the Russian-Ukrainian schools of art," says Gutsu, who is planning to open a second gallery dedicated to the promotion of art from Ukraine in Hong Kong.

"China and Ukraine have a sustained cultural relationship," he says, pointing to a portrait of Chairman Mao painted by Peter Boyko, at the request of his Chinese friends. Showcasing the distinguished painters from Ukraine in China, he says, is therefore in the fitness of things.

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 Colors of Ukraine

Exposed muscles in the works of Irina Berezhko (left) and the presence of punks in that of Bondero are expressions of the chaos in a culture in the process of creating "a new mental world".

(HK Edition 12/06/2014 page6)