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Maria Kulikovska and Christopher Nunn: Two artists in the midst of the Ukrainian conflict | The World Weekly

On Tuesday, the Saatchi Gallery in London opened its doors to 30 shortlisted emerging artists aged between 18 and 35, as part of its UK/raine art competition. The art show comes amidst continuous unrest in Ukraine, whose turbulent recent history has influenced participating artists.

The troubles in Ukraine started in late 2013 with a series of protests on Kiev’s Maidan square, eventually leading to the resignation of President Viktor Yanukovych and his government in 2014. The revolution put the country at odds with its neighbour Russia, which refused to recognise the new government. Soon after, a civil war erupted in Eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and the new Ukrainian government, leading to an all-out war in the Donbass region and the annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea by Russia in 2014.

Two of the participating artists who have experienced the conflict in Ukraine first-hand are Maria Kulikovska, shortlisted for sculpture, and Christopher Nunn, shortlisted for new media. The artists come from different backgrounds and have different artistic voices. Ms. Kulikovska, was born in Kerch, Ukraine, a region now occupied by Russia. Her art is outwardsm bold, provocative and activist. Mr. Nunn, on the other hand, is based in the English county of Yorkshire. His photography is subtle, quiet and reflective.  

Both experienced the political and social changes following the Maidan protests from the earliest days. Ms. Kulikovska as a native, Mr. Nunn travelling to the country for a photography project. 

The shaker

“I have always heavily involved politics in my art”, Ms. Kulikovska tells The World Weekly, “even before Maidan happened”. Her artwork ranges from sculpture to performance art, often focusing on social and political issues such as feminism and inequality. For example, in January 2014, following Russia’s implementation of a law prohibiting LGBT propaganda, Ms. Kulikovska married Swedish artist Jacqueline Shabo. The marriage is “fake”, however. It is a sign of protest against inequality and homophobia in both Russia and Ukraine, where Ms. Kulikovska is, according to her CV, “the first woman to be in a same sex marriage.”

‘Homo Bulla’, statues made of soap, August 2012

For the Saatchi exhibition, the artist has recreated her work ‘Homo Bulla’, consisting of soap casts of her own body. On the first day of the exhibition, Ms. Kulikovska attacked her own statues with a hammer, wearing nothing but a pink wig, sunglasses and a pair of shoes. Her action mirrors what happened to the original set of her statues that were standing outside the Izolyatsia centre in Donetsk. In summer 2014, pro-Russian militants occupied said art centre, shooting in the process Ms. Kulikovska’s statues made of plaster and soap. The art gallery was later transformed into a prison. “They occupied it because it was a beautiful place, a place of progressive ideas, democracy and freedom, ideas which clashed with theirs.”

The replicas at the Saatchi gallery are made with soap she purchased in Sweden. The same soap is used by military factories to test ammunition as it has the same consistency as the human body. By destroying her statues, Maria attempts to show the reality of war but also protests against the appropriation of her body. “There was a lot of pain inside me when I tried to destroy my statues. I tried to kill myself with my own hands to show that no one else can take your life. Only you and nature are the master of your own body, not others.”

The observer

Mr. Nunn travelled to Ukraine in February 2013 for an ongoing photography project. His attraction to the country originally had personal reasons. “Politics was never my focus, initially. I am not an expert on Ukraine, nor a political analyst. I am a photographer.” His grandmother, who lives in Kalush, Western Ukraine, suffered from amnesia, prompting Mr. Nunn to explore and understand the place she was born and lived.

Over the past 18 months, he has travelled to Ukraine on multiple occasions, exploring mostly small towns, steering clear of big European style cities. “The majority of the work is me wandering around and slowly meeting people. A lot of the pictures I’ll end up using are from genuine encounters where people were interested and I spent time with them in their houses or apartments.” His pictures frequently show the often harsh, bleak realities of Ukrainian small town life, mixed with intimate portraits of the people he met.

Man Feeding Stray Dogs, Kalush, February 2014

During his Ukraine odyssey, Mr. Nunn inevitably got caught up in the conflict. He was in Kiev during the Maidan demonstrations and later spent a lot of time in the Donbass region in cities like Slaviansk, which were at the epicentre of the war in Eastern Ukraine. 

The conflict naturally impacted his photography, but he maintains that he always tried to stay true to his personal approach, trying to steer clear of what one might expect of a photographer in a war zone. “I wasn’t trying to say this is Ukraine during war time, this is everyday life in Donbass in the war zone. I just wanted to photograph as honestly as I could by following my instincts and photographing what was around me. The politics is in there. But it is more subtle.”

The dangerous life of an artist

Both artists have in their work and personal life in Ukraine found themselves on dangerous territory. Mr. Nunn whilst spending time at the frontline, visiting military hospitals, photographing wounded soldiers and Chechen rebels; Ms. Kulikovska as a volunteer, helping out in Eastern Ukraine. But the danger does not only come from the conflict on the ground.

In May 2014, Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov was arrested in Crimea after a protest he attended there against the territory’s annexation. In August 2015, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Russian court for plotting terrorist acts - charges he denies. The European Union and the US both have condemned the verdict against Mr. Sentsov and say he is a political prisoner.

Swimmer, Druzhkovka, May 2015

Ms. Kulikovska is also convinced of Mr. Sentsov’s innocence. She believes that life as a political artist and activist has become more dangerous since the conflict. After her 2014 performance, lying on the steps of St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum covered in a Ukrainian flag, she received death threats. “Of course I am scared. Maybe more than anyone else. But that is why I continue. It is difficult to be an artist during the war, but at the same time you understand that you have more privilege. You work with ideas and a lot of people listen to your words.”

Going back

Many of Mr. Nunn’s pictures from his last trips have not been published yet. He remains ambiguous about how especially the pictures from the frontline fit into his body of work. “Most of the pictures have never been seen because I felt like they were the same as what was already there. We constantly see the same pictures in the media, the same war photography.” His work in Ukraine is by no means finished. He will return to the country in January to continue working on his photography project, focusing on the decommunisation of Ukraine.

Ms. Kulikovska is also poised to continue her activist art. She retells a surreal moment of her brief stay in London. “I was walking down the beautiful streets of London, having just read an article about myself in a newspaper. At the same time, I was worried because I hadn’t heard from my mother who is still in occupied Crimea and had been without electricity for days. It was a surreal moment. It makes me understand that I need to work even harder to show people what’s going on.”  

Mr. Nunn and Ms. Kulikovska’s works are exhibited at the Saatchi Gallery in London, from November 24, 2015 – January 3, 2016.

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