Interview: Lizaveta German on Art and Culture in Ukraine

Ukraine in Focus

Lizaveta German is a curator, art historian, and co-founder of The Naked Room gallery in Kyiv. She received her MA and PhD in Art History at the National Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture in Kyiv. Since 2014, Lizaveta has organized more than 30 exhibitions and collaborated with leading art institutions in Ukraine, including the National Art Museum of Ukraine, Mystetskyi Arsenal, Goethe-Institut, the British Council, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the Ukrainian Institute. Lizaveta was a co-curator at La Biennale di Venezia and Liverpool Biennial, among other projects. In 2017, she co-edited the book Decommunised: Ukrainian Soviet Mosaics.  

During your fellowship at the IWM, you have been working on a book project. Tell us more about it.  

My main task during my stay at IWM is to create a text for a book based on lectures on Ukrainian art that I have been giving for two years since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in different institutions and countries. In the beginning, it was a series of lectures commissioned by the Estonian Academy of Arts. Later, I thought it would be great to turn them into a book of lectures. It is important for me to record that these lectures appeared as the response to a certain request, in particular from the European professional community, because everyone is interested in Ukrainian art but few people know about it.  

This book is a road map that leads the reader through names, events, and certain phenomena of Ukrainian art history that are lesser known abroad. It is important to stress that I am talking about contemporary Ukrainian art of the 1960s and 1990s, but from the point of view of 2023–2024, that is, taking into account the experience of the present. Today, we look at the years of Khrushchev’s Thaw differently, knowing that Ukrainian artists enjoyed fewer freedoms than Russian artists. They were repressed and some of them even killed, like Alla Horska, whose big retrospective is on show in Kyiv as we speak. 

I am writing these lectures in Ukrainian because I would like the first edition of the book to be published in Ukraine. This is also a challenge for me, because my lectures were primarily aimed at an international audience, and I need to keep in mind the Ukrainian audience as well. Currently, I am observing this audience from a distance, since I have been living abroad for two years, but I see a great interest in culture and art. There are new bookstores opening in Kyiv, and there are long queues for Ukrainian performances and exhibitions. A cultural renaissance is taking place.  

You have been writing about the 1960s for about 10 years now, and your book is about how to understand this period in art in the context of war. How did your understanding of this period change since the full-scale invasion? 

My perception of the 1960s became more critical politically. I am an art historian, a graduate of the Kyiv Academy of Fine Arts and Architecture, Department of Art Theory and History. Although this place gave me a lot, its approach to teaching art history is quite apolitical. Unfortunately, the academy still trains future researchers as if there is sublime, beautiful art and its history, which is connected to the broader context of its time, still exists quite separately from it. Therefore, for some time my perception of art in general, both classical and contemporary, was also shaped by this approach. As a product of this whitewashed art history, my perception of the 1960s was also romanticized. In fact, this romanticized perception of the 1960s is very Russified, because Russians greatly romanticize the Thaw period. But now, when I see or I allow myself to see and admit honestly how Russified, Sovietized, and repressed Ukrainian culture was all this time, I realize how much I myself am a product of Russian contemporary critical theory. I see this period not so much as brilliant artists who lived through ideas and painted their beautiful abstract canvases with thoughts about the eternal, but as a time when artists had to navigate between pitfalls. 

Now, in the context of a full-scale war, I understand these artists much better, because I too, like many of us, have a life that is broken, or certainly fractured. In a way, it seems to me that our generation is a little bit like the 1960s in the sense that we artists, scholars and writers also have to withstand this assault on our culture and language, and keep ourselves afloat through art. 

You are writing a book for a foreign audience, but this topic is also in demand in Ukraine. How do you address two audiences at the same time?  

Perhaps this is a bold idea, but at the moment I think of the European and Ukrainian audiences in the same vein: as two audiences that have heard or know something, but nevertheless need to structure this knowledge in some way. It is clear that in Ukraine, some of it is already common knowledge, in contrast to Europe. In the 1960s, Ukrainian artists were exploring Ukraine by organizing ethnographic expeditions to different parts of the country. Ukraine was rediscovering itself, especially considering that this was the first decade of Ukraine existing within its modern borders. And now a similar process is taking place: there is more in-country travel (though, unfortunately, part of the country cannot be visited due to occupation or proximity to the frontline); and there is more interest in local history, as exemplified by projects like “The Ukraїner.” It seems to me that this book is an attempt to show us to ourselves, to connect the dots in our history. It is no less important for the Ukrainian audience to revise this phenomenon than it is for the European audience to get to know it. 

It sometimes feels like Ukrainian art history exists mostly as a sort of oral narrative because there have been very few printed books on art history and theory. But I must say, this is starting to change. Therefore, any contribution is an important step towards understanding it. How can we talk about a phenomenon that cannot be read about in a book?  

You have been abroad for two years now. How can you characterize the interest in Ukrainian culture since the start of the full-scale war?  

The demand has been very high, but at the same time chaotic. There were separate art institutions, from private galleries to museums, such as the Museums Quartier, that launched their initiatives. However, these were mostly emergency responses; curators were invited rather chaotically, on the basis of personal connections. During my stay in Austria, I organized several exhibitions and met local cultural figures. And many curators did something similar: they did their projects in places in which they happened to be. On the one hand, this is positive. But on the other hand, it shows a certain amorphousness and laziness of European institutions that have done a number of emergency projects but did not go further. What is lacking now is deeper museum-level research projects, and historical exhibitions aimed at presenting Ukrainian art and its phenomena. And this requires preparedness, because such projects take at least two to three years to complete; it is not something you can organize in a few months with curators on the ground. I won’t say that there have been no such exhibitions at all. For example, the exhibition that is currently in the Belvedere is a good example [In the Eye of the Storm]. The Kaleidoscope of (Hi)stories exhibition of contemporary Ukrainian art in Dresden was also interesting. However, these are rather exceptions than the rule. It will be possible to talk about interest in Ukrainian art when this becomes part of research programs in foreign institutions. In addition, it is important that Ukraine itself plays a proactive role in this process. 

Indeed, this is one of Ukraine’s tasks in Europe: to systematically work with institutions abroad and talk about Ukrainian art. Another task is to separate and reclaim Ukrainian art that has been appropriated by Russia. Do you see any progress here?  

I will start with an anecdote I recently saw on Yevhen Klopotenko’s page. He is currently opening a Ukrainian restaurant in Japan, and his partners, with whom he is in correspondence, have warned him that he should not serve borsch in Japan because this dish is associated with Russia, and the Japanese now treat it negatively. And here is the paradox: negative attitudes toward Russia is a good thing for Ukraine, and in this context, it is also historically conditioned. But this cultural appropriation is so deeply ingrained that it is easier not to serve borsch at all than to serve it and explain that it is Ukrainian. Unfortunately, such examples of successful Russian colonization are everywhere. 

It seems to me that some initiatives are quite successful: from professors at foreign universities who began to teach from a different perspective to Ukrainian researchers who managed to change labels in world museums. And it seems to me that such initiatives, such as labels in museums, are quite effective. The more Ukraine becomes a part of the daily information space, not only in the context of the war but also in culture, the greater the effect will be. Of course, there are some great victories, for example, the phenomenal success of the movie 20 Days in Mariupol, which won a host of awards. 

Many Ukrainian artists are now in cities that they might not have chosen in other circumstances because of the war, and now they work within these contexts. How do you think this affects Ukrainian art? 

It is important to say that contemporary art is global by default. There is no such thing as a national school in art today. When we talk about art that is currently on display at the Belvedere, the curators emphasize that it is about modernism in Ukraine, not Ukrainian modernism, because at that time artists began to abandon national characteristics. Therefore, I believe that this exhibition should be of interest to European viewers. It should not be viewed as an imitation or some kind of junior school in relation to Vienna or Paris schools, but as an equal manifestation of a common idea. 

In contemporary art, there is no formal affiliation to a particular school, but there is work with local themes. And in this sense, Ukrainian artists who worked with local themes for the first two years of their stay abroad still worked with local themes of war, and experiences of relocation and refuge. This is a common theme that, despite their different experiences, connects them to artists who stayed in Ukraine. However, artists who realize that they will not be able to return to Ukraine in the near future, artists with children, begin to assimilate and realize that they need to broaden their thematic and discursive horizons. I would not say that Ukrainian artists have a lot to learn from their Western colleagues because communication with curators here proves that the Ukrainian art scene is at a high level. That is, these are not the artists who, like in the past, came from the Russian Empire to Paris and saw a completely different life there. In addition, at least since the introduction of the visa-free regime in Ukraine, contemporary Ukrainian artists have had the opportunity to attend residencies and festivals, so they already had experience with the European context. But definitely, working in the European scene will change the optics in some ways. Though I must say that in some ways the European art system differs from the Ukrainian one, it is more cautious, self-censored, and too “correct.” The Ukrainian art scene is much more brave, intellectually experimental and open-minded. 

Many Ukrainian artists moved internally within Ukraine. The usual social and artistic fabric was disrupted after the full-scale invasion. How relevant are regional connections between artists in times of war? What is the future of this regionalization?  

I am thinking about the experience after 2014, when the whole country suddenly turned to the East and looked closely at the Donbas region. Part of the Ukrainian East was lost, not only militarily, but also culturally. And the unoccupied part of the East, which had been artificially Russified for years before 2014, became the object of attention of artists, both those who came from these regions and from other parts of the country. Many residencies and projects were established, local initiatives gained support from foreign institutions. This region has become included in what used to be the rather Kyiv-centered art scene. Mariupol had an extremely interesting cultural life. Another example was the 86 Festival, a documentary film festival in Slavutych (Kyiv region) that encouraged participants with no prior experience in cinema to make short films about the Ukrainian East with the support of mentors. I also took part in it and made my own documentary. Thanks to the festival, there are now many films about Druzhkivka, Kostiantynivka and other cities in Donbas. I think something like this can and should happen after the de-occupation of the whole of Ukraine.