A Conversation with Curators of Pro-Ukrainian Exhibit Sovereignty Reimagined

Sovereignty Reimagined. Installation view, Maenad Collective, NY, US © photo by Alex Faoro. From left to right: Jaroslav Pobezhan, Marina Naprushkina, Dana Kavelina, Serhiy Popov, Daria Maiier x Äsc3ea.

Pro-Ukrainian video art from antiwarcoalition.art (https://antiwarcoalition.art/) curated by Alex Faoro, Maxim Tyminko and Aleksander Komarov both members of The International Coalition of Cultural Workers In Solidarity with Ukraine were on view in the group exhibition Sovereignty Reimagined March 18-24, 2023 at Maenad Collective in Brooklyn.

With artists: Oksana Chepelyk (UA), Helena Deda & Alex Faoro (US), Daniil Galkin (UA), Uladzimir Hramovich And Lesia Pcholka (BY), Zhanna Kadyrova (UA), Anton Karyuk (UA), Dana Kavelina (UA), Daria Maiier x Äsc3ea (UA), Elturan Mammadov (AZ), Metasitu (GR), Vladimir Miladinovic (RS), Marina Naprushkina (DE), Valentyna Petrova (UA), Iaroslav Pobezhan (UA), Serhiy Popov (UA), Mykola Ridnyi (UA), and Igor Sevcuk (NL).

In the exhibition Sovereignty Reimagined 17 video artworks play simultaneously across 8 screens on a rotation. It is easier to follow the works that are subtitled than those that are not. As a viewer, my gaze flitted from screen to screen and the experience as a whole left a lasting impression—chaotic, loud, and overstimulating, yet not encompassing enough. The war in Ukraine is always accompanied with a need for more—weapons, regaining of landmasse, empathy, and support. Observing each work in a refracted manner I pieced most individual pieces together as they migrated across screens. Tell me about these curatorial considerations and how they relate to linearity and narrative.

Maxim Tyminko: You described exactly what we aimed to achieve. We intentionally placed works in direct contact with each other to create close interrelationships between them. By doing so, the works not only speak for themselves but also crash into each other, sometimes through juxtaposition, and sometimes in unison creating a complex and multifaceted rendering of the exhibition topic.

In Sovereignty Reimagined, none of the artworks have a fixed place on the wall. Instead, 17 videos are projected onto 8 different wall surfaces of various sizes, distributed throughout the space and integrated with the architectural elements and objects placed in it. The videos migrate from one projection to another, creating continuously changing and unpredictable constellations of meanings, messages, and stories on refugee, migration, borders, identity, and violence. The non-linear approach of this exhibition allows you to jump in at any time and immerse yourself in a complex, never-repeating audiovisual narrative. You can explore it in your own unique way, focusing on each individual work and perceiving it in its intricate relations to others. This also removes any hierarchy in between the artworks. Each one gets its equal amount of screen time and placement.

Aleksander Komarov: The presentations of the antiwarcoalition.art platform are based on the idea of polyphony. Several independent art works are screened in a common space. Each individual work resonates with the others and enhances a unified statement in the exhibition.

Together with Alex, we selected 17 artworks from the antiwarcoalition.art platform that relate to the theme of “sovereignty.” You could say that each artwork touched upon this theme in different ways. At the same time, we were looking for different qualities that could complement and develop this theme.

We are flexible enough to adapt to a complex situation, even if the platform is naturally screen-oriented. In New York, we were excited to conceive a presentation in the studio space of the artists collective Maena Collective. It was a special experience based on communication, trust and support. These qualities reflect the values that antiwarcoalition.art platform seeks to engage with the exhibition theme “Sovereignty Reimagined”.

‘Sovereignty’ is a slippery term. In the Russo-Ukrainian war it’s literal use in denoting autonomy, independence, and rule is being used to justify both invasion and resistance. How do the artists in the exhibition problematize the term?

Alex Faoro: Problematizing sovereignty is a matter of drawing attention to the inherent contradictions that exist in the terms’ normative sociopolitical applications. It is about pointing out false rhetorical and legal dichotomies, juxtaposing life and death, imagining alternative realities,and creating chaos out of seeming reason.

There are a few pieces that stand out in my mind, that exemplify these ideas: Dana Kavelina’s Letter to a Turtledove, Elturan Mammadov’s Sick Fantasies, Mykola Ridnyi’s Gradual Loss of Vision, and here and there, then and now—the film project by myself and Helena Deda.

Dana Kavelina’s Letter to a Turtledove is an extremely visceral and chaotic film about the protracted conflict in eastern Ukraine. At the center of the film is a female protagonist constructed through Kavelina’s own writing. A woman witnesses history and reflects on the horrors of war. Using this poignant narrative device, Kavelina draws attention to a woman ensnared in countless male-dominated imperial and national struggles. In this way, the work is as much about navigating the “spikes, gaps and temporary solidifications [of history]” as it is about addressing sovereignty (and war) as a violent, often erroneous, and highly gendered construct.

These ideas are also explored in the film by myself and Helena Deda, titled here and there, then and now. In 1999 Helena and her mother Marta, along with hundreds of thousands of other citizens of the former Yugoslavia, were forced to flee their homes during the Serbian incursion and NATO bombardment of the region. In early 2022, during the outset of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Helena’s mother Marta came to live with us in New York for a number of months. Juxtaposing intimate videos from this period with archival footage and contemporaneous news broadcasts (from Ukraine and the Western Balkans), our video “navigates the complex intersection of place, time, memory, war, history and modernity”. In so doing, it explores the multifaceted connection between sovereignty and personal trauma.

The final two pieces are also closely related to each other. In his video Sick Fantasies, Elturan Mammadov uses fragmented news clips to highlight the fanatical rhetoric of the Azerbaijani state building project in Nagorno-Karabakh, a contested region inhabited by ethnic Armenians and protected by some 2000 Russian “peace-keeping” forces. In this way, Mammadov draws attention to countless other regional border conflicts including places like Moldova and Kosovo. Mykola Ridnyi’s illustrations and text Gradual Loss of Vision also highlight these areas and others situated around the Black Sea, contested territories (engaged in ceaseless conflicts) which have faded from public attention. Ridnyi explains, “The series uses vision as a metaphor for this process. All these maps are out of focus, just like the media lost focus of the territories and constantly changing borders”.

One might say, similar to Ridnyi’s project, this exhibition hoped to problematize sovereignty by bringing these various perspectives into focus.

Sovereignty Reimagined. Installation view, Maenad Collective, NY, US © photo by Alex Faoro. From left to right: Valentyna Petrova, Vladimir Miladinovic, Dana Kavelina, Helena Deda and Alex Faoro.

MT: Some authors worked directly with the topic of sovereignty, while others did not. However, their works placed in the context of the exhibition definitely contributed to the dialogue. We have two artworks that, in my opinion, deal most directly with the topic. One is by Ukrainian artist Anton Karyuk Empire Collapsed from 2022. In his description, the author writes: “Today is March 5, 2022, the 10th day of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, the threshold of the Third World War. I launched my project ‘Empire Collapsed’ 11 days ago, still not knowing that the next morning my country would be set on fire by the hands of Nazi Russia. As a Ukrainian and an artist, I have no choice but to imagine.” The work is a slideshow consisting of 81 covers of imaginary passports created by the artist for the current number of regions of the Russian Federation. This symbolic act of decolonization and disintegration of Russia is the act of defeating the enemy. It is a popular opinion in Ukraine that the real freedom, independence and true sovereignty, not only for the country but also for all the neighbors of Russia, will only be achieved after Russia collapses, disintegrates, and loses its imperial ambitions.

The second work is by Belarusian artists Uladzimir Hramovich and Lesia Pcholka, titled Scratches, which was made in response to the events that took place in Belarus after the rigged elections of 2020 and the state violence that followed. The video shows Uladzimir erasing gold, the coat of arms, and the name of the country from his Belarusian passport. By removing any insignia from the passport, the authors disassociate themselves from the false state and proclaim their individual sovereignty from the dictatorial regime.

Empire Collapsed, Anton Karyuk, UA, 2022 04:03. A video still from antiwarcoalition.art

Scratches, Uladzimir Hramovich and Lesia Pcholka, BY, 2020 06:58. A video still from antiwarcoalition.art

AK: The artists themselves are not, but their work in our curatorial selection reflects this concept. In the space, we use the criteria of a coherent perception of the entire exhibition, and we have tried to convey the atmosphere and essence of the concept through selected works. For example the work 8th or 9th of May 2018 by Ukrainian artist Iaroslav Pobezhan. Here, the question of “sovereignty” is introduced through the history related to border fortifications in Czechoslovakia from 1935 to 1938. Against the growing threat of the Third Reich, the border fortifications were supposed to protect the country in case of an unexpected aggression, but did not come to serve this purpose. Many years later, in 2007 when the Czech Republic became a member of the European Union these fortifications changed purpose, and the artist started filming these remnants. In the exhibition, this work resists its definition and is open to multiple readings, like a minute of silence that is an interruption in the ever-changing video stream.

Sovereignty Reimagined. Installation view, Maenad Collective, NY, US © photo by Alex Faoro 8th Or 9th Of May 2018, Jaroslav Pobezhan, UA, 2018, 26:09

The coalition’s programmatic center point is its online platform (antiwarcoalition.art) that serves as an archive for pro-Ukrainian work by artists from any descent. If their events are transitory, the archive is rooted and growing with its ongoing open call. Tell me more about the archive, its function, and importance.

MT: I believe that our platform shouldn’t be considered an archive, but rather an online repository or temporal storage. The main objective of our platform is to take the message about the war to public spaces, streets, exhibition spaces, museums, hotels, etc. To achieve this goal, we have built the platform to streamline the process of submitting new works by the artists, simplify the work of curators, and provide informational support for our events and exhibitions.

While anyone can upload their work to the platform, our moderators review each submission to filter out inappropriate content. It is also important to note that we only accept works that were originally created for the screen and are not a documentation of offline works or performances, unless they were made to exist as independent and self-sustaining media artworks.

All works on our platform are available for free online viewing. When you visit our website, you will be directly taken to a player where you can watch an automatically selected and streamed program of works from our collection without interruptions.

In addition, programs of works used for different events are also accessible online by selecting one of the hashtags applied to a work.

Our platform is also designed to provide a convenient tool for curators. Through the accumulation of a continuously growing collection of video artworks, we have created a vast pool that serves as a resource for us and our collaborating curators. From this pool, we can selectively choose the most appropriate pieces to curate specific shows, programs, or presentations.

AK: The platform enables us to quickly react, engage with people from different backgrounds, and share our own views and experiences with a global audience.

In addition to our online presence, the antiwarcoalition.art platform also employs various offline strategies to raise awareness and promote its mission. For instance, we showcase artists’ works in art institutions and public spaces, providing opportunities for people to see and experience art in person. We also collaborate with other institutions to select video programs that are displayed on screens in exhibition places as well in the lobbies, information desks, hotels, thereby reaching a wider audience.

Documenta 15, Non-Human Agents During The War: antiwarcoalition.art @ Documenta Halle, Kassel DE. On photograph works by (from left to right): Red Forest Research Group, Zoya Laktionova, Nastia Teor, Clemens v.Wedemeyer, Daria Sazanovich, Katarzyna Wojtczak, Vladimir Miladinovic, Kateryna Aliinyk. Photograph courtesy of the antiwarcoalition.art.

Manifesta 14, Discussion: Affected by War. Reclaiming Public Space, antiwarcoalition.art @ Brick Factory, Prishtina, XK, with: Leyli Gafarova, Uladzimir Hramovich, Fatmir Mustafa, Kateryna Rusetska, Tatiana Kochubinska. Photograph courtesy of the antiwarcoalition.art

59th Venice Biennale, Discussion: Future for everyone, antiwarcoalition.art @ Polish Pavilion, Venice, IT. From left to right: Marina Naprushkina, Aleksander Komarov, Anna Chistoserdova, Nikolay Karabinovych, Joanna Warszav. Photograph courtesy of the antiwarcoalition.art

As a coalition of cultural workers, your mission is both to spread awareness for the war in Ukraine through art and to unify cultural workers from Belarus and Ukraine. Could you speak about how your program has developed, relations amongst allies, and your aspirations for the future.

MT: Our group initially consisted of artists, curators, and art managers of Belarusian descent and was originally formed to work on an alternative Belarusian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Anna Chistoserdova, Oxana Gourinovitch, Valentina Kiselyova, Aleksander Komarov, Lena Prents, Antonina Stebur, and myself developed the Drazdovich TV video streaming platform to reflect on the Belarusian protests of 2020 and envision the future of Belarus.

However, after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, and Belarus provided its territory for the deployment of the Russian army and military equipment, we realized that we could no longer present Drazdovich TV as it was originally conceived because it was unethical and insensitive. Despite initial numbness and shock, we knew we had to do something. We felt a responsibility to reflect on this brutal aggression against a sovereign country and support the Ukrainian people, who include our friends, colleagues, and relatives.

We were joined by two Ukrainian curators, Tatiana Kochubinska and Natasha Chychasova, and together we created The International Coalition Of Cultural Workers In Solidarity With Ukraine. Based on the Drazdovich TV platform, we developed antiwarcoalition.art and launched it in late April 2022. The new platform features artist statements from various countries affected by lines of tension, including Ukraine, Belarus, Mexico, Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, South Africa. It also allows Belarusian artists and part of the curatorial team to reflect on our complex situation as representatives of a co-aggressor state. We envision antiwarcoalition.art as a network of solidarity sharing experiences, discussing new strategies of coexistence, the language, and decolonization globally.

AK: During the peaceful revolution in Belarus, which manifested itself in 2020, the state repressions took a previously unseen form of violence and suppression. Many artists, cultural organizations, independent journalists and people from various other professions were forced to leave the country to neighboring countries Poland, Lithuania and Ukraine. In this new situation, the Belarusian diaspora organized themselves mainly collectively to continue their resistance. Many share the desire to speak out against injustice and dictatorship, and many, including artists, do not stop protesting. Art exhibitions in support of the New Belarusian democratic movement are held throughout Europe, including a large exhibition in Kiev at the Arsenal gallery in support of Belarusian people and contemporary art against the dictatorship. We formed the coalition after the war against Ukraine began. One should not confuse the word anti-war movement with a pacifist movement, our support is for all Ukrainians, and their rights to fight for freedom and independence.

The European Pavilion, antiwarcoalition.art @ Goethe-Institut, Rome, IT
On photograph works by (from left to right): Marina Naprushkina, Olia Sosnovskaya & A.Z.H, Mykola Ridnyi, Francis Alÿs. Photograph courtesy of the antiwarcoalition.art

Sovereignty Reimagined marks the coalition’s first exhibition outside of Europe. Alex Faoro, you are the group’s guest curator. How did you prepare for the collaboration?

AF: I’ve been doing my own research for some time now. My studies focus on the early and late modern periods in southeastern Europe, as I’m interested in the contemporary relevance of certain historical sociopolitical dynamics in the region. I say this simply to point out my prior engagement with some related topics.

In addition to my own research, I also spent a great deal of time watching the different projects on the antiwarcoalition.art open online platform and reviewing past events the group has organized. I wanted to gain a detailed understanding of their curatorial interest, and their political and philosophical motivations.

Following this, I spent some time writing a formal proposal that could operate as a meaningful conceptual framework for the exhibit. The final notes were based largely on passages from Ariella Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning imperialism. Her ideas about sovereignty have been very influential to my thinking (and further studies into the matter), so I thought it would be appropriate to utilize these concepts in developing this project.

I met with Maxim, Aleksandr and other coalition members in the months leading up to the show to discuss these ideas and other important logistical matters. Beyond this, I did a lot of preparation by myself; collecting equipment, purchasing odds and ends, and coordinating with my colleagues at Maenad and Millennium Film Workshop to ensure we were prepared to open on March 18th.

The coalition has organized 29 programs thus far within leading international contemporary art contexts such as Documenta Fifteen, The Venice Biennial, The European Pavilion in Rome, and Manifesta Biennial in Kosovo. But also localized exhibitions in Kyiv—where the exhibition space functioned as a safe-house with its own generator to support the community during blackouts—and the Maena Collective exhibition. How is it to work in this urgent circumstance of war and solidarity. What processes help you in your mission and what methods have you chosen to abandon? What is your take home from local versus global contexts?

MT: From the start, we designed our platform to include international artists in order to provide a broader range of perspectives on the topic of war and position it in a more complex global context. Our goal has been to make the war in Ukraine more visible and to help the international public experience it as a deeply emotional and personal issue, rather than just another routine news feed.

We began by issuing an open-ended call to international artists, which has been successful in generating regular new submissions. However, we have come to realize that we need to be more targeted in our invitations, not just to artists but also to curators. This is particularly important as we organize shows, discussions, and screenings in various locations, and we have noticed significant variations in the understanding of the Ukrainian war, its causes, and its consequences from one locality to another. To address these cultural, political, informational differences, we welcome local curators and artists to co-create specific shows and join our coalition. For instance, our recent exhibition in Düsseldorf at the Weltkunstzimmer, “Nicht Unser Krieg,” was a collaborative effort with two local curators, Thomas Neumann und Andrei Dureika. We were delighted to accept Alex Faoro’s invitation to exhibit at the Maena Collective, and appreciate his perspective on the war and his introduction of the platform to an American audience. Another very special experience for us was our collaboration with Max Kovalchuck, curator of the Dymchuk Gallery in Kyiv. Given the sensitivity and ethical considerations surrounding the Ukrainian war, we took extra care in selecting the works for the exhibition. This involved thoughtful discussions and consultations. Despite the challenges, we also wanted to create a space where people could come for basic necessities during blackouts, such as charging electronics, accessing the internet, and having a warm drink. Our goal was to ensure that the exhibition would be a respectful and meaningful experience for the Ukrainian viewers who live with the terror of war every day.

At the moment we are in discussions with several other curators and institutions for future collaborations, and we are open to initiatives from others.’

AK: As Maxim noted, the platform was designed to host many works by international artists. To be heard and to take an active stand in this war! We are extremely grateful to all the artists involved in this project. We have over 140 works on the platform, many of them by Ukrainian artists, but also from other countries around the world. Many artists have moved to other countries and speak from their local context, with political cultural issues, like the artist Francis Alÿs, is a Belgian-born, Mexico-based artist, We also grateful with contributions by renowned artists like Hito Steyerl from Germany, Alevtina Kakhidze from Ukraine, Dan Perjovschi from Romania and many more others. Even if we think the language of art is universal, we find ourselves in local politics. As we travel, presenting the platform antiwarcoalition.art, we realize that we cannot offer the same exhibition in all local contexts, but we adapt to the context, the local, as well as to the changing situation of the current war. This is something we are learning as we develop the platform.

One Week Screening @ ZKM/Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe, DE. O.T. by Hito Steyerl, 2022. Photograph courtesy of the antiwarcoalition.art.

NICHT Unser Krieg, Weltkunstzimmer, Düsseldorf, DE © photo by Myriam Thyes, From left to right: Hito Steyerl, Sergey Bratkov, and Vlada Ralko.

About the Curators:

Alex Faoro is a library worker, researcher, curator and moving image artist. Utilizing personal and historiographical materials, his work explores memory and the mediating qualities of images. A great deal of these projects are made in collaboration with his wife Helena Deda, a writer and photographer from the Republic of Kosova.

Maxim Tyminko is a media artist, curator, and web developer who lives and works in Amsterdam. He is a co-founder, developer and member of curatorial team of antiwarcoalition.art He is the founder of the self-publishing platform antibrainwash.net, co-founder and editor of the platform cultprotest.me, and co-developer of the archive and research platform for Belarusian contemporary art kalektar.org. He was a co-curator of the exhibitions: Every Day. Art. Solidarity. Resistance (Mystetskyi Arsenal, Kyiv, 2021), Zbor. Belarusian Art Movement (Foundation IZOLYATSIA, Kyiv, 2016), Zbor In Progress (Gallery Ў, Minsk, 2018), -o-l-o-g-y (Amstel 41 Gallery, Amsterdam, 2012), and others. Instagram.

Photo: Susanne Kriemann 2023

Aleksander Komarov is a visual artist and filmmaker who co-founded several initiatives and programs, including ABA (an artist initiative in Berlin), the platform which focuses on the experimental interventions and gatherings. He is also a co-founder and member of the curatorial team of antiwarcoalition.art. Komarov’s praxis consists of conceptualizing, curating and executing various events and presentation formats. He has co-conceived over eighty Salons with artists, scholars, musicians, organize and participated in reading circles (Bookstop), organises artist talks (LAB), and curated a program on ABA Air Salon on the CloboRadio in Berlin. He is director of residency program Air Berlin Alexanderplatz since 2010. Komarov graduated from the Glebov School of Art in Minsk, Belarus, and the University of Fine Arts in Poznan, Poland, and attended the Rijksakademie van Beeldende Kunsten in Amsterdam, the Netherlands. Since 2018, he has taught contemporary art/interdisciplinary practices at NYU Berlin. Instagram

antiwarcoalition.art team: Anna Chistoserdova, Valentina Kiselyova, Tatiana Kochubinska, Aleksander Komarov, Antonina Stebur, Maxim Tyminko. Instagram

About the writer: Anna Mikaela Ekstrand is editor-in-chief and founder of Cultbytes and associate director of The Immigrant Artist Biennial. She mediates art through writing, curating, and lecturing. Her latest books are Assuming Asymmetries: Conversations on Curating Public Art Projects of the 1980s and 1990s and Curating Beyond the Mainstream. Instagram