MATTERS OF OBSESSION
The Womanly Face of War: A Women’s Month exhibition about art, womanhood and Ukraine
‘The Womanly Face of War’, exhibiting in South Africa, tells the stories of Ukrainian women and their experiences of the war.
When Russia invaded Ukraine, Nataliia Popovych was in Kyiv, waking up on 24 February 2022 to the sounds of explosions.
Popovych is a civic activist and international communications expert, as well as the founder of One Philosophy consultancy and co-founder of Sunseed Art, Resilient Ukraine CSO and Ukraine Crisis Media Centre.
Through her extensive work over the years, Popovych has continuously fought for Ukraine’s statehood and freedom, countering Russian disinformation and promoting Ukraine abroad. When the attacks started, she joined the millions of Ukrainians fleeing for their lives.
“I had thirty minutes to gather my things. And my first thought about whether I will be able to ever see my sons again,” Popovych remembers.
“I joined a friend of mine who was driving towards the western part of Ukraine, to my hometown, Lviv, where my dad continues to live. There were millions of cars. As we all stood on that highway from Kyiv to Lviv on the first day, none of us knew whether we would make it, the shelling was already happening so close to us.
“I made it to Lviv and had a chance to see my father. He’s 85 years old, he remembers the Second World War — he never should be subjected to the sounds of air sirens. But he’s not going to leave Ukraine; it is his home. He decided to stay, and I was not able to convince him to go. In a few days, I did make it to Denmark to my family, but I left with a very heavy heart because I did not know if I would be able to come back.”
When reflecting on the war in Ukraine, Popovych references Svetlana Alexievich, the Belarusian journalist who won the 2015 Nobel Prize in literature and who authored The Unwomanly Face of War, an oral history of the Russian women who fought in World War 2.
Rebecca Reich wrote for The New York Times in 2017 that “Alexievich gives the lie to any assumption that war need be an ‘unwomanly’ business. Even as her subjects themselves tend to hold traditional views of femininity, they make the point that their beauty, their empathy and their ability to provoke compassion in others gave them special advantages in wartime.”
Today, however, war looks remarkably different than in the 20th century.
Ukrainian novelist Oksana Zabuzhko writes that in 2022, “the war does have a ‘womanly face’, too”; women have enlisted to fight alongside their male counterparts, and they are giving birth in bomb shelters, they are fleeing across the border with their children.
It is against this backdrop that Popovych and the Sunseed Art project present their exhibition, The Womanly Face of War, seeking to show the various realities of femaleness in conflict creatively.
The exhibition presents a series of poster works from four different artists, each displaying various experiences of Ukrainian women. They are each unique in style and medium, but also in how they depict war through the eyes of women. No experience is the same, and walking through the exhibition delivers a crushing, heartwrenching glimpse into the war.
“We believe that women have a special role to play in war, and, unfortunately, wars scar women in so many ways. Because wars are not waged just between armies; they have such a profound impact on the life of a woman,” Popovych explains.
She has witnessed the women in her life take on these different roles; of the warrior, the mother, the healer, and the caretaker, but the war has changed her too. Popovych herself is a mother of three but has become a caretaker to the children of friends and family, making sure they live in safety outside of Ukraine.
“Through art, we have a chance to express everything that we feel about what’s happening and the events unfolding around us. It’s devastating to see our homeland being ruined, our cities being bombed. Millions of people’s lives are being disrupted. In a 44 million-person country, each one of us is affected, one way or another,” Popovych says.
“We feel devastation, we feel sorrow, we grieve for the soldiers that we are losing in the battle, and I think we all express this in different ways.
“But creative people, artists, have a chance to express it through their work. And there is a boom of creativity in Ukraine right now, because anybody who is involved in art has a chance to tell their story through their works. At times like these, every creative professional becomes an activist.”
She sees the exhibition as a method of communicating how Ukrainians feel through art, which is increasingly sacred, not only because of the stories art tells but because of the history and art that is being lost in the country. As Russia destroys Ukrainian heritage and cultural sites representing what Ukraine was, is, and hoped to be, the role of artists to create is even more vital. As of August 2022, the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine has recorded 464 cases of Russian war crimes against Ukrainian cultural heritage.
“I really feel that it’s important to communicate what we feel through art because this is a war against our culture. Russia is not waging war for territories, I think they have plenty of that. They have waged this war against Ukraine as a nation. They’ve shown that in the brutality of the atrocities and war crimes. If they win this war, they would ensure that Ukrainians are ‘deUkrainianised’, which essentially means we would stop existing as a nation, as a culture. Our language would have to be stopped, our essence would have to be stopped. And that’s why all of these museums are being bombed. They want to strip us of our identity.
“It’s so important for us to be able to preserve our culture because this is what we’re defending; our culture, our identity, our statehood.”
Central to this, Popovych says, is honouring all the Ukrainian women, whatever role they took on.
“We want to document and ensure that women are seen, we want to ensure respect for women who have suffered, and then we all work to ensure that justice can be served. Because if women don’t recover from this war, the country won’t recover from this war,” she says.
The exhibition is showcased in South Africa in August, which Popovych hopes will resonate during Women’s Month. Just as August honours the 20,000 women who marched in 1956 to protest against apartheid oppression, she wants to highlight how Ukrainian women are fighting every day too.
“The more I learn about the experience of South Africans, I see how that just up until recently, people in this country had to stand up and protest, and sometimes sacrifice their lives, for the ability to live with dignity, and to be free,” she says.
“This is very similar to the fight for freedom and against oppression that Ukrainian women are partaking in. And I think that it’s important that we understand that the essence of our fight is anti-colonial too.”
August is also an important month for Ukraine, as the 24th marks the anniversary of the country’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
Popovych remembers the 13th anniversary of freedom last year, as she celebrated with loved ones in Kyiv.
“It was probably one of the highlights of my life, very similar to when Ukrainians voted for independence on 1991 when I was growing up. And I remember that feeling of freedom.
“I come from a family of dissidents, I come from a family that was persecuted by the Soviet totalitarian regime, they were sent to Gulag. We grew up in a system where we could not practice our religion because it was forbidden. We could not speak our minds.
“Last year when I was in Kyiv, and I saw so many people exhilarated, I felt that we have so much resilience, as a country, we can tackle basically any challenge.”
This year, celebrations are muted, taking place against the backdrop of war as what is such a sacred day for Ukraine now also marks six months since Russia began its assault on the country.
Popovych has returned to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion, and she speaks of cities that have been flattened and the people, who remain in Ukraine, who live under the threat of bombing every day.
“I went to visit my dad and spend time with him and the people that I love. Some cities have been bombed to the extent that they no longer exist. For the people who lived there, they will not have a chance to come back to their homes, because they’re just not there,” she says.
Homes and hospitals, museums and places of worship have been destroyed, and she says she carries the feeling of devastation with her. As the war continues, however, she remains hopeful that the world will fight even more for Ukraine.
“My hope is that people will not trade freedom for the price of gas or the price of a product. Gasoline may be expensive, but freedom is priceless,” she says.
“In Ukraine, we all understand that we are facing the second-largest army in the world. We understand that Russia is a nuclear power state, which makes their attack against us even more cynical. But we feel that we are defending something very precious; freedom and dignity to us are more important than lives,” Popovych says. DM/ML
The Womanly Face of War will be exhibited until 31 August at the Desmond & Leah Tutu Legacy Foundation at the Old Granary Building in Cape Town before moving to Durban in September.