God and a Can of Spray Paint Are With Us: Post-Revolutionary Activist Street Art in Ukraine

August 2016
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Ukraine’s 2013—2014 Revolution of Dignity triggered an outpouring of creative expression in Ukraine. The revolution itself, a grass-roots improvisation of carnivalesque activity, induced an abundance of creativity, which primarily appeared in the public space of Kyiv’s central square. Somewhat naturally, street art served as a means of this public expression and became a mode of expression throughout the country beyond the space of the Maidan itself.1 

As the revolution came to an end and traumatic events such as the shooting of the Heavenly Hundred, the annexation of Crimea, and the start of the war in the Donbas unfolded, street art continued to serve as a form of public expression in Ukraine, resulting in a great quantity and range of public art being produced in a relatively short span of time. Much of this work involves images of Cossacks, Ukraine’s national poet, Taras Shevchenko, and the colors of the Ukrainian flag. At first glance, these images seem like monolithic representations of identity, militancy, or the upholding of nationalist ideology. As scholars like Yaroslav Hrytsak and others claim, I find that these pieces and their means of production indicate a set of values other than nationalist ideology that were articulated during the revolution and became part of the activist discourse in the formation of a post-revolutionary society. Like the name given to the revolution itself, political activism in Ukraine in the post-revolutionary period seems to be value oriented, focusing on principles such as dignity, freedom, solidarity, cooperation, social responsibility, and the celebration of multi-culturalism in a diverse land. Post-revolutionary activist street art in Ukraine not only articulates and propagates this value system in the wake of substantial turmoil facing the country, but also establishes public space as a place for conversation and community engagement.

Art in Revolutionary Space 

"Hot Dance" mural in Kamyanets-Podilsky, Respublica Fest 2014

Artists of all kinds were operating and creating in the public space of Maidan during the revolution. Many cultural projects surrounding the protests took on a cooperative attitude, most famously in the case of activities at the Ukraine House and Maidan library. Contributing to the public art of Maidan, L’viv-based artist Volodymyr Svachiy erected a wall of canvas that served as a public forum of visual expression. Svachiy provided the space and materials for public conversation to spontaneously take place in visual form, not unlike other famous walls of expression like the Lennon wall in Prague. Countless participants contributed words and images in a variety of languages and styles. Reoccurring themes include symbols of Ukraine, such as portraits of Shevcheko and Cossacks, and messages of internationalism and patriotism such as “Glory to Ukraine” (Слава України) and “Love Ukraine” (Любіть Україну). It is possible to read these forums as expressions of nationalist identity, but more so they articulate a set of values: the dissidence of Shevchenko, the independence of Cossacks, and support of the protest action. The forums also contain other less expected expressions and images, which indicate the project’s invitation to express diversity, such as names of different hometowns of protesters or a painting of the Carpathian Mountains, and randomness, such as a painting of an elephant simply labeled as such (слон)....

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Originally Published in This Issue of Krytyka