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Kyiv: A City of Murals

Will the Ukrainian capital become a new center of street art culture?

by Viktoria Ischenko 9 March 2017

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In the past few years, murals, or large images on the facades of buildings, have become popular in Kyiv. Residents and tour guides are pleased with this form of street art and culture and consider murals the new landmarks of the city. Art critics and architects, however, counter that such wall paintings have no artistic value whatsoever and are only harming the city.


Murals Instead of Mosaics


Murals as a form of street art are not a new phenomenon if we consider the development of art in the world. But in Ukraine everything happened a bit differently. Here, street art and visual culture had been limited to fairly bad-quality graffiti.


With a stretch, mosaics from the Soviet times can be considered old-school street art. In Ukraine, including Kyiv, there are many of them, and they bear significant cultural value. Nevertheless, falling under the decommunization law by mere association given the time of their creation, mosaics have been taken down in recent years and destroyed. [TOL note: some public art considered to be communist has been demolished in an attempt to “clear” the public sphere of relics of the old regime.]


As a replacement, now there are murals. The experiment with this legal street art in Kyiv – precisely its legality differentiates it from graffiti – began a few years ago. By now murals have engulfed the city, spreading out from the center to the residential areas in the outskirts. The city has become similar to a collection of colorful postcards on various topics and of diverse styles. The public space of gray housing estates built before Ukraine's independence has now been colored with images that often have nothing to do with this space. Murals have become so numerous that they and not architectural/historical objects are now considered the calling card of Kyiv.



This “capture” of culture by the new street art is similar to the times after the fall of the Iron Curtain at the beginning of the 1990s. At that time, a wave of Western culture flowed into Ukraine, an ex-Soviet republic, transforming – in the worst cases – into a rather tasteless mass culture. The “Revolution of Dignity” [the 2014 Ukrainian “Euromaidan” revolution] was the next stage for Ukraine to realize its future path and the role of the individual in the country. Aspirations to the European path of development, seen as that of liberty and democracy, have opened up new horizons for freedom of self-expression. Just a few years ago, it would have been unthinkable that spaces on the city’s wall would be legally “available” for the creation of cultural objects.


Nevertheless, the concept of freedom is constantly changing. Most people understand it as the limitless absorption of something. For example, in Kyiv, the fashion of tattoos has been developing actively, simultaneously with muralism. By now it has practically grown into a subculture – on the level of murals. Aleksandr Burlak, an architect and researcher of urban transformation, has compared these two phenomena and says both are like parasites on the capital.


The Most Important and Interesting Murals


In fact, Kyiv's first murals were in place long before they became massively fashionable. Some of them are from 2010, but especially since the end of 2013 they started appearing in Kyiv virtually every week.


One of the first objects, titled “Revival of Ukraine,” is located in a well-known tourist spot on the Andreevsky Spusk and was created by Ukrainian artist Aleksei Kislov and Frenchman Julien Malland. They painted a stylized depiction of Ukraine as a young woman, as if she were protecting various houses and buildings – typical elements of Kyiv’s architecture. There is a multitude of symbols on this mural, and the blue circles above the woman's head seem like a connection with the cosmos. The creation and unveiling of the mural coincided with the start of the tragic events in Crimea and the eastern regions of Ukraine in spring 2014. In this way, the work evokes a feeling of security, and it radiates a rather strong energy.



However, all murals that incorporate ethnic elements or Ukrainian symbols are filled with a unique energy. Images with certain embedded “codes of the nation” are perceived completely differently than others. One example is a modern reproduction of an older artwork – artist Dmitri Fatum “translated” into contemporary language a lithograph about the life of Prince Yaroslav the Wise, made in 1054. To understand the image at first glance is rather difficult, but “encrypted” in it are several princes of the Kievan Rus, and stylized Kyiv founders Kyi, Shchek, Khoryv, and Lybid.



Symbolic both in terms of colors and theme is the work of French artist Guillaume Alba called “Woman on a Boat” – a combination of the street memorials “Kyi, Shchek, Khoryv, and Their Sister Lybid” and “Motherland.” This mural was recently destroyed, but nearby is another one by the same artist. In principle, the latter depicts the archetypal homo sapiens. In one hand he holds a club-key [a club that also functions as a key], and in the other a bird. Although, knowing about the mural “Woman on a Boat,” we can also assume that this mural depicts a woman with a sword as well.



The work “Every River Flows to the Sea” by South African artist Ricky Lee Gordon is rather dark and harsh. Few elements are present in the image, but these are very significant. These are the river Dnieper, Ukraine's most important waterway; a horse, similar to the one depicted in the memorial to Cossack leader Bogdan Khmelnytsky on Sofiyska Square in central Kyiv; and a golden square – in memory of the painter Kazimir Malevich, who was born in Kyiv.



Also impressive is the work of artist Aleksandr Britsev, depicting a flock of crows. This mural is a copy of a painting currently exhibited at the House of the Artist in Kyiv.



The project “Interesni kazki” is also known beyond Ukraine. Their works are also on display in the United States, Spain, Mexico, Russia, and Portugal. These are surreal and fantastical, with small details sometimes reminiscent of the oeuvre of the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. There are quite a few of Interesni kazki's murals in Kyiv, some of them with bright colors and some with a social theme – for example “Saint Yuri” and “Times of Change.” On the former, an eagle-headed Cossack is destroying a snake trying to capture Ukraine.



The latter has even more symbols: again, a Cossack, this time with six hands, and again, a dragon, which on this mural is strangling the whole planet. If you look closer, you can see that the dragon's face resembles the face of Russian President Vladimir Putin. There are many archetypes on the mural, including the hourglass and the sky with Zodiac signs. The works of Interesni kazki are always bright; the images are sharp; the colors appear without transition; and many small but important details sit next to the large characters.



One of the latest murals created in Ukraine's capital is also socially and politically themed, but in terms of its symbolism and artistry it lags behind the works of Interesni Kazki. Depicted on this mural is a heart, as if bursting into a house. According to its creator, French painter Mateo, his work is an allegory of the deceptive love shown by Russia in its relations with Ukraine.



We should also highlight portraits as a separate category – writer Lesya Ukrainka, politician Mikhail Grushevsky, Sergei Nikoyan, one of the first shooting victims on Euromaidan, and others.



All of the above-mentioned murals are found in the center of Kyiv. As we travel away from the main streets of the capital, the wall paintings get simpler. There are many bright murals in the residential districts, but these do not have meaningful content similar to that of the centrally located ones. On the buildings we can see many colors, fantastical scenes, cartoon scenes on kindergartens. Often these murals indeed do not harmonize with their environment, and merely look like bright blots.


Kyiv murals are very diverse color-wise. There are bright paintings, black-and-white drawings, contour drawings. The image can be sharp or blurred. If we use artistic styles to talk about the murals, we can find elements of surrealism, avant-garde primitivism, suprematism, and pop art.



Who Creates the Murals and Who Approves Them


The primary inspirer of painting on Kyiv’s buildings is director Geo Leros, the one who first submitted a project to Kyiv mayor Vitali Klitschko. The aim of painting monumental images on facades, Leros said, is to draw the international community's attention to the problems of war, aggression, and news propaganda. His project was approved, and the capital's authorities allowed the buildings to be painted. Thus emerged projects like “City Art” and “Art United Us,” where Leros works as curator. He looks for financial support and for artists, brings them to Kyiv, supervises the creation of murals, guides tours of the street art, and actively protects it from outside attacks.


According to the Kyiv municipality, the money for the creation of murals is not extracted from the city budget, but comes from donations. The role of the city authorities is limited to approving or not approving sites for new murals. It is also the task of city officials to inform the locals that their buildings will undergo a transformation and that murals are to be painted on them. Leros has stated multiple times that Kievites are shown the plans of the murals before works begin, but the municipality has not confirmed this. It is also unknown whether there have been cases of dissatisfied residents, and what would be the fate of a mural if it was disliked by residents.


City authorities do not criticize the murals, but promote them in all sorts of ways, and officials announce new projects on their social media pages. By doing this, they appear, or try to appear, to Kievites as promoters of contemporary art in the capital. This gives birth to the illusion that nowadays nothing is forbidden in Kyiv, and artists feel absolutely free. This tendency has now led to signs being placed on some murals, expressing thanks to officials – which looks rather awkward.


 “Political Order” – Art Critics and Architects Rebel


Kievites are, on the whole, satisfied. If we ask passers-by, many would not know what “murals” are, but they understand the phrase “drawings on the wall,” and are convinced that the city has become brighter and more beautiful. Those who do take a stand against this kind of street art are art critics, architects, and even some writers. According to them, murals have no artistic value, and to evaluate something merely by its “beauty” is mere ignorance. In the opinion of art critic Evgenia Molyar, when creating any artwork, artists must ask themselves: “Why am I doing this?” They have to understand that their work interacts with its space, and they have to remember that the work brings with it a specific energy.


“What is now on display in Kyiv and is being called contemporary art, are political and commercial commissions,” says Molyar. “We are dealing with unethical behavior and unethical use of public space, and with the fact that state officials use citizens' public space for their own benefits. This is not being discussed at all – there is a directive imposition of personal preferences, personal understandings, and visions of simplicity and aesthetics,” Molyar says.


Molyar also spoke about how – for example in Berlin, famous for its street art – the procedure for an artwork's creation in a public space is difficult, but transparent. There, any artist wanting to do anything on the streets has to fill out a long questionnaire on the municipality's website, answering the main question “Why?” After this he or she might or might not get a permit. In Kyiv the creation of murals has so far been a sort of monopoly of a certain group. This group looks for artists, communicates with them, and works in its own vacuum – yet the result of this process is supposed to be public property.


As specialists in the area of culture believe, the murals' main problem is not only their artistic quality, far from the category of “works of art” – but their complete inappropriateness, their incompatibility with the sites of their creation, with the architectural and general visual ensemble. For example, the murals in the center of Kyiv contrast with the buildings from the modern era of the early 20th century, which are falling apart and have long been in need of restoration. In the residential districts there is a different problem: here, the general infrastructure around the buildings is ignored, but murals are painted nevertheless.


“The main problem is the manipulation of the residents of these homes, quarters, districts,” says art critic Elizaveta German. “The general opinion can be summed up as ‘it used to be gray and ugly, and it became bright and beautiful.’ And this happens in districts that need the most renovation and improvement, but there is nothing there apart from murals.”


Similarly, Kyiv's architects see no benefits in muralism. One of them, Lev Shevchenko, says that residential districts – created between the late 1970s and early 1990s – are quite well-thought through, and have their own aesthetic principles. But if a mural is painted onto one of the facades, the architectural integrity crumbles.


Of a completely different opinion are the tour guides. According to them, the creation of murals is a revolutionary process placing Kyiv in the company of capital cities with progressive policies of contemporary art development.


“Murals in the center of the city are not merely helpful,” says Natalia Pirogova, a member of the Ukrainian Association of Guides. “They are a language, an artistic tongue understood by everyone almost without translation. Large murals are found in places where they are needed and they enrich the architectural, historical, and cultural spheres. Some of them represent a connection to Ukrainian culture and history. Our city has become a gallery displaying artworks by various artists.”


Tour guides say that tours of murals are a common phenomena in London and Paris. Soon these might appear in Kyiv, too, especially since in the center the paintings appear quite close to each other and convenient routes can easily be created. Therefore, despite the opinion of art critics and architects, murals are likely to continue appearing and gaining popularity among tourists. In the future they might, after all, become the calling card of Kyiv – as a result of their popularity and not their artistic value. Still, the phrase “a masterpiece of street art” can be used to describe only very few of them. 

Viktoria Ischenko is a Ukrainian journalist who works for the "Fourth Estate" news portal. She writes regularly on social and cultural topics.

Translated by Anna Azarova.
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