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ROME – An exhibit featuring the work of three Ukrainian painters opened in Rome this Saturday, with the support of Ukraine’s embassy to the Vatican and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church.
Artist Volodymyr Stasenko presented a series titled “Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi: miserere nobis!” portraying images of the war in black on white fabric, with the words used by Catholic priests during the Mass, “Lamb of God, you take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us,” in bold red.
Ostap Kovalchuk presented paintings from his series “Images burned by war,” painted on pieces of wood that he recovered after the Russians bombed the outskirts of Kyiv, where he lived before the war, and where he hid in an underground bunker with his wife and their child.
Standing in front of a wooden canvas portraying the Holy Family fleeing to Egypt, the artist said that, when he painted it, he was also portraying his own family: “We too had to flee violence, persecution… leave everything behind because of a madman.”
To the left and right of the painting, were two others depicting a helicopter and a war plane, both in black, with small splashes of color.
“To me, this is personal: This is my wife, my daughters and myself; we are fleeing from that airplane, from that helicopter, from the black smoke the bombs left behind,” Kovalchuk said, with the help of a translator.
Though seemingly simple, devoid of details and color – due in part to the fact that he had left most of his work and paint behind when they fled their homes after the invasion began Feb. 24 – he acknowledged that they had taken much effort: “It wasn’t easy for me to confront this argument. Because I have lost friends. I have lost neighbors.”
He said that the world today is seeing history repeat itself, with Russians killing Ukrainians in their own land, and this is happening in “pursuit of the phantom purpose of ‘denazification’ of Ukraine.”
“If Ukraine gives up, it will then be Europe’s turn,” Kovalchuk said. “However, we will not give up! We, with your help and support, will resist. And to prevent mass graves from making their appearance on Italian soil as well, we must all together stop the Führer of the 21st century.”
At the opening of the exhibit on Saturday, he said that all the artists were calling on those present to “awaken Europe so that it is not too late. Inform people, tell them the truth about what is happening, so that World War III – which Pope Francis was warning us about for a long time – doesn’t become a world catastrophe!”
The exhibit is being held in Rome’s Polish Institute and is part of the international art project “Stand with Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian embassy to the Holy See asked the Vatican Museums if they would consider showcasing some of the works, but they were told they don’t include living artists to their collections.
Kobalchuk was still thankful for the opportunity to display his art in the Eternal City – and the plan is for other cities to host the exhibit too.
Stasenko said that during the first several weeks of the war, he wasn’t able to enter his studio. He and his family had contemplated running, becoming refugees, but decided against it, and prepared to fight against the Russian invasion in whatever way possible.
They had many opportunities to leave; friends and colleagues from abroad promised him and his family shelter.
“But I am a man; I have to stay behind and fight,” he said. Yet, “I wasn’t allowed in the army: I’m practically blind from one eye, and my left arm barely works. But we worked as a family, with my wife and son, to help those who passed through our front door as they fled.”
“There were too many refugees … 50, 60 people came every day, as they were leaving. All the people I know have left,” he said. “I stopped listening to the sirens announcing an aerial attack. There are too many people to feed, too many people need a place to spend the night.”
“And one day I cried,” he said. “I cried like I’ve never cried before, with all my heart, hysterically: A maternal hospital was bombed. I’ve been there many times. I know its walls well. We tried to save them all, but we fail.”
When he had the time – and the strength – to go back to his study, he found his latest painting, almost ready to be shipped for an exhibit abroad. He covered the landscape he had painted with the Ukrainian flag.
“Our Ukraine… Our dearest Ukraine, I painted over our fields, over our skies, our flag,” he said. “Because all of it is Ukraine. Not Russia,” Stasenko said.
Follow Inés San Martín on Twitter: @inesanma