Children’s art program brings the pain of the Ukraine war to Paris

Children in Ukraine’s second largest city of Kharkiv have created works of art depicting their war experiences while living underground in the city’s subway, where residents found shelter from bombs. of Russia, for three grueling months last spring. Their outstanding works of art are now the subject of an exhibition in Paris that runs through November 4. FRANCE 24 spoke with the show’s organizers during their brief stop in Paris. capital of Paris.

Until almost a week ago, Mykola Kolomiets had never traveled outside her native Ukraine. Two days after landing in Paris, the 39-year-old artist from Kharkiv is still searching for her, worried about the bustle of the French capital and the roar of planes flying overhead. .

“At every commotion, I feel like I need to get under cover,” he said, through an interpreter. “But I try to keep this at a distance. I come here to work. ”

Kolomiets is the director of “Aza Nizi Maza”, a studio for artists in Kharkiv. He ventured out of his fighting hometown last week, traveling by bus, train and plane to Paris to showcase the work of children who lived through the Russian invasion to his homeland. surname.

His exhibition, “Sous terre et sur terre”(“Underground and aboveground”), opening Tuesday at the town hall of 11 arrondissement (district) of Paris, was a witness to a unique artistic experience he had last spring in Kharkiv’s metro system, where hundreds of families took shelter during the attack. Russian ferocity.

People avoid being shelled in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 10, 2022.
People avoid being shelled in a metro station in Kharkiv, Ukraine on March 10, 2022. © Vitalii Hnidyi, Reuters

Trapped underground

Located on the northeastern edge of Ukraine, Kharkiv was a prime target for Moscow forces when the invasion began on 24 February. Only 40 kilometers from the city with the Russian border, Kharkiv’s defenders succeeded. in stopping the enemy at the gates of the city in early March. . Unable to move forward, Russian forces intensified a relentless bombing campaign that pushed tens of thousands of civilians back underground.

Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova, co-organizer of the exhibition, said: “The metro no longer works, so people settle down wherever they can, on the platform and inside the subway.

“In just a few days, the subway has become a true small city.”

With its vast halls and corridors, the Historical Museum metro station in central Kharkiv soon became a playground for the city’s restless children. That’s where Kolomiets chose to set up their workshop, which aims to help them escape the boredom of underground life.

Young artists working in Kharkiv's metro.
Young artists working in Kharkiv’s metro. © Courtesy of Aza Nizi Maza

“The original idea was simply to give the kids something to do,” he said. “Most of them have never been involved in an art project before, so I suggest they let their imagination run wild. Some start drawing abstract shapes or color puzzles while others draw characters and animals. Little by little, we started thinking about these works and how we could turn them into a collective artistic expression, each contributing a piece around the message they wanted to convey. . ”

War through the eyes of a child

Within weeks, the austere subway station was transformed into a unique art gallery, its pillars decorated with portraits of soldiers, nurses and other heroes in the effort. war of Ukraine, and of families without husbands and fathers. Other images are more mysterious. An angel-shaped building called “New Ukraine”, another building turned into a flower pot basking in the glory of spring.

Bright colors and floral themes contrast with the messages scrawled on the walls, some of the colors somber to the point of despair. “War is darkness, the sky has been stolen from me,” wrote 10-year-old Maks, above a drawing of a large bird in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Drawings by Kostya Bynokourov, Ira Tron and Maks Zoubenko, all 10 years old.
Drawings by Kostya Bynokourov, Ira Tron and Maks Zoubenko, all 10 years old. © Courtesy of the exhibition “Sous terre et sur terre”

“Children are forced to stay underground for days on end without seeing the light of day. This has been going on for several months,” Skyba-Yakubova said. “Spring portraiture has become a way for them to stay in touch with their surroundings and enjoy the changing seasons – even if they can’t see it with their own eyes.”

“The drawings reflect their mixed feelings: the longing to be free and light, but also needy and miserable,” she said, adding: “The situation in the subway station halls is real. dire, there is only one toilet for a few hundred people.”

Out of the tunnel

At the end of May, the Ukrainian army finally succeeded in pushing Russian forces towards the border, ushering in a period of relative calm. The mayor of Kharkiv urged residents to return to their homes and announced that metro service would resume. Step by step, life returned to the streets of Kharkiv, although most children still closed schools.

Local officials say more than half of the city’s 200 schools have been damaged by Russian shelling since the start of the invasion, making it too much to return children to classrooms. hazardous.

>> Read more: Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city, is a symbol of resistance

“Education in Ukraine has become very difficult since the war started. Only a few schools have basements that can welcome students back, as they need to be able to shelter them in case of a missile attack,” said Skyba-Yakubova. “In Kharkiv, teaching online is the only option, but children from poor families sometimes do not have this option.”

New children's work at "Aza Nizi Maza" conference in Kharkiv.
New children’s works at the workshop “Aza Nizi Maza” in Kharkiv. © Courtesy of Aza Nizi Maza

Before the war, Kolomiets organized paid art classes for children whose families had left the city to seek refuge in quieter areas far from the front lines. Most of the kids he works with in Kharkiv’s subway come from poorer backgrounds, with little or no experience in the art world. Since leaving their underground shelter, they have continued to work with him at his studio, learning new skills.

“I try to push them to develop their own style and learn how to work with textiles and ceramics, so that they can eventually sell their work to help support the family,” says Kolomiets. “That’s why I feel like I’m on a mission in Paris.”

The mission only allowed a short stay in France. After two days promoting children’s work in the French capital, Kolomiets and Skyba-Yakubova have returned to their war-torn country, beginning a 48-hour journey through Poland en route to Kharkiv .

This article is translated from the original in French.

The exhibition “Sous terre et sur terre” is open daily and free of charge at the town hall of district 11 arrondissement (district) of Paris (Mairie du 11e). It runs until November 4.

© French graphic studio Médias Monde


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