by Tamalia Alisjahbana
Jakarta, IO – It is nearly one and half a years, since Russia first invaded Ukraine and many predicted that the war would be short-lived. Mr Putin predicted that his special military operations would last a few days but that has clearly not been the case. Within that time, Russia has been able to capture a crescent of Ukrainian territory near Crimea but the Ukrainians succeeded in saving their capital and northern territories and in taking back some of the territory that Russia captured. They have begun their counter offensive and contrary to what Mr Putin predicted, the Ukrainian War appears to be headed towards becoming a long-drawn-out war.
For the Ukrainian people, it has brought great suffering and one’s heart cannot help but go out towards them. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 may not leave Ukraine as they can at any time be called up to fight. The Russians currently stand accused of having tortured and even killed unarmed civilians in deeply disturbing acts of human rights abuse in the areas that they captured. For Ukrainian women and children, the days are filled with the terror of Russian bombings which have spared neither maternity hospitals nor schools. A Ukrainian friend at the Embassy in Jakarta, recently described the terror with which her nine-year old son awakens during the night knowing that one day he must return to the Russian attacks and bombings in Ukraine.
Everyone in Ukraine tries to do what they can for the war effort against Russia. Some can clearly do more than others. There are people who provide service to their country by brewing and handing out free coffee to those in need, others cook free meals or provide medical services. Some people such as singers, actors and painters provide service through their creativity. A group of Ukrainian illustrators and artists who formed an illustrators and artists collective or club called Pictoric before the War, have since the War been producing paintings and illustrations through which they try to express the realities of the war in Ukraine and what it means for ordinary Ukrainians: their suffering and their hopes for peace.
On Thursday the 27th of July 2023 the opening of the ‘Ukrainian Art Exhibition’ was held at the Institut Francais Indonesia Wijaya in Jakarta. The exhibition is supported by the embassies of the EU, Canada and Finland while France provided the venue. It has on display a selection of Pictoric’s paintings and illustrations connected to the war in Ukraine and will be open to the public for viewing until the of 9th of August 2023.
EU nations as well as Canada have been deeply supportive of Ukraine throughout the war not only in providing armaments but also in economic, moral and psychological support. Canada’s Political and Public Affairs Secretary, Stuart Shaw who was representing the Canadian Charge D’Affaires, expressed this by declaring Canada’s unequivocal condemnation of Russian aggression in Ukraine stating, “What is happening is beyond belief. The art work can perhaps, shed some light on what is really happening.”
Besides its physical invasion of Ukraine, Russia has also launched a propaganda campaign against Ukraine which does not convey the true facts about the War and it is no doubt this that Mr Shaw was referring to when he said that the paintings may help shed light on what is truly happening in Ukraine. He feels that we are like the man in the painting in the exhibition by Daria Filippova watching through a window at a safe distance, the destruction of his town. This painting reflects we the viewers position as outsiders watching the Ukrainian war from a distant place safe from the conflict.
French ambassador, Fabien Penone reiterated this when he said that the art works on display were a good opportunity for Indonesians to find out what is going on in Ukraine with the artists’ feelings and creativity to tell us what is war and what is going-on on the ground.
The Finnish Charge D’Affaires, Silga Kanerva built on this when she said that the exhibition was an example of art as a means of conveying a story. For example: Russia shelling children. She then added a statement Indonesia whole heartedly agrees with and expressed when it voted to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the UN, “We must not allow any attacks on the national sovereignty of a nation.”
Former Indonesian Ambassador to the United States and current head of the Foreign Policy Community of Indonesia or FPCI, Dino Pattijalal spoke for many Indonesians when he affirmed this by saying, “I am here to show support for Ukraine’s fight to maintain independence. Why? Because it is who we are as Indonesians. Nothing is more important to us than our independence which made us who we are… We used to be Ukraine … struggling to preserve our independence and sovereignty. Therefore, FPCI’s message to the government of Indonesia is: Indonesia has not been shy about speaking up for Palestinian independence or against the United States invasion of Iraq – and we should not be shy about telling Russia to get out of Ukraine. In independence there is dignity and honour and taking away a people’s independence is to take away their dignity and their honour!”
However, there are also Indonesians who see the war from a somewhat different perspective. Standing next to a painting of a dead Ukrainian or Russian with sunflowers growing out of their body, senior journalist and writer Nasir Tamara who was attending the opening of the exhibition commented, “It’s a long conflict so we must handle it carefully. We need to try to build a bridge between the two sides. We Indonesians know them as part of the Soviet Union and are sad to see the war with so much suffering. I do not want to take sides. I want to try to be a bridge. I want peace. We do not like to see Ukraine being attacked and we want peace to be established quickly.”
If only it were that simple. Ukraine surely wishes for peace too but negotiations can only succeed if both sides truly want peace. Nevertheless, Nasir’s views are held by many Indonesians. On the 28th of July an ‘Artists Talk’ discussion was held at the IFI Wijaya and included amongst the speakers were Prof. Dr. Martinus Dwi Marianto from the Indonesian Arts Institute (ISI) Jogyakarta and Dr. Indro Moerdisuroso from the State University of Jakarta. Prof Dwi expressed somewhat similar views to Nasir Tamara and many other Indonesians when he stated, “War is a form of stupidity. It is far better to negotiate, communicate and collaborate. I wish Ukraine all the best in its struggle and I pray for you.”
Where are Indonesians coming from when they express such views?
Firstly, most Indonesians know very little about either Ukraine or Russia or about the war that Russia triggered when it invaded Ukraine in 2022. Secondly, with the enormous number of ethnic and language groups in Indonesia, Indonesians come from a place where negotiating and compromising are paramount to surviving as a nation. This is in part why Indonesia is able to provide very good UN troops. It is a position that we are familiar and comfortable with.
Furthermore, most cultures have been in some way influenced by at least one of the four big cultures of the world namely those of India, Cina, Europe and the Middle East. Unlike most nations, Indonesia has been influenced in a big way by all four of these cultures. So, playing a bridging role and helping cultures to understand each other comes naturally to Indonesians. Fourthly, it is to the credit of Russian propaganda in Indonesia which stresses Ukraine as having been a part of the USSR and the Russian Empire and now as a legitimate part of Russia’s sphere of influence, that Indonesians do not see Ukraine as a people struggling for independence just as Indonesians did in 1945 but rather they see Ukraine more as they would view a province of Indonesia demanding independence.
Finally, in the war between Russia and Ukraine, Indonesians see a shadow of the war that they fear may break out in Southeast Asia one day should war occur between China and the United States over Taiwan. They see China as a powerful nation that we could never hope to defeat so the only way to survive is through negotiations and compromise. It is better to collaborate with China than to try to fight it. It is a way of thinking and what it would take to change this is anyone’s guess but perhaps it is here that art and culture do have a role to play.
At the Artists Talk on the 28th of August, the founders of Pictoric, Anna Sarvira and Oleg Gryshchenko spoke to the audience online from Ukraine. They organized Pictoric with over 40 illustrators and artists and work with them to produce exhibitions both within as well as outside of Ukraine. The theme of one of their first exhibitions was prominent people of Ukraine. The exhibition proved to be highly successful in Ukraine where it was shown in towns and villages, in the presidential palace as well as in railway stations. “We want to depict Ukraine as a beautiful land but now we fight for our freedom,” commented Anna Sarvira who is a university professor in Ukraine besides being an illustrator.
She explained how at the start of the war, at first the illustrators did not know what they could do to help the war effort but were wanting very much to do something. So, they began drawing posters of what was happening in Ukraine and being on the scene they were very much in a position to do so. They then opened a website: https://supportukraine-pic.co People began texting them from abroad asking how they could support them and within 10 days after the start of the war, they held their first exhibition abroad. “And we felt so good that we could contribute for Ukrainian,” declared Oleg Gryshchenko who also lectures and illustrates. “By doing so we helped spread information against Russian disinformation and we sell posters for the Ukrainian war effort.”
Most of Pictoric’s illustrators are children’s illustrators and at first when the war had just broken out, some were simply too stressed to be able to paint but slowly, they came around. As illustrators, they agreed that their drawings would not be realistically horrifying or terrifying pictures of the War but that all the horrors of the War would only be expressed symbolically. In this way it is possible to talk about very difficult matters, including war crimes. Their posters are now travelling around the world. Oleg and Anna expressed the hope that they might be able to connect also with Indonesian artists and illustrators by holding an exhibition in Indonesia.
One of their most difficult tasks was in expressing how agonizing the war is for children who are forced to witness it. This is perfectly expressed in Anna Sarvira’s pink painting of a child peeping through her hands with terrified eyes at the carnage in front of her – the colour pink stressing the macabre aspect of it all. The emotion rife in the image of a child horrified by what it sees and has to see and has to know deeply impressed EU Ambassador to Indonesia and Brunei Darussalam, Vincent Piket who expressed it as, “That horror mixed with fascination and absolute need.”
Finally, it also remained for Mr Piket, the EU Ambassador to stress how through the exhibition, “We are creating a brotherhood with Ukraine. Art is a wonderful way to do that because it speaks soul to soul and culture to culture…”