In late February 2022, over two dozen of Ukrainian folk artist Maria Prymachenko’s paintings went up in smoke in Ivankiv, Ukraine after Russian forces set alight the museum that housed them. As Prymachenko’s vibrant works depicting the Ukrainian countryside and mythical creatures smoldered two hours outside of Kiev, the campaign to hide and preserve Ukrainian art adopted a new, more urgent pace throughout the country.
Since Russia’s most recent formal invasion of Ukraine in early 2022, tens of thousands of heritage sites, artifacts and works of art have been damaged, looted or destroyed. In Mariupol, an airstrike razed a museum that housed the works of realist painter Arkhip Kuindzhi. In Kharkiv, shelling blew out the windows of the city’s famed art museum, leaving 25,000 priceless works exposed to the elements.
Around Ukraine, thousands have worked tirelessly to safeguard art and prevent further destruction. The walls of museums, galleries and churches, once adorned with visual representations of who Ukrainians are and where they came from, now lay bare.
5,000 miles away from Ukraine, on a tranquil, tree-lined street in West Chicago’s Ukrainian Village neighborhood, great works from Ukrainian artists including Mychajlo Andreenko, Alexis Gritchenko and Mykola Butovich hang unprovoked in the hushed, unblemished galleries of the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art (UIMA). Far from the ravages of Russian forces, the works are a silent but powerful protest against the invasion.
The preservation and display of cultural artifacts may appear trivial when compared to the decimation of hospitals and schools. But the destruction of paintings, statues and etchings is a maddeningly predictable tactic invaders use to erase the culture and identity of the places they invade and the people who inhabit them.
For Ukrainians who have fought to maintain and assert their identity as being separate from Russia for centuries, exhibiting their country’s art is an acute form of dissent.
“The idea about … an autonomous Ukrainian identity is very important for Ukrainians,” Adrienne Kochman, UIMA’s curator, said. “There’s been this … deliberate program of trying to subsume Ukrainian identity under a Russian lens … since Peter I.”
For the past 50 years, the UIMA – which was founded in 1971 – has leveraged Ukrainian art from the 20th and 21st centuries to help the public view and understand Ukraine as a rich nation, culturally sovereign from other Slavic states. And, with Ukraine so ubiquitously in the news in recent months, that education has assumed a new layer of exigency.
Kochman, who has curated the UIMA since 2017 and is herself a descendent of Ukrainians, said that there is a noted interest in Ukraine but that “confusion” about the country abounds, especially in the U.S. The Institute was partially built upon the belief that exposure to the country’s art would nurture in visitors a more nuanced, holistic and human understanding of who Ukrainians are.
While a handful of other museums in the U.S. are dedicated to Ukrainian art and culture – including the Ukrainian National Museum, which sits just down the corner from the UIMA – the Institute is the only one in the country that is focused on showcasing the work of modern Ukrainian artists.
The fact that two of the nation’s most prominent Ukrainian museums are situated blocks away from one another in the same Midwestern neighborhood is no coincidence. The Chicago-Naperville-Elgin, IL-IN-WI metropolitan area is home to a significant population of Ukrainian Americans – approximately 54,000 according to 2019 Census data – second only to New York City.
A majority of those descendents are concentrated in Ukrainian Village, a relatively compact, residential neighborhood in Chicago’s West Town region. While the neighborhood has not been immune to the scourge of gentrification that has gripped the city in recent years, it has largely retained its ethnic character. This could, in part, be due to the deep roots Ukrainians have in the area.
Ukrainian Village didn’t receive its official moniker until the 1980s, but was widely regarded as the hub of Ukrainian life in the city since the beginning of the 20th century when the first wave of Ukrainian immigrants arrived. Three additional waves of immigration followed: post World Wars I and II and in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
While each wave contributed to the evolution of the neighborhood, the fabric of the area was significantly transformed in the years after World War II, following the passage of the 1948 Displaced Persons Act. In the ‘50s, well educated, highly skilled workers moved into the neighborhood, which was previously dominated by working class Ukrainian immigrants.
These professional immigrants and their children had more robust resources and increased leisure time with which they could pursue more creative and political pursuits. And, according to Kochman, the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led many Ukrainian immigrants to gain a newfound awareness of and, later, conscious cultivation of culture from their homeland.
These factors contributed to an explosion of interest in traditional Ukrainian folk art and embroidery in the U.S. in the ‘60s. The fingerprints of traditional Ukrainian attire can be found all over what we think of today as “boho” fashion. Compare, for example, modern day peasant blouses with traditional Ukrainian vyshyvankas.
“There [was] a lot of interest in ethnic clothing, ethnic groups, white ethnics,” she said. “So you see, actually, a lot of embroidery and things [with] Ukrainian motifs in Vogue magazine in the late ‘60s, early ‘70s.”
And while traditional Ukrainian art forms may have reached the mainstream fashion industry, Ukrainian artists in Chicago whose work skewed avant garde had trouble capturing the popular imagination in quite the same way. In the city, artists who created stereotypical Ukrainian folk art frequently exhibited their work at the Ukrainian National Museum, but those who experimented with more contemporary forms and ideas found themselves without a home.
Luckily for them, the art scene in Chicago at the time was, as Kochman described, “democratic.”
“In Chicago, in the ‘60s, there started to be a lot of interest in, kind of, ‘do it yourself,’” Kochman said. “If you want to have an exhibition, you get a pop up gallery, [you] rent a gallery, you rent a storefront … And it's not necessarily about the commercial viability of the work. It's about the action, the happening, the information, the sharing of maybe similar sensibilities.”
As the ‘60s progressed, underground Ukrainian artists and Chicago artists of Ukrainian descent banded together with a hodgepodge of other artists who were interested in using their work to explore the way heritage impacts identity.
“[Other artists] were exhibiting with Ukrainians when the opportunity arose,” Kochman said. “And there was also a lot of kind of intrigue about cultural identity [and] what that relationship to art is.”
Some of these exhibiting artists formed a collective named Vasah, which is Ukrainian for “salt cart.” Like salt sellers, who brought news with them from village to village in addition to goods, the members of Vasah sought to educate Chicagoans about Ukraine through contemporary art.
Two members of the group, Konstantin Milonadis and Mychajlo Urban, sought a more permanent home. With the financial backing of art collectors, Dr. Achilles and Vera Chreptowsky, Milonadis and Urban founded the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art.
The Institute, which originally occupied space in a Ukrainian Village brownstone, rapidly expanded and moved to its permanent home, a modern, one-story building with a sleek, curved facade.
In keeping with its founding values, the Institute today is an egalitarian space that transcends its permanent collection and exhibitions: it educates outsiders, yes, but is also a gathering place for members of the Ukrainian Village community. As the war in Ukraine drags on, its role as refuge and platform for Ukrainian Americans has grown. Throughout 2022, the Institute has hosted benefits for Ukraine, talks with artists and writers, a fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees, a makers market and a talent show.
Kochman says the Ukrainian community in Chicago and abroad has been galvanized by the most recent attack on their culture and land. The act of consciously curating and displaying Ukrainian art and culture at the Institute is a statement about the resiliency, cultural richness and humanity of the Ukrainian people.
“Ukrainians get fired up,” Kochman said. “[They] can be very supportive of each other in their own group. But that's not all they do. They're also in the world, you know, the regular world — they have jobs … they're just kind of like everyone else.”