Songs from the cellar: Ukrainian creators bare their hearts ahead of Triennale Milano

“Sorry, there are no designers here in Ukraine. There are soldiers/volunteers/civilians.” Approximately one week into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Kyiv-based architect Slava Balbek shared his answer to a tone-deaf request from an editor at Elle Decor France, asking if he was available for an interview because they were looking to showcase Ukrainian designers. Really? It is now, at this moment of massive destruction, that you want to spotlight Ukrainian design? What kept you from doing this before?

I am a Mexican national married to a third-generation Ukrainian-American whose family emigrated to the US from Western Ukraine in WWII. The Ukrainian language, its music, and art, as much as the hardworking spirit have become part of my everyday life since 2014. In 2018 I travelled around Ukraine for the first time and was awed by how visibly ingrained the pride and unity of Ukrainians is. In 2019, my husband and I moved to Kyiv where I dedicated my time to writing and studying the history of Ukrainian post and interwar architecture and its shared built environment that includes Byzantine, Historicist, and Baroque. I first learned about the complexity of the country’s cultural heritage from talking to Balbek, who explained to me the constant fight to keep historic buildings from being demolished by suggesting instead their adaptive reuse.

I came to learn this is one of many fights young Ukrainians have taken on for the past eight years following the Revolution of Dignity of 2014. To save and protect what belongs to them, to keep it away from corrupt hands and oligarchs, from those who wish to gain power at the expense of suppressing and erasing. When the people of Ukraine forced former president Viktor Yanukovich out of the country, they didn’t loot his gauche mansion. Instead, they kept it as the Museum of Corruption, for people to witness how a single man with ties to the Kremlin was able to engage in such ridiculous opulence.

While 2014 was a pivotal moment in their recent history, the Ukrainian grit and self-determination is obviously far from new. The people of Ukraine have had to prove themselves to the world over and over again, relentlessly. And today, as they face the enemy alone and millions of people are forced out of their homes, the dissemination of Ukrainian culture worldwide is crucial because it has never been so endangered.

This is why, on March 9, 2022, the director of the 23rd Triennale Milano, Stefano Boeri, along with writer and curator Gianluigi Ricuperati and curator and pianist Anastasia Stovbyr, organised a special platform for dialogue and ideation with regards to the presence of the Ukrainian Pavilion at this year’s International Exhibition. The project is titled Planeta Ukrain and it was introduced with a panel of over 15 participants including philosopher Mihail Minakov, artist Alevtina Kakhidze, musicologist Anna Gadetska, composer Albert Saprykin, and many more. Most of them joined in from their darkened cellars at home or from temporary displacement homes in western Ukraine. “Please allow me to say that some of the people who will take the floor tonight from Ukraine, told me a week ago, ‘I hope I’ll be there’,” said Ricuperati as he introduced the speakers. “Meaning they hoped to still be alive in one week’s time when I asked them to participate.”

The Triennale panel was meant to discuss ideas for the upcoming pavilion, set to open this summer, and to emphasise the urgency to foment Ukrainian culture. The presenters were visibly struck by the participants’ comments and quickly realised the level of importance this platform held and the expectations of them to deliver aid from all fronts.

One of the first speakers at Planeta Ukrain was Lizaveta German, cofounder of The Naked Room in Kyiv and curator of this year’s Ukraine Pavilion at the Venice Biennale along with Maria Lanko and Borys Filonenko. She recently relocated to Lviv and, as she spoke to the audience via Zoom, asked to dedicate the pavilion to raising the question of humanity, and to reevaluate this through the lens of art and culture which is now under attack. She spoke of photographer Yevgen Nikiforov who built up an archive of around 3000 Soviet mosaics for seven years traveling all around Ukraine. “He said a very bitter thing,” German said, “that even if the war will be over tomorrow, or in a week, it will be impossible for him to continue this work because now the country is one big minefield.”

Many young activists, historians and architects have taken on the task to document existing architecture, mosaics, and sculpture parks mostly on their own expenses. “I never wanted to leave the country when it became clear the war was going to happen,” my photographer friend and Modernism fanatic Dmytro Soloviov recently told me over text conversation. “I did an [architecture] tour four days before the war.” He was referring to a tour of the late 60s Lisovyi Masyv residential neighbourhood located east of the Dnipro at Lisova, close to some of the most insane second-hand shopping you’ll ever encounter. “I am an internally displaced person, my only tool is my Instagram page.” Like millions of people, he’s left his home planning to return and rebuild. During the first days of the war, Soloviov tuned in live from outside his palenka to show us the aftermath of the first bombings. He eventually made the three-day trip to the west looking for safety, but not without documenting his “evacuation as a field trip”. Temporarily in Ivano-Frankivsk, Soloviov did his first tour of the city with 30 “elated” attendees as he told me, and is planning to do more.

Last year, Soloviov led the peaceful protest movement @save_kvity_ukrainy where young Kyivans took over the premises of the Flowers of Ukraine building even sitting on bulldozers to prevent them from moving forward with demolition. They played chess, brought flowers, and organised English speaking groups. Joyfully but assertively defending what is theirs with posters that read “Архітектура модернізму – наша спадщина!”, which translates to “Modernist architecture is our heritage!”

It is impossible to grasp just how quickly so many lives have been transformed and how much has been lost. It was especially chilling to hear from composers, philosophers, musicians, curators, painters, and political scientists who are directly affected by this senseless and violent war. During the Planeta Ukrain panel, which lasted for almost three and a half hours, philosopher Mihail Minakov said, “In this scary, annihilating moment there are also people who fight against the nothingness.” He delivered a powerful speech which ended with a personal anecdote, a recent conversation with some farmers. “I was shocked. I was living in these tragic thoughts and they were saying ‘you know, we gathered today and we started talking that we need seeds. We will want to seed crops in our fields.’ Yes, wars will end and these seeds shall be planted again by those who think, those who create, and those who love.”

Delivering a poignant speech, composer Albert Saprykin spoke bluntly about the truth behind culture which, as humanists, is difficult to come to terms with. “Culture is self identification,” he said, “culture is soft power and it is essential to remember that cultural diplomacy has been a tool of warfare for Russia for all these years. Russia has been using [it] to enrich itself, to gain power, and is now using this power for mass murder and unsuccessful attempts to enslave the spirits of my people.” Saprykin urged for representation of Ukrainians in every possible sphere. “No, culture is not beyond politics. Culture shapes politics,” he added.

Anna Gadetska, musicologist and Program Director Open Opera Ukraine, tuned in 45 minutes into Kyiv’s curfew from the dark hallway in her home and said she can no longer listen to music, except for Ukrainian High Baroque music which brings solace and hope as she says, “the power of light must win.” Gadetska is strongly dedicated to preserve the heritage of these polyphonic choirs. “My dream is that the world may hear this music, hear its power and its message which is very close to the music that the world knows such as Monteverdi,” Gadetska said. “My dream is to bring this music to the world and make it listen to it.”

Artist Alevtina Kakhidze called in from a cellar in a village 26 km from Kyiv. Like many Ukrainians, she has decided to stay. “I will leave only if the Ukrainian military service tells me this. Not just my friends from Europe, [who are] trying to help themselves not to worry about me.” Kakhidze’s mom died in 2019 after her heart stopped from the cold having waited for 11 hours to cross a checkpoint in Donbass. The resistance runs deep. And while the lack of empathy from the West could easily turn to anger, Ukrainians will never let this tarnish their goodwill and camaraderie.

So far, a close family friend was forced to leave with her two young daughters to find shelter in Cyprus. Her husband stayed behind in Ternopil with their parents. “It is very difficult to pack,” she told me, “I would stay too, but the safety of the girls is important to us.” My Ukrainian language teacher kept on teaching via Zoom through the attacks in Kyiv until it became unbearable. She is now seeking refuge in the UK while her family is stuck in Luhansk region and cannot get out. My husband’s cousin, a member of parliament, has joined the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Another friend relocated to Lviv with their baby as his wife goes on a worldwide tour with her band to raise funds for the army.

Curators, artists, musicians now double as translators, drivers, volunteers and fighters. They adapt, and they push forward, fearlessly. In Kyiv, over 20 bakeries, cafes, and restaurants have formed Kyiv Volunteer, a Telegram chatbot set up to provide humanitarian aid and meals for the military, hospitals, and the elderly. German and the team at The Naked Room partnered with other art institutions including Mystetskyi Arsenal to launch the Ukrainian Emergency Art Fund in support of independent artists, curators, and cultural workers in Ukraine. Architect and designer Victoriya Yakusha of interior design firm Faina has also joined the desperate call to preserve Ukrainian culture at all costs.

After spending weeks driving people to safety and delivering humanitarian aid, Balbek and his studio Balbek Bureau recently launched a large-scale project titled RE:UKRAINE. Declaring to “maintain a dignified way of life” the bureau proposes a temporary housing system aimed to provide solace from the traumatic events while their own homes are rebuilt.

An idea brought forth by artist Yuval Avital for the Ukrainian Pavilion at the Triennale Milano is one which reflects on the “impressionist painting” that is the Ukrainian flag. That is, the infinite wheat fields and blue skies. “I would like Ukrainian women to sing lullabies to the earth and broadcast these through speakers in a circle,” he suggested. Lullabies have brought consolation for too many generations stuck by immense pain.

The collective acknowledgement of the fight for freedom in Ukraine should move and inspire us deeply. Despite the suffering they have endured for centuries, there is nothing that will ever take away the Ukrainian spirit and conviction. But the people need our help, and we can start with a fair representation of their culture.

Images are my own. Originally published on

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