“I’m Staying in Ukraine to Understand What is Happening” – Interview with Artist Alevtina Kakhidze

Interview with Alevtina Kakhidze by Philipp Hindahl

The artist Alevtina Kakhidze lives not far from Kyiv. She was active in the Maidan protests, and her performance for Manifesta 2014, in St. Petersburg, focused on the war in Eastern Ukraine. She speaks about the role of artists in conflicts, what happens to morality during war, and when it is acceptable to be a pacifist.
 
Where are you right now?
 
I’m in my studio, 26 kilometers from Kyiv. I can speak to you from here, but in Kyiv it would have been very hard. My website stopped working on Thursday. I got a message from the host, saying that they were targeted by hackers. It happened along with everything else and it is part of the war. This is something that damages normal life.
 
What is the specific position of an artist in this conflict?
 
Look, of course this is a moment to rethink the power of artists. We’ve been doing this since the political crisis of 2014. We had the revolution – or, to be more accurate, a long protest, the Euromaidan, which took three and a half months. People lived in tents, it resembled the Occupy camps in New York, except it was winter and it lasted longer. Afterwards, when the president fled the country, in February 2014, 3500 people were injured. I was among the artists who visited people in hospitals. And I was drawing the stories of the Maidan participants. At the time, it was important for Ukrainians to break the Russian propaganda narrative that protesters were marginal, and all from Western Ukraine. Now we have a harder situation – real war. Some artists react to it through their profession, as cultural workers. For example, a friend of mine draws with kids in a Kyiv subway station, which is a bomb shelter now. Some of my colleagues are paralyzed and do nothing, or they try to leave the country. Some of Kyiv’s artists never visited East Ukraine, and that’s why they are shocked by this level of violence – they need time. Ukrainian artists are as diverse as its society.
 

Image courtesy of the artist.

 
You are from Eastern Ukraine yourself?
 
I was born in the region of Donetsk. I wanted to become an artist, that’s why I left my small hometown. All my family was or still is there. I know the situation very well. I saw a shift in who was considered Russian. I grew up with a Russian cultural background, and I speak Russian. But during the war, I separated myself from all that is Russian and it was a painful process.
 
I’d like to go back to the Maidan protests, because you also made art about that, and you mentioned drawing. Do you see this as a possibility to react to current events?
 
For me, drawing is the key to accepting reality. When I saw the first barricades at Maidan, I was crying. It was clear that there will eventually be violence. I started to draw barricades. Through drawing I understood that this is a collective thing. I went through each detail. But then, my art is conceptual. For me, at the time, the most important thing was how to change somebody’s thoughts about something. During Maidan, people in the area that I’m from – and even my mother – were against the protest.
 
You addressed these complex issues in your work at Manifesta in St. Petersburg, in 2014.
 
I received an invitation for Manifesta 10, which took place in Russia in 2014 – at the time of the annexation of Crimea and when the war started in the Donbas. It was an opportunity: I had a huge budget and a lot of time. Here, I didn’t draw, I invented a performative dialogue. People, in Russian, on stage, would ask me controversial political questions. For instance, to whom does Crimea belong? Why do you speak bad Ukrainian? What happened in Odessa? Who is the perpetrator? 48 people were burned in a building in Odessa, and it was connected to the protests of 2013/14. It was a complicated story. Most of the victims were pro-Russian protesters, and for my artist friends from Odessa, it was terrible in spite of their pro-Ukrainian stance. Sometimes, you can’t know the truth, or find out who is responsible for a tragedy. For the Manifesta project, I tried to ask 20 difficult questions. Once you hear the question, it is clear that your answer will turn you into an enemy or a friend. I had three positions from which to answer, and they were completely different. I tried to show the nonsense of “truth”. Later, I offered a lot of workshops in Eastern Ukraine, where I experimented with this performative format. I asked more questions, for instance: are you for decommunization or not? One of the actions at Maidan was to demolish Lenin statues. There are people on the extreme right who demolished – sometimes beautiful – Lenin statues. The Lenin statue is not a statue, it is something else, it has another meaning. And this is the key: understanding that sometimes metaphors can be broken.
 

Alevtina Kakhidze “Where The Wild Things Are/Ukraine within the Russian Law”. A press conference by Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze, based on Victor Yanukovych’s encounter with the media in the Russian city Rostov-On-Don. Moderated by Oleksii Ananov, TV moderator, journalist. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Alevtina Kakhidze “Where The Wild Things Are/Ukraine within the Russian Law”. A press conference by Ukrainian artist Alevtina Kakhidze, based on Victor Yanukovych’s encounter with the media in the Russian city Rostov-On-Don. Moderated by Oleksii Ananov, TV moderator, journalist. Image courtesy of the artist.

 
What is your situation now?
 
My friends in Europe try to help me by offering me their homes. But that doesn’t solve the problem. They can host me, but they can’t bring all of my country. I can come, I don’t need a visa. I can take a train from Lviv. But for me, to provide a portrayal from above, as an artist staying here, is also valuable. There are many wars all over the world, and the Russian-Ukrainian war is one of them. I’m staying in Ukraine to understand what is happening. Without that, I can’t produce work. But I can’t say that every Ukrainian artist should behave like this.
 

Image courtesy of the artist.

It is frustrating to watch. Now, the West threatens sanctions, and they are very foreseeable. But Putin knows there will be no further consequences, probably.
 
At the moment I’m reading about the 17th-century idea of perpetual peace, proposed by Immanuel Kant. He suggests that we can imagine a peace that is not fragile, but perpetual. Yesterday, we started to write to people from Moscow, asking them to donate money to help the Ukrainian army. They said, we don’t want this, we are against the war. They want to protect peace – which I can understand – but they also want to protect themselves from financing war. But how else can we stop the war in Ukraine?
 
Is this a question of morality?
 
If you read philosophy, morality is always questioned. Only totalitarian regimes believe in morals as something solid. You and I, for example, have similar ideas, but they could also be shifted. You can choose to be like the Dalai Lama, or you can be ready to fight. Choices always exist. 
 
What do you mean?
 
When I was at Maidan, other artists were also there. Some of them started throwing stones. I didn’t. But, the next morning, after Yanukovich fled the country and Maidan was victorious, I understood something: if everyone had been like me, Yanukovich wouldn’t have fled. When can you allow yourself to be a pacifist? Ukraine is in this very interesting situation where you can test many of these concepts. But right now I’m a Ukrainian artist. I sit in my studio and we talk about philosophy – even if I can hear the shelling. I’m so curious to see what the end of this will be.
 
What will it be?
 
The question is, what is Putin’s goal? He likely wants to replace the government in Ukraine, or he wants to change our political agenda, so that our president just signs anything the Russian regime demands. This would affect me as well as all the people in Europe.
 

Image courtesy of the artist.

You talked about the eight years between Maidan and now. What happened to the idea of a new beginning?
 
You see, I made visualizations for a survey in the occupied territory. They asked questions about how people see themselves, with whom they’d like to be, and what their attitude towards the Ukrainian government is. They interviewed 600 people and needed illustrations, so I got the job. One question was, if you had three wishes, what would they be – but people had only one: they wanted the war to end. If you lack imagination, it doesn’t give you any hope. My friends from the EU suggest only one thing: come to us.
 
I think that is understandable.
 
A lot of my neighbors are also scared. But I am against the idea of having just one solution. In Ukraine, in the occupied territories, there is only one wish, not a second, not a third.
 
But when there is peace, much more is possible.
 
Imagination has to do with education. I believe in education, and this is why I work with children. When you are in a post-Soviet society, sometimes you can’t think. This is about freedom, and this is related to our situation. Ukrainians are very creative. But politicians are not that creative, and this makes me think about Joseph Beuys, about being an artist in politics. I was inspired by his exercises for my work with children in this village.
 
Beuys also has a connection to Ukraine.
 
He was injured in Crimea, but he invented a story about the Tatars who saved him. Which is interesting, because they were persecuted in the Soviet Union.
 
Do you think he cared about Tatars?
 
No, of course he didn’t care. But he was smart. He didn’t say the Nazis or the Soviets saved him. He looked for the exotic, with the fat and felt.
 
How do you think the next week will look in Ukraine?
 
We will see how strong the Ukrainian army is, and how far Russia wants to go. There may be a roundtable with politicians, and it will map the future, and not just Ukraine’s future. But I can’t really say. I don’t have data about how much equipment there is, or how big the Russian army is. On our side, we hear a lot of heroic stories. Like the one about the defenders on the island in the Black Sea, who refused to give up by saying “Russian warship, go f*ck yourself”. People share this on social media. Maybe the clawing spirit of all Ukrainians can help us, maybe not. I cannot give you a prognosis. My only answer is, this will not be a story about Ukraine, but about the whole world.
 
This interview was first published in German in Monopol Magazine. The English version was originally published by Kajet Journal.
 

Alevtina Kakhidze, born in 1973, grew up in the Donetsk region. The artist contributed a piece to Manifesta 10 in St Petersburg, as well as the Moscow Biennial in 2015. She lives and works in Muzychi, not far from Kyiv. She runs the residency program “The Muzychi Expanded History Project”.
 
Philipp Hindahl writes about art, literature, politics, architecture, the internet and the people on it.

Citation: Philipp Hindahl, “I’m Staying in Ukraine to Understand what is Happening” – Interview with Artist Alevtina Kakhidze, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.03.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/34194


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