Art Is The Highest Form of Hope

The first day of Spring is here! I hope your daily dry brushing challenge and clean eating journey are on track. Mine, neither.

Meanwhile in the world of arts and culture, Bono has written a poem for Ukraine, at the request of absolutely no-one. Oscars are happening in a week’s time, and Amy Schumer, the event’s presenters, thought it an excellent idea to request Volodymyr Zelensky to “satellite in” the ceremony, because.

Fair enough, many of us have not experienced similar brutal, inexplicable aggression first hand or even from a distance (not that wars haven’t always taken place somewhere, of course). We all find our ways to cope with it, be it penning limericks or something else. Much like we became epidemiological experts two years ago by studying the internet for about two hours, similar interest has now shifted to everything Ukrainian.

Whenever I’m not doom scrolling, which is basically never, I retreat to fiction, as it seems to make the most sense. Instead of opinions (oh, the opinions these days!) it offers observations that come at a slower pace and are part of a bigger context. I learned the most about the conflict in Northern Ireland by reading Anna Burns’ Milkman.

Herewith some old favourites about Ukraine and Ukrainians, which I lately started rereading.

Ukrainian tractors have always been a thing – and with some luck, you’ll find a special 2022 edition of this book with an updated cover of a tractor moving a military tank. Marina Lewycka was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, at the end of the war. She’s a retired university professor from the Sheffield Hallam University. Tractors is an extremely funny tale of a Ukrainian family, based in the UK, that has to bury old feuds and unite to “save their father from a Botticellian-breasted Ukrainian gold-digger half his age”. At the same time it is a poignant study of European history.

My mother had known ideology, and she had known hunger. When she was twenty-one, Stalin had discovered he could use the famine as a political weapon against the Ukrainian kulaks. She knew – and this knowledge never left her throughout her fifty years of life in England, and then seeped from her into the hearts of her children – she knew for certain that behind the piled-high shelves and abundantly stocked counters of Tesco and the Co-op, hunger still prowls with his skeletal frame and gaping eyes, waiting to grab you and shove you on a train, or on to a cart, or into that crowd of running fleeing people, and send you off on another journey where the destination is always death.

Two Caravans tells a story of strawberry pickers (from Old and New Ukraine, Poland, China and Malawi) who discover that England has turned rather hostile towards immigrant seasonal workers. The small international group grows close during the season – not without the usual political bickering and such, of course. Again, the book is very funny, too.

…”-No one will take us for granted anymore! Once in a lifetime a nation makes a historic bid for freedom. And we have the choice to be participants or to stand on the sidelines!’
– ‘What use is freedom without oil and gas?’ he sneered.
– ‘With freedom, maybe we can join European Union’.
– ‘They are not interested in us, Irina. Only for new business possibility.’
He lectures me in that ridiculous Donbas accent, as though I am the dim-wit.
– ‘And who do you think paid for the buses that brought you up from Donbas, eh?’
– ‘This is all Western media propaganda. You are naive, Irina, you believe anything that any mobilfonman tells you. You thought you were the actors, but you are only extras.

Lubetkin Legacy is a story about a fictional apartment tower block in North London and a few of its immigrant residents. I found Lubetkin the funniest of Lewycka’s novels.

According to Inna, the Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev was a popular leader, spirited and jovial, who denounced Stalin and enjoyed a glass of Ukrainian shampanskoye best-in-world. It seemed as though the Soviet Union was at last crawling out of its grim past of famine, wars and repression into a progressive and dynamic world power stretching all the way from Czechoslovakia to Kamchatka. Khrushchev’s diplomacy even saved the world from nuclear destruction while letting Mister President Jeff Kennedy take the credit.

Sofi Oksanen is a Finnish-Estonian author and playwright. Dog Park is a psychologically captivating tale, set between Finland and Ukraine in the early days of Ukraine’s post-Soviet independence. In Dog Park the corruption of the East meets the greed of the West, and at its intersection are two women. What is a woman’s body worth in a market where babies are a tradable commodity? Can a woman ever escape a memory of her lost child?

Artist Olga Kovtun in Kyiv, 2021. Source: Kovtun’s instagram @kovtun_olga_art I have the artist’s permission to use this picture.

Then, visual arts. Ukrainian artist Olga Kovtun fled the war in her home country with her daughter and had to leave her ateljé and artworks behind. Especially her religious icons are spectacular. You can have a look at her works on her instagram account @kovtun_olga_art
Even better, you can purchase some of her pieces as digital files via her instagram profile – an excellent way to directly support the artist. All works extremely efficiently and fast. Can recommend.

This, and the wish that Olga’s physical artwork remains unharmed in Ukraine, shall close today’s episode on culture and art.

Title’s quote credit to German artist Gerhard Richter.

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