Postcards from Odessa

Pritha Mahanti

Artwork © Lena Luuna

The woman in the artwork above dons a vyshyvanka, the national costume of Ukraine. These embroidered shirts not only represent fine craftsmanship, but also cherished ideals of diversity and freedom. The embroidery is specific to certain provinces in Ukraine, each bearing the mark of its local customs and traditions. It is believed that the thread works carry magic and for many this is a respected talisman. Tempting as it is to catch the irony here, let’s not forget that sometimes the most innocuous is the most rebellious. In her half turned posture, wrapped in her nation’s flag, the lady above could be looking straight at the big daddies of diplomacy with their ‘classified’ memos and reports. She pities their self delusion, their idea they are more than merely dramatic extras of a struggling theatrical production.

The drama has been playing out at the high tables of International Relations and diplomacy, where the world has been stamped anarchic and amoral by realism, a theory which propagates that states act in pursuit of their own national interests and struggle for power. It is a stereotype that has been oft repeated to normalise aggression, the cost of which keeps adding up. Seven months ago a desperate Afghan fell from the sky. Two weeks ago a shell shocked Ukrainian mother died with her unborn child. And, yet, along with thousands of others, they are neatly written off as unfortunate footnotes of a ‘strategic’ war, in short, collateral.  Needless to say, there is a terrible lack of imagination and creativity, the most dispensable elements to be sacrificed at the altar of political realism.

Two days after Russian President Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, in an attempt to ‘free Ukrainians from the clutches of the West’, I came across Lena Luuna’s profile on Instagram. Lena is a designer and illustrator from Odessa, Ukraine’s famous port town known for its cosmopolitan culture. When I reached out to Lena, she was still in Odessa with her five year old son. She shared two of her illustrations which celebrated the spirit of her nation and, of course, there were more to come. She said that goodness would prevail and that truth had a way of finding its way at the end of the day. It was the second day of war and a month has passed by. But Lena stands by her words and so does her art. Culture, she believes, is as resilient as the human spirit. 

Is it really? Does it stand a chance?

The same day that I contacted Lena, I also reached out to Pavlo Makov, another artist from Kharkiv. He was supposed to represent Ukraine at the country’s Venice Biennale pavilion this spring but as Russian tanks rolled in, he was busy coordinating with different organisations to send all kinds of assistance to the Ukrainian troops defending their land. In one of the emails exchanged between us, Pavlo wrote “it is not so much about art now.” Perhaps he was right, it isn’t. When Russian air strikes hit Kharkiv last week, I kept going back to the emails. With missiles hitting city squares, neighbourhoods bombed out and civilians arming themselves with assult rifles, where would art hold its ground in a nation bracing tooth and nail to defend itself?

Artwork © Lena Luuna

Yet its presence is seamlessly embedded in this war, as with most wars, where symbols dominate the narrative. For a nation trying to protect itself from the clutches of invaders, its image is its most potent weapon. The blue skies and yellow wheat fields are plastered across the visual domain of resistance.  “It’s a peaceful sky and fertile land with wheat”, says Lena. “We are a peaceful people. Cheerful and calm. But strong in spirit. We do not want to fight and do not want to say goodbye to the status of Ukrainians. This is our land, we stay on it! No war!”. Lena’s words are as potent as her imagery. She is in many ways what Putin is adamantly against – a mix of different nations, although born and brought up in Odessa. The fact that lineage and heritage can never be monopolised escapes those who believe in shedding blood in order to preserve it.

Despite savvy phrases like great power politics, geostrategic ambitions, realpolitik, balance of power etc. it is very difficult to justify this war. The only possible justification is megalomania, that has fuelled a surprisingly large number of crises, both in the past and in the present. Some of them were smartly packed in rhetoric, others, like the present one, were a brazen display of ego.

Like many mothers who have had to flee the war with their young children, Lena left for Bulgaria with her son, leaving behind her relatives and friends. The hope for this nightmare to end can never be abandoned, and, therefore, she wishes to start writing stories for her illustrations that were inspired by her grandmother’s tales. Because, at the end of the day these tales could fight a false history and propaganda. One of the tales will be of the woman above, who, in the words of Lena “is a fragile, but hardy symbol of a Ukrainian woman. She was betrayed by the meanness and deceit of Russia, which deceives her and the whole world. Ukraine has been through a lot and is ready to fight. Ready to last. I’m sure the truth will prevail!”

Lena Luuna is an  illustrator who mainly designs and illustrates books in the style of sketches. She also draws on clothes and gives painting lessons on fabric.

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