This house kept a hold on you. Stories of four women artists from Donetsk and Luhansk regions

12 july, 2024

“They did not know that on the walls of maternity hospitals where they were born, it was written that they were measured and found to be light, and with their birth certificates, they have got a pass for the Titanic, which would sink slowly.”

From Olena Stiazhkina, “The death of Cecil the lion made sense”

I, too, never thought I was born on the Titanic. I realized it after the unidentified armed men appeared on my streets and people I knew and loved began to leave. In the summer of 2014, we packed our bags and left Donetsk temporarily. But for us, this temporariness became permanent. In my imagination, which was still quite childish, everything looked like an adventure that broke into the ordered life and accelerated it. Later, unconsciously, I would erase everything related to Donetsk: I would buy new "adult" sweaters; I would find people I could call friends again. If somehow the question "Where are you from?" came up in conversation, I would say that the city I knew had died, and that this phase of my life had passed irrevocably. Apart from sympathetic questions, there would be others that would make my stomach stick to my ribs. I would swallow them like tasteless porridge in kindergarten and steer the conversation to a safer topic. I would be sucked into the whirlwind of my new life with no room to think. Just the endless scratching towards something or somewhere.

Many of my acquaintances who were forced to leave their hometowns in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions said that they felt as if their lives were on hold and the towns were stuck in time, gradually decaying. Some of them went home to their relatives, and some could not, because the checkpoint implied the sequence: cellar — torture — death. Some were unwilling or simply afraid. I had no desire, because why should I go there? All ties were broken — no home, no relatives, just a few graves that my grandmother watched from afar. I wanted to forget and merge with the new environment. So I stubbornly distanced myself from my own experience until reality caught up with me with words that still come to my mind from time to time.

In 2019, the mother of the artist Alevtina Kakhidze died at the checkpoint. I learned this news from an article I came across by chance. I knew that Alevtina came from occupied Zhdanivka and that for many years she has been working on the project about Klubnika Andriivna — telling about the life under occupation through the story of her mother. "My mother is not a sideboard" — this was the artist's answer to many questions why she did not take her mother with her. After some time, the story of Alevtina's mother reappeared with the image of the monument the artist created for her with the inscription: "This house kept a hold on you. To all those who died alone under the Russian occupation".

The Monument to the Mother of Alevtina Kakhidze, 2021, Muzychi, the Kyiv region. Photo by Marho Didichenko, courtesy of Past/Future/Art.
After reading this sentence, I felt as if something inside me had broken, and a whirlwind of memories began to swirl in my head: of my grandmother crossing the checkpoint, and how I always said to myself, "May everything be okay"; of the painful waiting for her call with the words, "I've arrived, everything is okay. The apartment is intact"; about my mother's voice on the phone when she says distantly and colorlessly, "I'm in your room. Tell me what to pack. I don't have much time"; about my former best friend who moved to Crimea and told me that she burned her Ukrainian passport at a rally; about a cat that had to be given to relatives; about the green walls of my room that I will never see again. And I cried as I had never cried before. The salt of memories flowed out of me and turned to stone. Every thing, even the smallest, became important.

Since February 24, I have been collecting stories from my own family and acquaintances. I soak them up with a blind thirst for preservation, as if to fill the gaps in my memory. More and more often, I see women artists in my circle who, like me, after the full-scale invasion, began to turn to their origins and talk about the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Immersing myself in these stories, I seem to be one step closer to home.


During the first month of the invasion, I performed the ritual of scrolling through Facebook. While reading the news, I came across an image that captivated me with its startling accuracy. There were shells taking root in the earth, in its deepest bowels. This image was part of the series of paintings "Medical and political fantasies about Luhansk", started by the artist Kateryna Aliinyk in 2021. The work is focused on reflections on weak gestures of resistance, for example, of people in the occupied territories who care for their own land. The artist's childhood was closely connected with work on the land, which shaped her. After leaving Luhansk as a teenager, Aliinyk never worked in another garden. In this way, she preserves the memories of her childhood place until she physically returns home. Imagination in Aliinyk's works is a method of approaching the lost — fields of feather grass, limestone hills — everything that is currently undergoing terrible destruction. Looking into the layers of earth, where the remains of shells are mixed with soil and bones, the artist asks: "What will be the future of this land? What are the abandoned gardens hiding? Will the future harvest be edible, or have we simply lost our appetite?

The artist Kateryna Aliinyk against the background of her work “When the Sun Sets East,” 2024. Courtesy of the artist.
Until 2019, Kateryna Aliinyk, along with her mother and sister, would visit the family home where her grandparents lived. As the artist says, they decided to stay and take care of the land without any political reasons, so that when the family came home, the garden would greet them as usual. Every time, when returning to Kyiv, she and her mother and sister brought with them what her grandparents had grown and produced — tomato juice, apricots, grapes and walnuts. In her book "Collective Fantasies and Eastern Resources" (2022), the artist describes the experience of returning home with queues at the border, inspections of personal belongings, and heavy bags filled with powders, medicines, and sweets. In her text “Who else eats the life with spoons” she recalls a memory from her childhood — on the way to Slovyansk, she and her family passed by the head of Ilya Muromets (the epic character, hero of folk Russian legends) which was twice the height of a man. "I wrote to all my fellow citizens and asked if the head of Ilya Muromets was there. No one remembers. Maybe I dreamed it, but after liberation I really want to go and see it. What is this head? Who made it? And why in this place? I cannot understand. I want to examine many different memories. Listening to this story, I think about the fragility of my own memory and the impossibility of verifying my childhood memories. Memories that are more likely to become fantasies or, as Aliinyk says, "overripe knowledge" that, if not plucked in time, will fall and decay.


The artist Nastasia Leliuk is also from Luhansk. After the occupation in 2014, she moved to Dnipro and started an independent life. It was a difficult time, but it helped her grow up and build an inner armor that, it seemed, could not be broken. For a long time she did not touch the subject of her origin in her art. To a large extent, Nastasia explains this by the fact that her surroundings at that time did not understand her, even if they tried. One of the artist's first projects was the comic book "Luhansk, what are you?" (2019), in which she collected stories about the city under occupation. At that time it was a therapeutic action for her, which allowed her to deal with her own feelings and to record the history of the transformation of the city, which had almost disappeared from the information space.

With the beginning of the invasion, Nastasia returned to work with her own experience and background. For example, during her stay abroad, the artist created the textile work "Portal" (2022), in which she recreated her room in Luhansk and the things that surrounded her from memory, because she had no photographs of the room. I also came across this story in Kateryna Yermolaieva's work "Blockade of memories," in which the artist draws from memory three places in occupied Donetsk that are important to her. Working with her own memories, Nastasia also turns to reinterpreting the important figures of Ukrainian culture who come from the Luhansk region, as in the project "From John 5:35" (2023), dedicated to Ivan Svitlychnyi.

Nastasia Leliuk, “Tree of Ivan Svitlychnyi,” 2023. Courtesy of the author.
The artist worked a lot with textiles and mosaics before the invasion, but most of her works have not survived. Leliuk jokes that it is a vicious circle in which something happens to her works. Currently, "Portal" is the artist's only textile work, as she moved the other works to her father's house in Kurakhove, Donetsk region, just before the invasion began. Her father went to the front; their house is closed and under constant threat. Recently, Leliuk told me a story: "I received a notification on my phone about a package from my father. I thought maybe he was sending family albums or my grandmother's curtains, which she had collected for us all her life. I picked up the package at the post office; it was very heavy. I opened it — and there was a tomato juicer. I wondered why not photographs, why not curtains, but this juicer is more important to him. As we continued this conversation, we came to a shared opinion: we are often given things that may be needed in everyday life to avoid spending extra money. As long as our photos and family belongings are stored in these places, they remain a home to which we hope to return.


I have known Kamila Yanar the longest. I remember that she took part in a school play in Donetsk, to which my classmate got me a ticket. We met in person in Kharkiv during our research trip with a friend. At that time Kamila was working on her diploma, a graphic work about the resettlement experience. At work, she keeps the keys to the family house, which are passed on to different people who take care of it. The artist says that for a long time she could not create works about personal experiences, but with time she dared. Kamila began to work with the theme of her childhood in Shakhtarsk - with its safe world, full of symbols and rituals. The first work in this cycle is based on the family video archive that the artist's mother sent her from the occupied territories. "My mother and I have our own system, because many of the tapes are not signed. She shows the tape on video calls, and I can determine the right one by its weight". The artist says she was very lucky that her parents allowed her to use the camera. Now these recordings are the precious evidence of her own life, of what Shakhtarsk was like, and there are real treasures to be found there. The work "Weather Forecast" (2022) is a video from the artist's archive in which, as a child, she recreates scenes from television: for example, a boxing match with Vitalii Klychko or the weather forecast on ICTV.

The work “Weather Forecast” at the “Triangle and Straight Line” exhibition, Lviv Municipal Center, 2023. Photo by Vitalii Matukhno.
Looking at this work, I think about the fakeness of the claim of "another Donbass," because I can imagine such a family video anywhere. In our conversation, Yanar notes: "Your house is the embodiment of the geography of your childhood, your own created world. Now I feel robbed. Many of my friends have a family home, although some of them have lost it with the beginning of the full-scale invasion. Not having a place where I can leave my things, where I can stay and think, is a standstill for me. During this time, my attitude towards housing has changed a lot because now any and all houses are considered temporary.” Now, the artist continues to work with images and rituals from her childhood, and every time I listen to her stories, I find myself thinking about the similarity of the childhood experience, about warm memories, and the state of people who feel robbed.


In the spring of 2023 I was working with the team of Mystetsky Arsenal on the preparation of a new exhibition. Then we talked about the image of the house and its fragility. There was a persistent question about a house without walls. One of the answers is the work "Glass house" (2022) by the artist Daria Molokoiedova. In the text accompanying the work, the artist concludes: "As long as we have land, the walls can be restored". Daria was born in Kramatorsk, studied in Kharkiv, and after the beginning of the full-scale invasion she went first to Lviv and then to Kyiv.

Daria Molokoiedova says that for a long time she distanced herself from the thought of how the invasion affected her. "This city (Kramatorsk) continues to exist, but in a way it does not, it is ephemeral. For two years I did not go home to confirm to myself that there was nothing left of my former life. The city is so different that it no longer exists for me. I have a lot of fear. I don't know what will have to happen for my parents and my brother to feel safe there.” Daria first left Kramatorsk at the age of thirteen — in 2014, when the city was temporarily occupied. She remembers sitting with her family "behind two walls," as in the fairy tale of the magic mitten, and seeing traces of flying rockets in the sky. But after the de-occupation, the city quickly returned to normal life.

Daria Molokoiedova, a still from the video “Entry strictly to Donbas,” 2023.
After the invasion, she felt the importance of working with what she knows well — talking about her own home, life and relationships because she can say more than what is shown in the news. During the "Sorry, there are no rooms" residency, the artist created the work "Walking through the home" (2022), in which she focused on the stories of people from the Kharkiv, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions. They talked about their own homes and recreated them from memory. The work "Entry strictly to Donbas" (2023) reflects Daria's own memories and how the experience of war has affected her. Here she follows the events in Kramatorsk and the history of her own family since 2014. For her, this is an attempt to take a detached look at what hurts and does not let go.


As I flip through these stories in my mind, I suddenly realize that they are all about endless love. Love for the place that shaped you, the place whose streets you remember at the level of muscle memory, the place that answers the eternal question of who you are. It is love (not nostalgia) at a distance of 10 years, during which time we and the cities have changed irrevocably. Only the connection remained unchanged, because for us "Donbas" is not a territory, not a resource, but home. Without it we feel empty. I still do not know how to talk about the experience of what it means for me, my generation, to live most of my life in war. I don't know how to accept that the place where I ate cherries from the trees as a child now is covered with shell holes from explosions; that graduates of my school were told the stories of "Great Russia" in class; that cities whose names I know from childhood are turned into ruins; that near the burning house after a rocket attack you can see a dog running with a piece of human flesh in its teeth. This experience is an open wound that does not heal, but takes another form.

The only thing I know for sure is that it is important to talk about all these stories, even if they have been told many times. It is a constant reminder of reality, just when you want to escape it; of inevitable changes in a life that will never be the same. The thought of lost opportunities to learn more about the city of my childhood, to grasp that knowledge and carry it forward, burns me from the inside, as does the thought that I have always demanded something from Donetsk and done nothing for it. Recently I remembered a moment in the spring of 2014. The city was pretending to be normal, and so was I. I was walking near the building of the occupied state administration on some silly business, and I saw the door open and a burly man come out, confidently carrying a television to his car. I lowered my eyes - "I don't exist, I don't exist". With this mantra I walk a few more blocks, never looking up from the cracks in the pavement and my own sneakers. Sometimes it seems to me that from that moment until February 24, I looked down at the ground under the pressure of shame for my own weakness, powerlessness, the desire to run away and forget, trying not to think about those who stayed and what it is like to live under occupation.

For a long time, I wandered along different paths in search of a place to call home. I held on to the idea that it could be anywhere there were people, places to love, and family. And so it was. However, despite common sense, I understand that all this time I was looking for my city in the parts of others. Because there is only one place that introduced me to the world and where many things happened for the first time. It took me eight years to find my way there.

To read more articles about contemporary art please support Artslooker on  Patreon