Art exhibit tries to put a feminist face on fascism

Women at War exposes an art world in service to capital, and its workers in need of political education  

By Irene Bindi  

On February 29, the University of Manitoba School of Art Gallery will open an exhibition entitled Women at War. The gallery’s website states that the exhibition features “works by leading contemporary women artists working in Ukraine and provides context for the current war.”

Described by curator Monika Fabijanska as an exhibition of feminist historiography, re-evaluating the traditional role of women in war and exploring eastern-European feminism as something quite different from the feminism of the West, the show is comprised of the work of twelve Ukrainian women artists. A high-profile touring exhibition, Women at War has found glowing reception in art publications and mainstream news outlets, including Frieze Magazine and the Washington Post. None of this coverage or praise has made mention of the historical context leading up to the February 24, 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine, nor does it make any mention of the exhibition’s alignment with right-wing ultra-nationalism, militarism and anti-socialist sentiment.

Originating with the conservative Fridman Gallery in New York, the fact that the exhibition’s Winnipeg iteration is also funded in part by the Centre of Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, and that one of its local sponsors as is the right-wing Shevchenko Foundation, already provide a strong indication of its pro-war positioning.

Moreover, when we also look to its surface, all the artists in Women at War are white, as are all the human subjects depicted in their work. Ukrainian women artists who are racialized, and all racialized people in Ukraine, are excluded. Racialized refugee and migrant women who lived in Ukraine at the time of Russia’s invasion and before it, many now multiply displaced, receive no place in the exhibition whatsoever. That in itself could be subject to historiographic inquiry.

While individual artists make nebulous reference to a Soviet past, the exhibition places its temporal scope firmly on the 2014 war in the Donbass and Crimea and the 2022 Russian invasion and its aftermath. On the current war, the exhibition focuses entirely on Russian aggression, with no mention whatsoever of US or NATO aggression and forcible expansion in the years leading up to it. In the same way that the media framing treats October 7 as a historically decontextualized launchpad for the genocide of Palestinians, ignoring the long history of Israeli occupation, Women at War takes the dominant culture’s lead, omitting the true history behind the current war in Ukraine and participating in its erasure from contemporary media and Western discourse more broadly.

In reality, it is only in a new Cold War context, rather than the common framing of a “completely unprovoked” invasion, that Russia’s intervention can be accurately understood. By breaking its 1990 promise to not extend “one inch” beyond Germany’s eastern borders, the United States had for decades been heightening NATO aggression and it continues to do so as it grapples with diminishing imperial control. The eastern expansion of NATO, the US cancellation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaties, and the fact that the events of 2014 – the Maïdan coup – were far-right and Nazi Ukrainian nationalist-led with Western backing, are all facts excluded from the Western narrative. Canada played a significant role in the coup, providing both extensive training, weapons and munitions. On the bombing of Donbass, the West has again been entirely silent. Furthermore, on the brutal treatment by Ukrainian ultra-nationalists of Roma, Russian, racialized and other minority groups, and of socialists, communists and other progressives within Ukraine, the West has been equally silent. Yet Women at War tows the imperialist line by completely ignoring these realities.

It should not be necessary to state that affirming the above historical facts does not make one a Putin supporter or a victim of Russian propaganda. One can hold the above events as historically accurate, while at the same time be critical of Russia, but in a critically diminished and highly propagandized and flattened political atmosphere, criticizing Ukraine equals celebrating Russia’s invasion. The fact remains that the prevalence of extreme-right views and ruling forces in Ukraine, and the fact that the nation is being exploited as a geopolitical weapon for Western imperialism, cannot be ignored in any evaluation of the war in Ukraine.

With estimated deaths of nearly 70,000 people, this has now become a war of attrition. The US and Canada have only escalated their military backing to prolong the war, dramatically increasing the risk of regional and world nuclear war. The justification for heightened Ukrainian militarization, and its framing as resistance, when backed by the enormous force of NATO powers is deeply fallacious. Aggression and escalation have been painted as natural and inevitable.

Within this ideological framework, Women at War immediately and obediently paints war in the terms of necessity: “War is central to history,” the exhibition’s description begins. Indeed, the Washington Post, in celebrating the show, latches onto this pervasive tone of naturalized militarism, noting that some of its works “suggest war as a larger metaphor, or as an organic presence, almost as if it is embedded in the landscape and texture of ordinary life.”

Russian – not the Russian military or the Russian state, but Russian culture, language and identity – become the implicit, and in some cases explicit, targets of artists in the exhibition. Olia Federova for instance, refers to the Russian language itself as “the language of terror, violence, cruelty, barbarism, death.” In describing her stone sculpture of a loaf of bread, artist Zhanna Kadyrova explains that since the Ukrainian word for bread “palianystsia” is difficult for Russians to pronounce, it “became a shibboleth: a means of sorting friend from foe.” Anyone who speaks Russian then, is the enemy. For context, 30 percent of Ukraine’s population are Russian speakers. In 2018, the increasingly ultranationalist Ukraine revoked 2012 language legislation that had given “regional language” status to any language spoken by at least 10 percent of the population, deeming the law unconstitutional.

It is not surprising that some of Kadyrova’s other works have also been overtly militarist. For example, she has created artwork using an AK-47 and was quoted in the Guardian this past October talking enthusiastically about the weapon: “With an AK-47, you get a rush. You forget you are carrying a killing machine. But I need the skill. Everyone here does.” Violence as necessity remains a persistent refrain.

Always eager to generate apologia for more reactionary elements, The Washington Post acknowledges that some of the work in Women at War references “the longer history of war and its representation in art, including its glamorization in painting and by artists with overtly nationalist agendas,” but then goes on to claim that featured artist Lesia Khomenko “nods to the tradition, and deflates it,” with her painting, Max in the Army. There is, however, no apparent undermining taking place in the portrait. The soldier depicted in Khomenko’s work, starkly lit and standing alert at attention, was her fiancé at the time the work was painted and is now her husband. There is no particular indication in the painting or her communications about it, that she was anything but proud of his enlistment.

The websites of both Zhanna Kdayrova and Alena Grom (one of the artists whose portraiture features exclusively white subjects) list them as members of REP, or Revolutionary Experimental Space, a post-“thaw wave” artist collective that describes itself as having “developed in reaction to the politicized public space of the ‘post-orange’ Ukraine,” and that is dedicated to “diverting the aesthetic canons of the socialist ideal still present in the heritage of contemporary Ukraine.” Anti-socialist and anti-communist sentiment also appears in the work of Flada Ralko, whose pen and ink drawings are featured in the exhibition; one of which depicts a naked woman seated on the ground and brutally bound with her face painted out, and with a black hammer and sickle positioned at her bloodied crotch. The painting, part of a series entitled Lviv Diary, starkly and erroneously elides contemporary accusations of rape by Russian soldiers with Soviet-era Russia.

Curator Fabijanska’s assertion that the exhibition, “examines the perception of war as gendered,” forcibly associates war with a desirable empowerment, positioning it as a positive site of power and reclamation on the part of women. This abhorrent view is echoed in Frieze’s description of the exhibition as a “feminist battle cry.” In a curatorial walkthrough that can be found on YouTube, Fabijanska discusses the work of Kateryna Yermolaeva, equating non-binary identity with mental illness, here as the result of war’s impact on mental health, and characterizing the artist’s self-depiction as non-binary as part of an “identity crisis.” The fact that this classically fascist perspective on gender is distorted into a “progressive” gender analysis is both a deeply disturbing insinuation, and in close keeping with the strategy of right-wing ideologues that at this very moment are working desperately to revoke the hard-won rights of trans and nonbinary youth in Canada.

But what is missing from Women at War is arguably even more troubling than what it contains. Nowhere in this ostensibly feminist exhibition, is there a whisper about the discrimination and violence enacted against Roma or Russian-speaking women in Ukraine. Thousands of Arab, Korean, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Afghani, Pakistani, Nigerian, Azerbaijani and numerous other people from around the world make their homes in Ukraine. No mention is made at all of the discrimination they face, the rise of the extreme right, and the unabashed neo-Nazi Ukrainian militias that have been expanding for decades and are now fully integrated into the Ukrainian military.

Black Ukrainians, many of them students attempting to flee the country, have been blocked and told that the buses and trains are meant for Ukrainians alone, exposing the severity of racist exclusion in the country. That these Black Ukrainian residents have been left in the cold, detained and criminalized at borders, speaks to the reality of who is and who is not considered welcome, human and worthy of protection and life by the Ukrainian state. As Zimbabwean-born student doctor Korrine Sky wrote on February 24, the second anniversary of the war, “The past two years have been marred with deportations, expulsions, suicides, deaths, homelessness for Black and brown people who fled Ukraine. Two years on things have gotten worse rather than better.” Not a single hint of this reality for Black women in Ukraine appears in Women at War.

Racism is just one tool of imperialism. The fact that Russia is a capitalist state, and that it is not innocent in the conflict, does not change the fact that vilifying Russia in its entirety – its culture, its people and its language – paves the way to war using racism, xenophobia and other forms of discrimination that are rooted in the goals of domination, usurpation, expansion and the insatiable thirst for resources and profit that define Western imperialism. There is no reasonable comparison of scale to be made between US imperialism and Russian capitalism.

NATO is US-driven; the conflict a Western proxy war against Russia with the aim of weakening its economic power and establishing its dependency on the West. The US failed, indeed never intended, to implement the 2014-15 Minsk agreements and work toward peace. As evidence we see that NATO powers have stood in the way of peace agreements every step of the way, and Canada’s part has been the continuous funding of the war in Ukraine to the tune of billions, a pillaging of desperately needed domestic resources for housing, healthcare and education.

Any message that frames the war in Ukraine as a necessity in any sphere, including in the cultural sphere of visual art, is deeply incorrect, rooted in state propaganda, and must be unveiled as such. Peace groups around the world and across this country, as well as the Association of United Ukrainian Canadians, oppose the war. Increasingly, and despite incessant state propaganda, people in Canada have come to see that the war in Ukraine represents an enormous threat on a global scale, and as the death toll climbs and economic costs become apparent, as calls for peace in the middle east reach a historic pitch, the calls for ceasefire and peace negotiations in Ukraine are also growing.

Women at War stands in opposition to those just demands, and on the eve of International Womens’ Day it represents an insult to a long tradition of Ukrainian-Canadian women peace activists, socialists and war-resisters, and to all victims of war.

The art world’s warm reception of Women at War, though unsurprising, nonetheless offers a condemning exposure of central problems in the landscape of cultural production. The art world is, by vast majority, operated on the one hand by those who align, both knowingly and unknowingly – and in part due to funding networks that are answerable to the bourgeois state – with their own nation’s foreign policies. Canada is no exception. This particular cultural sphere is also operated by artists and cultural workers who often consider themselves progressives, but whose lack of full political education leaves the door open for exhibitions like Women at War that, by co-opting progressive language and familiar material framing, are able to easily circumvent that veneer to disastrous ideological effect.

This mid stratum of art workers – curators, installers, writers, administrators and artists – are, by virtue of the state-driven administrations above us and the thin political atmosphere around us, easy victims to the pro-war ideological onslaught in all of its subtlety and unsubtlety. Furthermore, even if we happen to hold nominally socialist views – EDI statements, gallery didactics and curatorial talks that speak the language of social justice and equal rights, and that decry and make gestures toward explicating all kinds of oppression – we do not, as a group, have the historical, political and critical knowledge to be able to detect a capitalist skew; in this case, one that would contort war into feminism.

Without adequate political analysis, cultural landscapes provide highly ripe and volatile grounds for manipulation. Seemingly socialist in word, language is wielded in deed against the interests of the subjects and ideals that it claims to amplify, protect and endorse, working instead to serve the interests of capital. Clearly then, the art world needs political education. Struggles are not carbon copies of one another, and the dangers of cursory learning demonstrate themselves over and over as the language of legitimate struggle and resistance is coopted in ideological service to the gains of war and its profiteers. But political education requires time, knowledge of the direction from which to seek it, and the capacity for analysis. In a ubiquitously capitalist, imperialist, anti-socialist and anti-communist society, the obstructions to gaining that education are manifold.

Every mode of mainstream communication – from public education to the media to the communication channels of governments, corporations and the artistic institutions that they fund – has been thoroughly developed to serve the goals of capital: expansion, profit and, by extension, one of the most effective tools to attaining both: war.

To fellow artists who feel, as I have, politically helpless in light of this reality, who feel overwhelmed with the task of finding facts in a sea of falsehood and capitalist propaganda: we are not alone. The moment is volatile, not hopeless. Our first step is to start taking our political education seriously instead of relinquishing ideological control to the state within assumptions of impenetrability. To begin with, taking one’s political education seriously as an artist means moving beyond surface reading in order to pursue socialist sources (like this one). It means maintaining consistent awareness of the need to be critical of the culture we are immersed in: that the water we drink and the air we breathe is the very culture of capital, that everything is part of its hegemonic structure, which means that nothing in culture is ever “just” a painting, or book, or film or a TV show. The efficacy of educating ourselves, joining a communist party in order to continuously and collectively develop political understanding, and searching for and working together with our comrades in arts in order to influence the culture together, has real historical precedents.

A path of half-investment is no different than one of total apathy, both invariably leading only to more horror, more death and more war. As in every other part of society, artists and cultural workers must be alert, informed, united and fighting for the necessary precursor to a just society: a just awareness. Women at War represents the opposite.

[Photo: University of Manitoba School of Art]

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