Ukraine Art Dealers Race Back to Kyiv to Save Artworks From Warpath

Ukraine art dealers race back to Kyiv to save artworks from warpath

Katia Vozianova had gotten out. 

The minute Russia invaded Ukraine, the Kyiv-based art dealer had packed a small suitcase, a hairdryer, and a single, framed watercolor and headed to the border with Romania. For the next week she volunteered by shuttling medicine and supplies from Romania into Ukraine, spending nights camped out with seven others in a friend’s apartment in Chernivtsi, a Ukrainian city about 45 minutes from Romania. 

But then, Vozianova says, she began to think of what she’d left behind. 

Vozianova is the Ukrainian representative for the London dealer James Butterwick, who specializes in modern and contemporary Ukrainian art. Some of the artists Butterwick sells are represented by the Kyiv dealer Oleksandr (Sasha) Shchelushchenko, whose gallery Tsekh is a major hub for contemporary art in the city. Together, Vozianova and Shchelushchenko had been planning a major show of work from Ukrainian artist Ievgen Petrov, and had gathered dozens of his artworks in the Kyiv gallery in preparation for shipping to the U.K.

In addition, Shchelushchenko’s gallery was filled with many artworks by three other artists, Mykola Bilous, Yaroslav Derkach, and Rustam Mirzoev. Each is Ukrainian, and each resides in a place already under Russian control or actively threatened by Russian troops. 

Ukraine Art Dealers Race Back to Kyiv to Save Artworks From Warpath

After some discussion, the two dealers decided they owed it to these artists to get that art out of the city. “We needed to put the art in a cave or somewhere underground,” says Shchelushchenko. “If it’s bombed, there could be a fire, or even broken glass could destroy everything.”

They began to plan a mission back into Kyiv to retrieve the art. “We tried to organize transport and a way to do it without getting killed,” Vozianova says. “That was our main task.”

The Return

Shchelushchenko ended up going back first, in part because his mother, who had evacuated with him and his family, refused to travel on with his wife and son to Berlin.  “My mother didn’t want to leave the country,” he explains. “She was born in 1942—so for her, this is OK.” After a few days in Chernivtsi with him, she had decided she wanted to go back to Kyiv.

Ukraine Art Dealers Race Back to Kyiv to Save Artworks From Warpath

Accompanied by his mother, Shchelushchenko drove back to his country house near the city of Vasylkiv, and was soon joined by yet another 80-year-old, the mother of a close friend who’d joined the civil defense. “Both old ladies are here with me,” he says on March 10, speaking from his country house, which in normal times would be about a 45-minute drive from Kyiv’s city center. “They’re both destroying my brain, but it’s OK.”

Spurred by the desire to get his paintings out of the city—and perhaps in an effort to get a break from his two octogenarian housemates—Shchelushchenko planned his trip into Kyiv.

He decided to drive his wife’s bright-orange Subaru (“it’s like an exotic bird, and it definitely doesn’t look like the enemy,” he explains). Armed with any documentation he could find proving that his primary residence and business are in Kyiv, he made his way through a series of checkpoints, convincing a string of wary guards that he was not, in fact, a Russian agent.

At first, Shchelushchenko says, he was not exactly a beacon of courage. “For the first two days, I was totally nervous,” he says. “Now, I’m so brave, but the first day, I was a mouse. I was a wreck, I didn’t know what to do.”

Luckily, he had some help.

Complicated and Dangerous

In the city, he was joined by several of the gallery’s patrons, including his friend Maksym Cherkasenko, a lawyer who’d joined the civil defense.

Everyone spent a day taking paintings and drawings out of frames and rolling them up, but there was a finite amount of art—just 20 paintings or so—that Shchelushchenko could take to the countryside. His wife’s Subaru, it turned out, was excellent for putting army checkpoints at ease, but not ideal for transporting art.

Ukraine Art Dealers Race Back to Kyiv to Save Artworks From Warpath

“The problem is—if it’s a small car—when you move around with art inside the car, people keep stopping you, asking you to open it up to see if there are guns inside,” Shchelushchenko says. This meant that traversing every village from Kyiv to his country house entailed lengthy discussions with civil defense forces. “They ask you where you're going, if you're from another city, so you need at all times to speak with conviction about what you’re doing, and what your motivation is,” he says. “And also, you need to speak the Ukrainian language.”

This meant that Shchelushchenko’s first trip out with his 20 paintings became his last,—at least until he can somehow scrounge a moving van. “It’s just so complicated to move from city to city,” he says. “Complicated and dangerous.”

Shchelushchenko plans to stay in or near Kyiv, even after the art has moved on. “I’m going to stay and help the local army,” Shchelushchenko says. “I’m not a warrior, I have no experience. I’ve never fought in my life.” He does not, he continues, “want to kill anyone. But I can do another job and help them build walls against tanks, so I’m going to stay for sure.”

Joint Effort

Back in Chernivtsi, Vozianova was getting restless. She’d continued shuttling medical supplies and foodstuffs into Ukraine, but she had artworks stored in her Kyiv apartment that no one was able to retrieve.

Ukraine Art Dealers Race Back to Kyiv to Save Artworks From Warpath

“It’s hard to find someone you can trust, first of all,” she says. “And you don’t know the conditions under which they’re going to be driving.” Most important, she continues, “most people are just trying to get out of Kyiv.”

So on Sunday, she decided to drive back, too. Sitting in the passenger seat—”my friend is a much faster driver than me”—they made it back to Kyiv in about eight hours, stopping once to get gas. Following a small queue of cars through checkpoints, Vozianova made it to the city center. “It’s pretty weird in Kyiv,” she says. “It’s very, very quiet. You can hear birds singing.”

Downtown Kiev, she continues, is untouched. “The bombed bridges, those horrible pictures you see, it’s in the suburbs,” she says. “That’s why it’s so weird: In the city center you don’t see any broken houses or damage, but you realize that 20 kilometers away is a war zone.”

After loading her car with paintings from her apartment, she stopped at various friends’ houses to pick up valuables and keepsakes they’d left in their dash out of the capital. Then she drove to meet Shchelushchenko, who gave her additional rolls of art—about 30 works by Petrov and Bilous. With her car packed to the roof, she headed back to Chernivtsi. It took longer to get back because she had to spend a night in a hotel, given curfews. But on Wednesday morning, she and the art were safe. 

Now, Vozianova says, the question is what to do with it. None of the artists, she says, have said anything about their endangered artworks. “None of them have complained,” she says. “It’s never come up in conversation.”

“We’re in touch with them nonstop,” she continues. “Mykola is a really strong man. He said, ‘I don’t care, I’m going to protect my house and my studio, there’s no way I’m going to leave.’” Petrov, she continues, “is in Odessa, and of course he doesn’t want to leave either. None of them wants to.” As soon as they change their minds, she says, “we’re going to get them out immediately.” 

In the meantime, both dealers are trying to figure out a way to exhibit and sell their artists’ work. “We’re optimists, we’re not crying,” says Shchelushchenko. “If you called me a week ago, of course it would be a sad story about poor Ukrainian refugees. But now it’s totally changed.”

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