Ukrainian Artists Make Fun Of Refugee Stereotypes At The Venice Biennale

In a room inside a Liverpool gallery, Saskia Pay, a young British actor dressed in studiedly ordinary jeans and top, is sitting on a chair in front of a camera. The guy with the camera, Ukrainian artist Andrii Dostliev, briefs a trio of other women, all of them refugees from Ukraine, on the type of image he is trying to create. He indicates the props they can use – a foil blanket, an arm sling, a dirty teddy bear, some makeup. The women nod. They don’t need much in the way of explanation. Everyone knows this kind of picture.

Unhesitatingly they move in, wrapping the foil blanket around Pay’s shoulders. “It would be more natural if she had marks on her face,” one of them points out, and another gets to work with the makeup. Next, hair. One of the women says that when she was living under occupation – in the town of Makariv, west of Kyiv, near Bucha, which fell under Russian control at the start of the full-scale invasion – she just pulled hers into a ponytail and it went unwashed for days on end. Another observes that it would be better if the model had some blood on her face. They give her the teddy bear to clutch to her body; they give her the arm sling.

This scene is being created for the Ukrainian pavilion at the 2024 Venice Biennale, the most important international clan-gathering of the global art world, and one that always shines a light on the geopolitical mood of the moment. For the previous edition, which opened in April 2022 hard on the heels of the Russian full-scale invasion, Ukrainian artist Pavlo Makov somehow, miraculously, managed to escape bombarded Kharkiv to be able to show his work at the event. This year, though, will be the first time the Ukrainian pavilion will present art made in the thick of invasion – art that shows something of what it is like to have lived for two years under the shadow of aggression and violence.

The title of Ukraine’s exhibition is Net Making – a reference to the communal volunteer activity of knotting together camouflage nets for the war effort. (I’ve seen people patiently at work doing this in the central library in Lviv, in western Ukraine.) But it also alludes to the act of making connections, reaching beyond artists’ own voices into communities, perhaps even holding something together that is fragile and needs safe containment.

‘The idea of refugees directing the shoots was a way of giving them agency’ … Andrii Dostliev. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

The pavilion will show an intimate, moving hour-long film cut together by Andrii Rachynskyi and Daniil Revkovskyi from footage posted by citizens to YouTube, placing the viewer right inside the civilian experience of invasion. Another work, which Katya Buchatska has made with neurodiverse artists, considers what happens when language itself is violently ruptured during a war. The overarching idea of the pavilion, says co-curator Max Gorbatskyi, was that each work should “involve people as collaborators, or talk about some real-life experiences”, venturing beyond an artist’s singular vision. “We don’t want to talk only about the war, only about how we are struggling in the middle of a catastrophe. We want to show how people are living their lives, both inside and outside Ukraine, during the war,” adds co-curator Viktoria Bavykina.

The focus of Dostliev’s work, which he has conceived with his longtime collaborator Lia Dostlieva, is on the refugee experience, and the stereotypes that gather around Ukrainians in the western European press. As soon as they arrive at the Open Eye Gallery in the morning, the three Ukrainian refugees tell Dostliev about their lives since the invasion forced them to flee their country. Daryna Ushkanovs, Maryna Bileka and Tetiana Shestak each have very different experiences. Bileka is a tattoo artist, she says, and has slipped pretty easily into freelancing. Ushkanovs, who has a young child, came to Liverpool to join her Lithuanian husband’s family, so she has a ready-made network in the city. Shestak, whose daughter has just started school, lives on the outskirts of Liverpool, in Prescot. It’s hard to find part-time work there; equally, it’s a long bus ride into the city centre, making it hard to fit shifts round the school day. She feels isolated. “I have some depression; we don’t have many Ukrainian people in Prescot,” she says. “For these two years I have felt some degradation.”

Dostliev and Dostlieva’s work is not only being made in Liverpool; they are also asking actors from various parts of central and western Europe to re-enact cliched images for a set of video portraits – all of them, crucially, with Ukrainian refugees directing and guiding the actors.

Fled to Liverpool … from left, Daryna Ushkanovs, Tetiana Shestak and Maryna Bileka. Photograph: Joel Goodman/The Guardian

The duo, who have a background in anthropology, have been researching stereotypes, and ideas around what makes a refugee “acceptable” in a host country. Dostliev talks about how some refugees have been seen as “too wealthy”, as if their possession of cars and good clothes would protect them from bombs; about how Ukrainian ethnic minorities such as the Roma have received very different treatment from their fellow citizens. “The idea of refugees directing the shoots was a way of giving them agency,” says Dostliev. “They have all faced stereotypes. By doing this, they now get a symbolic moment of power over a German or Polish or British actor.”

Dostliev explains to the Ukrainian women that today’s scenario, with the Liverpool-based actor Pay, is about the image of the lone female victim of war: the woman photographed outside her bombed home, in the shock of loss. Hundreds of such images have circulated; Gorbatski mentions one in particular that became totemic in the first months of the full-scale invasion, showing nursery teacher Olena Kurilo’s bloodied and bandaged face after her apartment near Kharkiv was hit. Dostliev describes the kind of picture: “A woman in dire need who has just escaped. Someone who has no agency, no voice, who just sits there staring at the ground and looking very traumatised.” It is not that the images are wrong or inaccurate or misleading – rather, that they are incomplete, he argues. “People are reduced to their suffering.”

A still from a video portrait. Photograph: Courtesy the artists

After they have finished preparing Pay for her shoot, the Ukrainian women stand back, satisfied with their work. Dostliev then begins filming Pay, who holds still, only her expression shifting and altering as she begins to act the part she has been given. At one point Shestak suggests Pay move her eyes around – people in shock are distracted, can’t focus, she says. Something strange happens in the room: although Pay’s job is to embody a stereotypical image, she begins to inhabit her role with a genuine power. The chitchat stops and for some moments, everyone falls silent.

After about five minutes, Dostliev breaks the mood: “Do you want to take a few moments before the next go?” he asks gently. “That was intense,” murmurs Gorbatskyi. Later, Ushkanovs says that it had awoken difficult memories. “In the moment, I believed she was a real victim,” she says. “I believed it was five minutes after an explosion.” She is recalling February 2022, when “there were Russian tanks on our street”; when a rocket hit a building 300 metres from her home. The line between a certain irony, and the suspension of disbelief, turns out to be extremely fine.

After a few takes, everyone discusses what has just happened. Joel, the Guardian’s photographer, is interested in all this: the portrait shot today is after all a critique of news photographers’ portrayal of the conflict. “The work is about people coming and facing cliches that exist in their societies,” says Dostliev. He talks of the importance of “listening to Ukrainian voices, giving a voice to people – not just portraying them as fits someone else’s agenda. There’s so often some ‘more qualified’ person from the west speaking for them.”

Pay talks about how she embodied the role. “I tried to imagine the way people were looking at me – there must be an element of people being stared at like animals in a zoo. It’s easy to forget people are human.”

Bileka says: “We see the same face everywhere in the news when any house is destroyed in Kharkiv or Kyiv.” Joel asks what’s missing from pictures. “The problem is that if people are not ‘suffering enough’, they are not interesting enough for pictures,” says Dostliev. The search for the most resonantly shocking image of despair, he says, “gets a bit disturbing at some point”.

Joel asks the Ukrainian women if they think the image of the “suffering woman” is a cliche. Ushkanovs replies elliptically: “My GP in Liverpool asked me if the war is still going on.” Shestak says that people have started asking her whether she’s going back yet. The implication is that images are important: they have to play their part to keep the war in people’s minds in western Europe. There are no easy answers in this dilemma of representation as Russia’s invasion continues, as an emboldened Putin settles in for a new term in power, as Ukraine continues to resist its aggressive neighbour and as another war rages on mercilessly in Gaza. Only listen to the voices, urge Dostliev and Dostlieva. See beyond the stereotype. Try to connect to another human in her irreducible complexity.

This article was amended on 15 April 2024. A previous edit omitted the name of the gallery where the pictures were taken.

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