Underground Ukraine: This is the real life

Serhiy Kolyada (the young man on the red-smudged portrait above) is a contemporary Ukranian artist. Having taken part in the Orange Revolution in 04’ and ’05, he is disillusioned with the reality of democracy in his country. Notwithstanding the opposition he has encountered in the past, he continues to draw about life in Ukraine as he understands it. His art is the meeting point between traditional and pop culture. He has spoken to The Re|view about the difficulties of being critical and honest in post-Soviet Ukraine.
The Re|view: You refer to your work as “underground art”. What do you mean by that?
SK: Since I came to Kyiv- the capital of Ukraine – from my home town Berdyansk in 1997, every gallery I have spoken to refused to exhibit my art. At first, they asked me to put up the money for the exhibition myself, but when they actually saw my drawings, they changed their minds and turned me down. They are afraid, because my work shows what life is really like. I began to criticize the government and became more radical, using erotic, even pornographic elements. Back then, the only people who bought art were foreign diplomats or Ukrainian businessmen. In 2008 I met the Ukrainian actor and producer Antin Muharsky. The two of us, along with other young artists, organised the Independent Artists Union “Freedom or Death”. Together we took part in several art fairs in Ukraine; right now we’re exhibiting in the 8th Art Kyiv Contemporary. But it was only possible because of Muharsky’s fame. Without him, my art would still be censored.

The Re|view: Does your involvement in the Orange Revolution stem from these problems?

SK: Indeed. 2004 was a poor year for me. I couldn’t sell anything, so I had to work. But I had never used a computer before, so it was difficult to find a job to survive. No gallery would exhibit my art, and freedom of speech and artistic creation was like a distant dream. Those were the times of president Kuchma. No one was safe in this regime. Several journalists, like Georgy Gongadze, were even killed for their reports in the mass-media. Then, when they published the results of the presidential election, we all knew they had been forged. Why? Everyone I knew had voted for Victor Yushchenko. We were against Kuchma and Yanukovych (the current president), the mafia boss of Donetsk. So we started the revolution. Every day after work my friends and I went to the meetings on Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) to support the protesters. We were the protesters. I spent every free hour there, especially the nights in the beginning, when everybody was afraid that the government would send in the army and police to kill us. Sadly, nothing has changed for me. We have more freedom now, but my art still has none.

The Re|view: Do you have a political message?

SK: Freedom for everybody in the world. Freedom for the artists.

The Re|view: Many of your drawings include brand names and logos. What is this fascination all about?

SK: I use logos because they are a part of our life. During Soviet times all brands from western countries were forbidden in the Soviet Union. After 1990, a lot of western companies came to Ukraine and advertising suddenly appeared in our streets, on TV, in the media. I began to mix up those logos that made up our new life with classical art. It was also the influence of American and British pop art, Andy Warhol etc. At that time I found out that Andy was the ethnic Ukrainian.

The Re|view: You often mention literary figures like Gogol, Bulgakov and Sartre. In what way is your art influenced by literature?

SK: Yes, literature is another one of my main influences. Sometimes it is like creating illustrations to the novels of Gogol and Bulgakov. But I always try to add something contemporary. I want to continue the life of classical literature, as it were.

The Re|view: Who is Kateryna (the recurrent girl with the raised skirt), and where is she trying to go?

SK: Kateryna is in fact the heroine of the famous 19th-century Ukrainian artist and poet Taras Shevchenko (find the original here). She had a hard life: she was pregnant from a Russian officer who invaded Ukraine, then she killed herself. I use her image to show the hard life of Ukrainian women in history, and even today. She is going around the world, looking for the better life and better work. So she is also expressing the problems of the Ukrainian diaspora. My Kateryna drawings are fairly well known among Ukrainian immigrants in the US and Canada, probably for that reason.

The Re|view: Where are you right now?

SK: Kyiv, Ukraine. Since I can’t show or sell much of my art, I also work as an artist/ sketcher at one of the Ukrainian animation studios. I have a family, a wife and a 7-year-old daughter. I am an artist, but I have to earn money to feed them. This is the real life.

Find more of Serhiy’s artworks on his website.

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