“Supporting Ukraine Is Not a Choice, But Our Common Duty”: How a Group of Artist-Activists Is Supporting Ukraine From Warsaw Favorite 


Feb 25 2023



In 2023, it is impossible to be an apolitical artist in Eastern Europe. As war rages on in Ukraine, art serves as a powerful and necessary tool, according the members of the Sunflower Solidary Community Center in Warsaw: Maria Beburia, Sebastian Cichocki, Kuba Depczyński, Taras Gembik, Yulia Krivich, Kaja Kusztra, Natalia Sielewicz, and Bogna Stefańska. This year, the collective—which supports artistic and activist activities in war-torn Ukraine—was nominated for Paszport Polityki, an annual culture award presented by one of the biggest weekly news magazines in Poland. Here, they talk to Vogue about their work.

Vogue: How do you strike a balance between artistic and activistic activities? Do they merge into one? Does one result from the other?

Maria Beburia: At this point, there is not one without the other. In 2023, it is impossible to be an artistic person who is socially uninvolved—it is a responsibility in light of the terrible things that are happening now in Poland and around the world. We all need to be activists and allies. But you have to do it wisely—not by taking space from the people who have experienced it directly, but by working next to them and supporting them.

Kaja Kusztra: For me, it is important who is speaking. We are trying to give a voice to the communities that should be heard. Of course, the fact that people who are not experiencing war directly feel the need to express emotions such as sympathy through their work is understandable, but it should not be the primary focus and should not be commodified. Art about a humanitarian crisis produced by artists who are not participants in it is complicated. We talk about it a lot.

Kuba Depczyński: I don’t think of those two spheres as separate things, or two approaches that need to be balanced somehow. Art can be a great tool for activist activity, and activist activity can be imbued with creative imagination and artistic perspective. In Sunflower’s work, art and activism combine in a completely natural way, just like they do for the many artists from Ukraine with whom we work, such as the Freefilmers from Mariupol. When we organize a screening of the group’s films, it is also a cultural event, an opportunity to talk about their work, and a way to provide financial support by purchasing film licenses [from them].

What was Sunflower when it started, and what is it now?

All: From the very beginning, the Sunflower Solidary Community Center was a first-aid initiative—our only possible response to war and crisis at that time. We felt the need to be together, to experience this nightmare together, and at the same time to act. We started operating at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw as a support center for people fleeing to Poland after the Russian invasion. We had neither a plan nor a strategy, but we adapted to the needs on an ongoing basis: collecting medicine for the wounded in Ukraine (together with Fundacja Bądź), preparing and transporting meals for refugees in Warsaw, providing legal assistance and sometimes just a point of reference. It soon turned out that the refugees coming to Warsaw needed culture just as much as housing, food, work, and support. It started with poetry evenings and film screenings, and then large-scale cultural events began: lectures; workshops; a film club; performances; and meetings with artists, activists, and researchers. All this was possible thanks to the involvement of several dozen people, including allies and activists. People came to us from the street, seeing our flags and banners in the windows. In fact, this is how we developed the principle of an open and safe place for everyone: We had previously dealt with the subjects of migrant artists and the accessibility of cultural institutions, and we were activists. However, none of these experiences could have prepared us for the nightmare of a full-scale invasion.

At the moment, Sunflower operates on several different levels: direct aid, including fundraising and cooperation with humanitarian organizations in Ukraine; work with the migrant and refugee communities, including (but not limited to) the Ukrainian diaspora; community building; conducting discussions on decolonization in Central and Eastern Europe and Russi; combating propaganda and disinformation; and popularizing knowledge about Ukraine and its history and culture, as well as publicizing the voices of Ukrainian artists and cultural workers.

We stand in solidarity with other communities and activist collectives. Together with the Foundation Towards Dialogue, we conducted workshops with the Roma community; we constantly cooperate with Wandering Women; we organized a picnic with Travelers to Host; we work with the feminist and queer collective KEM; and we organize film screenings with the Pogovorymo initiative and the Galas initiative to raise funds for aid organizations in Ukraine.

Sunflower is not hierarchical—we make decisions together and plan our next actions together. Thanks to the hospitality of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, we have a temporary home at Pańska 3.

What were the hardest and best moments of the past year for Sunflower?

Yulia Krivich: I think the most difficult time for us was the beginning of the full-scale invasion. None of us had had such an experience before. We’ve all read about World War II in books, and we had some idea from movies and our grandparents’ stories, but that always came with the feeling that it would never happen to us. Even at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw a few years ago, there was an exhibition called “Never Again,” which was about art during the wars. That phrase, never again, sounded realistic to me 10 years ago [before the occupation of Crimea]. But last February, March, and April, my world completely collapsed.

War is always in the background. I was somewhat relieved after I went to my parents in Dnipro [in Ukraine] and saw life under martial law, quite close to the front, with my own eyes. It was, of course, terrifying and dramatic, especially during the attacks, but feeling connected to my homeland and home again gave me more motivation to keep going.

How can art talk about war today? And how has the language changed over the past year?

Beburia: The hardest lesson we learned last year: Art can’t stop war, only weapons can. But art is still needed as a tool to tell the story of something as unimaginable as war. It is also an instrument for building a community, working with the community, and establishing interpersonal relationships. Art teaches empathy and how to perceive pain. At the moment, Ukrainian artists are at the front, providing humanitarian aid or creating works during air-raid alerts or without electricity—but they still create. At a time when museums and theaters are being destroyed, and paintings are being stolen, it is our duty to defend and promote Ukrainian culture and art.

Kusztra: During this war, as we witness a situation in which one community is colonizing and dominating another, it is also important to build even a symbolic repository for the traditions of the victims of aggression. The posters for Sunflower’s events often feature motifs from Ukrainian culture. The logo itself has a face borrowed from a painting by Maria Prymachenko, and a body created by the first two residents of the makeshift common room in the building at Pańska 3: 10-year-old Vika Balyk and 12-year-old Mariyia Balyk.

What are you planning in the near future?

All: We are continuing our public programs, inviting artists from Ukraine and our allies to participate in discussions and read poetry together. On March 3, we’re holding a presentation of the book Queer Ukraine: An Anthology of LGBTQI+ Voices During Wartime (all proceeds from the sale of the book are going to NGOs working for queer people in Ukraine) and a meeting with the queer collective DViJKA. Together with the Fundacja Bądź, we also run the share-the-warmth fundraiser for the purchase of medicines, wound dressings, and other necessary items in Ukrainian hospitals and at the front.

What’s giving you hope? How do you keep an inner balance in the face of all the suffering and pain?

All: Ukraine’s victory is not a matter of probability, but of time. We believe in the Ukrainian army—it’s all that we and our parents can do.

What message do you want to deliver?

All: At this moment, supporting Ukraine is not a choice but our common duty. The fight for the future of Europe is taking place on the front lines, in Bakhmut and elsewhere. We encourage you to support all the volunteers and organizations operating in Ukraine, to help refugees, and to fight against Russian propaganda. Our message: Decolonize Russia.

This story originally appeared on Vogue.pl.

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