It's a provocative compilation: a Ukrainian artist couple paints Orthodox icons on the wood of broken ammunition boxes. The Christian saints look down on war materials that once contained deadly cargo. Ukrainian soldiers are currently opening thousands of such boxes to use the projectiles to defend themselves against the Russian invasion. Some soldiers take the old boards to Kiev artists Sonya Atlantova and Oleksander Klymenko so that they can paint on them.
“For me it’s a search, becoming aware and thinking through what’s happening,” said Atlantowa (41) about her icons. “It is an attempt to turn the Ukrainian experience into something positive,” she told the German Press Agency in Kiev. It is also the opportunity to do something good with your creativity. The unusual icons have already been shown in several European countries. The artists donate proceeds from sales to the treatment and rehabilitation of wounded Ukrainian soldiers.
The couple have been painting such icons since 2014, when Russian forces occupied Donbass in eastern Ukraine, said Klymenko (48) at a presentation in Kiev. "The war didn't just start now."
The wood has its own history
In East Slavic languages such as Ukrainian, icons are not painted, they are said to be "written". Atlantowa also sees the wooden boards as an artistic challenge: "It's not a blank sheet of paper, it's not a canvas. They have their individuality, their history."
Art became much more important during the war in Ukraine, she said. "There are so many paintings, so many songs." It is the artists who can express people's sadness and deep pain and thus give them strength.
In Kiev, Klymenko read out the first names of soldiers killed defending the capital in spring 2022. His wife carved these names into an icon as a symbol that people are not forgotten. The singer Taras Kompanichenko, currently a soldier, sang and played Ukrainian spiritual dirges on his bandura instrument.
The couple has also exhibited their icons in Germany. A cycle was last seen in Berlin. The next stops are Muri (Switzerland) and Nürtingen near Stuttgart. The works of art could help understand how Ukrainians experience this war, said theologian Regina Elsner to the dpa. "They force you to perceive the reality of war." At the same time, the Christian icons provided comfort because they symbolically “bring life out of death,” said the professor of Eastern Church Studies at the University of Münster.