Living in America it is easy to forget that things such as freedom of speech and freedom of expression are constitutional rights and not world rights. In many countries these oft taken for granted freedoms don’t exist much at all.
In the Ukraine, for example these rights we have are often not present at all. Ukrainian born artist Maria Kulikovska knows this reality all too well. Kulikovska was born in 1988 in Kerch, Ukraine. Kulikovska is known for her life sized body sculptures “Army of Clones” (2010) and “Homo Bula” (2012), the latter being constructed out of natural soap. Both of her exhibitions were housed outside the Izolyatasia Center for Cultural Initiatives in Donetsk, Ukraine.
Donetsk, along with being home to Kulikovska’s sculptures is also home to the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR), a territory established by a group of pro-Russian rebels. In 2012 the DPR used Kulikovska’s “Homo Bulla” for target practice.
Kulikovska took this destruction of her art and her expression as a personal attack. In her own words, “They completely destroy my full body-sculptures by shooting them. When they shot them, they announced that their action was their own performance to show everyone their power and what will happen with anyone who do not agree with them.” Kulikovska felt that this show of force was a way for the DPR to assert that their speech and their expression are the only words that count.
Not only did the DPR destroy her artwork, but they have also issued official statements labeling the work as perverse. Kulikovska has her own interpretation of their actions and says, “…they’re really scared of art, different opinions and the power of new fresh and open ideas.” She sees their denouncement as a fearful reaction to her expression and speech. By destroying her art and labeling it as perverse they can try to weaken the power of her words and the power of her art. By denouncing it they give themselves an excuse not to listen and an excuse to right Kulikovska off.
Kulikovska did not let the abuse from the DPR go to waste and used their actions to fuel the fire of her next exhibition. In response Kulikovska recreated three of the sculptures destroyed by the DPR at the Saatchi Gallery in London. She then smashed the three sculptures with a hammer while completely nude.
In her own words, “It’s my response to the terrorists that I am the owner of my body and my life. It is also a feminist stance; no one has the right to destroy images of women.” Kulikovska took back her words and her art though its destruction. She claimed the right to destroy her work and took back the power from her oppressors.
Kulikovska is not the only artist who was targeted and restricted in Donetsk. The culture of Donetsk has all but disappeared under the vast suppression of the DPR. So many countless artists and pieces of art were targeted that the Izolyatasia has been relocated to Kiev.
Despite the moving of the center, the artists aren’t content with a mere retreat. In response to the suppression of culture and expression, local artist Sergey Zakharaov is running for mayor in the neighboring city of Mariupol. His road to election has not been an easy one and the election has already been postponed twice due to corruption. The city’s current mayor imposed a ban on campaigning and further heightened the struggle.
Zakharaov like Kulikovska has taken to his art to make a statement and proceeded to take photos of himself and his supporters with their mouths covered in tape to protest the ban. Zakharaov explains, “Like Maria, I had my home and freedom taken from me in Donetsk, and I feel a responsibility to work toward using art and social activism to ignite hope and change in similar places like Mariupol.” Despite the struggle toward freedom of expression the destruction of art is still a common occurrence. Works by Pascale Marthine Tayou, Daniel Buren, Leandro Ehrlich, and Cai Guo-Qiang have also been vandalized.
In the words of Maria Kulikovska “Everything has been destroyed.”
Living in a country where free speech and freedom of expression are the norm it is easy to be appalled at this behavior, unfortunately it is the norm and freedom is the exception. If anything these stories can remind us of what’s at stake and that the situation is not hopeless as long is one person is willing to take a stand. It is important to note that in a world often devoid of the rights to free speech and freedom of expression art is a powerful weapon. Art doesn’t have to always be the crime; sometimes art can be the solution.
More information of Maria Kulikovska and the situation in Donetsk at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/maria-kulikovska-destroys-her-own-work-in-protest-of-occupation-of-ukrainian-arts-center-371234v and http://www.mariakulikovska.com/cv/