- Petra Zivic
- BBC World Service
15 September 2022, 10:08 GMT
When the air raid sirens started wailing in the city, Polina Usenko’s first instinct was to send a message to colleagues in London that she might be a little late.
The 24-year-old eventually took refuge in the school’s basement, but spending time underground in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv was not in her plans.
She was on a mission to get the artwork out of the country safely.
Three days earlier, Polina, who was born in Ukraine, said goodbye to fellow Russian Olga Fedorova at a small independent art gallery in east London.
They were trying to organize an exhibition of contemporary Ukrainian art, where they would present collages, paintings and illustrations.
But some of the artists they chose couldn’t send their own works out of the country: they needed permits, and some of them were men young enough to serve in the army and therefore weren’t allowed to leave the country, so Polina decided that she would travel to them.
“Everyone in the gallery was worried about my journey, but I thought, if those artists can’t bring the works here, we’ll do it for them,” she told the BBC.
Days on the phone – and on the road
Before Polina left London, she spent days and days on the phone with the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, trying to get permits to export artworks from the country.
“Before the war, it took a day,” she says.
Days and hundreds of kilometers later, Polina found herself in Lviv, holding all the necessary permits, and was on her way to meet the artists, to pack their artworks and prepare them for the trip.
But then the air raid sirens went off.
“Around me, not many people went underground to hide,” she recalls.
It took the gallery director ten minutes to convince Polina to go to the shelter, but she ended up in the basement with only two other people – a van driver and an elderly woman.
“They seemed used to airstrikes, they weren’t scared,” she says.
For Polina, who was born in Ukraine but has lived in the UK since the age of nine, returning to a country at war was not only a professional challenge.
“Lviv was very different. People tried to protect the monuments, covering them with sandbags,” says Polina.
“Everything in the churches was packed. People cared about preserving their own culture, which is now being destroyed.”
When the siren sounded to end the danger, Polina went to an art studio in the center of Lviv to meet with two contemporary artists, brothers Vitaly Greh Dilcone and Sergej Greh Fersone.
She came to take over their works, some of which were damaged in the war.
Months before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February 2022, Vitaly and Sergey spent two weeks in Mariupol, painting a mural on an apartment building about the importance of mental health.
A few days after the start of the war, that building was hit.
“My friends tell me that the mural was destroyed, but it was the city that was destroyed,” says Vitaly.
“For us, it is not some abstract city, it is a real city with real people.”
“The people who live in that building let us use their toilets, they chatted with us, they welcomed us,” Vitaly says, adding that he hasn’t heard from any of them since the attack.
The war left its mark on the lives of artists beyond the destruction of their artwork.
“Before the war, we would go out for pizza on Sundays, go out and paint graffiti, talk about our wives.” Now it’s impossible,” says Vitaly.
Polina was supposed to take over the works of another contemporary artist, Denis Metelzhin.
Dennis stopped painting when the war started and joined a group of artists who worked as volunteers – making obstacles for tanks and distributing clothes to the fighters at the front.
“Later we went through military training, learned to use weapons and guarded the hospital at night,” he says.
He returned to painting several months later, but continued to donate to the Ukrainian military.
His family fled Crimea in 2014 when it was annexed by Russia, and since then Denis’s work has been influenced by themes of war, identity and family.
One of his last works, his interpretation of the famous painting Kiss Gustav Klimt, stood out for Polina and Olga.
“The canvas depicts a kiss between lovers, but the man carries a weapon slung over his shoulder.”
“It can have two meanings – that weapons have become a normal part of our lives or that he has to go to war soon, so the kiss is the last between them for a long time,” he says.
“I’ll stay awake until you cross the line”
While Polina said goodbye to the artist, and the works were already packed, she was nervous about returning because of the stories she had heard.
“A woman from the National Museum told me that she receives up to 15 calls a day from the border from people who, despite permits, are not allowed to take works of art out of the country,” says Polina.
“It happens if they don’t have the proper documentation or when the driver doesn’t have a license issued in his name.”
The woman gave Polina her own phone number and told her to call her if she had any problems at the border.
“‘I really care that you succeed, so I’m going to stay awake until you cross the line,’ she told me.”
“But crossing the border went smoothly,” says Polina.
Although she spent a total of 24 hours in the country, Polina was able to pick up the works of art that she and Olga had chosen.
“We wanted to provide an opportunity for Ukrainian artists to show themselves outside of Ukraine and be recognized,” says Olga, who was nervously waiting for Polina’s return.
The opening night of the exhibition, entitled Stronger Than Weapons (a reference to the Ukrainian war film), was a success, say Olga and Polina.
They are happy that the exhibited works of art are sold, since part of the money goes to children affected by the war.
But for the two of them, on a deeper, personal level, the exhibition was also a way to come to terms with what was happening in their native countries.
“Professionally, it’s fantastic to be the curator of this exhibition.”
“Personally, it is important to me that we support all those who are suffering because of the invasion.” You know, I’m half Russian, half Ukrainian, and my blood cannot be divided,” says Olga.
Watch the video: VukovART – insnipers who change the image of the war city