Can Ukrainian Art Explain Why Russia Launched the War against Ukraine?

A Conversation with Art Historian Svitlana Shiells

Tuesday, November 29, 2022 3:00 PM to 4:30 PM EST
Zoom Webinar

Can Ukrainian Art Explain Why Russia Launched the War against Ukraine?
Oleksandr Ivakhnenko "Harvest" c. 1990s

As the Russian war against Ukraine has unfolded, many in the West have realized how much they overestimated Russia and, accordingly, hugely underestimated Ukraine. Finally, the West has started to realize the true power of the Russian propaganda machine that for centuries has spread many myths, some of which notoriously promoted the cultural superiority of Russia, including in the artistic sphere. Such declarations were however built upon the total colonization of the history of Ukrainian art, from ancient to contemporary times. Outlining the main events of the evolution of Ukrainian art, the lecture traces actions of the successive Muscovy, Russian, and Soviet states towards Ukrainian culture, which mainly were based on the physical eradication of art objects, killing of artists, appropriation of Ukrainian art, etc., and most importantly through the rewriting of history. This talk will provide numerous and outrageous examples of such actions—or rather crimes—performed by the Russian and Soviet regimes throughout many centuries that have however never been discussed by Western scholars. Thus, while some continue to wonder why Russia launched such a barbaric war against Ukraine, it is becoming more and more evident that this war is also an attempt to wipe Ukrainian culture from the face of the Earth. Ultimately, by providing the wider historical and cross-cultural context for the brief outline of the evolution of Ukrainian art, this lecture argues for the urgent need of decolonization of Ukrainian art, a complicated but necessary and long-overdue process. 

Svitlana Shiells has been a professor of art history at a number of universities in Ukraine, America, and Austria (including at George Mason). She completed her studies, including a Ph. D. in art history, in Ukraine. She has also worked as a Research Associate at the Freer and Sackler Galleries, Washington, D.C. For more than ten years she was Director of the Washington Cultural Fund, Washington, D.C. The focus of her research is Eastern and Central European modern art. Dr. Shiells publishes widely and has presented her research at numerous lectures and seminars, for instance, at Harvard University, Tokyo University of the Arts, the College Art Association, the Library of Congress, the Salzburg Seminar, and other art museums, as well as at conferences in London, Tokyo, Paris, Barcelona, Chicago, Montreal, Baltimore, Salzburg, Washington, D.C., Kharkiv, Budapest, etc. Recently, she has given a number of lectures on Ukrainian art at the Albertina Museum and Leopold Museum in Vienna, Columbia University, etc. Dr. Shiells is a recipient of fellowships in the field of art in the U.S., Ukraine, and Japan. Currently, she is an independent scholar, living in Vienna, Austria and working on a monograph. 

The session will be moderated by Michele Greet, Professor and Director of the Program in Art History at George Mason. She is author of Transatlantic Encounters: Latin American Artists in Paris between the Wars, 1918-1939 (Yale University Press: 2018) and Beyond National Identity: Pictorial Indigenism as a Modernist Strategy in Andean Art, 1920-1960 (Penn State University Press: 2009). She is co-editor, with Gina McDaniel Tarver, of the anthology Art Museums of Latin America: Structuring Representation (Routledge: 2018).  She is currently working on a book on Abstraction in the Andes, 1950-1970.

This event is sponsored by the Program in Russian and Eurasian Studies and the Program in Art History at George Mason University.

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