Beauty — and terror — of Ukraine on display in new San Diego art exhibit
The HeART & Soul of Ukraine exhibit at the Villa Montezuma Museum in Sherman Heights features the works of artists all born and raised in the eastern European country
San Diego artist Orysya Barua likes to channel the beauty of her native Ukraine in bold, uplifting colors, depicting the nature that she holds dear. Her work, now on display at the Villa Montezuma Museum, is a stark contrast to other pieces depicting the darker times Ukrainians have experienced, from famine to the current Russian invasion.
The HeART & Soul of Ukraine, as the exhibit is called, features the works of artists all born and raised in Ukraine, including one woman who fled the war and has been living in San Diego since last August.
Barua, who has four pieces on display, has resided in San Diego since 2003. Her mother came to stay with her during the pandemic and has not been able to return to her home since the Russia invasion.
“I like the show because every artist has their own style but it brings everything together — nature, the beautiful things of Ukraine, and now it’s being bombarded, and it’s destroying all these beautiful things for no reason,” said Barua, who spoke briefly about her artwork during a Saturday afternoon tour at the museum. While her family lives in an area of Ukraine that has not been as hard hit, the periodic sirens and sounds of bombing are stressful.
“I don’t know when it’s going to end, I don’t know,” she sighed.
The exhibit, running through April 2, was initially made possible by former state Sen. Ben Hueso, who more than 30 years had a chance meeting with a man who would later become the director of a major museum in Odessa, Ukraine where Hueso had studied abroad while in college. After the war in Ukraine broke out, Hueso tracked down his former friend and asked what he could do.
“He said, ‘Put on an exhibit, because we’re not exhibiting things because of the war,’” Hueso said. “I thought, ‘Wow this would be perfect for the museum.’ I got reacquainted with the leaders of the House of Ukraine and we worked together on this, so it’s been wonderful to bring a little piece of Ukraine to my community in Sherman Heights and activate this museum.”
Tina Rynberg, of Spring Valley, also wondered what she could do after seeing the horrifying news reports of the devastation wrought by Russia’s bombs.
“You want to help somehow, and I heard about this exhibit and thought this is something I absolutely want to do and support,” said Rynberg after touring the exhibit. “We’ve all heard the stories of the spirit of Ukraine, that people thought they would be vanquished in a week but they’re still going. They are proud of their heritage and hope for a future of peace, and that is something we should all support.”
The majority of the artwork on display comes from Ukrainian artist IraVish (Irina Vishnevskaia), now living in Wisconsin with her daughter Anastasia Reetz, who curated the San Diego exhibit. Two of the pieces, part of a series entitled “Ukraine on fire,” were done after the war broke out, including one called “Bomb Shelter.” Painted on a piece of air mattress, it depicts people below ground who have survived a bombing while others above ground have died.
Much of her artwork is painted directly on homespun kilim rugs that originally belonged to the families whose stories are depicted.
“The main thing I want the viewers to take away is they can feel from their heart the soul of the Ukrainian people, what they’re fighting for, all this history they went through to get here, and why they are fighting so hard,” IraVish said in an interview, speaking through her daughter, who interpreted her words.
Especially telling, she says, is a piece she calls “Want to eat,” which tells the story of the man-made famine suffered by the then Soviet republic of Ukraine in the 1930s. It shows a woman and her starving daughter, who is crying out, “I want to eat.”
“The reason why this piece is the most telling one,” says IraVish, “is because it depicts the past, the present, and— if Ukraine loses — its future.”
The exhibit can be seen by tour only at Villa Montezuma Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 1, 2 and 3 p.m.. To reserve, text name, date, time of tour and number of people to 619-233-8833. There is no charge.
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