January 28, 2021

2020: Culture and the arts: Thriving, and adapting to the pandemic


Yara Arts Group Archive

Virlana Tkacz, artistic director of Yara Arts Group, which marked its 30th anniversary in 2020.

Faced with lockdowns, travel restrictions and rules for distancing, Ukrainian artists and organizations modified their activities and presentations to address the new challenges of COVID-19. In-person events went on-line, often even including active participation of everyone via Zoom sessions. Despite drawbacks, many of these computerized interactions proved quite successful.
A case in point is the October 25 Virtual Gala marking the 72nd anniversary of the Ukrainian Institute of America (UIA) in New York. Taking full advantage of Internet resources, the UIA prepared online videos archived from past events, and pre-recorded greetings from notables for viewing. The streaming of the actual Virtual Gala was coordinated with live running commentary by UIA board members, led by President Kathy Nalywajko. Along the way, participants enjoyed musical performances and greetings from all four corners of the globe. An informative interview with Dr. Boris Lushniak, former acting surgeon general, addressed concerns about the pandemic. Dr. Solomiya Ivakhiv reassured everyone that future UIA musical concerts would continue by means of hybrid computer format. Crippled by COVID-19? Hardly – when one considers the UIA raised over $66,000 by the gala’s end.


Yara Arts Group Archive

Virlana Tkacz, artistic director of Yara Arts Group, which marked its 30th anniversary in 2020.

The year 2020 marked the 30th anniversary of Yara Arts Group. Artistic director Virlana Tkacz shared her reflections on this milestone in an interview published in The Ukrainian Weekly in February. She related how Yara has presented 35 original theater productions to this point. In addition, there were actually thousands of events all over the world ranging from intimate poetry readings, lectures and films to concerts and gigantic art exhibits, both here in the West and in Ukraine. Most of these events have been bilingual or multilingual, and often include Asian and African American actors.

Ms. Tkacz regularly combines traditional elements with modern, and has incorporated Ukrainian artists like singer Nina Matviyenko and poet Serhiy Zhadan in Ukrainian and English translations. She related how from the start, everything she does eventually revolves back to Les Kurbas, the experimental Ukrainian stage director. Yara’s recent show “Opera GAZ” is a clear example, based on the 1923 Kurbas production with his Berezil company. For “Opera GAZ,” Ms. Tkacz commissioned a new contemporary score with singers and instrumentalists. Her grandfather actually knew and appeared together with Kurbas in Vienna. Another project was “Koliada on Mars,” exploring the other-worldly possibilities of Christmas songs.

On April 24 and 25, Yara produced its first virtual event presentations featuring the renowned Mr. Zhadan – live from Kharkiv. The first performance was devoted to readings of Mr. Zhadan’s poems, along with poets responding to his work: Dzvinia Orlowsky, Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler, Wanda Phipps and Olena Jennings, with music by Julian Kytasty. The second event included Yara actors, musicians Anthony Coleman and Fima Chupakhin, and poets Bob Holman and Mr. Zhadan. The two transmissions registered over 1,000 and 2,000 views, respectively. These recorded events can be accessed on Yara’s website: yaraartsgroup.net.

In June, two more virtual events were presented by Yara Arts Group and the Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center in Jenkintown, Pa. The first event focused on Pawlo Humeniuk, a popular folk fiddler who emigrated to New York in 1908. The second event featured the poetry of Oleh Lysheha from Ukraine, who was a Fulbright scholar and writer-in-residence at Pennsylvania State University in 1997-1998.

Expanding its virtual events, on July 20, Yara archived a four-part series promoting the virtuoso Ukrainian bandurist-vocalist Zenoviy Shtokalko, who brought his instrumental music and narrative Ukrainian epic songs (dumy) to New York in the 1950s.


Yaro Bihun

Larysa Kurylas at the University of Maryland School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, where she spoke on February 12 about the making of the Holodomor Memorial in Washington.

The University of Maryland School of Architecture launched a five-month exhibition focusing on the designer, architect and sculptor of the National Holodomor Memorial in our nation’s capital – Larysa Kurylas. At the February 12 presentation opening, the artist spoke about the making of the Holodomor Memorial. Ms. Kurylas related the challenges and inspiration behind her choice of the symbolic depiction of a “dynamic” bronze image of wheat on the face of the sculpture. She concluded her talk by explaining the symbolism of the abstract void in the sculpture, which represents the nature of the Famine and the tragic loss of life.

On February 21 at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York, father and son artists Irenaeus and Dorian Yurchuk opened an exhibition of their mixed-media artworks titled “Peripheral Visions.” At times, evocative photographic fragments were combined with chromatic paint media and other materials to form abstract pastiches and images. In other images, objects and remnants from the building trade were utilized to create a topography between order and chaos, creation and destruction.
Holderness School in New Hampshire hosted an exhibit of photos by Joseph Sywenkyj titled “Verses from a Nation in Transition,” beginning January 24. A noted American photographer of Ukrainian descent, Mr. Sywenkyj specializes in documentary, portrait and travel photography. Twenty years ago, he began to work in Ukraine, the nation of his ancestors. For this exhibit, he focused his lens on health issues related to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and war trauma, as well as striking images from the Euro-Maidan Revolution.

Armando Carreno/The Collegian

“Donbas, 2014 – Present” triptych by Yulia Gasio (spring 2019, paper, craft paper, charcoal, ink on the panel, 6 x 12 feet) was part of the exhibit “Art and War: Donbas, 2014 to the Present,” which opened on February 6 at California State University, Fresno.

Luhansk native Yulia Gasio was present at the opening of an exhibit of her paintings and drawings titled “Art and War: Donbas, 2014 to the Present” on February 6 at California State University in Fresno. Ms. Gasio is a faculty member at Cal State Long Beach. Actor George Wyhinny sang and also recounted the significant issues surrounding the Donbas war. Prof. Hiroaki Kuromiya spoke on “How to Understand the Enigma of the Donbas.” The artist herself recalled the trauma of an ongoing war, while relating the experiences of her immediate family living in a war zone. Ms. Gasio expressed her political thoughts and her feelings through the 10 drawings and paintings featured at this exhibition.
On February 26, the Ukrainian Canadian community in Winnipeg, Manitoba, gathered to greet an exhibit of 13 contemporary Ukrainian artists, who reflected the turbulent last six years in Ukraine, titled “At the Front Line. Ukrainian Art, 2013-2019.” This project began in Mexico City and is the first large-scale presentation of the Ukrainian contemporary art scene in Latin America.

An online pysanka-making workshop led by New York artist Laryssa Czebiniak was organized by the Ukrainian Institute of America on April 5. Over 25 people took part in this virtual event, which also included exploring non-traditional motifs in pysanka design.

On September 13, the Ukrainian Canadian Art Foundation Gallery launched an art presentation, “Pause in Plight,” created by artist Kerry Parnell, with the support of Ukrainian organizations and individuals, plus a grant from the Endowment Council of the Canadian First World War Internment Recognition Fund. This collection documents Canada’s World War I-era prejudice which led to the internment of more than 8,000 “enemy aliens” of primarily Ukrainian and East European descent. It consisted of war posters, light installations, artifacts and other displays.
Also in Toronto, the Ukrainian Museum of Canada collaborated with the Native Canadian Center of Toronto to celebrate beadwork of both the Ukrainian and Indigenous cultures. Titled “The Spirit of Beads: Sharing Our Stories,” this exhibit’s virtual Zoom opening on October 25 was expanded to include in-person visits one week later. Delving into motifs, symbolism and spiritual meanings, the presentation featured demonstrations by six contemporary Ukrainian and Indigenous beadwork artists.

To mark the 100th anniversary of master graphic designer Heorhii Narbut’s death, the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation in Kyiv awarded a grant in 2020 to Rodovid Press to publish two books and produce a film about the popular designer and father of Ukrainian branding. Narbut is the most important Ukrainian graphic designer of the 20th century; in addition to numerous book illustrations, posters and prints, he also designed the Ukrainian government’s logos and seals, a letterhead for its charters and official stationery. He created designs for postage stamps and paper currency to replace the Russian ruble with Ukrainian karbovantsi. To mark this important centenary, Rodovid Press published a beautifully produced 408-page color monograph titled “Narbut” and an English-language book titled “The Imaginative World of Heorhii Narbut and the Making of a Ukrainian Brand.”

On November 7, the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art hosted an event to pay tribute to Narbut. The program included personal appearances and talks by the English-language book’s curator, art historian Dr. Myroslava M. Mudrak, and publisher Lidia Lykhach of Rodovid Press, as well as a screening of the film “Brand Makers” by Nadia Parfan. Due to health concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the program did not include the exhibit originally planned, space was be limited, masks were required and social distancing was observed. The program was filmed and was made available online (https://uima-chicago.org/the-imaginative-world-of-heorhii-narbut).



On September 16, Vasyl Makhno became the first laureate of Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize, sponsored by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter (Canada), with the support of the NGO Publishers Forum (Lviv). He was recognized for his novel “Eternal Calendar.”

The first winner of the Encounter: The Ukrainian-Jewish Literary Prize was the novel “Eternal Calendar” (“Vichnyi Kalendar”) by Vasyl Makhno. It was presented during the Lviv International Book Forum on September 16. Mr. Makhno is a Ukrainian poet, essayist and translator who has lived in New York for two decades.

He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the BBC 2015 Book of the Year (Ukraine). Rich in detail and characters, “Eternal Calendar” is a panoramic narrative of the intricately intertwined lives of Ukrainians, Poles, Jews and Armenians from the 17th century to the present. The author’s prize of 4,000 Euros and his publisher’s (Ukraine’s Old Lion Publishing) prize of 2,000 Euros were made possible by the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter, a Canadian charitable non-profit organization, and Ukraine’s NGO Publishers Forum (Lviv).

On February 1 as part of the Music at the Institute series at the Ukrainian Institute in New York, Julian Kytasty and Roman Turovsky performed a concert of Ukrainian religious and secular music from the Baroque through the kobzar, lirnyk and romantic periods of the 18th and 19th centuries. The selections ranged from solo instrumentals and dance tunes on the torban and the bandura, to duets and songs accompanied by the two traditional folk instruments – including a composition by Ukrainian philosopher Hryhory Skovoroda. The evening concluded with a Q and A session with the artists, centering on the actual instruments used: the lute-like torban and the more familiar bandura.

The resourceful Ukrainian Bandurist Chorus (UBC) of North America explored an innovative way to continue rehearsing during the COVID-19 pandemic. The 50 UBC musicians are scattered over 10 states and three Canadian provinces; normally they alternate cities to which members drive or fly in for three-day rehearsals. Utilizing virtual streaming rehearsals, UBC Artistic Director Oleh Mahlay conducted an online work weekend in mid-March, during which all the participants could see and hear each other remotely. While successful, this method, of course, will never replace in-person rehearsals. The UBC is undaunted in its mission to remain guardians of the bandura and Ukrainian music, and committed to its plans for future live concerts and tours.

For those who once danced to the Canadian band Rushnychok, and remember their signature tailor-made white-with-blue-trim outfits, it is hard to comprehend that more than half a century has passed since their initial appearance. In an exclusive article for The Ukrainian Weekly at the end of July, band member and drummer Stefan Andrusiak reflected on 50 years with Rushnychok. The remaining three members of this popular quartet were fellow Montrealers Andrij Harasymowycz, Evhen Osidacz and Yurko Sztyk. Like the Beatles, members of Rushnychok played their own compositions and arrangements.  When they performed traditional songs, they delivered them in three-part harmony, but injecting more modern rhythms with a rock flavor. They featured many traditional Ukrainian folk ballads, as well as renditions of stirring songs about the valiant fighters for Ukraine’s freedom. This quartet from Montreal gathered many awards over its career and remains one of the most recognizable of Ukrainian ensembles.

At its annual convention in November in Berkeley, Calif., the American Musicological Society presented its Lewis Lockwood Award for “a musicological book of exceptional merit… by a scholar in the early stages of his or her career” to Dr. Maria Sonevytsky for her 2019 book “Wild Music: Sound and Sovereignty in Ukraine.” Dr. Sonevytsky is an ethnomusicologist on the faculty at the University of California, Berkeley. In “Wild Music,” the author tracks the idea of “wildness” in pop music during the volatile decade of Ukrainian political history, from the Orange Revolution to the Revolution of Dignity. Dr. Sonevytsky examines a wide and diverse number of artists and performers, including Ruslana, Drevo and Dakha Brakha, originating in Hutsul lands, Crimea and Kyiv. Her book probes global issues of how the rise of populism and its music affect thinking about nationalism, citizenship and sovereignty. Dr. Sonevytsky’s research topics include the legacy of Soviet cultural policies: folklore after Chornobyl, Soviet use of culture to discipline citizens and late Soviet punk culture.


Courtesy of Aleksandr Denysenko

In a scene from Aleksandr Denysenko’s film “Taras: The Return,” Taras Shevchenko (played by Borys Orlov) grasps his pardon letter while in solitary confinement. The film was screened on February 16 at the Ukrainian Institute of America.

Director Alexander Denysenko screened his film “Taras: The Return” on February 16 at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York. Mr. Denysenko shared how he devoted intensive research into Shevchenko’s own diaries, letters, poems and paintings, contemporary memoirs and state documents. The director aimed at creating a non-biopic adventure story of what might have happened to poet and artist Taras Shevchenko during the final months of his seven-year exile to the bleak deserts and seacoasts of Kazakhstan, calling it “a first Ukrainian film about the first political prisoner of the Russian Gulag.”

Indeed, the result was an adventure story featuring many colorful and brutal details of exile to a military outpost, with plenty of intrigue, unexpected humor, chases on horseback and hair’s-breadth escapes.

“Taras: The Return” was a Ukrainian co-production with Kazakhstan. In her first film role, attractive Kazakh actress Akniet Oryntai was engaging and spirited as Katya, Shevchenko’s love interest in the film. The title character was portrayed in a non-traditional, low key manner by Borys Orlov. Superbly photographed on location by Oleksandr Kryshtalovych, the art design produced stunning tableaus, which echoed Shevchenko’s own sketches and paintings from exile.

As of May 4, Amazon Prime Video commenced streaming the film “Julia Blue,” directed by Roxy Toporowych. Gathering ideas from numerous interviews with soldiers and citizens in Ukraine, Ms. Toporowych visited the Main Military Hospital in Kyiv to gain insight into the soldiers returning home. “Julia Blue” developed into a compelling script in the form of a love story during a time of war. The recurring theme is the plight of Ukraine’s youth striving to find their identities while their country is at war.

The character of Julia, a photojournalism student from western Ukraine, is contrasted with English, a Russian-speaking Ukrainian from the east who has been wounded in the war. As their life paths become more complicated, the film captures how young people are forced to live and endure war as they mature, while struggling with war, revolution, love and the pursuit of their ambitions. “Julia Blue” was filmed on location in Ukraine; it has been recognized as Best Film or Best Foreign Film at many festivals, including Best Director at the 2019 Woodstock Film Festival and the Sonoma International Film Festival.

Courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films

James Norton as Welsh journalist Gareth Jones in “Mr. Jones,” a film directed by Agnieszka Holland with screenplay by Andrea Chalupa that was released in the United States in April.

To mark the occasion of the release of “Mr. Jones,” a film by noted Polish director Agnieszka Holland with a screenplay by Andrea Chalupa, The Ukrainian Weekly on August 9 published an essay by historian Serhii Plokhii titled “The price of truth”: The story behind Agnieszka Holland’s “Mr. Jones.” Dr. Plokhii’s essay detailed the historical background to reporters Gareth Jones and Walter Duranty, and the causes and catastrophic consequences of Joseph Stalin’s man-made Famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933 – the Holodomor.

The central theme is the contrast between Jones, a young Welsh reporter uncovering the horrible truth about the Ukrainian Famine, and Duranty, The New York Times Moscow correspondent who consistently downplayed the reports by Jones. Finally, in response to detailed articles of starvation by Jones, Duranty published his infamous line: “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.” Apparently, Duranty was more interested in attaining a Pulitzer Prize than reporting the truth he really knew. (Despite several appeals, The New York Times still refuses to relinquish the Pulitzer awarded to Duranty.)

A French-language educational version of the film “Genocide Revealed,” produced and directed by Yurij Luhovy, was released on DVD in June. The original 75-minute multi-award-winning feature documentary was reduced to a 26-minute school version titled “Le Gènocide d’une nation.” The complicated and lengthy process for keeping all 180 tracks in sync during editing was sponsored by the Canada Ukraine Foundation and initiated by Roma Dzerowicz, executive director of the Holodomor National Awareness Tour’s Mobile Classroom, a state-of-the-art interactive learning center that travels throughout Canada to inform high schools, universities and the general public about the 1932-1933 Famine.

Andrij Parekh, a filmmaker of Ukrainian and Indian descent, was awarded an Emmy Award for directing an episode of the HBO series “Succession.” Mr. Parekh has enjoyed over two decades’ experience as cinematographer, which he considered a great opportunity for artistic growth. In his acceptance speech on September 20, he expressed thanks to his parents and his brother Marko for their support, and dedicated his Emmy “to all the kids whose names, like mine are difficult to pronounce… and who are defined as outsiders as hyphenated Americans… This is proof that you belong and this Emmy is ours.”

The reconstruction of Kyiv’s 1,000-year-old St. Sophia Cathedral under Hetman Ivan Mazepa in the late 17th century was a symbol of Ukraine’s restoration following the catastrophic “Ruin” period. Today, the renowned cathedral is the focus of new preservation efforts. On September 16, Kateryna Zagoriy, co-founder of the Zagoriy Foundation, which co-sponsored the preservation project, announced that the National Sanctuary Complex Sophia of Kyiv would implement a strategy to drain the foundation and the walls of the cathedral and adjacent monasteries, thus saving them for future generations. This will be accomplished with innovative Swiss equipment called the BioDry system, used to naturally restore proper humidity levels. One of Ukraine’s most significant historical monuments, St. Sophia is a spiritual center for Ukraine’s unique religious heritage, and is included on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

The 1932-1933 Chicago World’s Fair was designated “A Century of Progress” and featured a Ukrainian pavilion built by newly arrived Ukrainian immigrants – one of the largest constructions of the fair and the only national edifice not sponsored by a foreign government. This pavilion featured the sculptures of Alexander Archipenko plus Ukrainian choirs, dancers and a 95-piece orchestra, as well as intricate embroideries, folk art and traditional cuisine. In March, a story in The Weekly reported that the Ukrainian National Museum in Chicago (UNM) organized an exhibit of 2,500 artifacts from that exhibition of almost 90 years ago. UNM archivist Halyna Parasiuk-Sarancha catalogued stacks of news clippings, photographs, posters, menus and banners, as well as embroideries, ceramics and folk costumes presented at that World’s Fair.

As noted in The Weekly’s editorial of October 11, despite COVID-related restrictions on social gatherings, Ukrainian museums and art galleries continued their programs, albeit virtually. The Ukrainian Museum, which was closed to the public, hosted online events and exhibits, among them the virtual exhibition “Holodomor: A Remembrance” in commemoration of the 87th anniversary of the Famine-Genocide. This visual arts presentation held during the month of November featured the works of Ukrainian American artist Lydia Bodnar-Balahutrak.