28 May 2022

The Solace Of Art: Celebrating The Spirit Of Collaboration

Transcending the politics of war, visual artist Nilanjan Chowdhury creates an artbook out of the words of solace exchanged with Viktoria Voskresova, a hairstylist from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol

Waves of empathy An accordion style artbook by Nilanjan Chowdhury

“Mariupol is my home, my soul, my peace, my heart calms down near the sea. I can talk about it for a long time,” says Viktoria Voskresova, a 40-year-old hairstylist from the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. Like many others, Voskresova was forced to leave Mariupol, the city of her birth, after Russian forces surrounded it.

Far away from Mariupol in the safety of my home, I read about the ongoing war in this city, along with media reports and social media posts that describe how its residents were suffering. While many of the stories touched my heart, I empathised especially with Voskresova, who had lived through the blockade of Mariupol. I found out about her from a colleague’s news report and reached out on social media. She doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Ukrainian/Russian. Using an online translation application, we started our conversation. A rapport was formed easily, and our dialogues commenced. This artist book is my visual interpretation and representation of those dialogues.

Mariupol is a city in south-eastern Ukraine and its residents have been under siege by Russian forces since February 24, 2022. Strategically, it is an important city for Russians who succeeded in controlling most parts of it after two months of fierce battle. In some parts of the city, the Ukrainian resistance continues even today.

Voskresova lived in Mariupol with her 75-year-old mother and cat Martin. She was one of the brave residents who decided to stay put through the first three weeks of the conflict and the Russian blockade. With no electricity, heating or running water in the bitter winter months, her already difficult life became even more stressful and challenging, with the constant shelling by Russian forces. Voskresova told me she felt helpless. “It would have been of no use to hide. It was scary but we had to keep living and survive all this horror. I didn’t even notice when I started to cry, but had to stop so that my 75-year-old mother didn’t see me this way. I had to take care of my mother at least from tears because from everything else, I can’t, I can’t, cannot!” Unable to bear the warzone conditions, Voskresova left Mariupol with her mother on March 23, 2022. Her cat Martin had to be left behind.

Voskresova posted her thoughts regularly on social media and shared her personal struggle with people all over the world. “I write that I am alive, it’s already a victory. Everything else is not my concern. I’m not alone here. We all support and help each other, that’s it. Just a little bit of war.” Using a compilation of social media posts and interviews with Voskresova, I tried to reconstruct her days in Mariupol and form narratives for my book. With access to limited information often restricted by armed forces that control the territory, documenting human struggles in a war has always been difficult. The more powerful side often determines the dominant narrative, and I was aware of the possibility that every social media post and news report could be part of someone’s planned narrative.

Placing Voskresova’s posts along the timeline of the ongoing war, I added relevant verifications and context from media articles and news agency reports. Layers of hard facts and my artistic interpretation of her words complemented each other. But in the end, the book des­cribes Voskresova’s struggle through the difficult months of February and March 2022 in her own words, “We are all equal, we are all one, there are no more rich or poor, there are those who are lost, there are survivors, there are those who escaped, there is crying and mourning. This is all of us.”

An interactive supplementary page along with the artist book completes my narrative. The book gives Voskresova a platform to reach out to all the people who read it. For these people, she has a message: “My message and request is that no one remains silent, everyone talk about Mariupol. We must stop this war, bombs are still falling on my destroyed city, my house is gone, my city is gone, my old mother is left without a secure future at her old age. Talk about it everywhere, hold actions, we must stop this injustice.” Thousands of miles away in New Delhi, artist Gagan Singh responds to Voskresova: “Viktoria u don’t worry, sending you love and strength from India-Chinta Maat Karo.” This completes the final narrative in my artist book of the dialogue between human beings transcending the politics of war.

Nilanjan Chowdhury is a visual and a mural artist