Gareleya Neotodryosh: the new art scene of the Ukrainian Donbas comes alive in its abandoned buildings7 min read

 In Culture, Eastern Europe, Interview
The cemetery of Lisichansk, a city of about 100,000 inhabitants in the region of Luhansk, in Eastern Ukraine, is just a 15-minute walk from the city center. The view from the cemetery is impressive, overlooking the neighboring city of Severodonetsk and the nearby Azot, a colossal, semi-abandoned chemical plant. The cemetery is not our final destination though: another 20-minute walk on a dirt road and we end up in the middle of the forest, where an old, two-story abandoned building appears on our right. 

Inside, the walls are filled with photographs and graffiti. Trash covers the floors – shoes, wallpaper, and Soviet newspapers are the final remnants of what must have once been an apartment block. The photographs, collages, and illustrations on the wall, however, are neatly organized. Each artwork comes with a bio of the artist who made it, and with a QR code to their Instagram page. 

The works are made by artists from the Donbas; the two Eastern Ukrainian regions of Luhansk and Donetsk which have been the site of an armed conflict with Russia since 2014. Most of the artists on display come from the Ukrainian government-controlled areas, and some from the self-proclaimed People’s Republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, about 20 kilometers from Lisichansk. On the other side of the line of conflict – where fighting is still ongoing.

On one wall, a writing in black spray paint reads: “In Lisichansk there is no God, but there is Vitalik.” 

Vitalik is Vitaliy Matukhno, 22-years-old, born, raised, and still living in Lisichansk. He is the founder of Gareleya Neotodryosh, (which means something like “the gallery that you can’t tear off.”) The Gareleya is an art space for artists from the Donbas, and we are visiting one of its two permanent locations. The other one is Matukhno’s grandmother’s apartment in Lisichansk.

“I want this place to become the Museum of Modern Art of the Luhansk region,” says Matukhno. Having been to the actual Regional Museum of Modern Art, this seems like an impossible statement. In this museum, there are no stiff nature morte paintings hanging on the walls, no sleepy old ladies guarding the museum halls – a common sight in more than one post-Soviet country. 

Photograph from the series “Girl of Republic” (2016) by Stephanie Akuniyba

“The Gareleya is always in transformation: we transformed it by putting art in a place that nobody needed and wanted. The audience picked up spray paints and whatever they wanted, and transformed it again. If someone comes and destroys it, that will also be part of the process, and of the performance. It is destined to die anyway,” explains Matukhno.

There are many abandoned places in Donbas: the zabroshki, or zabroshennye zdanija, [abandoned buildings], first appeared after the Soviet Union collapsed, and they have become ubiquitous since the outbreak of war in 2014. 

Exploring the post-industrial space of Donbas. Artwork by Oleksandr Kuchynskyi

They used to fascinate me when I first arrived here, but they are so integral to the environment, like pine trees or the golden domes of Orthodox churches, that with time I stopped noticing them. These buildings are also a problem for the authorities: there are too many for the struggling local budget to repurpose them. There is no need for them either, with the population slowly abandoning this part of Ukraine. 

As a result, they have become “tumors in the city organism,” as Matukhno defines them: playgrounds for the unwanted – teenagers, the homeless, and junkies. Matukhno believes that this makes the zabroshki ideal locations for art exhibitions: an abandoned place is a place that nobody wants, whose history has been forgotten and left to decay, but that can, in an unexpected turn of events, become an object of art. “These places will die anyway, but at least for some time they are transformed, giving us the possibility to show the art from Luhansk and Donetsk.”

Drawing by Ilya Solyanik

There is no selection process for artists to participate in the Gareleya – even Matukhno recognizes that sometimes the pieces shown have no artistic value. As he puts it, this is mostly a space, a platform, for artists from the Donbas to become visible: “Before Gareleya the only people making art about the Donbas did not actually come from here. They were from Kyiv or some other big city, and they came here to research and to decide what the Ukrainian Donbas is. I wanted to give space to local artists who did not know of each other and who did not have a space to display their works.” Matukhno says this is especially true for artists from the separatist-controlled territories: “It’s impossible for them to show their work anywhere – in the non-controlled territories there are no functioning art spaces, and in Kyiv, no one wants to show art made ‘by separatists.’ This is not who they are at all, they just live there and it’s still important to show their art.”

Combing different elements and techniques. Artwork by Elizabeth Makhrova

In areas of Donbas under the control of the Ukrainian government, the situation is not ideal either. So far away from Kyiv, the only art spaces available are formal ones: municipal art galleries and exhibitions organized by the city or regional council, which have strict rules and long bureaucratic processes that Matukhno knows well: “If you want to work with the city council, you need to send them a letter well in advance with pictures of all the works you want to show, and you already know that if there are nude pictures or if you show something related to LGBTQ+ topics, they will not approve it. I wanted to make an exhibition without institutional censorship and the influence of some chinovnik [government official]. Besides, the audience in those places [municipal art galleries] wouldn’t understand what we show.” 

The Gareleyahas had five exhibitions so far – in Lisichansk, Severodonetsk, Rubezhnoe, Mariupol (all in Donbas), and in Rivne, in Western Ukraine. They took place in a factory, two parks, and a bowling alley, all of which were abandoned spaces. The only exception was in Rubezhnoe, where the exhibition was in the local Dom Kultury, the House of Culture where institutionally approved art was displayed during Soviet times. 

“Stories from Starobilsk, which somehow did not make it into the official chronicles” Artwork by Alexander Bukreev

The experience was not very positive, explains Matukhno: “In Rubezhnoe we were not as free. They were telling us where to hang the pieces and would not let us use tape or glue because we could ruin the wallpaper.” This was quite a different experience from the first-ever Gareleya exhibition, which took place under the bridge on the Seversky Donets river, which connects Severodonetsk and Lisichansk. The bridge was destroyed during the war in 2014 and re-built in 2017. Matukhno used to come here a lot, and one day he had an idea: “I called a friend of mine and asked him if he could lend me 500 hryvnias [17 euros]. I told him I would probably never be able to pay him back, but that he would be doing something good. Then I called some people and told them to bring their photographs and some tape and meet me under the bridge. I didn’t even tell them why.” That is how a once destroyed bridge, “a symbol of the lack of communication” according to Matukhno, created a connection between artists and became the birthplace of the new art scene of the Donbas.

Since then, Gareleyahas grown a lot and has recently published a zine (available in English here) which collects the work of 58 artists from Luhansk and Donetsk. When talking about plans for the future, it seems clear to Matukhno that Gareleya will continue to grow as an underground, independent scene. 

The deputy mayor of Lisichansk asked him whether he wanted to collaborate in creating a local museum of contemporary art, but Matukhno refused. The Gareleyacan only exist in abandoned buildings, tombstones in a cemetery of the past which serve as the ideal cradles for the new artistic wave of this region. “For the future, I see the Donbas becoming an open-air museum of zabroshki, where we will be free to do and create whatever we want.”

Featured image: Still from the Youtube video GareleyaNeotodryosh: change the game
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