“I woke up with the first explosion”—the war in Ukraine through the works of Ukrainian artists

It’s been over a month since the start of putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Almost four million Ukrainians have fled their country. Several thousand, among them children and civilians, have perished. Numerous cities have been made uninhabitable.

Ukrainian artists find the courage to express the tragedy and horror of war in their social media posts. We talked about their stories, how they felt on the first days of the war and what emotional conditional they have now with Kateryna Lysovenko, Yurii Bolsa, Vlada Ralko, Yaroslav Voitsekhovskii, Dana Kavelina, Sasha Tokareva, Sana Shahmuradova, Inga Levi, Nina Saveko and Kinder Album.

Ukrainian version is here

Сана Шахмурадова
Сана Шахмурадова

Kateryna Lysovenko

Kateryna Lysovenko, with her two kids and a cat, are in Poland. On the one hand, her artworks paint her current emotional state, and on the other, draw attention to the mothers’ and children’s tragedy in wartime. 

Лісовенко 2

“It seems like I’ve lost the sense of safety irrevocably,” says Kateryna. “Peaceful life doesn’t seem fundamental and permanent anymore. I fear for everything and everyone I love. There is almost no space left for pain and fury. It feels like exhausting retching. Something broke inside me with the first killed child, raped and killed woman, the first killed acquaintance of mine, a destroyed building I used to walk by, and the first news of famine, of death without necessary medication or dehydration.”

Vlada Ralko

“Today Volodymyr and I (Volodymyr Budnikov) are in Lviv,” shares Vlada Ralko when asked if she is safe. “On March 1st, we were evacuating our kids, spent a whole day on a train. They are in Poland right now, but we can’t find the strength to leave Ukraine. I don’t think that crossing the border is a guarantee of safety. The war will continue until Europe feels united with Ukraine’s mutilated body. For now, the rest of the world is just sending us their prayers”.

In her war-themed art pieces, Vlada actively uses a two-headed eagle – one of the official symbols of the russian state. In Palko’s drawings, the bird symbolizes beastly and irrationally deranged putin’s regime. 

“I feel a mix of fury and surprising tranquillity. After a complete numbness, I came to relief at being able to draw. The relief of a returned voice,” Ralko says. 

Yurii Bolsa

Yurii Bolsa is currently in Kyiv. One of his artworks portrays a person running away with a suitcase. At the same time, the bag looks like a block of flats. This piece represents the tragedy of civilians escaping the bombing of Ukrainian cities and towns. 

Робота Юрія Болси
Робота Юрія Болси

“I found out about the war at night,” remembers Yurii. “My friend was supposed to bring me soup to the studio, but she called and said that the war has begun, and I need to turn on the news. Then she hung up because she was getting ready for evacuation. In two weeks, all this terror became a routine. I’ve habituated myself to the scary sirens and explosions. Anti-tank hedgehogs and security checkpoints became a part of the city’s landscape, so the conscious mind sees it as usual life and feels worse. On the first day, I instantly went to the studio, put on some deathcore, and started painting what happened in the first few hours. It appears to be such a short time, but it would be enough for many paintings, unfortunately”.

Nina Savenko

“I was ready for the invasion 12 hours before it. We were warned. We gathered our documents and phones, went to bed, and woke up with the first explosion and a chill over the body. This feeling is weirdly put together. Our kid was crying, and I didn’t understand what to tell her. I wanted to check up on all of my friends at once. Because I heard the explosion and didn’t know where it happened”.

Nina and her family are in Kyiv, and they don’t want to leave their city. “I told myself that I would leave only when a missile hits our home directly. On the fifth day of the war, my daughter with my husband’s parents set out to Lviv, where they are staying. My parents are in Kyiv”.

Her friends warned Nina, but nobody said it would be full-scale. “I understood its scale when at 5 am, my friend photographer from Odesa, Igor Gora, texted me about how bombs are falling, and the sky is on fire.”

“I’m trying to save all negativity for later. I believe in victory, but when everybody is celebrating, I will collapse and won’t get up for a long time. There is a lot of volunteering work, and we don’t have time to think about anything aside from the immediate goals. Emotional numbness and too much dark humour, that’s how I can describe the situation”. 

Kinder Album 

“Now that it’s the third week of war and the initial shock has worn off, the wartime weekdays have started, but the appetite and sleeping patterns have not normalized,” says Kinder Album. “The news is becoming more horrifying, and I realize that we all are becoming emotionally incapacitated and trying not to take anything too seriously. It is the defence mechanism of our psyche, but clearly, we won’t ever be the same”.

Kinder Album, 2022 рік

Aside from picturing the psychologically and emotionally hurt state of many Ukrainians in art, Kinder Album also works with the themes of female bodies, making women visible on different levels during the war.

Inga Levi

“My first emotions were a mix of shock and fulfilled expectation because I’d had thoughts of such a possibility in the background of my mind for quite some time. I tried to realign and explore the rationality of continuing with previous plans ( I was just on my way to Kryvorivnia to help Katya Buchacka open the Paraska Horytsvit museum on March 1st)”.

Now Inga is in Lviv, and she got an opportunity to go to an artist’s residence in Lithuania. “Two of my colleagues and I decided to go”. Artist’s parents are staying in Kyiv, their district has been quiet so far, and they don’t want to leave. 

“I have not been at the active war zone areas, so I’ve not faced such an experience—just the exhaustion of constantly moving and homesickness. I try to keep myself in check but sometimes the thought of what russians have done to our cities and what suffering they’ve put our people through.

The worry for the people in the occupied cities. 


Going back to Kyiv (which seems desirable but not the wisest choice) or leaving Ukraine—I feel like I would not have a right to talk about my city because I’ve not been with it in such a time”.

Yaroslav Voitsekhovskii

The neat and minimalist artworks of Yaroslav Voitsekhovskii look like artistic postcards. Those drawings are filled with symbolic playfulness and show different sides of the tragedy and the fighting of Ukrainian women and men.

“Russian aggression has woken me up like everybody else. Then there was a TV screen with putin’s speech, and the information that this is war,” Yaroslav reflects. “At first, it was scary and confusing. Now the fear has changed to hope that this whole thing will be over soon”.

Sana Shahmuradova

On the first day, I woke up at 5 am from an explosion in Kyiv. I got up immediately, took a quick shower, prepared cash and all the documents, and went back to bed. I was hoping that the noise was just from my dream. Soon I heard another explosion and then another one. Probably four times in a row. I posted on Instagram, and many of my friends replied that they also heard those explosions in Kyiv, Odesa, and Kharkiv almost at the same time. I left all my things, the artworks I’ve created over the past two years, in Kyiv, in my flat. I locked the doors and left, not knowing where I was going and when I would come back.

I remember spending the next 16 hours underground in a vintage shop on the next street in a crowd of beautiful people, kids, and pets. The owners were making tea, coffee, and food for all ages. Mostly we kept silent, reading the news and occasionally sharing the most important ones. It felt like we had known each other forever, even though none of them were my close friends. I made a quick note: Imagine the feeling of absolute serenity and full alertness simultaneously. Two emotions that I feel right now are fear and love—just those two. There is no hunger, no fatigue. Just fear and love. And shock, of course. Also, I’ve lost the sense of time and space. Absolutely! It is as if I have just woken up and heard the explosions, but it is 4:38 in the evening already. Fear and love. Two conflicting emotions like those two cats (one is white and the other is black) who belong to the people beside me. 

Around 10 pm, my close friend called me and said to come to her and her husband’s flat immediately. I could not move. I was afraid to go outside. They got a taxi for me, and I came to Podil. The streets were empty. I was scared of the slightest rustle. Kyiv was incredibly gigantic and cold at that moment and, at the same time, beautiful. The beauty I saw from the taxi window made me tremble even more.

We spent the night underground. We returned to their apartment in the morning to eat, which I could not do. I had a breakdown, and I saw a vision. Then my friends picked me up on their way from the city because I had to get to my grandmother as soon as possible as she was utterly alone in the village.

On the way, I made a note depicting my vision: I had a breakdown. Fortunately, I was surrounded by those closest to me in the apartment where my Kyiv life began a year and a half ago. Trembling, I closed my eyes and saw a blue horse, the shape of which shone with gold. He ran over the Dnipro. This horse was rather a spirit – the Great Spirit. He moved slowly, touching the water with his hooves. I saw the spirit of Kyiv, Ukraine, our Earth. This spirit is immortal!

I was scared to stay in Ukraine, and I was afraid to leave. I know that neither is correct nor is it safe. I decided to stay. I asked my grandmother if we would be safe. She replied, “We have nothing to be safe from. We are on our soil”.

Sana is in the village where her great-grandmother and great-grandfather lived, in the Odesa region closer to Podillya. Now her grandmother lives there, and she is staying with her. “My father came over from Odessa, he wanted to take me to the border, but I did not have the guts. Imagine the pain I would feel on the road. I realized that I could not bear it. I can’t leave my family. It is a struggle between two views of the world, between two objective opinions of life, a struggle between spirit and matter, between the nature of depths and the spirit of the time. I do not condemn myself or the people who leave. There is no right decision. I feel like I have to be here for now. I’m just happy to be sitting at the same table with my father and grandmother on my mother’s side. We haven’t sat like this in 20 years since my parents divorced. That is great happiness. “

“I woke up with the first explosion. I followed the news pretty closely, so my brain immediately understood but not entirely. I grabbed a quick shower and collected documents and money. I went back to bed, hoping it was a dream. My mother called from abroad and said she had been notified from Odessa about the explosions. Simultaneously. Odesa, Kyiv, Kharkiv. Then I realized everything. The war was officially declared in 10 minutes, t. After that, all the recollection is murky “.

“I live by faith, I draw, I wait, I fantasize, I cry, I joke, I write, I translate Ukrainian poetry, sometimes I can even listen to 5 minutes of Chopin, but it’s still hard. I can’t listen to music at all. In my head, there are the lines from the BB’s song “Secret Spheres”: “Am I sleeping, or am I already dying? I wonder…”. But I am supported by my family, friends, those who defend the country, volunteers who support Kyiv, and life itself as a phenomenon and the great love for our Earth”.

Sasha Tokareva

“I was consumed by horror, fear, and pain. I couldn’t comprehend that it was happening. Because for a long time before the war, I wished for the third world war not to start. And every time, I convinced myself that in today’s world, this is impossible. Because everyone has long been on a different level of consciousness, and the world remembers how scary it was. That politicians would manage to agree. But I did not consider that I only considered mentally healthy people,” artist Sasha Tokareva and her family are now in Mukachevo, Zakarpattia. They returned here to live over six months ago and do not want to leave Ukraine and their home. “There is an opportunity to leave, and those will also meet us abroad. But this is the last resort, and it only applies when I have to save my life and the lives of my family”.

“I remember waking up on the morning of February 24th, turning on the news, opening Instagram, and seeing these horrible shots… A wide range of feelings. From devastation and anxiety to anger and pride. But at the same time, there is a clear faith that Ukraine will go through this, will surely win, and become one of the strongest states with the most united nation. I probably still can’t comprehend what’s going on, like it’s a nightmare about to end”.

Dana Kavelina

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Created with the support from Peace for Art foundation

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