Children’s art show brings trauma of Ukraine war to Paris
A tribute to the "New Ukraine" in a drawing by 10-year-old Sonya Yourtchenko. © Courtesy of the exhibition "Sous terre et sur terre"

During three grueling months, children in Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv created artworks portraying their experience of war while living underground in the city's metro, where residents had sought refuge from Russian bombs. Their striking artworks are now the subject of an exhibition in Paris that runs through November 4. FRANCE 24 spoke to the show’s organizers during their brief stop in the French capital.

Until barely a week ago, Mykola Kolomiets had never travelled outside his native Ukraine. Two days after landing in Paris, the 39-year-old artist from Kharkiv was still struggling to find his bearings, unnerved by the bustle of the French capital and the roar of planes flying overhead.

“At every rumble I feel I need to duck for cover,” he said, speaking through a translator. “But I try to keep this at a distance. I’m here for work.”

Kolomiets is the director of "Aza Nizi Maza", a workshop for artists in Kharkiv. He ventured out of his battle-scarred hometown last week, traveling by bus, train and plane all the way to Paris to showcase the work of children who lived through Russia’s invasion of their homeland.

His exhibition, Sous terre et sur terre ("Underground and overground"), which opened on Tuesday at the town hall of the 11th arrondissement (district) of Paris, bears witness to a unique artistic experience he had last spring in Kharkiv’s metro system, where several hundred families had taken refuge at the height of the Russian onslaught.

Trapped underground

Located on the northeastern edge of Ukraine, Kharkiv was a prime target for Moscow’s forces when the invasion began on February 24. Only 40 kilometers separated the city from the Russian border, but Kharkiv’s defenders succeeded in halting the enemy at the city’s gates in early March. Unable to press forward, Russian forces stepped up a relentless bombing campaign that drove tens of thousands of civilians underground.

“The metro was no longer operating, so people settled wherever they could, on the platforms and inside the trains,” said exhibition co-organizer Ivanna Skyba-Yakubova, recalling the frantic rush to the safety of the subway.

“In just a few days, the metro had become a proper little city.”

With its vast halls and corridors, the Historical Museum metro station in the heart of Kharkiv soon became a playground for the city’s restless children. That’s where Kolomiets chose to set up his workshop, aiming to help them escape the boredom of life underground.

“The idea at first was simply to give the children something to do,” he said. “Most of them had never been involved in an art project before, so I suggested they let their imaginations run free. Some started to draw abstract shapes or coloured mosaics while others drew characters and animals. Little by little we started to think about these works and how we could turn them into a collective artistic expression, each one contributing a piece of the puzzle around the messages they wanted to convey.”

War through the eyes of a child

Within a few weeks, the austere metro station had been transformed into a unique art gallery, its pillars adorned with portraits of soldiers, nurses and other heroes of Ukraine’s war effort, and of families left without husbands and fathers. Other pictures were more enigmatic. One featured an angel entitled “New Ukraine”, another a building morphed into a flower pot basking in the glory of spring.

Bright colors and floral themes contrasted with messages scribbled on the walls, some desperately bleak. “War is darkness, the sky has been stolen from me,” wrote 10-year-old Maks, above a drawing of a large bird in the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

“Children were forced to remain underground for days on end without seeing the daylight. This went on for several months,” said Skyba-Yakubova. “Portraying the spring became a way for them to remain in touch with their environment and enjoy the changing seasons – even if they couldn’t see it with their own eyes.”

“The drawings reflected their mixed feelings: a longing for escape and lightness, but also deprivation and distress,” she said, adding: “The situation in the halls of the metro station was catastrophic, with only one toilet for several hundred people.”

Out of the tunnel

Towards the end of May, Ukraine’s army finally succeeded in pushing Russian forces back to the border, ushering in a period of relative calm. The mayor of Kharkiv urged residents to return to their homes and announced that metro service would resume. Step by step, life returned to the streets of Kharkiv, although schools remained shut to most children.

Local officials say more than half of the city’s 200 schools have been damaged by Russian shelling since the start of the invasion, making it too dangerous to send children back to class.

“It’s become very difficult to study in Ukraine since the start of the war. Only a small number of schools with basements can welcome pupils again, because they need to be able to give them shelter in the event of a missile strike,” said Skyba-Yakubova. “In Kharkiv, online teaching is the only option, but children from poor families often do not have this option.”

Before the war, Kolomiets gave paid art classes to children whose families have since left the city to find refuge in quieter areas away from the frontline. Most of the children he worked with in Kharkiv’s metro came from poorer backgrounds, with little or no experience of the art world. Since leaving their underground shelter, they have continued working with him at his studio, acquiring new skills.

“I try to push them to develop their own styles and learn to work with textiles and ceramic, so they can eventually sell their work to help their families,” Kolomiets said. “That’s why I feel I am on a mission here in Paris.”

The mission only allowed for a short stay in France. After two days of promoting the children’s work in the French capital, Kolomiets and Skyba-Yakubova headed back to their war-torn country, setting off on a 48-hour voyage via Poland en route to Kharkiv.

The exhibition "Sous terre et sur terre" is open daily and free of charge at the town hall of the 11th arrondissement (district) of Paris (Mairie du 11e). It runs through November 4.

This article was translated from the original in French.