Artist Zhanna Kadyrova vividly remembers the days leading to February 24, 2022, when Russia launched an attack on Ukraine. She had just travelled back to Kyiv from Berlin and was scheduled to attend a month-long art residency in France from February 27 when she, like so many other Ukrainians at the time, had to plan how to evacuate her family. “We had heard that Russia could attack anytime, but how can one really be prepared for something like this. We were in Kyiv for eight days after the war began, we just couldn’t believe it had started,” she says.
“After nine days, we decided to leave the city and arranged for cars. With my partner Denys (Ruban), my mother, sister, aunt, friend, two dogs and two cats, we drove towards the Romanian border with no other belongings except our documents and laptops. A journey that usually takes a few hours took us two and a half days because the main highways had tanks, and we had to take alternate routes that had a lot of traffic and checkpoints,” the 41-year-old recalls.
While her family safely reached Germany, Kadyrova and Ruban stayed behind in Ukraine and made an effort to assist in the war by providing aid. Though she admits that during the initial weeks she felt that “art was powerless compared to the weapons that destroyed cities and human lives”, she later turned to it to garner funds to arrange for supplies for artists and colleagues, some of whom are still fighting in east Ukraine.
Her series titled “Palianytsia”, Ukrainian word for “bread”, has travelled across the world and will be coming next to India to be showcased at the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale that will begin on December 12. The series has previously been showcased at various venues, including in Venice, Bucharest, Berlin, Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial (Japan), Stavanger, Paris, Batumi, Tbilisi, Warsaw, Dusseldorf, Essen, New York, Vienna, Kaulnasi, Bangkok and Tel Aviv.
Featuring neatly sliced “loaves” made of stones rounded by rivers near the Carpathian mountains, where she was sheltering from the conflict, the title “Palianytsia” is also symbolic. “It distinguishes friends from enemies as Russians find the word difficult to pronounce,” Kadyrova says.
At the Biennale, the works will be exhibited alongside a graphic series that Kadyrova intends to make in Kochi as she plans to arrive a week before the opening. A short film by Ivan Sautkin will also be screened. It records the making of “Palianytsia” and the everyday life of Kadyrova and her colleagues during the three months they were stationed in the region.
“We drove across Ukraine, finding temporary shelters in private homes until we found a house in Berezovo village, which is only 40 km from the Hungary border. From here, I could cross the border and travel for some of my exhibitions. The village also had no strategic sites such as airfields, military bases and weapons depots, so we felt we were safe. We gradually arranged for amenities such as electricity, internet and water, and also resumed our art practice… The works reflect me, what my country is going through,” says Kadyrova, who is an art graduate from the sculpture department at Taras Shevchenko State Art School, Kyiv.
She has represented Ukraine at three previous editions of the Venice Biennale (2013, 2015 and 2019), and this year, Kadyrova sold loaves from her series “Palianytsia” at the event. Priced like real bread by weight, at one euro per gram, she collected a total of 73,000 euros. The proceeds were used to purchase bullet-proof waistcoats, petrol, food and medicine, and disseminated through volunteer organisations in Ukraine.
In June, she returned to Kyiv.