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Soul of Ukraine: Immersive Shevchenko

How Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prompted Valeriy Kostyuk to take action through art


MAR 21, 2023 | ISSUE 9

Immersive Shevchenko
Valeriy Kostyuk, by Kalya Ramu
Tais Poda, Creative Director to Immersive Shevchenko, joins smART Magazine from Zakarpatya, Ukraine

“There are a lot of artists in Ukraine that are doing their part in regards to protecting the national heritage,” Valeriy Kostyuk states. This sentiment reflects the courageous spirit of the Ukrainian people in the face of an invasion that’s put the entire world on alert. As a producer of Immersive Shevchenko, Valeriy, a Ukrainian from Odesa, underscores the severity of the injustice taking place in his country. He is the pioneering producer behind the exhibit that celebrates Ukrainian artist and cultural icon Taras Shevchenko and was instrumental in developing the production to meet the urgent need for humanitarian aid in Ukraine. All proceeds from every ticket to the exhibit will be donated to The Red Cross and other initiatives to provide economic relief to victims of the war in Ukraine. Shevchenko’s career spanned various artforms while simultaneously advocating for his country’s independence on all fronts. Valeriy speaks with smART Magazine about the artist, exhibit, and the nation he inspired.

sM |  How have you been coping throughout the first couple of weeks of this invasion?

VK ─ I don’t sleep peacefully anymore. No one does. I have alarms set for every two hours to check in on family members. I worry my family will hear the sirens, warning about potential bombs, yet they don’t always go into the bomb shelters. They’ve had enough, which is why I constantly check on them. Being away from my family in different cities is stressful because if I were there, I would help make decisions. My initial thoughts were to fly or drive home to reach my family. But the situation changed so quickly that there were military personnel everywhere. So now, I check my phone to get in contact with them – most of the time, the silence means they’re sleeping. But not hearing from them can be worse because of the unpredictable times we’re in. There’s just no way of ensuring that your family is safe.

sM | What do you think is the most potent message that can be sent to the artists and people of Ukraine at this moment?

VK ─ If there were anything to distract people from war, it would probably be art. However, I will not tell artists to continue making art in these unprecedented times. Not when they are unaware of whether or not they will be safe in their own country. It’s more important for them to do their part in protecting Ukraine. I know many artists that have signed up to physically defend the cities. To patrol the streets and ensure there’s no fighting, it’s all in an effort to defend Ukraine’s national heritage. My message to artists and people of Ukraine is to simply try and get through it. There are truly no right words to say or to bring encouragement. This kind of situation leaves me speechless, but I remind the people of Ukraine that “All will be Ukraine.” We are one culture, even if we are moved. The Russians can change our borders with a pencil, but our culture and heritage is ours and within us. They cannot and will not take that away.

sM | How would you describe Shevchenko’s significance to the people of Ukraine and diasporic Ukrainian communities? And how will the profits from Immersive Shevchenko help the efforts for humanitarian aid?

VK ─ Shevchenko is a known name in every Ukrainian household, and there are statues all over the world dedicated to him. 1,384 statues, to be exact. He was fundamental to Ukraine’s history. As a serf, he was essentially a slave in his teenage years, and when he was freed, he received an education in the fine arts. During this time, he captured Ukrainian culture through his revolutionary poetry when it was trying to be destroyed by Russian hegemony. His mission was simply to provoke the soul of Ukraine. He died in St. Petersburg at the age of 47, but was buried on a hill in Dnieper as he requested in his poem entitled “My Testament.” In fact, this hill is now a place of pilgrimage for many Ukrainians, allowing us to feel the energy of Ukrainian identity. Portraits of Shevchenko are hanging in homes now, often depicting him as much older and many years after his rebellious youth. He was, and is, essential to Ukraine’s identity and independence, and visitors will be able to testify to that through this exhibit.

The profits from Immersive Shevchenko will be donated to the American Red Cross and The National Bank of Ukraine. The Red Cross is a non-profit initiative that will be on the ground helping Ukraine. The donations to the National Bank of Ukraine is to ensure the state and government continue to be able to operate for the civilians nationwide. But another way people could help right now, is by donating directly to different types of charities and sending money to personal or local initiatives. There are never enough supplies, and every day, more provisions are needed: toilet paper, shoes, paper plates, cups, and so on. The people of Ukraine will appreciate all the help they can get.

Natalya Delieva, C0-Producer of Immersive Shevchenko, joins smART Magazine from Odesa in Ukraine

sM |  Can you describe the current situation in your region and how the Russian invasion has disrupted daily life?

TP ─ Normal daily life in our region is just over. It no longer exists. It seems there is no world that existed before the war, and it will not exist for a long time. My family has evacuated from Kyiv. Now the army, territorial defense, and civilians are preparing to defend Kyiv because it can be under siege. The defenders have been accumulating reserves, strengthening the city borders, and organizing logistical chains.

My family moved to Western Ukraine and live minimally in a rented apartment. The sky is quiet here, but every sharp sound makes us shudder, hoping it’s not an explosion. My child has been in psychological shock. In general, children no longer study at school, and it is unknown when learning will resume. But for thousands of people, the situation is much worse, so we do not complain in any case.

Every day I spend part of my time volunteering to coordinate and help people who come here. We are always in touch; we pass the information on how to get here, where to look for housing, where one can eat for free. Also, every day together with other women, I spend 3-4 hours weaving camouflage nets in a local school.

Almost every evening, I also communicate with people who need psychological help because I have a degree in therapy. This is not a full-fledged clinical consultation, but it does not matter because the results are what matters here.