KYIV – Whatever his subject – a tycoon living en masse as many go hungry, a henchman hired to break up protests, an impoverished Ukrainian driven abroad to seek work – the artist Serhiy Kolyada puts it on paper with a simple tool: a ballpoint pen.
At 49, whose life and art spanned the end of the Soviet era and the often tumultuous three decades that followed since independence in 1991, Kolyada draws inspiration from “everywhere” – and then, putting the tip of a simple paper construction Bic, draws images that he says depict the belly of Ukraine.
They describe the evils of society, state depredations, and aspects of life that damage Ukraine’s image abroad, such as greed, corruption, sex tourism, migration from workforce associated with poverty, alcoholism and, according to him, criminals in parliament.
He calls it “zhlob” art. The term is difficult to skillfully translate, with meanings ranging from “stray” to a crass, narrow-minded jerk. But Kolyada’s works are teeming with these “anti-heroes,” whether it’s a venal oligarch or a thug the oligarch uses as a paid muscle to execute the forced takeover of a business.
“He is a person who is rude and behaves belligerently in society,” he said. “As if they don’t pick up trash after them… in the criminal world they ride drunks for money… and later these people get into politics and while in power they encourage corruption.” by continuing the practice of theft ”of the state budget.
It’s a societal symptom that “starts at the bottom and goes all the way to the top,” Kolyada added.
Kolyada’s works can be off-putting, and perhaps that is his goal: speaking to RFE / RL at his makeshift home studio in Kiev, he said his target was the viewer’s brain, not his eyes.
“We already have a lot of art that performs a decorative function, that is pleasing to the eye… What we need is art that will make a person think,” Kolyada said.
Over time, a disturbing figure in a series of his drawings became Kateryna, a woman with bare feet and furrowed brow. an 1842 painting by Taras Shevchenko, a multitalented poet and artist who is a dominant figure in Ukrainian culture, who portrays her separation from a Russian Tsarist officer.
He inserted an identical image of her in many contexts such as Capitol Hill in Washington, Red Square in Moscow and Kiev over the Maidan barricades – the massive protests that were sparked in part by anger against the corruption and pushed President-friend of Moscow Viktor Yanukovych from power in 2014.
Through Kateryna, said Kolyada, he tries “to show what Ukraine is and what it means … in the former Soviet Union we were all Russians … here I want to show that we are a separate country” .
By placing it in various foreign contexts, the artist said he was highlighting “the plight of Ukrainian women who have had to go abroad to earn money as migrant workers”.
He chose her, he said, “because nothing has changed in the 200 years that have passed since Shevchenko’s life.”
The “government still has the same attitude towards its people… the same social problems exist. We still have a feudal system with barons, ”Kolyada said, referring to tycoons widely seen as wielding political influence.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was democratically elected but behaves like a “monarch” and “has oligarchs for princes,” he said, without providing details to substantiate his remarks.
Kolyada also looks to other figures of the past, from the Soviet-era writer Mikhail Bulgakov born in Kiev to the Bible and well in between. He mixed elements of pop culture with Renaissance imagery – Michelangelo’s David on a nude beach – and the works of Nikolai Gogol, another major figure in Ukraine.
From the Maidan – after which Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and supported anti-Kiev forces in a war that still continues in eastern Ukraine – Kolyada added scenes from the protest movement to his drawings “to show that there are people ready to sacrifice their lives for freedom, their country, and to protect their compatriots.”
‘In my dreams’
Kolyada’s disaffection with state and society is firmly rooted in the Soviet era, which ended when he was around 20 years old.
He credits his keen sense of justice to listening to Voice of America (VOA), RFE / RL and BBC broadcasts on shortwave radio.
As with many people in Ukraine and elsewhere, the 1986 disaster at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant was at the root of his distrust of the Soviet system, Kolyada said. He started listening to Western broadcasters at night and writing letters to editors.
“I think that’s when the KGB started watching me, especially when a priest who was running a program on VOA answered me and the envelope had been opened,” he said. he declares.
As he grew older, Kolyada began participating in anti-government protests and drawing pictures that confused Soviet authorities and showed empty shelves in stores, as well as taking art classes.
Later, his application to an art institute in Kharkiv was rejected. He spent a month in Sweden during the abortive coup d’état of August 1991 which accelerated the Soviet break-up. He was refused political asylum and was greeted by KGB agents when he flew to Moscow.
He then returned to Zaporizhzhya University where he had been enrolled, but was quickly expelled for his “anti-Soviet position” and ended up training to become a Ukrainian language teacher at a university in Berdyansk, the port city of the Sea of Azov. where he grew up after his birth in Odessa.
After graduating in 1997, Kolyada traveled to Kiev and continued to draw with a ballpoint pen, living in part on the money he made selling his sketches during his university studies.
Kolyada draws his inspiration from “everywhere”, he said – on the streets, in the news, in books and advertisements, and “in my dreams”. When an idea for a work of art takes shape, it “takes a long time for the subject to boil in my brain.”
Once on paper, his works can go up to $ 3,000, partly depending on size, but they sell for an average of between $ 500 and $ 600. That’s a far cry from what more famous Ukrainian artists can earn: A work by Lviv-based painter Ivan Turetskiy sold for $ 21,250 at an auction in April at Sotheby’s in New York.
Galleries and the artistic establishment in Ukraine have for the most part avoided his works, which often feature eroticism and nudity as well as their impenetrable images.
“The gallery owners ‘like’ my works on Facebook but never offer to exhibit them,” he said. “It’s a confusing situation and they don’t provide a specific reason.”
He said gallery owners offered to show his work but demanded he pay $ 1,000 while allowing them to choose which pieces to display.
“It’s a closed circle,” he said, adding that he supplemented his income by working as a graphic designer and shrugging his shoulders. “I don’t care about them [gallerists]… They ignore me and I ignore them. “
Kolyada has had more success abroad and with expats in Ukraine.
From time to time, Kolyada adds gouache or watercolors to his ballpoint pen work, such as in a drawing he devoted to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in the United States. As for the materials, he says he’s tried them all.
“I drew with a pencil, painted with watercolors and oils – but I always came back to my ink,” he said.
It is not a crowded field. Kolyada said he was the only prominent Ukrainian member of the informal ballpoint pen art movement.
“There was another ballpoint pen, in Luhansk,” he said, referring to one of the eastern towns held by Russian-backed separatists. “But when the war with Russia started in 2014, I lost track of him, and I don’t know where he is now.”