PRESS: Chased by conflict in Ukraine, an artist finds a haven in Helsinki by The Washington Post

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Artists at Risk and its AR Residencies

SOURCE: The Washington Post, Will Englund and Kathy Lally, Nov. 2, 2019


HELSINKI — Let’s call them “figurines.” That’s the name their creator, Spartak Khachanov, delicately uses.

He made 400 of them. They got him expelled from the National Academy of Arts in Kyiv and inspired death threats from right-wing vigilantes that drove him and his wife, Anastasia, from Ukraine.

Finland beckoned. The Khachanovs found temporary asylum here earlier this year, thanks to the help of an organization called Artists at Risk. They now live and work in an old fortress on an island in Helsinki harbor.

Spartak Khachanov in his studio with a model of a memorial he is creating for victims of the 1918 Finnish civil war. (Will Englund/The Washington Post)

About those figurines: Made of plaster, each about six inches long and decked out to look like missiles or military vehicles or officers saluting, they are unmistakable reproductions of the male organ. Khachanov made an installation with them a year ago that stretched down the hallways of the academy in Kyiv.

A professor was furious. Ukrainian nationalists were outraged.

Though you wouldn’t always know it, if you walked around Kyiv, Ukraine is still at war with Russian-backed separatists in the east. Khachanov said he was told he could make amends if he gave the figurines a distinctly Russian identity. He refused. He pointed out that there’s nothing specifically Ukrainian about them, either.

They’re simply a commentary, he said, on war as a pageant of masculinity.

A photo series from Khachanov titled “Olympic Games Recharge.” (Anastasia Khachanova)

He was denounced in the press and forced to take refuge in the academy at one point when an ultranationalist gang called C14 came looking for him. Anastasia — known by the nickname Nastya — said they called the police, who threatened to arrest them.

“I wasn’t even thinking about consequences,” Khachanov said. “I just expressed what I had inside. I didn’t mean to provoke anyone.”

Ukraine, the country they fled, is more than simply the stage set for one act of America’s impeachment drama.

The war in the east has been dragging on since 2014, and Ukrainians are weary of it yet, on the whole, deeply unwilling to give in to Russian pressure.

The media is rambunctious, but acts of dissent and provocation, especially among those in the arts, have drawn strong and sometimes violent backlashes.

“Ukraine is a very volatile and dangerous place for artists of all sorts,” said Ivor Stodolsky, one of the founders of Artists at Risk.

Last year, an art exhibit on right-wing violence in Ukraine, especially against LGBT people, was quickly shut down after C14 condemned it. In 2017, vandals destroyed and defaced items in an exhibit of “anarchy” works by David Chichkan.

Neither of those topics is as fraught as Ukraine’s war, in which 13,000 people have died so far.

Serhiy Bondar, a member of C14, tweeted that Khachanov was a “scumbag” and “a moral degenerate” for making a mockery of the national struggle. Khachanov said he loves Ukraine, “but I don’t understand parades.” Whom are they supposed to impress? The Russians?

“Ukrainian society has been manipulated by this war rhetoric,” he said, while waiting to see visitors off on the ferry back to Helsinki one cool night. “You’re not allowed to speak up because we’re at war. ‘You can speak when the war’s over.’ That isn’t patriotism, it’s blindness.”

Khachanov, 35, with long flowing black hair, is from an Armenian family but was born in Azerbaijan. He and his parents had to flee a riot against ethnic Armenians. They then fled Azerbaijan, ending up in Armenia as those two former Soviet states went to war against each other. They finally settled in a peaceful Ukraine.

The Ukrainian town they picked 29 years ago was in the Donbass region, which in 2014 became the front line of Ukraine’s own war. One of his early artworks was made from pieces of their house, destroyed in the fighting.

“I see myself as a doctor who diagnoses disease, not one who cures it,” he said. “I’m sending a message to society.”

He began art school in Kharkiv when he was 25, then enrolled in the academy in Kyiv. When trouble struck, a Russian rights activist living in exile in Helsinki, Oksana Chelysheva, read about it and sent Khachanov a message on Facebook.

It was the first expression of support they had gotten, Nastya recalled. Chelysheva — along with Teemu Matinpuro, the executive director of the Finnish Peace Committee — referred them to Artists at Risk. A week later, the couple were in Helsinki, starting over.

Only full-time artists, under a demonstrated threat, receive assistance from Artists at Risk. Quality and prominence are not criteria.

Khachanov in his studio. (Will Englund/The Washington Post)

With the encouragement of the Peace Committee, Spartak and Nastya have been working on a photographic series in which he is depicted demurely naked in the stances of ancient Greek athletes but with such modern twists as holding discuses with the U.S. and Russian colors.

“He’s a young artist who really has a lot of potential,” said Marita Muukkonen, a co-founder of Artists at Risk. “We have to work on that. He’s really at the very beginning of his career.”

They have three neighbors in the old fort-turned-artist colony. An Iraqi couple, Saddam Jumaily and Kholod Hawash, work in paint and textiles. Mohammed Jawad Hussein, a musician, is from Bahrain. He re-created a 4,000-year-old stringed instrument from a depiction on an ancient coin.

Eight other artists in the program — from Tunis to Turkey to Barcelona to Berlin — are living elsewhere with local hosts. About 50 artists have been helped to find new lives over the six years since the program was founded.

But the visas are temporary. The Khachanovs have until Nov. 10 to obtain a longer-term residency permit or figure out where they can go next.

For now, they are in their cozy apartment under the rafters of the fortress, a Russian redoubt between the Napoleonic wars and the end of World War I. It’s on the linked islands of Suomenlinna, and it was used as a prison camp for communists during Finland’s bitter civil war of 1918. The war, and its toll, are issues that Finns haven’t wanted to talk about, until recently.

Khachanov has been commissioned to create a monument to the victims of that war. He sees parallels to today’s conflict in Ukraine, with its implacable hatreds. His working model takes a more somber stance than the “Penis Parade” made in Ukraine. But the sentiment remains the same.