Seattle art show honors Ukrainian symbols of hope | Crosscut

Next to the korovai lie two folded rushnyks, Ukrainian embroidered wedding cloths. These will be hung on the wall, framing a trinity of photos Husak made in Ukraine during regular visits over the past years. The first one shows the altar with the icons in her grandmother’s bedroom (a common encounter in Ukrainian homes), and another shows yellow quinces basking in rays of sun in front of a light blue backdrop. The third photo, which Husak made in October in Kyiv, shows a woman smoking a cigarette from her balcony, talking with a neighbor below, out of the frame. A small, yellow square of sun spotlights her against the baby-blue building’s facade. 

“Quintessentially Ukrainian,” Husak says of the building and its trademark “post-Soviet” balconies. 

“Beautiful and ugly at the same,” Babenko adds, laughing. 

It’s not just the architecture or the blue-and-yellow hues of the photos that are quintessentially Ukrainian, Husak notes. The customs and culture that underlie those scenes are, too. The older woman, while living in Kyiv, a major city, still knows her neighbor. Husak photographed the quinces in the house she grew up in; these photos are all taken at or from the homes where Husak grew up. “Which is another thing about Ukrainians: We don’t tend to move around much,” she says as she positions the photo print on the wall with Babenko’s help. “Ukrainians [are] very much like little crabs. Once you find your little niche, you want to stay there.”

Dried flowers — traditionally picked during spring and summer, blessed in church and kept dried in the house — will help frame the triptych of photos, with candles and bread on the table below. Together, these elements take the shape of the traditional altars or prayer corners you can find in many Ukrainian houses. “I think it’s beautiful and symbolic that Darya is trying to re-create a home praying corner while she’s away from home,” Babenko says. “And her grandmother had to leave.” 

Husak’s 78-year old grandmother, who is now safely in the U.S., was able to bring the icon painting back to Seattle. “She forgot a lot of other things: family albums and photos and [other things] she probably didn’t have a chance to bring.… She had to leave at 3 in the morning,” Husak says. “But at least she escaped with something. She fled with more than a majority of people did. And I think at this point, you don’t care what possessions you left behind. You care about people being alive. And, unfortunately, many Ukrainians do not have that.” 

As of early April, more than 4 million refugees have fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations, making it Europe’s biggest exodus since World War II. 

The altar is a fitting, maybe even hopeful, ode to home for Ukrainians who have seen their homes destroyed and many more who have been forced to leave their homeland behind. 

To Husak, the altar is also a symbol of Ukraine’s sovereignty from Russia, in both a literal and cultural sense. “There’s a lot of conversation about … [our] similarities. And it’s like: It’s hard not to have similarities with people who oppressed you,” she says, noting that Russia has a history of stifling Ukrainian cultural heritage, customs and language (including, at one point, imprisoning and killing intelligentsia and artists).

Honoring some of Ukraine’s traditions in the face of what Husak and Babenko see as just the latest wave of an attempt at destruction feels significant, particularly as the spring harvest season starts and Easter approaches. “There’s a lot of mythology, spirituality weaved into a lot of Ukrainian folklore and symbolism,” Husak says. “And a lot of it has to do with hope and love and kindness and peace. I hope most Ukrainians get to experience it.” 

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