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Courage and resilience reflected in Ukrainian art exhibition

22 December 20220 comments

At the end of World War II Maru Jarockj’s parents fled Ukraine as refugees, leaving behind a devastated nation and their experiences of brutal forced labour under the Nazis.

More than seventy years later the Australian-Ukrainian artist is supporting Ukrainian victims of the latest attack on her parents’ homeland.

Her new art exhibition – titled ‘UKR-DNA – Ukrainian DNA’ and currently on display in Melbourne’s Docklands – celebrates the Ukrainian history and traditions. And it hangs in defiance of Russia’s attempt to invade Ukraine and wipe its identity and unique culture off the map.

Maru’s art draws on her architectural background with angled and spherical blocks of colour informed by modernism and neo-cubist influences.

It reflects her strong connections with Ukraine and its history, culture, traditions and iconic symbols.

There are artworks the reference the Dynamo Kiev football team, the golden domes of Kyiv and the Ukrainian trident.

This week, a group of recently arrived refugees from Ukraine met the artist and the Ukrainian Ambassador Vasyl Myroshnychenko at the exhibition.

“It was lovely to meet the new arrivals and the ambassador. As Ukrainians we have deep connections with one another but never more than at times like this,” Maru said.

Her own migrant story is a reflection of the journeys of the Ukrainians visiting the exhibition. And it stands as an example of their resilience and enterprise.    

The daughter of refugees was the first in her community to go to university later forging a successful career as an architect; she was part of an award winning folk music group and she is now exploring her passion and sensibility as an artist.

“My parents had to leave Ukraine at the end of World War II. Dad and mum had were taken by the Germans as forced labourers,” Maru said.

“Mum was forced to work on farms in Germany and never had enough to eat. When the war finished she ended up in England working in a cotton mill in Lancashire.

“Dad, who, was in the resistance, was also a forced labourer and ended up in Hastings after the war. He moved north to Lancashire and married mum in 1950.

“Dad worked for a builder and went on to set up his own plastering company. He went from nothing, from wearing rags, to running his own business. He worked his way up without being able to speak English at first,” Maru said.

Maru herself was born in Manchester in 1951. Ukrainian was her first language and she could not speak English when she first attended school.

“After a year I was filling out my dad’s tax returns,” she said.

Maru was one of the first of Manchester’s burgeoning post-war Ukrainian community to pass the UK’s Eleven-plus exam, which gained her entry into a grammar school; and she went on to Manchester University where she graduated in architecture.

It was during her student days that Maru became a folk singing sensation as part of the Trio Konvalia, which won Britain’s iconic ‘Opportunity Knocks’ TV talent quest, the then equivalent of Britain’s Got Talent.

The group released two albums and performed across Europe, including at the Vatican for the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Catholic Church.

“We were a curiosity item at first; three girls in embroidered blouses, playing guitar and singing in Ukrainian,” Maru said.

“We played concerts every weekend which helped to finance our university studies.

“And we felt we were doing our bit for Ukrainian because the language was banned in Ukraine during the soviet era and people had to speak Russian,” she said.

Maru married and had two sons of her own. She and her husband Baz came to Australia in 1981, when Baz, an IT expert, was recruited by Ford Australia.

He worked at the Ford plant in Broadmeadows and, after getting her qualifications recognised in Australia, Maru became the City Architect for the Broadmeadows council, a position she held for a decade.

After the Kennett-era council reorganisation, Maru moved to the City of Melbourne, where she worked as the Capital Works and Asset Management Coordinator in the city’s Parks and Recreation division.

Maru set up her own architecture consultancy, Axis Architects, in Melbourne and is still practising as a chartered architect

She has developed a keen interest in art over the years and has produced a portfolio of work influenced both by her background in architecture and her Ukrainian heritage.

“It was the Chernobyl disaster that really propelled me into producing art. Ukraine has always been close to my heart; it defines me every day,” she said.

Included in the exhibition is a work called ‘Chernobyl Madonna’ which has become a global symbol of the city and its eponymous nuclear tragedy. It’s also a graphic symbol of Ukraine’s suffering over decades and centuries.

It has spawned three more Madonnas, including the ‘Madonna of the Heavenly Hundred’ which symbolises the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, when clashes between protesters and police Kyiv led to the ousting of pro-Putin President Viktor Yanukovych and the overthrow of his government. It also sparked the Russian annexation of Crimea.

Another is ‘The Orange Madonna’, which symbolises the massive protests triggered by claims of electoral fraud, corruption and voter suppression in the 2004 Ukrainian election.

The ‘Madonna Holodomor 33’ is the final in the series and represents Ukraine’s Holodomor, or great ‘Terror-Famine’ that was part of the wider Soviet famine of 1932-33 which affected the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union.

During the Holodomor, millions of Ukrainians died or were forced to flee a famine in Ukraine that was induced by Russian leader Josef Stalin.

Some historians argue that that the famine was planned Stalin as a way of eliminating Ukraine’s nascent independence movement and imposing collectivisation on the nation’s productive grain farmers.

Another of the exhibition’s works is a powerful and confronting collage of news photos from the human and urban devastation caused by Russia attacks on Ukraine’s cities.    

“Every day I’m connected to what is happening there. I feel like I’m sitting behind the window of history,” Maru said.

“I still have family in Ukraine on my dad’s side. My cousin’s daughter gave birth to her third child while in a bunker under Russian attack.

“Through art I feel I have an outlet and voice to bring out what I’m feeling. It’s almost like a prayer of relief. How else do you mitigate the anger you feeI?” she said.

“What are important to me in my art are the historical and cultural aspects of Ukrainian life. I’m try to synthesise what is good and unique about Ukraine.

“Ukraine has seen great suffering in what seems like every few decades. But now I sense a line in the sand has been drawn and people are saying ‘we will survive this as we always have’ and I think people are confident that they will triumph, they will win and drive out the Russian aggressor from Ukrainian soil and with victory Ukraine will have a golden future,”  Maru said.

She said that life in Australia had been a catalyst for her art and for her professional life.

“I’m grateful for the fact that I can do this freely in Australia – paint and have a voice and career as a woman,” Maru said.

“I have had a wonderful career in architecture here in Australia which has fed into my art. As a woman, I would never have had these opportunities in the UK,” she said.

Visitors to the exhibition were Yevheniia and her sister Alex who fled Ukraine in February as the Russians threatened to overwhelm their home city of Kharkov.

The sisters were captivated and touched by the exhibition.

“It is really emotional to see these paintings. It makes us feel like people here, on the other side of the world, understand and care about what is happening in Ukraine,” Yevheniia said.

“And it gives us strength to carry and hope for a good future for Ukraine,” she said.     

Maru’s favourite work in the exhibition – she calls it her crowning glory – is called ‘The Meeting’ and it represents a fictional meeting of famous and legendary Ukrainian women across history called together by Princess Olha of Kiev, the woman who brought Christianity to Ukraine in the 900s.

The attendees include: Anna Yaroslavna, a Ukrainian queen of France after marrying Henry 1 in the 1051; Lesia Ukrayinka, one of Ukraine’s foremost writers and poets; Slava Stesko, a famed Ukrainian nationalist leader; Uliana Suprun, a Ukrainian-America, doctor, activist and philanthropist who served as Ukraine’s health minister between 2016 and 2019, and; Ukraine Eurovision Song Contest winner Ruslana.

The piece asks viewers the thought provoking question: “What was the agenda for these women?”

“I guess I’m asking people to think about what would their discussions centre on, what actions what solutions would these women propose for Ukraine at this point in history what would their message of salvation be?”

“And I guess I’m saying that Ukraine has always had strong women through history because the men have always been away fighting,” Maru said.   

The artwork is a piece that explores the contributions and influence of twelve strong Ukrainian women of courage and significance – painted by a thirteenth.

The exhibition, ‘titled ‘UKR-DNA – Ukrainian DNA’, runs until January 12 the Library at The Dock, in Docklands.