Young Ukrainian Artists Respond to the Invasion


On January 27, Crow Ra, a Ukrainian animator and illustrator, turned 24 on a Turkish airlines flight fleeing Kyiv. Crow’s bags had been packed for days, but his father, also an artist, had made the final decision only earlier that day, as land routes westward from Kyiv began to look dicey. The flight attendants made a cake by piling cream puffs together with chocolate sauce. On the green seat next to Crow was Rémy Slimp, 23, their friend and collaborator. By March 7, when I sat down with the pair in Slimp’s stately childhood home in Northwest Washington, DC, 2 million Ukrainians had already left the country. That number has more than doubled in the month since. The war has dominated their art since.

“My family knew that there was a threat. So they sent off the kids and my grandparents here.” Wryly, Crow adds, “I am 24 and I am still a child.”

Slimp’s father is an American consultant whose work for oil and gas companies and Ukrainian politicians led to a close family friendship with then-Foreign Minister Konstantin Gryshchenko about ten years ago. Crow, Gryshchenko’s grandchild, and Slimp met as teenagers at a barbecue in Ukraine 2015. “We were all laughing and hanging out around this little fire pit late at night, and I kind of strayed off from the group to start to draw,” remembers Slimp. Crow came over and saw what I was drawing and—”

“I liked it so much,” interrupts Crow. “I was like, ‘I want to animate that.’ It’s basically this character that can sort of shape-shifts or turn into silver liquid. Frst it’s like a portal that seeps out mist, and then it turns into a snake, and then it turns into a monstrous alien form, and then a little boy.”

In Fall 2021, Crow and Slimp founded an animation studio called Don’t Fluff it Up Productions to formalize their collaboration on an animated series about a shapeshifting character who is “half boy, half star-person.” They are planning to pitch the concept to a studio, so they keep the details under wraps, but they share with me that the character’s ability to transform is based on his level of confidence. “The more you know who you are, the stronger your magic is,” says Crow.

Our conversation is punctuated by buzzes and beeps from Crow’s phone, which keeps him apprised of developments on the ground in Ukraine via fact-checked and sourced Telegram channels. “Knowing everything that goes on relieves me a lot,” Crow says. “I’d rather constantly know what’s happening.” As we speak, they receive a notification that the government of Mariupol has announced that it’s being shot at, “but will not give in.” “A lot of these can sometimes just be like, don’t worry, we’re fighting, we’re doing it. Keep morale,” explains Crow. (Three weeks later, Mariupol continues to hold against Russian forces. According to the mayor’s office, 5,000 people have been killed in the city.) “Right now the morale is basically the greatest fighting power of Ukraine,” says Crow. “So making the Ukrainian army and the people who are protecting their land feel a little more heroic, is kind of more power to us.

I draw a parallel between the half-boy half-star person, and Ukraine: both unleash surprising powers as their inner confidence and sense of self grows. President Zelensky’s star power seems especially magnified, and I wonder about whether Crow worries about their country’s struggle being romanticized.

“It feels good to have my country, which has been at war for eight years, to be cared about, and I think it’s amazing that the president is able to inspire so many people, and the fight can inspire so many people,” says Crow. “Romanticized or not, people outside the situation are now paying a lot closer attention than they were.”

Ukraine has been at war since 2013, when a pro-EU and anti-corruption protest movement toppled a Russian-leaning president and led to the Russian annexation of Crimea. That sequence of events galvanized Ukrainian national consciousness, especially among the students and young denizens of the concrete dance halls and punky coffee bars. Government policies emphasized the Ukrainian language over Russian, both of which are commonly used in the country.

Earlier this year, as Russia’s forces built up on the border, Crow, Slimp, and other artists with ties to Ukraine were forced to shift their attention to the war. “Before the full-on invasion started, we made a shot depicting our fleeing of Ukraine. The two little characters that represent us are just working on an episode, and then the door opens and there’s a bear and the bear is angry, and about to attack. So we jump out the window,” says Crow. “It was slightly comedic because at the time we were trying to deal with the stress.” The wartime work of these artists is full of motifs and imagery from Ukrainian culture, including sunflowers, Mavkas (women who frown themselves from heartbreak and become water nymphs), and wartime inspirations such as the soldiers of Snake Island or the “Ghost of Ukraine,” a fighter pilot that, legend says, single handedly shot down seven Russian planes in the first days of the war.

Below, we’ve included work from few other young Ukrainian artists who have used their digital art as a platform to express their feelings about Russia’s invasion.

 

 

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Top image: @Crow_Ra

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