Spanish tattoo artist and muralist Javier Robledo aka Xav brought an enormous joyful boy to Kiev in Ukraine this summer, his largest mural ever at 70 meters high by 15 meters wide. He was pleased by his feat and gratified with the opportunity and result, as was Iryna Kanishcheva, co-founder of Art United Us who organized the wall. The beaming and bright boy looks like he is having a true belly laugh, elated by something, caught mid-adventure during his play day. Often a scene like this is considered the least likely to offend, a safe bet for a public mural.
What Xav didn’t expect was a bubbling racism directed toward his mural by some locals as he unveiled it across the wall; a virulent mini-chorus so suddenly loud that the project was halted for a few days when he was only about 40% finished. “Most of the neighbors liked it, but some people protested because the boy was black,” says the artist, “I was very surprised, because I had not foreseen a possible racist reaction to my work.”
Acrimonious conversations turned to near-threats from a vocal minority and more conversations and sheer determination were needed to push the project forward. Somehow the painting re-started and continued through the rain and winds and the other typical obstacles a public mural initiative normally encounters. Xav eventually completed the mural successfully, but that’s not to say that the negativity hasn’t taken a toll on some who were involved, even if they were pleased with the mural itself.
According to Kanishcheva, some of those neighbors who delayed the project included a former deputy head of police who lived in the area and who used blatantly racist terms to describe dark skinned people in his complaints, saying that he simply didn’t want to see this kind of image in his city.
Often one expects some complaints for any creative public art project; it is something any organizer will tell you they deal with. There simply isn't unanimity of opinions on such matters. Kanishcheva laments that there also isn’t really an accepted formula for selecting artists and art that everyone will be pleased with when putting together mural programs, and she reflects on some of the factors that help in the decision-making process.
“You can make a decision yourself and take all the responsibility along with the artist,” she tells us, “or you could create a curatorial team, as many would suggest. But the team must be not be made simply of those with art-related diplomas, but also those who have done a few mural projects and have a name in the Street Art world. Finally, to judge and to suggest to an artist what to paint, you have to pay him accordingly," she says, announcing the kicker, "None of the artists who paint in Ukraine are paid.” You have to agree here that with a lack of financial renumeration for an artist, one should at least give him or her some personal latitude to create work that is satisfying to them as well. To us, that is a given.
Art United Us has conceived of, funded, and produced about 50 new public murals in this city over the past five or so years, and along with some other mural initiatives, the total of new murals may total three times that. In her thoughts about the sheer number of new walls in such a relatively short time, Iryna says the city may need to take a break. Additionally, public projects like hers are not funded by the government and there are limited resources to execute the programs like these, compounding the difficulty of making them happen. Not that she isn’t committed to the positive results of public art programs.
When talking about this new mural, both artist and organizers still stand by it and are glad they persevered to complete it, even if it took a month instead of two weeks as planned. In Kanischeva’s view, the success of the program hinges on pushing questions about racism and other social issues like these to the fore, where they can be openly discussed.
“Ukrainian population is totally white, except the guests of the city and some students from overseas. That’s why they simply couldn’t understand and said things like ‘why do we need this black boy here’. Similar questions arose when Nunca created his mural for a city art project a while ago.”
“I wouldn’t call it racism,” she says, “it is rather a lack of understanding. Many Ukrainians are open minded and culturally developed, but there are still enough of those who spit, throw cigarette butts on the ground and Christmas Trees out of the window into the yard. It is not their fault that they are not properly educated and have these attitudes; it is a more general problem caused by anger, economic instability, dissatisfaction with the Government, unemployment, and hunger. Some of these folks were ready to protest and even cut the high voltage wires of the swing stage - putting an artist and themselves into a danger. To me it just looks like despair.”
And maybe that proves the success of the program.
“It’s like a cultural injection with an unpredictable reaction – but it is good to see people react and think, because it makes you human,” she says. “For any country, regardless of the economic conditions, arts and education programs must exist. People learn and express their feelings through art and learn to start a dialogue. Art United Us brought a lot of artistic diversity in Kiev, but I feel like people may need some time to digest this.”
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