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Ukrainian artists with Down's Syndrome process the war by painting it

On the 24th of February 2022, my life was split into “before” and “after”.

Guess which country I am from? Ukraine.

Living through the war from far away is a disjointed experience. On one hand, my own life seems normal and sometimes even beautiful. On the other hand, every day I get news that someone I know has died or another place I have loved does not exist anymore. It is almost impossible to start processing this trauma since it keeps occurring.

For the last 7 years, I have been researching and engaging with topics of mental health and art, two disciplines that inspire me and have such a clear social relevance. It is not easy for me to work in mental health research now, as I realize that on some days I also experience depressive symptoms. However, every crisis is also an opportunity for unforeseen growth.

I have been stunned by the number of powerful stories from people around me, stories that need to be shared. So, I decided to interview three Ukrainian projects related to mental health and showcase their amazing work and resilience in times of war. This is the first blog in the series.

In this blog, I interviewed Stanislav Turina, an artist, curator, and co-founder of atelienormalno, a studio space, where artists with Down’s Syndrome (which we would consider neuroatypical, individuals with atypical neurological development or functioning) collaborate with neurotypical artists and help each other develop professional skills to build a career.

Empty atelienormalno space. Kyiv, March, 2022. Photo: Stas Turina

How did atelienormalno start out?

Stanislav Turina: In 2018, myself and Katya Libkind got invited by Goethe Institute Ukraine to teach “art as a hobby” to adults with Down’s Syndrome. At the time, it was impossible to find an artist with Down Syndrome in Ukraine that had a public platform. In Germany, on the other hand, there are a lot of artists with Down’s Syndrome that have flourishing careers — personal exhibitions, big sales, and collaborations with museums. A German research institute with a focus on Down syndrome, Touchdown 21, provided us with a methodology for structuring the interactions and resolving conflicts. German magazine Ohrenkuss, where every edition is created by people with Down’s Syndrome, offered to publish the results in a special Ukrainian edition.

Artist: Iryna Goloborodko “Transformer-cake with lemon and black current”. Kyiv, April 2022

The first class was an amazing eye-opening experience. It was our first contact with Down’s Syndrome. We noticed that one participant, Zhenya Golubentsev, has managed to create a deeply touching masterpiece. His paintings were exceptional, better than anything I have seen created at similar workshops. We asked ourselves — could art be his life’s calling? More on his story later…

Artist: Zhenya Golubentsev. Photo courtesy of The Naked Room gallery

Our sessions culminated in an exhibition “What is important?”. However, we did not want to stop. The feedback was overwhelmingly good and we realized that we are getting exposed to something really important that does not exist in our country yet — inclusive artistic exchange. We never conceived of our work as “charity”, since we had no connection to the syndrome, we were genuinely interested in a permanent space, where neurotypical artists can come and exchange ideas with artists with Down’s Syndrome, on equal footing, to the benefit of both. In Ukraine, we are very self-organized. We do not wait; we create places and events we want to attend. A “Do It Yourself” (DIY) project atelienormalno was underway.

Artist: Zhenya Golubentsev. Photo courtesy of The Naked Room gallery

Why painting?

Painting is very relaxing. To paint is to be silent. People get together, they help each other, and they collaborate. It is a very nourishing interaction. We also use other materials — ceramics, play dough, and objects from the street. Art helps to reflect — a finished piece is something material left behind, and the topics that emerge tell a story. To see what you and others have painted is to enter a dialogue with the art and the artist.

Artist: Iryna Goloborodko “Lacy napkin”. Kyiv, April 2022

What were some of your main challenges and victories?

At first, it was challenging to establish physical boundaries and define with participants which type of touch is appropriate. Then there were differences in character. Some artists were constantly late, some were reluctant to leave the studio. However, our German research partners had strategies at hand; most of our problems were not unique and usually, there was a solution or a way to prevent them.

Painting of Volodymyr N., a patient in Pavlov hospital for severe neuropsychological conditions in Kyiv, April 2022

Another issue was funding and finding a permanent space. We operated with almost no budget. In our first year, we used the materials left from the art classes and the yearly budget was around thirty euros. We used discarded carpets to save on canvas! However, passion inspires and attracts. More and more people saw how much we care and came to volunteer or help in another way.

The pandemic was a challenge but also brought progress. We helped our artists set up home studios and use digital tools. It is important to teach artists with Down’s Syndrome to be autonomous. We encouraged them to use social media, send texts, and get on Zoom. Together, at this point, we have exhibitions in major art spaces like Khanenko Museum or The Naked Room, sell works, give interviews, and win prizes.

Exhibition of atelienormalno artists in The Naked Room gallery. Photo courtesy of The Naked Room Gallery

What happened with the project since the beginning of the Russian invasion?

The war crushed all our plans. The majority of us were in Kyiv when everything started. I and a few other people are still here. Most others have decided to evacuate, the last of them just yesterday. One girl went on vacation with her parents and never came back. One guy escaped through the shelling but made it alive…

Works of Oleksander T. and Vitaly T., patients in the psychoneurological unit in Pushcha Vodytsya. May, 2022. Photo: Stas Turina

The participant I mentioned earlier, Zhenya Holubentsev was out of Kyiv, when everything started, near a small village called Vablya, next to Borodyanka — a name that resonates throughout the world now. Borodyanka had even more victims than Bucha. He went there with his mother to be in nature and paint, a little en plein air. All of a sudden, the windows in their house blew up from a mine. Outside of the broken window — a convoy of Russian tanks, there must have been six hundred of them encircling the city!

A patient of the psychoneurological unit Nikolay making embroidery. April, 2022. Photo: Katya Libkind

For a long time, they were sort of lucky, if I can use that word. Zhenya was allowed to paint throughout. His creed is painting every day, like all the great artists! The main shock came when they were allowed to return to Kyiv: they had no idea how badly the city had suffered but in the news, they saw the mass graves, dead bodies on the street, their neighbours shot in the head, the whole town completely ruined. After Zenya and his family returned, he really closed himself off. Now his family is in Germany, we hope he will get better soon.

Artist: Zhenya Golubentsev, March 8th, 2022. The work was created under occupation

It is not easy to keep in touch nowadays. Crossing town can be unsafe: the air raid sirens happen all the time and we need to stay close to the bomb shelters. Nevertheless, we are all painting daily to keep our regularity. Everyone has a home studio, a relic of the pandemic, everyone knows how to use Zoom. Some artists have found this time very fruitful, and our work has been a big source of reflection, hope, and mental health support. Not having an opportunity to come together physically, we also started to exchange little bits of our daily life: photographs of what we are doing, little poems, and music we listen to. It really helps to find some beauty to counteract the horrors. And, I think, we all still firmly believe in our project and that after the war, we can have a better, brighter future — with a permanent space, secure funding, exciting collaborations, and my personal dream — a big public library dedicated to neurodivergent art and human rights.

Two contemporary artists Katya Libkind and Valentyn Radchenko taking their first walk since February 24th. Photo: Stas Turina

Note from the Author: Members of atelienormalno are volunteering in Kyiv in Pavlovskiy hospital for people with severe neuropsychological disorders. They would be very happy to receive any donations to the hospital to support their work in these tough times. Paypal:


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