Can Art Help Fight A War?

Russia’s assault on Ukraine began on February 24, 2022, with a series of missile attacks and the use of long-range artillery. My mother called me from Ukraine in the middle of the night, crying. I assured her that everything will be alright. The next day I was headed south from my home in Florida for a ribbon-cutting event and the idea of war seemed to be surreal. How can we celebrate a new mural when people are being killed by invaders from a neighboring country?

As an art administrator, I have always been committed to meaningful projects that raise awareness about political, social, or environmental issues. I was part of a mural project in Chernobyl, Ukraine that commemorated the 30th anniversary of the nuclear disaster, and a mural in the Ukrainian war zone at the beginning of the political conflict. My 2017 TEDxUF Talk explored these projects and how public art connects communities. 


Mural by INO in Kyiv, Ukraine, 2016. Reaching 158 feet above the ground, the Greek artist completed the biggest mural that he had ever made to that point. INO’s artwork, titled “Instability,” depicts a ballerina dancing over a bomb. Inspired by the situation in Ukraine, the painting is criticizing the failure of coexistence between people on earth. Photo by Charles Alan Rye.

The war in Ukraine started in 2014 following the Ukrainian Revolution of Dignity. The first eight years of the conflict included the annexation of Crimea, cyber-attacks, political tension, and the war in Donbas, but it wasn’t covered by the global media all the time. That’s why a public art project, Art United Us, was launched in 2016-2017 to remind people that the war is still going on. About 50 large-scale murals—among them a mural in Avdiivka, a hot spot in the east of Ukraine—were created. 

From that project I learned that famous artists can make a huge impact through their social media following. I thought of Shepard Fairey because he is well known for his involvement in social issues, and because he was going to come to Gainesville in 2020. He had some political ideas for a mural but it never happened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When asked to paint a mural for Ukraine, he replied that he couldn’t but was releasing the Make Art Not War design for free for non-commercial purposes to support Ukraine, and allowed me to execute the mural using local resources. As anybody with the design and a wall could act, the Monochronicle team chose one in the most visible location in town. 


One person at the event said, “This mural is not going to help.” And I agreed. Sure. But it’s a great tool for connecting people and raising awareness. Public art can deliver a message, save a moment in history, remind people what’s important, and, if used wisely, influence and motivate.


The whole project took several months to complete. Some property owners didn’t want to provide space for a mural or support the project financially as it was not benefiting their business. The city of Gainesville’s process does not allocate any money for such a project and any requests must go through a committee and city commissioners. I wish we had more resources for individuals to support artivism and innovation. In fact, most of grant programs are designed for nonprofits and take a very long time to execute. We had to act now.

Night photo looking across a city street at a mural painted on a building wall. The mural is half blue and half yellow, evoking the flag of Ukraine. In the center is a stylized illustration of a woman surrounded by flowers and stylized type that reads: Make Art, Not War.
Irina Kanishcheva (native from Lviv, Ukraine, public art curator and producer) and the Florida-based public art platform Monochronicle, with the support of Shepard Fairey, organized a mural project in Gainesville, Florida, to fundraise for Ukraine. The design Make Art Not War was executed by a team of local artists, Visionary Fam. Raised money was sent to Ukrainians directly, without any big charities involved. To learn more about the project, visit monochronicle.com/ukraine. Photo by Charles Alan Rye.

The mural was painted by local artists Visionary Fam, who volunteered. Paint and supplies were provided by Monochronicle and the wall by a local small business. For the unveiling event, I cooked Borscht (typical soup) and offered it along with Ukrainian vodka to all visitors for free—to introduce them to Ukrainian culture. People discussed the situation in Ukraine and were very supportive. 

One person at the event said, “This mural is not going to help.” And I agreed. Sure. But it’s a great tool for connecting people and raising awareness. Public art can deliver a message, save a moment in history, remind people what’s important, and, if used wisely, influence and motivate. 
 
As a result, money was raised and sent to some individuals in Ukraine directly, just to provide some immediate support. That helped them get some military supplies and contribute to building repairs. The idea was to show how people can contribute by sending small amounts of money to people instead of giving it to charities, and also to show Ukrainians that here, on the other side of the world, we care. 

Even in a small town like Gainesville, Florida, a small group of people was able to collect some funds and help to buy a helmet, shoes for the frontline soldiers, and also contribute to fixing the damaged roof of an apartment complex. Maybe it is just one insignificant action, but there are many of us and we are powerful together.

People sitting on a stage participating in a panel discussion at an event.
“Can Art Help Fight A War” project was introduced by Iryna Kanishcheva at The Concert of Colors Forum on Community, Culture & Race in Detroit, MI. It is one of the Arab American National Museum’s signature annual events, a dynamic gathering of artists, activists, and advocates who use art and dialogue as a tool for advocacy and community building. This year’s program featured a panel called NO WAR ANYWHERE | How Artists Are Advocating for Peace. Photo by Charles Alan Rye.

A Call for Action

I believe art is a perfect mediator between artists and the audience to inspire action for a positive change. I hope that the initiative can be followed in other places around the world through forums and panel discussions, various media and designs, and public art programs. We can highlight the problem of war and misinformation, racism, inequality, and encourage people to stand against violations of human rights and freedom. We just need to be brave enough to let artists express those ideas. As Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Shepard Fairey, local artists, and curator Iryna Kanishcheva stand for Ukraine with a powerful action and fundraising in Gainesville, Florida. The power of public art in connecting people, raising awareness, and positive social change is illustrated by a documentary. Video credits: Monochronicle, 2022, produced and edited by Charles Alan Rye, music by DakhaBrakha – Khima (Ukraine), Vadim Bulik – The War and We Will Win (Ukraine).