Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky Makes an Urgent Plea at the Venice Biennale for the Art World to Shine a Light on Ukraine

Zelensky delivered his remarks in a streamed address to a packed house inside a towering converted church.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses the crowd at "This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom." Photo: Julia Halperin

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an impassioned appeal to artists and cultural leaders assembled at the Venice Biennale to use their work, words, and influence to support the country in its increasingly brutal war against Russia.

Zelensky delivered his remarks Thursday evening in a streamed address to an audience that included Ukraine’s ambassador to Italy, Perelyhin Yevhen Yuriiovych, crypto-artist Beeple, and Venice Biennale curator Cecilia Alemani.

The video was played inside a towering converted church, where an exhibition dedicated to Ukraine was hastily assembled after the Russian invasion in February.

“There are no tyrannies that would not try to limit art because they can see the power of art.” Zelensky said. “Art can tell the world things that cannot be shared otherwise.”

The evening marked the official opening of “This Is Ukraine: Defending Freedom,” an exhibition produced in lieu of the Pinchuk Art Centre’s Future Generation Art Prize.

The show, organized in partnership with the Office of the President of Ukraine and its culture ministry, includes Ukrainian artists like Maria Prymachenko and Tetyana Yablonska with international figures such as Takashi Murakami, Damien Hirst, and J.R. A Murakami diptych with blue and yellow flower faces, created after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, provided the backdrop for the press conference.

Zelensky was introduced by Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian steel-manufacturing oligarch who founded the eponymous art center in Kyiv. Pinchuk—whose father-in-law, Leonid Kuchma, was president of Ukraine from 1994 to 2005—described the current crisis as a “genocide against the Ukrainian people.”

He then showed a short clip of a woman in a bunker calling on the international community for help. The video was recorded three weeks ago; five days ago, he said, the woman was killed.

Asked about the future of his Kyiv foundation ahead of the official program, Pinchuk said, “I’m dreaming about a victory exhibition—what we will show when we win the war.” 

Earlier in the evening, the First Lady of Ukraine also delivered a message, concluding: “We in Ukraine live with the hope. So let there be art!”

Other speakers included the president of the Venice Biennale, Roberto Cicutto, and the mayor of Venice, Luigi Brugnaro. (Brugnaro, according to Pinchuk’s introduction, recently welcomed several Ukrainian refugees into his home.) 

Project by "Mirror Weekly," "Mothers series, 2019. Photo: Julia Halperin

Project by “Mirror Weekly,” “Mothers series, 2019. Photo: Julia Halperin

The exhibition—one of several organized in Venice in response to the invasion—includes a wall of photographs of mothers whose sons were killed during the 2014–15 Russo-Ukrainian war, as well as a monumental image of a five-year-old Ukrainian refugee by JR, which appeared on the cover of TIME magazine.

Zelensky also contributed an image for the show, a personal quote presented across the Ukrainian national flag reading, “We are defending our Freedom.” 

“If the entire democratic world has been built on the idea of freedom, then why do you often feel alone in defending freedom?” Zelensky said in his address. “If freedom is a universal value, then why do other nations who fight for freedom never get equal support? What is it that separates us from each other at crucial moments? Politicians will not answer that. There are no experts who can explain this and put it right. One will not find the answers in media either. Because this is about something beyond words.”

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