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These Ukrainian artists capture the country's spirit and the war's toll

Mother with a newborn  under the closed sky, sanguine and charcoal on paper, March 11, 2022.
Sana Shahmuradova
Mother with a newborn under the closed sky, sanguine and charcoal on paper, March 11, 2022.

After the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, Sana Shahmuradova, a full-time artist, had to move to the countryside. At first, she couldn't fathom creating any art.

"My brain got very much blocked," she told NPR's Weekend Edition. "I heard first explosions and it took me a week maybe, to get back to drawing."

With her art supplies left at home, she's gotten creative, sketching on wall paper scraps, using charcoal, her younger brother's crayons and gouache paints, even boiled beets.

She often depicts a woman holding a baby to her chest, as ghostly figures reach for the sky.

"I just imagine that there is this mother — an archetypal mother, or just a regular mother — feeding her baby. And there are people around trying to metaphorically save this new life, new generation."

As Russian forces continue to attack Ukraine, some Ukrainian artists continue to capture the spirit of their country and the war's toll. These are some of their stories:

Iryna Babenko

After waking up to the sounds of bombs at 5 a.m. on the day the invasion started, Iryna Babenko posted a series of illustrations that tell the story of the resilience, life and the people at the center of the war.

One illustration, which shows a cluster of sunflowers — Ukraine's national flower — growing out of skulls tagged with Russian flags, pays homage to the words of a Ukrainian woman shown in a viral video.

In the video, a woman tells Russian soldiers to put sunflower seeds in their pockets so that something will grow when they die.

The illustration shows three skull's merging with a gray ground. Above them, four blossoming, intertwined sunflowers stand tall.


Yuliana depicts the unbreakable spirit of Ukraine in this work.
/ Yuliana
Yuliana depicts the unbreakable spirit of Ukraine in this work.

Yuliana, a Ukrainian-born photographer and artist, emulates the "indestructible" spirit of Ukraine in a portrait of a woman, she tells NPR. The woman's body appears cracked, but the Ukrainian flag shines beneath the gaps.

"I wanted to show that no matter how much destruction Ukrainian land will have to endure, bombs and bullets can never destroy the will, strength and spirit of the Ukrainian people." They will "stay strong till the end," she said, "and never surrender. "

Valeriya Kamelkova

Valeriya Kamelkova's portfolio is filled with colorful monsters, ice cream, dogs and even a yeti. But an illustration posted on Instagram after weeks of war stands in stark contrast.

In a minimalist illustration, Kamelkova depicts a rendition of the Russian flag, with the red stripe appearing as a pool of blood. Two open hands reach up out of the red pool.

The war divided the lives of all Ukrainians into a before and after, Kamelkova writes on Instagram, but some will never live to see the after.

"We fall asleep to the sounds of sirens and wake up from explosions, count the surviving relatives and friends and hope that TOMORROW will still come," Kamelkova told NPR in a statement.

Liliia Kovalyk

"Can you hear us now?," Liliia Kovalyk writes on Instagram.

Kovalyk, an illustrator and character designer, writes of witnessing mothers and their newborns seeking shelter in hospital basements and subway stations.

In one evocative piece, Kovalyk shows a woman standing on a train with tears rolling down her cheek beneath furrowed, helpless eyebrows. The mother cradles a baby, draped only in a Ukrainian flag. She stares directly forward, almost as to make eye contact with the viewer.

"I really hope this will end soon and we all will live in peace," Kovalyk writes.

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Rina Torchinsky