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My story - Mariia Zahurska

What is it like to be an artist in a new country while a war is going on in your own country? Meet Mariia Zahurska, who has been an emergency resident at Sörängens Folkhögskola in Nässjö. Mariia is a ceramist and graphic artist, born in Kherson Ukraine. She creates printed graphics using monotype and linocut techniques and describe herself as a symbolist artist.

Text & interview: Maria Söderberg, Studio Karavan with interpreter Lena Shulga, Artists at Risk (AR)

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Do you remember what you did the day before the war broke out?


- The 23rd of February 2022 I came to my mum’s place, she lives outside Kherson in another city. It was kind of a stressful day for me. Not because I knew anything about the war but because I was thinking about my future, the expectations of me, my future plans and what to do next. I remember I went out for a walk with my partner. We were in a time zone with four hours difference. That made reality completely different. The war started and we were really lost. Suddenly everything was different because of that situation.    

Can you tell me about your experience of the war and how you ended up in Nässjö, Sweden?


- We were lucky enough not to experience a long time being in the war. Our territory was occupied by the Russian regime and my psychological state was quite unstable. We managed to leave the country and was grateful for that. The only way to get out of our town, Kherson, was to go through the territory of the Russian federation. First, we went through the Island of Crimea, over to Russia and then through Georgia. We were able to reach Greece and came to an artist residence. 


When we left Ukraine the war had only been going on for a month so we were told that leaving should be OK, that we could go through the territory of Russia and that no one would stop us or hurt us. We also had a friend in Crimea who was supposed to meet us when we arrived. We could not go thorough Ukraine because it was very unsafe at that time. Shooting, troops and everything. It was dangerous. Luckily enough my partner never took part in any military training, so we were basically just two artists. When you are in the territory of Russia there is a question of luck – who you meet and how you will be treated. At some check points along the way the Russian soldiers were checking all the men. They had to take all their clothes off to see if they had any nationalistic propaganda, messages, information or anything else critical against Russia. My partner and I were very lucky, no one did anything like that against us. There was only one situation at one checkpoint in a Russian city. A lady on a bus station didn’t want to sell us the bus tickets because we were Ukrainians but eventually it turned out ok. If I count all the checkpoints we went through from Kherson to Crimea there were around fifteen. From Crimea to Greece there were two checkpoints. Those two were quite scary because we did not know what was going to happen to us. But it went all fine and we ended up in a safe place. After two month in Greece, I found this announcement about Artist at Risk and SWAN and I applied. Theresa (Lekberg) replied really fast. When we got her answer and an offer, we didn’t even doubt a minute. We just said: “Yes, we are going to Sweden”. 

You work with ceramics, paintings, drawings and graphics.
When did you decide to work in all these creative fields and why?


​- I entered university in 2017 within graphic design as a speciality and that is how it all started. Now, while being at Folkhögskolan in Nässjö I work with ceramics and graphics, they have two studios available for me. And I am very lucky because I have my artistic community, all from Kherson, here in Sweden. Our artistic community, Mycelium, consists of twelve people from Ukraine working with visual art and other fields of art. Since all of us were in different SWAN residencies in Sweden we felt a great power of being a community. Today our residency periods are over, and we have been in Sweden for nine months already. No longer residents but migrants. We continue to cooperate with different people in our fields of art. 

You describe yourself as a symbolist artist. Are there symbols that are especially important to you?


​- I usually work with main symbols of nature, for example roots and branches of trees. But there is one more important symbol and that is an orthodox kind of angel, a seraphim. I remember this symbol from when I went to church with my grandfather. Back then it was not as important for me as it is now. Since the war started and we have all our experiences. This symbol caught my attention just before I came to Sweden. At that time, I was in an artist residence in Greece and there was an island where it was a monastery with monks doing ceramics. They made replicas from ancient periods including this specific symbol of a seraphim. That made me feel an emotional connection in my heart and that is why I am using it in my art today. 


The Seraphim, by Mariia Zahurska

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Exhibition at Jönköpings Länsmuseum

Photo by: Mariia Zahurska

You have been very productive in Sweden and have done several exhibitions together with your Kherson friends. How do you get that strength and drive, and where do you find creativity in your current situation?


- We just can not stay silent. There are so many bad things happening. Our relatives are not safe, there are people dying and the war continue. There are so many things we must talk about. When you are in a safe position, when you have a safe place, you can not pretend that everything is OK. It is not OK. We must speak up and the power to do that is coming to me every day. I am in a safe place, not under stress and I feel that I must do it. I want to do it. That is why I have strength for it. 


Another thing is that we have this big art community of friends being with us in Sweden. That gives us a lot of power. We have been producing together before, in Ukraine, and now we can work with new projects on another level, on a higher level, in another country. Together. The power of ten persons is greater than one. The feeling of not being alone. 

What are the biggest challenges for you as an artist while being in Sweden?


- If we talk about the people in Sweden and the Swedish society, I really like them. Swedes are pleasant, calm and helpful. A challenge we have been facing is that Ukrainians are very fast and speedy, we like fast solutions. The Ukrainian style is “If we have a problem today, it must be solved tomorrow”. When we came to Sweden, we were facing processes that are much more complicated. You must wait for the solution and that is quite hard for us. But we are trying to get used to this. Everything else is just great.  

"...the main thing is not to forget about the current situation, especially when being in a society that has never
faced the war and experienced this reality."

Mariia Zahurska


How can artists highlight social issues, injustice and oppression? And is that something you do through your art?


- I think the main thing is not to forget about the current situation, especially when being in a society that has never faced the war and experienced this reality. We need to continuously keep talking about it. Through lectures, interviews, exhibitions and basically in everything we do and create. 

What is the main goal with your artistry for the moment?


- I don’t have any concrete goal right now. I guess the main goal is to relax and get back to my usual self. To the state that was natural before the war started. The state of free artistic processes when I do not push myself and when I feel the flow of consciousness going through me and into my work. That is when I create freely and do not think. I want to get comfortable emotionally because I have had traumatically experiences. 

Tell me what opportunities you have got during your residency stay, to highlight the Russian war on Ukraine?


​- The main message, to talk about the war, we have had through three exhibitions. And my partner, who is an organizer of events, have had the opportunity to work with this in Sweden. He has been involved in the exhibitions we have had in Sweden. One of our exhibitions is held in a museum. We were looking for this kind of opportunity by ourselves. Reached out to the museum, made a presentation of ourselves us and made a connection. Our residency did not have this project-oriented goal so there was never a plan that there were going to be a final exhibition of our residency. That is why we did it ourselves. The format of the residency is that they provide us studios to work and create art. But they also give us pear artists and curators that can help and guide us in finding the opportunities. There is a really nice curator in Tranås who has been guiding me and my friends. One of the exhibitions happened because of his ideas, contacts and mentorship. 


- But I must say, the most important thing Sweden has given us is the feeling of being safe. There are basic things that all people need to have access to. Safety, food and the feeling of having a home. When I have this, I can continue to create, do the ceramic works, create paintings, develop and live my life. Sweden gave all this to me but also studios to be able to work, creating my art and continue to be an artist. Today I am located in a studio for ceramics, a studio that belongs to Folkhögskolan in Nässjö. The director of the school gave me this opportunity to be able to continue creating ceramics after my residency period ended. I am grateful for this and that the residency got me in contact with the director of the school. If I had searched for this kind of place on my own, I would probably never have found it. 



Exhibition poster: Emergency Suitcase

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Ceramics by Mariia Zahurska

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What are your wishes for the future?


​- All I want is that my beloved ones and relatives will be safe. Some of my relatives have been relocated to Sweden, that means that some of them are now with us. They are safe and they are OK. But some of them are still in Kherson and I am thinking about them every day. That they will survive, that they will continue to live. That is all I want for now. That is my biggest wish. 

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