When I first met Sasha Kurmaz, I had never thought of his home base of Kiev, Ukraine, as a hotbed for civil unrest and upheaval. His photographs certainly didn’t change my mind. Sure, there was a certain air of Eastern European military industrial sadness, but the colors were too bright and the kids were too naked and drunk to be in any real danger. Sasha’s work is simultaneously funny and confusing, sexy and weird. He works with ideas of youth, sexuality, and how those things exist outside of our western world. When I heard about the turmoil in Kiev, I immediately thought of Sasha, my friend who signs every email with “Hugs!” and who is always eager to share his specific brand of oddness with the world. I emailed him to find out how he was coping and what it’s like to be an artist in the midst of a revolution.
Christian: First off, how are you? Are you safe?
Sasha: The situation in Ukraine is really tense. Kiev is calm right now, no shots fired or people dying, but the situation in Crimea and eastern Ukraine is very complicated. I find it difficult to talk about the “regime change,” mostly because the regime has not really changed. One gangster regime is gone, but this new one we have has gotten their hands dirty too.
Do you see yourself as more of a European or a Russian, or are those divides not as important as the news media makes them seem?
In my ideal view, I see a world without borders and states, where there is no distinction of race and nation.
What’s it like to be an artist in Kiev right now?
Being an artist is very difficult in Ukraine. No artist, myself included, can think about art when people are dying. But you have no choice; you either stand by and watch, or act in the protest. I’ve shifted my focus. I’ve painted political graffiti on the walls of the city and glued posters. At the same time, I’m trying to create a photo archive of the conflict. The situation here has a direct impact on everything. I think art acts as a mirror for what is happening in society. In Ukraine, after what’s happening in the Maidan, art will be more political and radical.
Much of your artwork seems to be commenting on gender and sexuality politics. Will the revolution in Ukraine have any effect on those ideas? Are you worried about the Russian invasion and influence, especially given their strong views against sexuality, especially homosexuality?
We have a really complicated situation now. On one side, many of the people participating in the revolution are part of a large right-wing conservative faction. After the revolution, if they get power, it will be a very difficult situation for contemporary
art, the LGBT community, and freedom of speech.
Additionally, we now stand on the brink of war with Russia, who is an even more serious problem for our culture and society. They are an imperialist monster which wants to break Ukraine, culture and all. I believe Putin is a new Hitler, and if we do not stop him, we will get a third world war. We are at a very difficult crossroads.
Your work is also fun and often humorous. Will the current situation affect the sense of humor and joy in your work, in the short or long term?
It’s difficult to answer to this question, because every day my brain explodes from the amount of new information and stuff going on. I want to remain optimistic, but I find it difficult to joke today.
If things in Ukraine keep getting worse, do you think you’ll eventually leave the country? Or do your allegiances to your home make you want to stick it out and stay?
I don’t want to think about it. I have nowhere else to go. In Ukraine, I feel that I can be helpful.
Christian Storm is a photo editor and creative professional located in New York City.