6 minute read


- George Gittoes

I discovered German Expressionist artists like Kath Kollwitz, Max Beckmann, George Groz and Otto Dix at high school and immediately felt they were like what I wanted to become. But I would need a time machine to be among them. I imagined what it would have been like to sketch at the same café table as George Groz in Berlin or make prints in a workshop with Kath Kollwitz. In Ukraine this dream became possible with Ave Libertatemaveamor.

There is book market in a covered, outdoor arcade, in Odessa, a short walk from apartment Hellen and I were renting. We had been searching to find out how artists were interpreting the war, and this is where we found them being exhibited.

Because Public Galleries are all closed due to the Russians targeting Cultural Buildings, a brilliant curator , Uma has been finding works on the internet, that speak about the war. Uma gets permission to make quality prints and tapes them to the walls and windows of the book market. We met and agreed to collaborate by extending this exhibition method to our House of Culture show back in Irpin (outside of Kyiv).

While I was impressed by all the art Uma had chosen my mind was boggled by a print of an insect creature which could have been taken from the ‘Hotel Kennedy’ suite of etchings I did back in 1971. The insect has remained a constant in my art, representing how the super-rich , like Murdock and Bezos and dictators like Putin, morph into inhuman monsters that prey on the rest of us. The insect print was among a group of equally startling works attributed to Ave Libertatemaveamor . Ave was a rare kindred spirit. I knew I would have to find a way to meet her.

All Uma could tell me was that Ave was not her real name, she was extremely secretive and protected her privacy. He had found her work on Facebook. When we returned to Kyiv, Kate (our Ukraine camera assistant and interpreter) and Hellen were able to arrange a meeting. Ave appeared very nervous to them, and allergic to cameras. Kate and Hellen concluded that Ave was doing such strongly antiRussian and scathingly satirical drawings she feared the risk of retaliation. With the Russians encircling Kyiv there was the chance they would take over the city and come looking for her.

I met with Ave at a coffee shop and was pleased to discover that she was willing to be in our film, but we would not be able to reveal her true name or do full face interviews.

It is only recently; I have learnt that Ave does not care about the threat of the Russians. She has no fear of them and like the soldiers at the frontline she is willing to risk her life in the cause of Ukraine freedom. Her desire for anonymity is personal. She fervently wants her art to have its own identity separate from hers. The ‘cult of the artist’ is abhorrent to her.

The prints in Odessa were 44cm X 32 making me expect Ave’s originals to be the same size or larger. I was surprised when she opened a small envelope, to see how incredibly small, they were at 18cm X 12cm (7ins X 5ins). And they are not drawn with pen, brush and ink but a variety of felt tip pens. The paper is so thin the image can be seen reversed on the other side.

Ave lives with her partner and their dog in a small apartment without a dedicated studio, often drawing on the couch while the TV news reports on the war.

Since the start of the Russian Invasion 22nd Feb 2022, Ave has committed to doing a new drawing every day.

Most of the houses and buildings of the satellite cities of Bucha, Borodyanka and Irpin which surround Kyiv have been destroyed but the Russians have particularly targeted cultural buildings like the House of Culture, in Irpin. They want to deny that Ukraine has an independent culture.

Hellen and I had decided to try to breathe new life into the ruins of the House of Culture and turn it into a kind of Ukraine Yellow House. Ave was very happy to join us in this act of resistance.

All that was left of the paintings that had once hung on its walls were charred frames and the only the metal strings of pianos remained in the ashes. Remarkably, a stand up cut out of the great Ukraine poet Taris Yevtushenko had survived untouched.

Ave and I carried it to where we chose to make our studio space, set up a desk and chairs and began work. Ave gave me one of her precious pads of paper and I was reminded of scratching into similarly small pieces of copper for etchings. The small pieces of paper immediately felt as precious as copper plates.

When finished Ave would scan our drawings making our blacks much blacker than in the original and enabling us to share our efforts with the world via the internet. It was instant art, nearly as immediate as doing a Facebook or Twitter post. The Irpin Bridge had been the route the Russians would take to enter Kyiv. To prevent this the Ukrainian Army had to demolish it. Those Irpin residents, left in their cars who were trying to flee were mercilessly slaughtered by the Russians. Many were women, children and the aged. The bridge was soon renamed the Bridge of Death. Ave and I visited the burnt-out cars finding children’s shoes and other intimate items belonging to the families scattered inside. The smell of death lingered. This became our starting point. Ave drew the cars as coffins, and I made them into grotesque monsters reflecting the inhumanity of the carnage.

Our drawings were so compatible Ave decided we should do a large, combined drawing on a 5-metre-long roll of paper she produced. Our drawings were developing into an unplanned narrative and the scroll soon became a story board for a graphic novel we hope to publish when Spring returns to Ukraine. We are calling it ‘V Day’, wishfully thinking it will coincide with Victory Day for Ukraine.

Ave suggested allowing our subconscious to dictate and not try to fit our drawings to any preconceived script or planning.

As we chatted the relationship between Putin and the Rhythmic Gymnast, Alina Kabaeva , also known as the most flexible woman in Russia , came up.

When Putin gave a press conference in Italy with Silvio Berlusconi a brave reporter asked about the forbidden topic of Putin’s relationship with Alina. He replied: ‘I always dislike people who go around with their erotic fantasies, sticking their snot ridden noses into other people’s lives. Berlusconi then mined shooting the reporter with an imaginary machine gun.

This relationship is, obviously, Putin’s soft point.

Ave and I, automatically began doing drawings in what we are calling our ‘Flexible Woman and Needle’ series.

Ukraine has a long history of the supernatural with witches, curses, werewolves and vampires. We see our drawings as a needle pointed at Putin’s heart, knowing the only way to end this war is for there to be an end to Putin.

Our collaboration (including the very grotesque and semi erotic insect drawings) is featured in our documentary ‘Ukrainistan – Artist War’. Ave and I cannot wait to see our tiny drawings projected onto a giant cinema screen at one of the many festivals that have already programmed the film. I keep imagining sitting in a cinema with Ave in Amsterdam, Berlin or New York and gauging the audience reaction to what we have created and, perhaps, signing copies of our ‘V Day’ comic in the foyer as audiences wander out.

Since returning to Australia Ave and I have continued to make a new drawing every day and send them back and forth.

I have found this to be the most inspiring collaboration with another visual artist, of my life. I explained to Ave that my all-time favourite work of art is Durer’s engraving ‘Knight Death and the Devil’ and asked her, “Who do you feel is darker, you or me ?” Ave just shrugged her shoulders and smiled.

Hellen and I will be returning to Ukraine in late March to begin another film during the impending Russian Spring Offensive. Ave made the blue wings for Hellen’s performance at the ruined House of Culture and will, no doubt, contribute new elements to what Hellen is planning. And we will show our drawings, as a little ray of black and white sunshine, to the brave people of Kyiv on the walls of subway bomb shelters. Heavy wooden crates will not be needed or the services of an International Art mover – all of my many new, Ave inspired, works fit into an envelope.

Hellen and I spent 4 months in Ukraine , mainly in Kyiv making our film UKRAINISTAN ARTIST WAR and bringing art back to the destroyed House of Culture.

- George Gittoes © 2023.

VIDEO LINK : George Gittoes and Ave Libertatemaveamor working on drawing in House of Art Irpin, Ukraine 2022.

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