Olya Grebenik, Ukrainian illustrator

Bagajele abandonului

I have on my phone a photo of my little daughter Vera from the 24th in the morning. I used to take her dancing twice a week. It was in a central square in Kharkiv, where the ice rink and the big Christmas tree which was just being taken down were located. Then, the second photo shows my son sticking adhesive tape on the windows, so that in case of a bombing the windows wouldn’t turn into projectiles. And the next one shows the children sleeping in the basement of our building, because the bombs were already on us.

The war brought a power into my life as an artist that I had never imagined, a belief that I could create for myself, not just for others. Two of my books were released this year, one is called War Diary and contains illustrations from the early days of the bombing. The other one is being released almost a year after the start of the war and is called A Whimsical House.

The first book is a personal testimony, the way I saw and experienced the war in the early days, I did not intend these drawings to become a book. They were simply sketches through which I tried to anchor myself in the reality of those days, it was like a therapeutic process.

In my second book I tried to disregard the external circumstances, the war at home and my life as a refugee, thousands of kilometers away from my life until 24 February 2022, and to find a metaphor that can be understood by anyone, regardless of time and place.

I’m coming back to my first book, my personal diary, which turned into the editorial project War Diary and was published in several countries. At the end of February 2022, I was posting these images on my social media account and a lot of people were following my drawings, including a book publisher in Korea, who suggested we create a book. My drawings had back then archiving and mostly self-therapy purposes. I thought at the time that all that madness would be over in a few days, so I was extracting those traumatic experiences through drawing, taking them out of me and putting them on paper, thinking that they would soon become just a bad memory. Little did I know that the war diary would include 50 drawings and end with my escape from Ukraine, from a mutilated city, together with my children. So, my drawing diary was first therapy, then a book published in several countries, and will soon be on display at the House of European History in Brussels. But I haven’t even managed to internalize this journey, I’ve just taken some steps, one after the other, without thinking about the outcome, and for now this is what keeps me connected to the creative process.

For me, the light in all this darkness of the last year have been my children. They keep me active physically, emotionally and spiritually.

There were documents in my abandonment luggage, I had put inside only things of bare necessities, documents and clothes for the kids, but I didn’t know exactly what was in the backpack because I had packed and unpacked those bags several times. Then I discovered that there was a stuffed bunny in my backpack that had escaped with us from Kharkiv. Vera, my little daughter, had put it there. The bunny has become an integral part of our lives and is now with us in Bucharest, accompanying us everywhere.

Last Day of Peace, First Night of War is an interactive digital installation, part of the Museum of Abandonment, a digital wall of images showing the last days of peace collected from mobile phones.