Recharge and Revolt: Queer Resistance and Rave Culture in Ukraine
Melkweg, Amsterdam, 2023 

Jan Bačynsjkyi, Pantheon of Fleeing Spirits, 2022–2023.  Saint Mom, 2022; Birthgiving, 2022; Traditional Lesbianism, 2022; Queer priest, 2023. Fabric bas-reliefs. Photo: Anton Shebetko
Kateryna Lysovenko, Propaganda of My Dream World, 2021, diptych. Photo: Anton Shebetko
Vic Bakin, To Be Who We Want To Be, 2021–ongoing. Photo: Anton Shebetko

Jan Bačynsjkyi, Vic Bakin, Lesha Berezovskiy, Illia Chernysh, Kateryna Lysovenko, Oleksandr Halishchuk, Alex King, Zoya Laktionova, Mariia Leonenko, Rebel Queers, Anton Shebetko, Nick J. Swarth, Angelika Ustymenko, as well as documentation of Queer-Cabaret Magic Infant performance (Creative directors: Alina Kleytman, Bogdana Ukraina. Performers: Anatoly Belov, Boji Moroz, Vlad Shast, Panda aka Masha Volkova, AntiGonna. Music: George Babanski). Curators: Maria Vtorushina and Anton Shebetko

The vital practices and connections of the self-organised queer communities in Ukraine are manifested in rave culture. Techno and rave scenes have flourished after the Revolution of Dignity (2013-2014). The most important clubs and parties appeared after that pivotal moment in Ukrainian society. In these spaces, Ukrainian queers feel safe and free to be themselves. The Ukrainian techno scene is well-known for its values of freedom, self-expression, and acceptance, which are shared by the queer community. At the same time, it inspires the people around them. Just by visiting the notorious venues and parties, people who don't know much about queerness or are only familiar with queer stereotypes can learn a lot. Beyond just a venue, ∄ or club K41 has for example became a safe space first and foremost, organised through the conscious practice of its community—the same community that created many of the works shown in this exhibition. 

Lesha Berezovskiy, Vic Bakin. Archives from raves, 2016–2023. 
Exhibition view. Photo: Anton Shebetko
Exhibition view. Photo: Anton Shebetko

Ukrainian art is often politically oriented and closely tied to activism. Therefore, queerness is recognized by artists not just as a manifestation of our identities—but as a practice of imagining and reshaping the future community. Raves became so crucial that in 2021 the local protests in Kyiv were held as raves. On top of that, Pride 2021 in Kyiv took the shape of a rave in front of the President’s office. Due to the urgency to protect and liberate the country, the identity that is in dire need of protection and expression right now is the Ukrainian identity. As a result, our queerness is often forcibly displaced. 

At the moment, Ukrainian queers are fighting not only against Russian invaders but are also adamantly fighting for their rights. In Recharge and Revolt, we focus on identities, visibility, utopia, queer time and,most importantly, togetherness—established through raves. Our starting point is the year 2014. This is the year of the Revolution of Dignity, the Russian occupation of Ukrainian Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, and the outbreak of war. It is also the year when Ukrainian society irrevocably chose the democratic development path. What follows is recharge and revolt.

Zoya Laktionova, Malanka, 2023. Photography

Malanka is the name of a traditional Ukrainian New Year's celebration, which has a Pagan origin and has been preserved in its authentic form mainly in the villages of Halychyna, Bukovyna and Podillia. Historically, celebrations include home visits to community residents by young people dressed as characters from pre-Christian folktales, as well as treating one another to special food and drink. Cross-dressing is one of the ritual’s required attributes: according to tradition, during Malanka, men change into women's clothes and perform female roles in fairy tales. In 2022, filmmaker Zoya Laktionova first visited Malanka in one of the villages of Podillia as part of research for her documentary project. She returned in 2023 and took a series of analogue photographs —now presented as the photography series Malanka. In 2023, during Malanka, there was a massive shelling and three russian missiles flew over the participants.

Zoya Laktionova, from Malanka series, 2023. Photography

Angelika Ustymenko, Ukrainian Queer Fighters For Freedom, 2022
Angelika Ustymenko, Alex King
Rebel Queers: Ukraine's Queer Resistance, 2023

A month after the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, filmmaker Angelika Ustymenko, who is also part of the artistic formation Rebel Queers, created a documentary short film Ukrainian Queer Fighters For Freedom, in which they recorded interviews with members of the Ukrainian queer community who decided to join the Armed Forces of Ukraine or territorial defence. A year later, they teamed up with director Alex King and British publication Huck Magazine to film a sequel, Rebel Queers: Ukraine’s Queer Resistance. In it, the filmmakers meet some of the heroes from the first film and observe how they changed during the year of a full-scale invasion.

Rebel Queers,Your Dancefloor is Putin's Battleground, 2022. Graffiti

The inscription on the club wall on Kyrylivska Street (K41) was created by the Rebel Queers activist group on 19 February 2022, just a few days before the full-scale Russian invasion began. According to the artists, they wanted to draw the attention of tourists that were visiting the club to the threat of a full-scale invasion. Rebel Queers hoped that together we could prevent the invasion—through solidarity protests in European cities and petitions. The inscription remains on the wall of the club to this day. Before the full-scale invasion, a subversive collective Rebel Queers would defy the heteronormative and patriarchal world that so suffocated them by scrawling on the walls of Kyiv: ‘Queer Sex’ ‘Make Queer Punk Again’ and ‘Be Queer, Do Crime, Hail Satan’ among others. The driving force behind Rebel Queers is Angelika Ustymenko, a non-binary and neurodivergent artist and filmmaker.

Rebel Queers, Your Dancefloor is Putin’s Battleground, Kyiv, 2022

Kateryna Lysovenko, Propaganda of My Dream World, 2021

The flags were created in 2021 for the Brave! Factory Festival. This event is organised annually on the grounds of a factory that produces subway tunnels by the legendary Kyiv-based club Closer. Lisovenko's practice emancipates monumental painting from serving ideological dogmas, as it was in the USSR. The artist opens the world of her dreams, where human and non-human beings coexist in perfect harmony. They hybridise, turning into chimaeras free of gender, conflicts, confrontations and rejections. These banners flew over an industrial landscape shaped by the ridges of concrete tunnels and Soviet-era machinery. During the Brave! Factory Festival, a third of the giant factory was operational, and the hard work was still going on. Keeping up with the festival's tradition, some factory workers came to listen to the world's electronic musicians as soon as they got off the plant premises, still wearing their helmets and dusty uniforms.

Jan Bačynsjkyi, Pantheon of Fleeing Spirits, 2022–2023 

Jan Bačynsjkyi created this series of fabric bas-reliefs ( Saint Mom, Birthgiving, Traditional Lesbianism, Queer priest) at the Cité Internationale des Arts Paris, in exile after the start of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. The anthropomorphic characters are crafted from the artist's clothes worn in Ukraine, so they are literally the fragments of the artist's identities stitched together. In the combinations of clothes and accessories, one can recognise the authentic style of Bačynsjkyi himself. Each of the objects is associated with important memories and reflects his identity as an artist, as a queer activist, a Ukrainian with Polish roots, a nomad, a visionary, and beyond. Pantheon of Fleeing Spirits aims to promote mutual understanding and connection by highlighting the experiences of migrants and refugees. Through stories of travel and displacement, the artist explores the importance of clothing as a last protection for somebody who has lost their home.

Jan Bačynsjkyi, Traditional Lesbianism, from the series Pantheon of Fleeing Spitrits, 2022-2023

Anton Shebetko, Simeiz, 2022

Simeiz is a small town on the southern coast of Crimea, now occupied by Russia. During the Soviet era, an underground gay resort emerged in the village. It all started with a small nudist beach, followed by the popular bar and nightclub Hedgehogs that appeared in Simeiz later, when Ukraine gained independence. Since the 1990s, Simeiz has become an important meeting point for members of the LGBTQIA+ community from Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia. Before the occupation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, the town was visited by about 4,000 people annually. Due to the homophobic laws of the Russian Federation, Simeiz is in danger of disappearing as a gay resort. In this event, old photos and videos will be the only evidence of its existence and disappearance.

Anton Shebetko, Brave, 2022

This series of video portraits was shot in 2021 during the Brave! Factory Festival in Kyiv. This annual international electronic music and art festival takes place on the grounds of the Kyivmetrobud plant. Anton Shebetko equipped a temporary photo studio in one of the abandoned premises. During the rave, the artist invited visitors to look at the camera for one minute: not to dance, not to succumb to external distractions, but to just stop. The video portraits of the visitors documented the last Brave! before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Now, we can only guess what happened to the heroes of this film: whether they are alive or safe. However, after a one-year break, a smaller version of Brave! Factory took place this year, at the Closer club.

Nick J. Swarth, En nagellak is mijn wapen — waarom de regenboog niet past in de bek van de beer, 2022. Poetry

Tilburg-based writer and performer Nick Swarth was one of the first Dutch artists to respond to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. In the spring of 2022, Nick took part in the From the Battlefield project, which was implemented by the SEA Foundation. The aim of this exhibition and a series of events was to document dialogues between artists based in Ukraine in the areas of active hostilities, and Dutch artists. After a series of conversations with Kyiv-based art critic and curator Kostyantyn Doroshenko, who remained in Kyiv, Swarth wrote the poem En nagellak is mijn wapen — waarom de regenboog niet past in de bek van de beer. This poem is dedicated to individual resistance to a totalitarian imperial ideology that tries to suppress any otherness—ethnic, national, or sexual.

Nick J. Swarth, En nagellak is mijn wapen — waarom de regenboog niet past in de bek van de beer, 2022. Poetry

Mariia Leonenko, Who’s on Duty Today? 2022–2023

For her exhibition at the Artsvit gallery in the frontline city Dnipro, Mariia Leonenko decided to create objects using the clay from Severodonetsk. This city in the East of Ukraine is currently under Russian occupation. Leonenko smashed the household objects made of Severodonetsk clay to make arrowheads from the pieces. This gesture is connected with the recollection of resistance practices of the Ukrainian National Liberation War of 1648–1676. By turning a household object (maintaining home comfort is a stereotypically "female" activity) into a weapon (fighting is a stereotypically "male" job), the artist emphasises the role of women in the current war waged by Russia against Ukraine. Moreover, the traditionally aggressive masculine symbolism of spears and arrows changes in a situation where the phallus does not have to be male, but can be female as well.

Lesha Berezovskiy, Vic Bakin, Archives from raves, 2016–2023

The flourishing of rave culture in Ukraine occurred after the Revolution of Dignity in 2014. The first rave that gained great popularity was CXEMA. The party doesn’t  explicitly position itself as a queer event, although it is popular among the LGBTQIA+ community. The first big proudly queer party, which was founded by DJ Stas Tweeman in Kyiv. After that, queer parties began to appear in other cities of Ukraine. In June 2021, the last big Equality march took place in Kyiv, it gathered about seven thousand visitors. In August of the same year, under the administration of the President of Ukraine, the first Reyvach Pride took place, an action in support of human rights in the format of a rave. After the start of the full-scale Russian invasion, there were no large-scale pride events in Ukraine, instead several smaller ones took place: such as pride in the Kharkiv subway or the Reyvakh Ball in the Arsenal XXII club.

Vic Bakin, photo from Veselka rave, Kyiv. Image courtesy of the artist

Extraordinary Queer-Cabaret Magic Infant, Video-documentation of the performance at ISKRA festival, 2021

Creative directors from Dzherelo: Alina Kleytman, Bogdana Ukraina (Kosmina). Performers: Anatoly Belov, Boji Moroz, Vlad Shast, Panda aka Masha Volkova, AntiGonna. Music: George Babanski

This video is a documentation of a performance that took place in the summer of 2021 at the first ISKRA festival. The multicultural rave in the Khvylya sanatorium near Kyiv was organised by the Georgian club Bassiani’s team. The Extraordinary Queer-Cabaret Magic Infant was staged at the initiative of the curators of the first ISKRA art programme Alina Kleytman and Bogdana Ukraina. In this performance, the participants work with the phenomenon of magical thinking, which is a trend in the era of productivity and self-help. According to the artists, “free and elusive, the wandering spirit of celebration from Neverland appears only under very special circumstances.” The performance united artists whose practices are iconic for the Ukrainian queer scene, and it is the first precedent for the inclusion of queer cabaret in the programme of a large-scale rave. The Georgian-Ukrainian ISKRA took place for the first time in New York in September 2023.

Vic Bakin, To Be Who We Want To Be, 2021–ongoing

Ukrainian photographer Vic Bakin is primarily known for his pictures of Ukrainian youth and campaigns for fashion magazines. In the series To Be Who We Want to Be, he turns to portraying the Ukrainian queer community, using the interiors of their homes as a powerful backdrop. The contrast between them is striking—despite the post-Soviet trauma, which actually manifests itself in these backgrounds, the Ukrainian queer scene gradually acquires its own unique voice, different from others. Vic, in turn, gives these voices visual form.

Vic Bakin, from the series To Be Who We Want to Be, photo. Image courtesy of the artist

Vic Bakin, Heavy Clouds, 2020–2021

The club on Kyrylivska Street (also known as K41) became the first techno club in Ukraine that positioned itself as a queer safe space. Accord ing to the established tradition of leading techno clubs, filming is prohibited inside. The only photographs that can be seen in the club are large-format pictures by Vic Bakin, which greet visitors immediately after entering the club. Vic Bakin's collaboration with the club continued with the publication of the Heavy Clouds zine and the use of one of the images in the design of the first release of the club label, a joint EP from Nene H and Poly Chain, Standard Deviation.

Oleksandr Halishchuk, We Are Dancing—not Cops, 2021

Ukrainian techno clubs and parties—which have become a safe haven for the LGBTQIA+ community—have repeatedly been the targets of violent attacks by right-wing radicals and unauthorised police raids, in which police officers exceeded their authority. In 2021, demonstrators rallied against police violence in Podil, a Kyiv neighbourhood that is the heart of club culture. Halishchuk's video We Are Dancing — not Cops is inspired by the protests against police brutality. The work is a remake of the music video ‘claws'’ by Charli XCX, using memes that circulate around the video. The artist creates new layers of meaning in the work and states that We Are Dancing — not Cops is a dance of victory. He says: "I won because I have nothing to lose as a person, because my nothing is the state's everything. This is a fight on all fronts and drawing everyone's attention to this problem. I do not need to be physically present to participate in the eternal struggle for liberation."

Olekasndr Halishchuk, We Are Dancing—not Cops, 2021. Video, 3 minutes

Oleksandr Halishchuk, Everything Must Be Leopard Print, 2020–2023

The leopard print flag is the second and the last version of this work. This item was made specifically for the exhibition. The fate of the first flag, left behind by Halishchuk in Kyiv after the beginning of full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, is unknown. The original version of the flag was based on the role of the leopard print in drag, fashion, and pop culture and its kitschy connotations. Halischuk says about the second version of the flag: “At the moment, I associate the leopard print with its natural origin and functions—camouflage and protection.” The shabbiness of the flag symbolises the real state of affairs of the queer community in the world, while the flag’s brightness refers to marginality and the need for direct action to achieve the goal. “Ukraine did not fight for its existence with peaceful dialogue and polite smiles, and it is the same with marginalised communities. Soft activism strategies have not worked, negotiations have yielded only empty promises, and assimilationist politeness has opened up space for counter-revolutions and neo-fascism. But we, queer people will still get our rights, even if it is the final measure,” adds Halischuk.