São Paulo

Environment and war in Ukraine provide theme for mural in São Paulo

On the busy corner of Pinheiros street and Pedroso de Morais avenue, in São Paulo’s Pinheiros district, two images have coexisted in recent days. The first features a dancer with her body leaning slightly to one side as she holds her hands delicately in the air. Her figure seems to be in dialogue with the adjacent wall, where the second image can be seen: a blue and yellow vase being mended by the hands of two people.

The two paintings on the wall of the same residential building showcase different styles and languages. The result of collaborative work, they are displayed side by side to remind passers-by of the two-year war between Ukraine and Russia and to defend environmental protection. Entitled The Exchange, the mural was inaugurated Tuesday (Mar. 5) and is an initiative of the Ukrainian Institute in Brazil.

The first image—a dancer imitating the movement of butterflies—was made by Ukrainian artist Sasha Korban on his first visit to Brazil. To come to the country, he had to ask for special permission from the Ukrainian government. “I wasn’t participating directly on the battlefield, but since there is a war going on in Ukraine, men can’t cross the border [without permission],” he told Agência Brasil.

Korban became known worldwide for his work Milana, a mural painted in September 2018 on a building in the Ukrainian city of Mariupol. The piece, a three-year-old girl hugging a teddy bear, paid homage to little Milana Abdurashytova, whose mother was killed by a Russian missile attack while trying to protect her. The painting became a symbol of resistance in the country.

The work next to it, which shows butterflies emerging from a cracked traditional Ukrainian vase, is signed by Eduardo Kobra, a Brazilian artist known throughout both the country and the world. Many of his works, such as the mural he painted for the United Nations in New York—which shows a father handing over the planet to his daughter—are about preserving the environment and building peace.

“I like to deal with themes that speak of peace, tolerance, nations coming together, respect, and coexistence. I’ve been working with these themes on murals for many years,” said the Brazilian artist. “[I thought the idea of a joint mural] was special precisely because together we can use our brushes and our paints—our weapons—to make a call for an end to this nonsensical war.”

“I believe everyone can see how nonsensical any kind of war is. I think the world has to take action to stop this kind of conflict as soon as possible,” Kobra argued.

Together for the mural

São Paulo (SP) 04/03/2024 - Para marcar os dois anos do início do conflito, em 24 de fevereiro, um projeto do Ukrainian Institute está unindo os artistas paulistano Eduardo Kobra e o ucraniano Sasha Korban para trabalharem juntos em um mural de grandes proporções no bairro de Pinheiros, São Paulo. Foto: Paulo Pinto/Agência Brasil

To mark the two years since the conflict began on February 24, a project of the Ukrainian Institute brings together artists Eduardo Kobra from Brazil and Sasha Korban from Ukraine to work on a large-scale mural in São Paulo’s Pinheiros district.  Paulo Pinto/Agência Brasil

Kobra and Korban’s first meeting in Brazil took place in Itu, São Paulo, where the Brazilian artist had recently opened his studio. That was where they came up with the design for the two walls of the building. Painting began on February 27.

“[In my studio] we were able to discuss technical details regarding proportion, size, aesthetics, and logistics, as well as how we were going to organize this painting,” said Kobra. “[A painting like this] is not easy. Thankfully it didn’t rain that week, but the weather was blistering hot, so it was really hard work. It’s what I always say, it’s not about the painting itself, but the message, the argument,” he added.

Kobra’s butterflies meet Korban’s ballerina and symbolize the freedom Ukrainians want to fly towards. The gesture of the hands, prominent in both pieces, shows the reconstruction of a country ravaged by war, turning the mural into both a treatise on unity and peace and a manifesto for environmental protection.

“That’s what I wanted to do, to draw something that gives hope to our country and our people, so we can still be as we were before. Of course, the war had its influence on all Ukrainian people. It did on me too. I’d always been drawing things that gave hope, that showed life and the will to live. But after the war began, my art shifted toward a reflection of these ideas of hope, the desire for life, and the idea that we’ll be able to resist and lead a normal life,” Korban said. “My drawings do not concern war directly. Rather, they show humanity under the condition of this war.”

The dancer, the Ukrainian artist noted, is a symbol of this struggle. “My part of the drawing is a dancing girl, but in reality this dance is a struggle, a battle. Together with Kobra’s section of the mural, it depicts the struggle and the attempt to preserve nature, because I know Brazil also has this battlefield which is the preservation of nature. The drawing shows the attempt to preserve the integrity of Ukraine, to save Ukraine and at the same time to save all of nature,” said Korban.

The project

Bringing Kobra and Korban together for a mural project in Brazil to celebrate peace and the preservation of the environment was the idea of the Ukrainian Institute—a government institution whose mission is to promote Ukrainian culture—in a bid to mark two years since the conflict began on February 24. “This is our first project in Brazil, and it includes two artists, one Ukrainian and one Brazilian, because art allows us to talk not only about the problems we have in common, but also about the opportunities and powers we share,” said Alim Aliev, deputy director of the Ukrainian Institute, in an interview with Agência Brasil.

“As well as destroying a large number of pieces of art, lives, and the destinies of people, the war is destroying ecology and the environment. Today, Ukraine is considered one of the most polluted territories in the world. We understand that if we don’t take action to tackle this issue today alongside the entire democratic world, then a rather bleak future awaits us,” added Aliev, who has also obtained permission from the Ukrainian government to come to Brazil.

According to Ukrainian Ambassador to Brazil Andrii Melnyk, the war has turned millions of hectares of Ukraine’s territory into minefields littered with shells and toxic chemicals and caused widespread environmental destruction. It has also deprived thousands of Ukrainians of access to drinking water. “Two years after Russia’s large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the deliberate environmental damage caused by the war has brought devastating consequences for essential infrastructure, natural resources, critical ecosystems, as well as people’s health, livelihoods, and security,” he said in a statement.

In the opinion of the director of the Ukrainian Institute, art can be a powerful tool on the road to peace. “The artist is very important because any nation, any country, is bound to come together around a set of values. Art is vital because we can unite through trust. And what is this trust? Trust is when you get to know another person, their traditions, their culture and customs. Only through art can we gain this trust in each other.”


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