“Our secret passage,” says Sofiia Holubeva and pulls me through corridors, rooms of a former brothel. On the walls: art, lots of art. This is her home now. People like her have been living here in Berlin-Charlottenburg since the end of May: artists from the Ukraine. They paint, make films, make fashion, music, sculptures, dance and play theatre. With this location, the art collective Ukranian Cultural Community (UCC) offers a space for Ukrainian art: two connected apartments, approximately 500 square meters.
When Borys, Executive Director of UCC, came here and helped make this place livable, the traces of the brothel were still clearly visible, having been empty since it closed in 2015. “When I got here, there were still condoms and packets of coke lying around,” says Borys. However, some remains are impressive: the rich wallpaper, the gold decorations in the common room and a Baroque-style bathtub can still be seen; on a pedestal, framed by two pompous columns.
There is sadness on her face
25-year-old Sofiia is one of seventeen artists living here. She is now making tea at the former bar, which has become the kitchen of the new art flat share. We look at her paintings: three paintings that belong together and each depict moving figures. “They run,” says Sofiia. “I was fascinated by running figures many years ago, when I moved to Kyiv to study at the art academy. Because Kyiv is a rushed city. But it was also a big, personal question for myself: Why am I running? Because other people are running?”
Sofiia and her husband – he is currently a humanitarian worker in Ukraine – rented an apartment in Uzhgorod two days before the Russian attack in the West. They knew what was in store for their country. “When I was there in the summer a year ago, it was very quiet. At the time, I thought Uzhhorod could do with a little more hectic,” she says. But when Sofiia moved there, shortly before the attack, everything looked different: “There were a lot of new people in the city. The rents were three times as high. It felt like Kyiv.” Sofiia has returned to Uzhhorod twice since then, once at the end of April and again six weeks ago, each time the city was busier. “Movement has taken on a whole new meaning for me. It’s our nation that’s running now,” she says, and suddenly it gets very emotional. Maybe that’s why Sofia gets a chocolate and offers it to me.
Every picture she has painted since the war is related to Ukraine in its own way. “If I don’t paint for three days, I’ll get depressed,” she says, laughing, but her eyes don’t smile: there is melancholy on her face.
Sofiia’s works deal with parallel realities that play out in front of her. It is about her gratitude to the Ukrainian Armed Forces, the love for her homeland, her family, the connection to her husband and twin sister given the distance that now separates them. In doing so, she processes the different perspectives in which she has found herself in recent months: as a direct observer of the war, on the run through Europe and also her new life in Berlin as a person affected from afar. She is telling all of this now.
Instead of pathos, there is craftsmanship
While one of her works “Two realities” wants to draw attention to the ignorance and carelessness of some people in the West, a completely different one, “Almost Home” says thank you to all the countries, organizations, People she met on the way to Berlin and who helped.
It sounds pathetic, but it doesn’t look like it: Instead of pathos, there is craftsmanship: At the beginning of the widespread attack, Sofiia helped weave protective nets for the military in Uzhgorod. So she shows me the photo of her parents’ house in Odessa. Sofia’s father built it himself. The same house can be recognized in her work “Almost Home”. She wove it onto her own protective net. She received the material for this through donations – in the various countries that she passed through. Sofia’s father is still in Odessa. “Since I was in Ukraine six weeks ago, I have an app that notifies me when there is a siren alarm in Odessa,” she says. “Yesterday I had an interview in a gallery. Suddenly the shrill siren sounded, everyone turned to me – and were very confused.”
Something is clearly different in the former brothel: Sofia’s art flat share is very busy tonight. On our way out, Sofia’s roommates are sitting, talking and having fun. She calls it her “little home”. She knows some of them from the art academy in Kyiv. “One is rarely alone, and the community helps. We’re all from the Ukraine, we have our own sense of humor,” she says, “and sometimes you just want to be alone. But this is not possible. Despite all this, admittedly, you feel lonely from time to time. That’s where art helps.” Perhaps, I then think, for Sofiia it’s not this place, but rather art that is almost a home – almost home.