How Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art Transformed to Help Ukrainian Refugees

WARSAW — The once austere ground floor of the headquarters of the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art was, for weeks, a hive of activity. One day, standing on two folding tables lined up edge to edge, half a dozen volunteers create an assembly line of sandwiches, which make up to 1,500 a day, which are then shipped to Ukrainian refugee shelters in the Polish capital. A few meters away, behind the metal screen of the installation by the famous Polish artist Monika Sosnowska “Grid(2009), displaced children play with toys and draw sunflowers, the national symbol of Ukraine.

Another day, a little later in the week, the children’s toys and the sandwich shop disappeared. In their place, throngs of families line up to have their photos taken and receive help filling out the paperwork for official Polish IDs that will give them access to healthcare and other government services. . The Sosnowska facility is now adorned with those same children’s drawings, and there are new places to sit, too — lightweight stone-like foam blockscreated by Greek artist and architect Andreas Angelidakis as part of his ongoing installation series, Demos.

A moment of calm at the children’s play area of ​​the Museum of Modern Art.
Volunteers prepare sandwiches for Ukrainian refugees in Warsaw.

As Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine continues into its second month and Poland faces the brunt of Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, the museum has entered into action, creating an “institution within an institution” in the words of chief curator Sebastian Cichocki, to help some of the more than two million Ukrainian refugees who have fled to Poland.

Cichocki told Hyperallergic that the museum’s response has evolved since the early days of the war in late February, from a random race to gather medicine and prepare food, they’ve started building something they plan to establish longer term, and have already organized Ukrainian poetry readings, stress relief workshops, Ukrainian language courses for volunteers and have a more organized collection of medical supplies which are regularly sent to Ukraine.

“We wanted to turn our activities into something more scheduled and prepared,” Cichocki said, adding that they hoped to turn the first floor of the office into a “community hub” — unsurprisingly, they call it “The Sunflower.”

Thanks to the efforts of Ukrainian children, the installation of Monika Sosnowska Grid (2009) turned into a field of sunflowers.

The museum’s efforts are far from an exclusively Polish affair, with the participation of Ukrainian residents of Poland and refugees. Taras Gambik, an artist and activist of Ukrainian origin living in Warsaw, is one of the key figures in the launch of Sunflower.

For Gambik, volunteering in the relief effort is little more than doing her duty, just like her family is at home. His parents are still in Ukraine, in a small town in the province of Volyn, near the border with Belarus.

Taras Gambik, artist and activist of Ukrainian origin living in Warsaw

“The air raid sirens are constantly wailing,” he told Hyperallergic. “Everyone is tired of running around in basements. Everyone is just mad now. The fear has passed. They are ready to face the invaders with their bare hands.

His 50-year-old father, he said, joined a local homeland defense unit. His 64-year-old mother, a professional violinist, now spends her time making Molotov cocktails.

“I think the finger drills you have to do to stay an agile violinist became useful for filling a polystyrene bottle,” Gembik said, referring to one of the key steps in making the contraption. homemade incendiary.

War protest banners. They were then plastered on all the windows of the museum.

More than just a place where refugees can receive help, the museum office has also become a place where victims of Putin’s war can rediscover their agency.

“It’s much more comfortable here than in Kyiv,” 17-year-old college freshman Olya Balyk, who fled Ukraine after the first week of fighting, told Hyperallergic. “Here, at least, you feel that you are doing something. You help in one way or another.

However, like many of her compatriots, Balyk hopes she won’t have to volunteer at Tournesol for long. “For some reason, I believe my university will stand. Even though one by one, universities across the country are being hit again and again, and some have already been destroyed,” she said.

While in Poland, 17-year-old student Olya Balyk spends her days helping other refugees.

As the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw begins to settle into a new rhythm, they plan to continue their cooperation with artists, writers and activists in Ukraine itself, as well as in the wider region. Tentatively titled “Sunflower Power,” the museum is working to create a journal of what Cichocki calls “counter-propaganda.” The newspaper will not only be a way to send funds to beleaguered Ukrainians, but will also aim to correct some of the reductionist narratives about the conflict.

“We feel this urgency to create a language to talk about things,” Cichocki said. “We are totally disappointed with the western left, the level of ‘West-splaining’.”

This report was written by Peter Liakhov with photos by Tamuna Chkareuli.

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