Australian artists on the frontline in Ukraine

Two Australian artists tour war-ravaged Ukraine, documenting Kyiv's devastation through their art....


Photo supplied by Hellen Rose: Hellen Rose and George Gittoes AM standing by Bucha Tanks, Kyiv Ukraine



Australian artists George Gittoes AM and Hellen Rose are navigating landmines and documenting the destruction on the frontline in Ukraine.

For more than fifty years, Gittoes has documented the best and worst of the human condition. He is well known for his confrontational work inspired by his personal observations of the world’s most notorious conflicts.


‘The Punisher’ by George Gittoes AM


He has used drawing, painting, filmmaking, photography and writing to tell the stories of what he has seen and experienced in a range of countries, including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Iraq, Israel, Rwanda, Somalia and South Africa.

Rose, an acclaimed performance artist, has also dedicated her life to humanitarian work. In 2014, she was included on the NSW Local Women of the Year Honour Roll and hopes to use the power of song to help the world evolve.

Now, as a couple, they aim to use their art to begin the process of healing and uniting people in Ukraine.

Gittoes, 72, told The Sentinel that in all his years of covering war, he has never seen a whole population as brave and committed to freedom as the Ukrainian people.

“They’re not going to give up, and it’s that spirit which is defeating the Russians,” he said.


“We hope that we are adding our voice to the millions of voices here in a cry for freedom.”

A city under siege

Bombs and missiles were raining down all around Kyiv when Gittoes and Rose arrived almost six weeks ago. They say every hour felt like they were literally playing Russian Roulette with their lives.

“The streets were empty … [There were] soldiers on every corner and you could have heard a pin drop in the street, in between the bombing sounds of Irpin and Bucha,” Rose said.


Photo supplied by George Gittoes AM- Inspiration for ‘The Punisher’ by George Gittoes AM


The Ukrainian Army blew up the bridge in Kyiv to prevent the Russians from seizing the city. The first cars to arrive as it collapsed couldn’t escape the Russians firing indiscriminately into them. Others were torched. Those who remained alive were executed in or near their cars.

“Going down what they’re calling the Bridge of Death was one of the most horrific things I’ve seen in my life,” Rose said.

“I’ve seen the remains of a mother still clinging to her child in the back of a car.

“The smell of death was overpowering.”

Gittoes says the destruction and devastation are like a thousand 9/11s. He recalls seeing a Russian tank destroyed in a fierce battle with Ukraine forces.

“There’s a dead Russian, like a Giacometti sculpture – he’s turned to coal. He’s just black and he’s inside a tank,” he said.

“I feel sorry for the Russian soldiers too because they’re often poor and they need the money.

“They’re being paid a bit extra to come here, they’re being told all this propaganda and there’s no way they could hear the truth.”

Humans of war

Following the war closely, Gittoes and Rose are travelling and documenting its impact on civilians with the help of a Ukrainian translator.

“So many have already lost everything,” Gittoes told The Sentinel.

“In most of these places now the electricity is cut off, they’ve lost their homes and it’s freezing. It’s snowing and they’re living outdoors, finding little bits of wood and burning them to boil a cup of tea.”

As they continue to earn the trust of the Ukrainian people, they are increasingly taking on the role of social workers.

“As we walked out from Guernica, Hellen noticed an old woman, Galaya, gingerly approaching with a walking stick,” Gittoes said.

“Hellen was drawn to Galaya and soon they were hugging like mother and daughter.



Photo supplied by Hellen Rose: Galaya and Hellen, Kyiv, Ukraine



“Galaya is 83. She told us that the Russians had killed her cow. Hellen drew her to her breast as she began to cry. The cow was her only remaining companion and she was able to make a little money from selling the milk.”

Gittoes has also been sharing his knowledge with the local farmers who are gradually de-activating the booby traps and digging up the landmines on a track to a popular recreation area.

“They were insidious … so invisible I would have walked into them,” he said.

“They were around child’s head height so dogs could get underneath them, but children and adults would trigger them. They were attached to hand grenades.

“There were others much worse than that. They completely mined the sports field and in between the trees, they put these wires with huge bombs made from two rockets.”

They say this is not the first time the Russian Army has targeted children, with “for the children” written on the rocket that struck the railway station in Kramatorsk.

According to Gittoes, bullet-riddled cars had “children” painted across their doors, hoping to avoid being targeted. He says images of his grandchildren flashed through his mind seeing the toys, books and clothing left behind.

He recounts finding an expensive-looking book resting on the driver’s seat of a car.

“It was black, and a pen was inserted holding a place between the pages. I walked to the other side of the car and opened it to discover it was a diary,” he said.

“The pages were dated. It ended the day the writer’s life ended.

“I put my camera through the shattered window and filmed my hand opening the diary to this last entry, flipping the blank pages. The diary would never be completed, like the life of the writer.”

Upcoming films and projects

Gittoes’ drawings capture images from life. One of his latest works depicts an old lady living on the steps into the Maidan Square train station. He says instead of photographing her in a series of portraits he has drawn her from his memory.

“She fills the underground with the sound of her wailing – it is loud, endless and heart wrenching,” he said.




‘The Scream’ artwork by George Gittoes AM


“I have not known how to approach her even though I know she is The Scream of Ukraine.”


“It’s like World War II. I could almost hear the ghosts of the Jewish people running from the Nazis.” – Hellen Rose



Gittoes and Rose are arguably as well-known for their filmmaking as for their art. Rose says they plan to juggle Ukraine with their Yellow House Jalalabad project in Afghanistan, and that in an upcoming film, they plan to show that Muslims in Afghanistan and Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are united in their struggle to maintain their culture and sense of autonomy.

“Both have the common history of a Russian invasion destroying their countries,” she told The Sentinel.

“We all fear; we all love; we’re all the same.”

Gittoes and Rose say they feel like they’ve gone back to the past.

“It’s like World War II. The scenery is the same. I could almost hear the ghosts of the Jewish people running from the Nazis, and that’s how I feel – that the Ukrainians are running from the fascists,” she said.

Both artists are used to working in war zones. Even so, the sights they have seen in Ukraine have had a profound effect on the couple.

Gittoes says that tripping over human remains, seeing dead bodies rotting in tanks, and body parts of mothers and children and their toys in shelled family cars are memories that will never leave them.

This article was previously published in the Sydney Sentinel.


From the Maidan Square

A review of Netflix documentary film highlighting the Ukranians restsitance against corruption....

The 2015 Netflix documentary film, by filmmaker Evgeny Afineevsky, Winter on Fire is a prism of the personal. It is an imagery of unity, patriotism, a worm’s eye view of the Ukrainian revolution and a real-life nostalgic celebration, captured through a simple camera lens. It showcases these Euromaidan protests in Ukraine from 21 November 2013 to 23 February 2014.

The official poster of the Netflix documentary Winter on Fire. Source: Wixstatic.


November 21st 2013, the start of the Euromaidan, the internal public protests in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square) in Kyiv, Ukraine. The decision made by the Ukrainian government to not sign the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement, and instead choosing closer ties to Eurasian Economic Union and Russia sparked these protests. A “widespread government corruption” and “violation of human rights in Ukraine” fed these protests which led to the Revolution of Dignity, the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.

Ukrainian activists and protestors poured into the central square of Kyiv, the Maidan to protest the repressive measures in the country which led them to oust an autocrat, President Viktor Yanukovich. People, together from different cities in Ukraine, huddled in the frost, were doing a peaceful protest. Some of them painted posters, some wrote “Europe Starts With You” in banners, sang, lighted bonfires, not a beer bottle in sight. People were there to purely fight for their human rights, every single one of them, till the end.

For the people, the protests were more than a demand for closer ties with the European Union, it was also a way of saying no to abuse of power, a rejection of injustice for the Ukrainian people. They took to the streets to denounce the corruption and unfairness, done by the government. The men, women, children of Ukraine followed a peaceful protest as violence delegitimized their movement, but the police was violently dispersing crowds and used brutal force on the protesters, which resulted in over 100 deaths.


On December 11th, the Berkut (riot police of Ukraine) showed up and surrounded Maidan to clear it. Berkut, fully armed were pushing the unarmed civilians and it was slowly breaking up the hand chain that the Maidan protesters had made. At this point, the people were singing the Ukrainian national anthem and hearing it was somehow making their grip stronger. This night showed the Ukrainians how strong unity can be.


Protests took place in the central square of Kyiv, Maidan Nezalezhnosti. Source: Wixstatic.


On the 57th day of this peaceful protest, new laws were passed from the parliament. These stated that if someone wore a helmet they will be jailed, if someone congregated, they will be jailed, if someone was in a car line of five or more, they will be jailed or if someone wore a ski mask, they will be jailed. This was at a time where the temperature was below freezing in Kyiv. The next day people were seen in the streets with kitchen pots on their heads and masks crafted carefully with crayons and glitter, or with anything they could find, and one man was saying “They forgot to put that in these laws. They should add that immediately” to the camera. People interpreted it with such irony.


The documentary shows how, during a midnight assault on the Euromaidan, with hopes of waking up local residents to warn them about the attack by the special forces, a bell ringer rang the bells at the local St. Michael Monastery. The last time these bells were rung was in 1240, eight centuries prior, when the clergy needed to warn people about the Mongol attack on the city.


Source: Wixstatic.


Although the Russian state-owned media portrayed the protests as a xenophobic and nationalist uprising, the protestors at the Euromaidan were incredibly diverse. People came from different parts of Ukraine, spoke many languages, had varied religious beliefs. Even amidst these differences, they all believed in and had only one pro-human rights message. In the documentary, the streets of Kyiv were filled with people fighting for their freedom for three months. Brisk pacing, evocative memories, raw emotions in a wintry landscape.

Among the stories of many brave freedom fighters in Euromaidan, there’s that of Serhiy. In the documentary, I saw Kristina Berdynskykh, a reporter at the Maidan interviewing Serhiy Nigoyan, a 20-year-old activist. He was asking Kristina where she has even seen him for her to interview him and she said that she saw him coming to the Maidan every day and helping people. She then took her phone out to show Serhiy a portrait of him that someone drew during the protests, he looked at it and was smiling in awe. Little did I know he would become the first protester to get killed due to mortal shooting in the protests to come. Only 20, he suffered multiple gunshot wounds and died for his country. His eyes were drawn by someone on that picture Kristina showed him on the interview day for him to see, and after this protest ended another did the same, only it stands tall today for everyone to see.


Source: Wixstatic.


At the end, as the protests continued into December, protestors filled the Kyiv’s city hall and called on Yanukovych to resign. Yanukovych, ahead of an impeachment vote, fled the capital. For some, this could be just another picture of a protest in a history book, old wine in a new bottle type of thing. And yes, protests and wars have happened countless times in different ways but when we turn the pages, feel the anger, share the struggles of people, we realise that the cause or the root of it all was mostly the same every time.

It’s the duty of the governments and the world leaders to steer their people and countries into living with peace with other countries, respecting each other’s values, providing people access to education, employment, food, health care. Understanding each other, strengthening our economies, fighting for injustice, highlighting the importance of dialogue isn’t a one man driven operation. If this world is the play, Ukraine is at the centre stage now, the rest is behind the curtain, hopefully taking notes.