Arts / Performing Arts

Powerful Ukrainian War Photographs Create a Gripping Scene at Houston’s Silver Street — Putting the Effects of the Fighting Into Focus

A Free Concert From FotoFest and Musiqa Is Also On Tap

BY // 11.09.23

When we see photographs taken in war, showing the cost of armed conflict on civilian populations, our hearts do not ask about politics.

From the outset of the Russian invasion into Ukraine (which started on February 24, 2022), leading Ukrainian war photographers have been recording the hardship and devastation faced by a country of more than 36 million. Through what they illuminate, these photographs both create a sense of profound loss and unite us in our common humanity.

Take FotoFest’s exhibition “Fighting: Ukrainian War Photographers,” 255 images by 16 of Ukraine’s leading photojournalists, which is on view at Houston’s Silver Street Studios now. FotoFest and Musiqa will present a free concert to commemorate the exhibition’s closing, featuring new work from Houston composer Theo Chandler, next Saturday, November 18.

Children with a Ukrainian flag and uniforms flash the victory sign on the central square of Kherson during celebrations of the city’s liberation by Ukrainian army. November 12, 2022.(Photo by Andriy Dubchak. Courtesy Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers)
Children with a Ukrainian flag and uniforms flash the victory sign on the central square of Kherson during celebrations of the city’s liberation by Ukrainian army. November 12, 2022.(Photo by Andriy Dubchak. Courtesy Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers)

An Extensive Exhibit of Ukrainian War Photos

“Fighting: Ukrainian War Photographers” features 255 images from 16 of Ukraine’s leading photojournalists. The exhibition is organized by FotoFest, Houston’s lens-based cultural organization, which has used Silver Street’s 1,000 feet of wall space as its venue since 2016.

The photographs are divided into five chapters: “The Struggle,” “Mariupol,” “Flight,” “Life and Loss during War” and “Hope.” However, it’s not necessary to follow any particular sequence to appreciate what you are seeing.

Any route you take will lead you through image after image of highly charged moments of emotion: a father running with a baby in bloodied blankets into a medical facility, people crammed together to sleep in a Kharkiv metro station, men filling used soda bottles to turn them into Molotov cocktails, a wedding ceremony for soldiers on the front lines – the bride in the white gown she’d perhaps dreamed of since childhood.

Introducing Pêche

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Wedding of Anastasiia Mokhina, 24, and Viacheslav Hohlyuk, 43, two members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense who married under martial law in Kyiv, Ukraine. April 7, 2022. (Photo by Mikhaylo Palinchak. Courtesy of Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers.)
Wedding of Anastasiia Mokhina, 24, and Viacheslav Hohlyuk, 43, two members of the Kyiv Territorial Defense who married under martial law in Kyiv, Ukraine. April 7, 2022. (Photo by Mikhaylo Palinchak. Courtesy of Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers.)

Encompassing all five chapters of the photography exhibit is a video, placed in a quiet area without passersby. In the video, pianist Soroush Zali is seated in the ruins of the once stately House of Culture in Irpin, playing the haunting melody of Arno Babajanian’s Elegy.

In four stunning minutes we see an example of the many cultures represented in Ukraine and neighboring countries — their diverse languages, art and sensibilities. Although the name of the countries may have changed over the centuries, their locations have not.

And the music? What borders can contain music, even when it seems to have sprung from the soil of a certain place?

Alena Grom_Russian military forces
Russian military forces launched artillery and air attacks on residential buildings in Irpin, resulting in significant damage and destruction. Approximately 70% of the buildings in the area were affected. A resident of Irpin is seen rebuilding his apartment in a destroyed building. Irpin, Ukraine. July 2022. (Photo by Alena Grom. Courtesy Ukrainian Association of Professional Photographers.)

Originally from Iran, Zali is a graduate of the Petro Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine in Kyiv. Russian and Armenian composer Babajanian wrote Elegy in 1978 as a lament on the death of his beloved teacher Aram Khachaturian, who was honored in his lifetime by the former Soviet Union. Babajanian transformed a classic 18th century love song As Long as I’m Alive (kani voor janim) by the Armenian poet and musician Sayat-Nova, who was born in what is now Georgia.

All of these elements come together as the angle of the film pans from the interior rubble of the destroyed building to a largely untouched portion outside. The noble white and soft blue façade gleams, and Zali plays in the brilliant sunlight. The music sounds in the fresh air, unrestrained by walls and accompanied by the unexpected sounds of sweet birdsong and glimpses of new green grass.

And so, through the contribution of all the artists whose visions over centuries contributed to the music and artistry of the video, we have a window into “Hope.”

An Inspired Concert

To cap off the exhibit as it closes next Saturday, November 18, FotoFest will present a much-anticipated free concert at 6 pm organized in conjunction with Musiqa, a Houston organization dedicated to introducing audiences to new music by contemporary composers.

The centerpiece of the evening will be the world premiere of Sung from Ruins for soprano and violin with text by the nationally acclaimed Houston-based composer Theo Chandler. It is his response to the video.

Composer Theo Chandler will present "Sung from Ruins" at the Musiqa concert. (Photo by Haley Stage Photography)
Composer Theo Chandler will present “Sung from Ruins” at the Musiqa concert. (Photo by Haley Stage Photography)

Chandler says he was inspired by the history of the Elegy, with it accumulation of meaning. Babajanian’s Elegy is a song of mourning and sadness. Chandler says his piece holds space for tragedy and grief while containing love at its core. He begins Sung from Ruins with the same note and chord that the video ends with. His text, he says, are “poems describing the video.”

Musically and poetically, we can expect a journey from the silent rubble that cries out with the sounds of disaster, moving aurally into piercing sunlight. Chandler says the text of his love song was inspired by the idea that Sayat-Nova’s love song remained intact through the centuries.

“Even in the form of an elegy, it evokes deep love,” Chandler notes. “What is an elegy but a love song for someone you have lost? It felt similar to the front of the beloved House of Culture building, which was untouched by the bombardment.”

We have heard before the vein of deep romanticism in Chandler’s music in which love overcomes seemingly insurmountable obstacles and breaks free into the sunlight. Such was the story of his Beyond the Sanctuary Walls, a victory for love over struggle premiered by the Kinetic Ensemble in June.

Chandler will introduce the piece, and the four-minute video will be played for the audience. “Sung from Ruins,” performed by violinist Jacob Schafer and Ukrainian-American vocalist Yelena Dyachek, will begin immediately after.

Dyachek is a graduate of Houston Grand Opera’s prestigious studio program. Chandler notes that the soprano offered to perform part of the piece in Ukrainian, and so he included two lines from Ukrainian poet Lesya Ukrainka, who wrote about Ukrainian independence at the turn of the 20th century:

Ukraine! Bitter tears over thee do I weep.

Alas! Of what use is such grief unto thee?

Also on the program are two works from Ukrainian composers — Valentin Slivestrov’s Postlude for solo violin, and Bohdana Frolyak’s Partita-meditation for two violins, performed by Nanki Chugh and Jacob Schafer.

Chandler has written for voice and a wide variety of instruments and combination of instruments, including Summersongs for soprano and nine bassoons. He recently said the oboe is his favorite instrument. Riverside Symphony will perform his Oboe Concerto (2019) at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall in New York on April 27th.

Soprano Yelena Dyachek will perform at the Musiqa concert on November 18. (Photo by Simon Pauly)
Soprano Yelena Dyachek will perform at the Musiqa concert on November 18. (Photo by Simon Pauly)

A Powerful Map

Try not to miss the enormous map of Ukraine just inside the entrance, marked with many Ukrainian cities and towns and a slice of Russian territory to the east. A closer look reveals war activity taking place in real time. It is a “Live Universal Awareness Map” created in 2014 by software developers and journalists wishing to inform the world about the Ukrainian conflict. Since then, the technology has expanded to cover more than 30 other regions, including the Middle East.

The day I was there, areas on the map in eastern Ukraine lit up with explosions of nine guided bombs and news of a fallen soldiers swap — 50 Ukrainians for the return of 60 Russians.

“Fighting: Ukrainian War Photographers” runs through Saturday, November 18. It is open Wednesdays through Saturdays from noon to 5 pm. Admission is free. Learn more here. The concert “Musiqa Responds to Fighting: Ukrainian War Photographers” takes place Saturday, November 18 at 6 pm. Admission is free. Register here. Both the exhibition and the concert are at Silver Street Studios, 2000 Edwards Street. There will be parking at 2101 Winter Street.

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