‘An Artist At War’, our Volume XIII cover story was originally published in December 2023 – Available for free with any purchase on Wasted Talent Boutique.
Words & photography by Robin Pailler during Masha’s residency at Kolektiv Cité Radieuse, Marseille 2023 (unless stated otherwise).
Chance encounters are a fine thing. A fine thing indeed.
I was killing time in between assignments in Marseille recently, when I found myself wandering around the infamous Cité Radieuse, a post-war modernist residence built by Le Corbusier, with the collaboration of painter-architect Nadir Afonso.
As I meandered through the corridors of each floor I suddenly spotted an artist residency with none other than Masha Reva. If you’re unfamiliar, Masha is a Ukrainian born multi-disciplinary artist who’s collaborated with the likes of Jacquemus, Rijksmuseum, Royal Opera House and even Harry bloody Styles.
Naturally, I couldn’t resist introducing myself. Our time was cut short due to Masha’s busy schedule. Artist residencies tend to be all-consuming. Nevertheless, we exchanged numbers and agreed to jump on a call a few weeks later, once work commitments had settled and she was back home in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Hey Masha, how’s things? Are you back in Kyiv right now?
Yeah I’m in my studio right now, so it’s pretty cold.
How long have you been back for?
I’ve been back for a couple of weeks already.
How is it travelling in and out of Kyiv right now? Because you obviously can’t fly.
No, absolutely not. As long as the full scale war is happening, you’re not able to fly at all. So we usually take a train to Warsaw and then fly from there.
How was your time in Marseille? How long were you there for?
The residency was only for 10 days so it was short. But it was my second time there and I really love the city. It resembles my home city, Odesa, in Ukraine. It’s a similar size, a city by the sea with this southern spirit, so it feels like somewhere very familiar.
I feel like Marseille has a bad reputation in France for being a sketchy city. But I always felt safe there and found everyone to be really friendly…
Well, I mean I can only compare it to somewhere like Napoli, and Napoli could be quite dangerous if you turn down a wrong street. But Marseille doesn’t feel like that to me. I guess in some ways it might be dangerous. I guess most cities that have ports, with all this movement going on, often have links to organised crime, the mafia or the illegal trafficking of many things in general. But for me, Marseille just felt cute because it resembled home. I just love the mix of cultures and different people, it makes the city really vibrant and lively.
How did that residency come about?
It had been planned for six months or so. I was contacted by these really sweet people, Maxime and Laura at Kolektiv Cité Radius, and they invited me over. It’s actually funny because the first time I was in Marseille I was in the same building. I did a project for Simon Jacquemus’ book, Marseille Je T’aime; the book launch was on the rooftop of the building. So I knew the space already and I love modernist architecture. I feel part of the residency was also just observing the space you’re in and documenting how it influences you during your time as a resident artist. I really enjoyed that.
I think it’s probably hard for some people to comprehend living in a country at war. How is it for you, living and working as an artist in Kyiv right now?
I think first of all, Kyiv is probably the safest city in Ukraine. The most well-protected anyway. I guess it’s kinda surreal in the sense that you can’t really tell there’s a war happening, unless you hear the air raid sirens. And recently we haven’t had any, at least in the last month. And of course you read the news, and there’s explosions in other cities but Kyiv almost feels like a bubble. Everything’s functioning kinda normal. There’s even nightclubs open, albeit they’re operating during the day as we still have a curfew in place midnight-5am. But the curfew’s been in place for so long we’ve become used to it. In general I guess I feel quite okay. But emotionally, I have a lot
of ups and downs, like everyone else living here. Especially recently with all the news coming from the Israel-Palestine conflict. It just makes everyone feel this pain over again. I guess it’s strange because we’ve adapted to this reality of war. We still manage to travel and work and help establish Ukrainian businesses. I don’t know, you’ve just got to carry on, you know? Life must go on.
Well it’s almost the only choice you have and the ultimate form of resistance, I guess. To just carry on living.
Yeah and what I like about Kyiv is it’s always been this place of freedom and it’s still managed to retain that even though many things have changed. Many people left. And of course many came back. But it still has that spirit and I like it. I mean, I could move from here but I just don’t want to.
Has it influenced your work in any way?
Yes and I think I have a big problem related to the flow of energy. Because when there’s so many things to focus, particularly within the news, especially bad news, you end up putting all your energy into it. So the big problem for me was a lack of energy. The funny thing about art is it relates to your energy.
But in order to do art you have to focus, and the focus is getting distracted by the news. When the invasion began on February 24th, we left Kyiv and went to the west of Ukraine in a search of a safer place. We spent two months there together, my partner Ivan Grabko and I; we managed to create around 150 artworks in a month’s time. After our fundraising exhibition in Berlin we managed to raise 55k EUR to help Ukrainians affected by war. We couldn’t stay away and we wanted to help. After all that, then we came back. And then I took the decision to invest in my studio. To just work and take risks because I don’t know how long this situation will last but I want to make the best of it. And I guess, in a way that’s one of the few positives I can take from the situation if that makes sense. I think a lot of people have made decisions that perhaps they didn’t feel brave enough to take before. It kinda feels like ‘now or never’.
You’ve lived in London and New York and had various residencies and internships abroad. It’s amazing and very admirable you’ve decided to stay in Kyiv.
Yeah but the main reason is that I have my source of inspiration here. With all my experiences studying and living in many different countries, I came to the conclusion that my sometimes-imperfect homeland—I say imperfect in the best possible sense—here in Ukraine, to have a space to create, it’s an absolutely mysterious country with a wild spirit, and this imperfectness is inspiring. You kinda have to take the chaos around you to inspire yourself in order to create something new. I find that when I’m somewhere where everything is arranged and set, I’m not inspired the way I want to be. But yeah I guess I have to admit, I just have an addiction to Kyiv.
What are your plans for the rest of this year?
I’ll be in London next spring for one more residency. Other than this, the last year and a half I’ve been working on a project to help Ukrainian creatives and businesses to develop: ‘i am u are’. We did a big exhibition in New York last spring and there’s another one in Los Angeles coming up in November. I was a member of the creative team and it took up a lot of my energy so I actually decided a week ago to take a step back from my role and focus on other creative endeavours. I’m about to launch my new website and online store so I want to use this time to focus on my personal work. My family are also moving to the south of France next week until Christmas, so I’d like to go and spend time with them and also use my time to shoot some more photos. I also want to work with local creatives here in Ukraine and support them but that’s more of a long term goal. One of the greatest things about Kyiv is that you can meet so many interesting people. I’ve been living here since I was seventeen and the city still manages to surprise me, which is why I love it.
Are new people still arriving in the city? Can foreigners visit freely?
Yeah, you can just catch a train from Warsaw or Chelm. I feel like people who come here feel very inspired because we have so many things still operating and even the night life, or rather, social life, is still happening. I think it’s pretty incredible for people here to still have the capacity to enjoy life, despite the fact there’s a war happening. Of course everyone here is balancing life with work and volunteering or anything else that helps our military forces. I think it gives us energy to help one another because you can’t just reflect on war all the time. You have to find things that make you inspired and put that energy into action.