Support in Times of Great Uncertainty: Artist Katya Kononenko and the ifa Mentoring Programme Ukraine

The ifa mentoring programme supports 36 Ukrainian artists and cultural workers who have been living and working abroad – predominantly in Eastern European countries – since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The programme provides mentoring for the refugee artists and cultural workers. Katya Kononenko from Kyiv is participating in the programme and is mentored by Žana Jegorova from Klaipeda (Lithuania).

Katya Kononenko is still trying to sort out her existence. She is processing the chaos caused by the start of the war on 24 February 2022 through her work, through "doodles". This is the name of the artist's new project: Doodles. The dark, abstract lines criss-cross the entire canvas and reflect the turmoil in the life of the painter and drawer, who was suddenly forced to flee her hometown of Kyiv eighteen months ago.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine was a bitter turning point for both Katya Kononenko and her native land. Since 2022, more than six million people have fled Ukraine to seek safety from attack by Russian troops and Russian missiles. 

The painter is now receiving support from the ifa mentoring programme. Refugee Ukrainian artists are brought together with mentors from the cultural scene who support them in their personal and professional development. There is a particular focus on women and representatives of the LGBTIQ community. "I'm grateful for the opportunity the programme offers and have found a helpful and committed mentor", says Kononenko. 

A doodle drawing by Katya Kononenko Picture: Katya Kononenko

A difficult new beginning in Lithuania

Like many of her compatriots, Katya Kononenko is currently living in another European country. It was important to her to stay close to home. She chose Lithuania, partly because the two countries have a shared history. "Lithuania and Ukraine share the painful experience of having belonged to the Soviet Union", says Kononenko. "That's a parallel experience that connects us." She has received a warm welcome in Lithuania.

But there is still something that divides them: the language. Although Katya Kononenko can get by with English, she is learning Lithuanian. "I have already completed two language courses and now have a solid basic knowledge." But the bigger challenge is coping with her sudden flight from Ukraine and the sense of losing her roots. "I hardly knew anyone in Lithuania and had to start from scratch."

Kick-off meeting for all mentoring pairs in Budapest

The new mentoring network can help with many questions - experience and questions are shared. Photo: ifa

Žana Jegorova from Lithuania has been supporting the Ukrainian artist as a mentor for two months. As deputy director of the cultural centre in the Lithuanian Baltic city of Klaipeda, she has a large network that she can share with her mentee. "I help Katya with contacts to studios, galleries and exhibition organizers. If Katya has an idea, I try to help her put it into practice."

The collaboration kicked off with an introductory seminar in Budapest in September 2023. The programme has 66 participants. This is also where Katya and Žana met for the first time.

Žana recalls the inspiring working atmosphere with workshops and keynote speeches. "At the meeting, we came up with a plan for how Katya could continue to work as an artist in Lithuania." Katya Kononenko hopes to build on the success she has already enjoyed in her home country of Ukraine and elsewhere. Along with exhibitions in Germany and Spain, this year her pictures were also shown in Latvia.

There seems to be considerable interest in an artist whose work also deals with aspects of a new national identity and uses stylistic devices from Ukrainian folklore. "For example, my work uses decorations that are used on house facades at home."

Katya Kononenko sees the mentoring program as an opportunity. It is an opportunity to develop artistically in exile, without losing sight of the fate of her homeland. Her mentor Žana also recognizes the potential of the project: "I've also had help from a mentor in my development process and I know that working closely with someone in a trusting relationship can lead to a lot of positive things", says Žana Jegorova.

Katya Kononenko (far left) and other participants exchange ideas and network in a small group at the introductory seminar in Budapest. Photo: ifa

Art as a way of coming to terms with war and flight

Katya Kononenko has also had an opportunity to present her works to a select audience in Lithuania, for example in Kaunas under the title "Passion for Life or Fear of Death". In Druskininkai, an exhibition of works was held titled "I am a refugee". Titles like these highlight the existential questions that the artist has been grappling with since fleeing Ukraine. "Many of the pictures I painted in 2022 are untitled because the shock of the war left me lost for words."

With her doodle drawings, Katya Kononenko also deals with the difficult situation since the outbreak of the war. Drawing: Katya Kononenko

The sudden onset of the conflict is also, inevitably, inherent in her work, says the artist, who did not attend art college. "I found my way to painting through studying psychology, when I was exploring art therapy methods. Either way, being an artist is less a question of training and more a question of mindset."

How long Žana Jegorova will continue to support her mentee depends on the progress of the war. "I can make plans for the next two or three years, but Katya finds it difficult to set herself long-term goals. Understandably, she is keen to return home when the war is over."

Whatever happens, Katya Kononenko would like to stay in contact with her mentor even after the mentoring programme is over. "Of course, my place is currently in Lithuania, but as soon as the war with Russia is over, I want to go back to Kyiv. The experience I have gained during my stay in Lithuania has certainly helped me to mature. In any case, I am grateful to be able to live here as a refugee and to receive such dedicated support from Žana."

The ifa-Mentoring Programme

Über den Autor
Holger Lühmann

Holger Lühmann worked as an ifa editor at the German Minority Media Centre in Opole (Poland) from 2012 to 2013. Since his return, he has contributed to several ARD television and radio programmes and regularly worked on ifa projects.