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Ukrainian art and culture in Australia began to flourish after the first main wave of Ukrainian immigrants came to Australia after WWII. Bringing a long Eastern European tradition of artists being an important component of the social fabric of a community, Ukrainians in the form of both amateur and professional artists immediately started to take an active part in the Ukrainian cultural and social life on the new continent. They decorated stages for concerts and theaters, decorated ornate church interiors, and designed concert programs, flyers, banners, posters, and logos for their organisations.

Despite the difficult conditions of immigrant settlement in the new country after WWII, Ukrainians quickly started to build schools, halls, churches and community hromadas — or local communities in many suburban parts of Australian towns and cities. The Ukrainian artists, along with others active in the Ukrainian amateur theatre, opera, and choirs, helped in the difficult task of ‘community building’ in the early years of Ukrainian settlement in Australia. Building a new Ukrainian community within a foreign country was a mission for many Ukrainians who had been displaced by the war, and who could not return to a homeland occupied and controlled by a repressive Soviet communist regime.

While most artists were employed in non-artistic related industries, several of them were fortunate to find work in Australia in the field of art, either teaching drawing in public and private schools, or in private graphic art firms. The majority, however, worked in ‘day jobs’ and only practiced art as a hobby.

The Ukrainian Artists Society of Australia (NSW) was founded in 1967 and was particularly active from the 1960s to the 1970s. Although there were a number of other Ukrainian artist societies founded in the other states, as well as the main national body, the NSW chapter of the Society, called by its acronym SUOMA (NSW), was the only society that survived.

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Artists in Ukrainian community life

The first main wave of Ukrainian immigrants to Australia began after the tumultuous years of WWII. Starting in 1948, under various schemes for the "Displaced Persons" of post-war Europe, Australian immigration brought a large number of professional and amateur actors, singers, and artists. Many of them finished art studies in higher centres of learning in Ukraine or Poland, and some had already worked professionally before arriving in Australia. However, on the new continent they were expected to work as part of a 2-year contract in any work chosen by the Australian Government. In most cases, immigrants who came to the shores of the alien continent were immediately placed on special trains that took them to government ex-military camps (Bathurst, Bonegilla, and Woodside) away from major cities. Most work for the immigrant males was physically difficult and was located in isolated villages and farms. In the early years, the majority of women in the camps lived separately from the men; working in hospitals or in private homes as domestic maids.

Under such circumstances, it was difficult to concentrate on art, but despite the difficult conditions, the Ukrainian diaspora in Australia immediately began to organize social and cultural life. Even during the temporary camp life, Ukrainians started to organise theatrical plays, concerts and displays of craft work. In the camp at Bathurst, Leonid Denysenko managed to organise an art exhibition of his works — 150 cartoons satirising Ukrainian camp life in Germany and in Australia. This exhibition was viewed by more than 3000 people.

Within a year or two, Ukrainians had formed theatrical societies and choirs in various locations. The theatre especially, became the forum for bringing together diverse artistic people. Artists like Volodymyr Savchak, Vasyl Czybulski, Victor Buriak, Stefan Chwyla, and Yurij Holobrodskyj all contributed their time and talent to decorate stages for the myriads of theatrical productions and concerts that became an important part of Ukrainian cultural and social life. Some artists, like Stefan Chwyla, also participated as actors, while others were also involved in Ukrainian choirs, youth groups and veteran groups.

Formation of the Ukrainian Artists Society of Australia

Members of the Ukrainian Artists Society during the national congress in Lidcombe, NSW in 1976

Although active as individuals, it was only in 1967 that a formal visual artists group was formed, largely through the initiative of Stefan Misko from Canberra. Misko travelled to the various states in Australia, seeking Ukrainian artists and forming them into a collective. This group became the Ukrainian Artists Society of Australia (In Ukrainian: Спілка Українських Образотворчих Мистців Австралії) or known by the acronym SUOMA. Stephen Misko became the president of this organisation, Peter Kravchenko (Sydney) became its secretary, and Orion Wenhrynovych (Melbourne) and Aleksander Chubatyj (Sydney) each served as treasurers.

The Society’s first exhibition was held on 25–31 August 1967 at the Gallery, Canberra Theatre Centre as part of the Ukrainian National Festival “A Tribute to Australia”. Nineteen artists from around Australia took part in this first national exhibition.

Thereafter, a number of state chapters of SUOMA were formed, though only the NSW chapter consistently met and organised annual exhibitions. In December 1967 the Ukrainian Artists Society of Australia (NSW) staged its first annual exhibition, though it also included works by Ukrainian artists from other states.

SUOMA in Victoria and South Australia

The Victorian chapter of SUOMA, based in Melbourne, was headed by Vasyl Czybulsky, and after his death Lyudmyla Hrytsenko.

The first annual convention of SUOMA was held in Melbourne in April 1971 as part of the Second Convention of Ukrainians in Australia. This exhibition displayed works by 19 artists, of whom 8 were from Victoria.

Members of SUOMA (Victoria) included: Zina Botte, Orion Wenhrynovych, Lesya Waterfall, Fedir Habelko, George (Jurij) Himmelreich (Secretary), Lyudmyla Hrytsenko, Halyna Korin, Lyuba Kyrylenko-Dacy, Yaryna Lyahovych, Marko Tuyeshyn, Anna Czybylskyj, Vasyl Czybulskyj (President).

Members of SUOMA in South Australia included the artists: Mstyslava Chorney, V. Burak, Timothy Messak, V. Hay, L. Braciw.

SUOMA (New South Wales)

The most active and the longest-lasting of the various SUOMA groups was the New South Wales chapter. The first members of SUOMA (NSW) were: Michael Sadowskyj (President), Peter Kravchenko (Secretary), Stefan Misko (President of the national SUOMA), Michael Kmit, Leonid Denysenko, Eugenia Koziolkowskyj, Sofia Sywenkyj, Aleksander Chubaty. A few years later, Stefan Chwyla, Teodosij Robitnystkyj, Boris Spesywy, Theodor Nelukowyj, and Volodymyr Savchak, joined the group. As well, Martha Sywenkyj, I. Balyk, T. Kosharych, and Yaroslav Stadnyk were members for a short time.

During the most active period of the group — the 1960s to 1970s, the role of President was performed by: Michael Sadowskyj (4 years), Aleksander Chubaty (6 years), Stefan Chwyla (1 year), Theodor Nalukowyj (2 years). The role of Secretary since 1967 to today has been performed by Peter Kravchenko.

The Golden Era

The ‘Golden Years’ of SUOMA (NSW), when it was the most active, was for a period of about 10 years. After 3 months of formation in 1967 it had already staged its first exhibition, and thereafter it had exhibitions once a year until 1976. As well, the Society participated in national exhibitions of SUOMA which were held in 1968, 1971, 1976, as well as participating in the Ukrainian Festival in Canberra in both 1967 and 1972.

Between 1967 and 2007 SUOMA (NSW) organized 37 group and solo exhibitions of its members. Some of them were organized in Australian venues, and 3 of them took place in Kiev, Ukraine. The annual exhibitions of the Society were held in Lidcombe, either at the Ukrainian Community Hall, the Ukrainian Central School, or at the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church Hall.

The visitors’ book from the exhibitions that were held by the Society reveal that over 3,000 people visited the exhibitions and the catalogues show that over 700 paintings were displayed by their members. As well, of course, members displayed their works individually at various Australian exhibitions.

Achievements

Some of the members of SUOMA (NSW) were able to achieve success outside of Ukrainian cultural life. Stefan Misko performed a leading ambassadorial role in propagandising Ukrainian culture amongst the Australian political and social elite in Canberra during the 1960s and 1970s, at a time when there was little awareness and knowledge of Ukraine and its culture and history in Australia. Misko was the first to establish relations with Australian politicians and continued this dialogue for decades in the interests of the Ukrainian community. This close contact also became useful later when Misko successfully campaigned for human rights and refugee status for Ukrainian defectors and dissidents. Misko built an art gallery “Misko Art Studio” in his own house in Canberra, which was opened by the wife of the future Prime Minister of Australia Sir John Gorton in 1978. Here, Misko displayed his own work as well as that of other Australian-Ukrainian artists.

Less than 2 years after arriving in Australia, Voldodymyr Savchak was chosen by the Government to teach art in Tasmania. Later he worked as a teacher of art in an aboriginal mission school in the Northern Territory. Alexander Chubaty worked for a long time in an Australian graphic arts company.

A notable achievement was the winning entry in 1958 by Leonid Denysenko of a design for a stamp on the theme of immigration in an Australian Government competition. In 1968 Leonid and his brother Jurij, won a design competition for the fountain-monument to the immigrants who settled in Fairfield, a local government area on the outskirts of Sydney. This monument was erected in the park at the Crescent, Fairfield in 1968. For a number of years, Leonid and his brother also ran a successful private art school in Parramatta.

Peter Kravchenko’s creations appeared in various television productions produced by the ABC TV. His costume for Alexander the Bunyip featured in a children’s television series. He was also commissioned to create various items for the Australian Opera and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

The ceramic artist Irena Madei was also able to enter the commercial mainstream with her highly distinctive quality ceramic works. Her monumental ceramic 4-metre high mural to commemorate 1000 years of Christianity in Ukraine adorns the area next to St Andrews Catholic Church in Lidcombe. Irena Madei and her artwork were profiled in a television program “Vox Populi” by SBS broadcasting. Her works have been popular gifts from the Ukrainian community to officials and Olympians on ceremonial occasions.

The most successful of all Australian-Ukrainian artists was Michael Kmit. In 1951 he held his first solo show in Australia at the Macquarie Galleries and received a commendation for his entry in the competition for the new Blake Prize for Religious Art. A year later he took second place in the Blake competition and in 1953 won the prize itself with The Evangelist John Mark. In the 1953 shows of the Sydney Group at David Jones his works were exhibited alongside those of the ‘Sydney Group’: Tim Bass, Arthur Boyd, Russell Drysdale, Donald Friend, James Gleeson, Paul Haefliger, Francis Lymburner, Justin O'Brien, and others. There followed an impressive series of awards: the Perth Prize (1954), the Critics' Prize for Contemporary Art (1955), the Darcy Morris Memorial Prize (1956) and the Sulman Prize (1957). The Australian artists Paul Haefliger wrote:

“Of all the foreign aspirants to art who have visited these shores since the war, Michael Kmit is the only one who has made an impression on the present generation of painters.”

Kmit's abstract works were acknowledged as making a significant contribution to the Australian abstract movement by Australian art historians. Reproductions of his works appeared, not only in books on contemporary Australian art, but also on the covers of The Bulletin and the popular Australian historical monthly Parade, and in the Australian Women's Weekly.

Revival

Over time however, as older members died, and some members moved elsewhere the Society’s activities started to diminish. In 1971 SUOMA (NSW) had 27 members, however by 1988 — it had only 14 members.

But in the 1990s Ukrainian cultural life began to revive, due mainly to the influx of a second wave of Ukrainian immigrants who came after the fall of the Soviet Union. These were mostly professionally trained in the Arts, and some already had significant standing as artists. Artists like Svitlana Soldatova, Valentin Shkolny, Lilia and Valentin Varetsa, Natalia Balo, Lesya Bablyak, Svitlana Voronyuk — all came to Australia with fresh ideas, and new energy to infuse into the Society.

Valentin Shkolny came to Australia and worked privately as a professional photographer, and in 2002 he published a photographic book of his works titled “Juxtapositions: an Intimate Portrait of Sydney” (Longueville Books). Lilia and Valentin Varetsa were able to receive commissions for illustrating children’s books. Other newly arrived artists also had successful exhibitions and were able to be recognised for their distinctive talents.

Due to the individual efforts of Peter Kravchenko, cultural exchanges began between many professional artists from Ukraine and Australia. Many years of establishing cultural ties culminated in the coming to Australia of Ivan Marchuk in 1989. Although he was famous in Soviet Ukraine, his invitation to stay in Sydney became the starting point for his international recognition. Another cultural tie resulted in artist-sculptor Anatoly Valiyev visiting Australia in 1992 and presenting the Ukrainian community in Australia with a bronze monument to Taras Shevchenko, which was sponsored by the Kiev City Council.

This new energy and interest in Ukrainian art was able to re-activate the Society and in 1999 an exhibition was held in Lidcombe (79 paintings), and another one in 2000 at Parramatta titled “Ukrainian Poem”. In 2000, through the efforts of Peter Kravchenko, SUOMA (NSW) held another exhibition titled “Spirit from Ukraina” at the Parramatta Heritage Centre. This exhibition featured work of artists from Ukraine: Volodymyr Harbuz, Nina Sayenko, Olexander Sayenko, Lesya Sayenko-Maydanets, and Halyna Sevruk.

In 2000, and again in 2003, SUOMA (NSW) invited the artist Volodymyr Voronyuk, who had solo exhibitions in Sydney and Melbourne. In 2001 SUOMA (NSW) organized an exhibition titled “Our Ukraine” in the Ukrainian Hall at the Palace of Culture in Kiev, Ukraine which featured works by some of its artists.

A notable event was the posthumous commemorative exhibition of Stefan Chwyla’s paintings in April 2007 in Lidcombe. These works were bequeathed by Stefan to the Museum of Cultural Heritage in Kiev, and in the following month were taken by Peter and Paul Kravchenko to Ukraine for a final commemorative exhibition in Kiev, and handover to the Museum.

In 2008 artists from SUOMA (NSW) helped organize the Holodomor (Ukrainian Artificial Famine of 1932–33) commemorative concert and display in Lidcombe.

In 2008 a new constitution was adopted by the Society, and SUOMA (NSW) was renamed SUMA (NSW) (In Ukrainian: Спілка Українських Мистців Австралії (НПВ)) — the reference to ‘visual’ art in the Ukrainian title was removed, so as not to limit members who practiced traditional artisan crafts. This also reflected the new direction of the organisation — allowing membership to anyone who had an interest in Ukrainian culture and art.

Bibliography

  • “The Free Thought” and the Ukrainian Studies Foundation of Australia Ltd (1994), Almanac of Ukrainian Life in Australia (in Ukrainian). Sydney. ISBN 0-908168-04-7
  • Shevchenko Scientific Society Inc. USA and the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (1995) Encyclopedia of Ukrainian Diaspora, Vol. 4 (Australia-Asia-Africa), (In Ukrainian) Kiev-New York-Chicago-Melbourne. ISBN 5-7702-1069-9
  • “The Free Thought” and the Ukrainian Heritage Society in Australia (2001), Ukrainians in Australia: an Encyclopedic Guide, (in Ukrainian) Sydney. ІSBN 0-908168-11-X
  • IPREZ (2001), Artists of Ukraine, Issue 2, IPREZ, Kiev. ISBN 966-95504-0-8
  • Individual articles in The Free Thought, a Ukrainian-language weekly newspaper issued in Sydney.
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