Artist Maya Hayuk’s Ukrainian roots: ‘My family suddenly numbers 44 million people’

Maya Hayuk’s colorful stripe and cross patterns only became symbolic after the Russian troops invaded Ukraine, where her roots lie. “Now that my country is under attack and my family suddenly consists of 44 million people, I think it’s crucial to make my voice heard.”

If you look closely at the colorful canvases and murals of the Ukrainian-American artist Maya Hayuk (53), who sings about geometric patterns and symbolism, you can’t help but delve into her roots. Her parents fled Ukraine during World War II, but even though there was an ocean between their old and new home, that didn’t stop them from teaching their daughter the delicate traditional embroidery typical of their homeland. “The traditional patterns and different materials have inspired me,” she says from her current home in Williamsburg, New York.

“The discipline and focus needed to master the basics first also influenced my later practice. It may have helped that I was not very sociable as a child: I liked to sit still and draw more than my peers. I think it’s crazy that kids at art school sometimes get completely free. exercises are necessary to master certain techniques. It’s like learning scales for the piano or passing football.”

“Ukrainian embroidery is based on small crosses. Long before Christianity, the “X” was already established as the symbol of protection. Not only in Ukraine, but in different cultures. Craft often became one craftsmanship or crafts, perhaps because it was mostly anonymous women who did it. It doesn’t sound like art, but meanwhile crafts are considered significant to a particular culture, region or family of artisans.”

The striking thing about Hayuk’s trail is that it took her years to realize that the crossings with a direct connection to her homeland would become a trademark, as the new exhibition at Alice Gallery testifies. “It’s because I used to be busy with many other things. In the end, I rolled into the art world by a major detour. I used to photograph music bands. Later, musician friends asked me to make posters, album covers and T-shirts. Compared to these informal tasks (for example, Beastie Boys, Devendra Banhart and Animal Collective), galleries seemed mostly boring to me. (laughing) Music was something you could experience among friends in a sweaty concert hall. It gave much more energy than looking at a canvas in a museum. But even though I was pretty much the opposite of the average art school student, I always drew and painted. It just didn’t work out because I mainly work with music, performance, outsider art and mixed media was busy. It was primarily about what I could do with my body, and it also had a very activist edge.”


Gray zone
When she realized what you could do with art to change the world, she decided to work in the public space. “At first anonymously, often in the gray zone between legal and illegal, because then suddenly it’s no longer about you, but about spreading a message. There were no rules. I pioneered street art before the term didn’t exist. The larger the mural, the more abstract and minimal it became until only patterns remained and my work began to catch the eye of others, such as on the Houston Bowery Wall and the Wynwood Walls in New York. Instagram had just become fashionable at the time, and it became popular to take a selfie with street art in the background.”

Hayuk’s work had already been discovered for a while by Alice van den Abeele, Brussels gallery owner behind Alice Gallery and MIMA, which would bring her into the lens of other Belgian art organizations, such as the Biennale d’art urbain Asphalte in Charleroi and recently the street art festival Krystalskibet in Ostend. “She first sent me an email fourteen years ago. I was very nervous because Brussels was already my favorite European city at the time. As a child I often went there with my parents. They traveled a lot because my father as geography professor developed educational tools. Back then, Brussels was already cool and unpretentious. Now it’s still what it is, without glamor and bullshit. When I walk around here, I run into acquaintances more easily than in Williamsburg, where gentrification continues.”

Trident and poppies
It was also Van den Abeele who encouraged Hayuk to paint larger works that referenced her street art. “Now it seems obvious, but then it meant a big change. My studio was barely ten square meters then, now it covers 2,000!”

Her latest solo is called Spin cycle, a reference to how long a particular event or vision of it remains in the news. “Most of the works were created after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, I had to consume so much ‘spider’: from the Russian propaganda machine, from the right, from the left, from the moderates… While objectively speaking, murder still murder, and a war crime is a war crime.”

All that spinning made her dig even deeper into her history, culture and identity. “In the past, my background was not that important. Now that my country is under attack and my family is suddenly 44 million people, I think it is crucial to make my voice heard. When I paint, I usually listen to music, not podcasts or the news. It would only distract me, but I’m processing it all. In my new murals sit the Ukrainian flag and trident. In my studio I paint poppies and sunflowers. When I suddenly saw a ‘Z’ (a symbol used by supporters of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, ed.) appear somewhere, I immediately broke the pattern and continued until I could see the ‘X’ for protection.”

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