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How the war already changed the meaning of one artist’s childhood – and her paintings

The first thing Zoya Cherkassky-Nnadi drew after Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine was a little girl in pigtails looking through a window. When you look at it, pops of red catch your eye: The girl’s black-and-red checkered skirt. The bright red jacket of a man in the street, his arms outstretched in the face of a menacing black tank. Smudges of yellow and mostly red fire spilling out of the building across the street, bathing the scene in an eerie pink glow. Next to the artist’s signature is a tiny Ukrainian flag.

Some elements of this scene might feel familiar to fans and followers of the Kyiv-born, Israel-based artist. In “Mama” (2016), a little girl also looks through a window, waiting for her mother to come home at the end of the day. But in that instance, the reds and pinks paint a cozier picture: Red polka dots on the girl’s white shirt. A vase of flowers perched on the TV. And more florals — red in the rug and pink on the wallpaper. Outside is calm, tinted a frosty blue, snow falling as a lone figure in black raises an arm in a friendly wave.

When she saw the first photos of bombings and Russian tanks entering Ukraine, “I was really feeling like they’re coming into my childhood landscapes and ruining them,” said Cherkassky-Nnadi, who grew up in Kyiv before immigrating to Israel at age 14 in 1991, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union. “These landscapes, they belong to peaceful times,” she said. “All these neighborhoods, they don’t belong to war stories.”

For years, Cherkassky-Nnadi has documented scenes plucked from her memories of Kyiv as part of her “Soviet Childhood” project. She began working on it when she was pregnant with her daughter — who’s now six. She thought about her daughter’s future childhood and recalled her own in the bygone Soviet era. “This country that I grew up in doesn’t exist anymore,” said Cherkassky-Nnadi, speaking to me on Zoom from her studio in Israel.

She started with a few drawings, and those stirred her memory. Visuals flashed in her mind — like getting ready for school on a cold, dark morning that still feels like night, or a grandmother coming home laden with bags as the children rush over to see what she brought them. “It became a very big project because these memories, they just come and come. They are still coming.”

Cherkassky-Nnadi’s 2019 “Soviet Childhood” exhibition with the Fort Gansevoort New York gallery marked her U.S. solo debut. New York Times critic Roberta Smith lauded the show as a “knockout,” deeming it “merely the tip of a very engaging iceberg.”

“Her wise, appealing works are alive with color, detail and, often, humor,” Smith wrote. “But they are also psychologically subtle and socially astute.” Adam Shopkorn, co-founder of Fort Gansevoort, remembers visitors who’d grown up in the Soviet Union basically showing him and his colleagues around — giving tours in reverse — “so they could explain what their childhood was like and what we were looking at,” he said. “It really struck a chord.”

It was this project and another — “Pravda,” which plumbed the experiences of Soviet immigrants to Israel and was shown at the Israel Museum in 2018 — that spurred Cherkassky-Nnadi to begin traveling regularly to Kyiv again. When she’d first arrived in Israel as a teenager, there was no internet and calling was too expensive, so she and her friends wrote letters to each other to stay connected. She spent a month back in Kyiv after graduating from high school in 1996, but didn’t go back until 18 years when her art pushed her to return again and again.

“I needed the landscapes, because I’ve noticed that every time I tried to depict Kyiv, it comes out Berlin, because I was living in Berlin, and it’s similar in a way, but it’s not the same,” said Cherkassky-Nnadi, who lived in Germany from 2005 to 2009. “I go there to hunt for my childhood landscapes, always collecting.”

Most recently, she traveled to Kyiv this past fall with her daughter and the filmmaker Anat Schwartz, who was working on a 30-minute documentary about the artist as part of her “Muses” series.

“Usually, I just see what I see,” Cherkassky-Nnadi said. But filmmaker in tow, they made an effort to go into her old school, for example, where a couple of the classrooms looked exactly as she remembered them. “It was like, you open the door and there’s a time machine,” she said. “I experienced it several times during this trip, and I think this was the deepest travel into the time that I had in Kyiv. And it was so symbolic that it happened just four months before the war.”

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