The award-winning Australian artist George Gittoes has created an outdoor mural in one of the main squares in Odessa, Ukraine, in collaboration with the local poet Viktor Solodchuk. Titled Russian Offensive, the 10-metre-long mural draws inspiration from a bloodthirsty warlord in The Hobbit film trilogy which has been popular on Netflix during Ukraine’s curfews.
“When the war started, lockdown curfews kept everyone inside,” Gittoes says. “People went to this fantasy for comfort but soon found it mirrored their own situation. Mariupol [the city that’s been all but obliterated by Russian strikes] is like a nightmare scene from the Hobbit. As a result, many of our conversations have led to the Russians being described as Orcs and Putin as [the cruel and bloodthirsty warlord] Azog. The Hobbit seems a perfect metaphor for what is happening here—the darkness trying to take control from the light, and bring death.”
Solodchuk collaborated on the mural, adding lines of his poetry in between Gittoes’s India ink drawings. “It was good to be out among people, doing work which defies the insanity of the destruction of this beautiful city,” Gittoes says.“It picked everyone’s spirits up.” He adds that Solodchuk’s 24-year-old son is fighting the Russians at the frontline “and is prepared to die for Ukraine’s independence from Russia”.
Gittoes and his wife Hellen Rose left their beachside Australian home on 18 March this year and arrived in Ukraine several days later. They said that the aim of their self-funded trip was to create art in support of the besieged Ukrainian population. They watched The Hobbit in their Kyiv hotel at the same time as bombs were raining down nearby in Irpin, Bucha and Borodyanka.“The screams of the Orcs going into battle blended with the screaming air raid sirens,” Gittoes says.
The couple travelled south to Odessa where Gittoes’ mural was created on a graffiti wall in Hrets’ka Square. Its central figure is modelled on Azog the Defiler, a monstrous killer from the film The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Gittoes and Rose say they are now in love with Odessa, a strategically located port city which has so far escaped the Russian invasion relatively unscathed.
“Odessa is the most arty and art-oriented city I have ever visited,” Gittoes says. “The people all look super cool, switched on, bohemians. There are free concerts in the streets with world class musicians and the kind of coffee shops and bars you could imagine Modigliani and Picasso enjoying back in Montparnasse in 1907. I could not imagine anything more abominable than to see this place bombed and turned into another Mariupol.”
Gittoes and Rose returned to Kyiv several days ago. They now plan to to create a further three murals in the Kyiv area, specifically in the war-ravaged towns of Irpin, Bucha and Borodyanka. These murals will be on canvas. Rose will film the creation of the murals in Kyiv, as she did in Odessa.
She and Gittoes plan to return to Ukraine throughout the next year to 18 months as they gather footage and stories for a film they are making on the Russian invasion. Early in their trip to Ukraine, Gittoes and Rose documented the damage Russian soldiers caused to the Central House of Culture in Irpin. Now, Gittoes is planning to have an exhibition of the work he and Rose have created in Ukraine in “what remains” of the destroyed former arts centre.
Gittoes said there was “a smell of victory in the air” as he and Rose returned to Kyiv after their side trip to Odessa. “Kate [Parunova, their assistant who is a Kyiv resident] was at the carriage door to meet us and help with our bags,” Gittoes says. “She was lighter and happier than I have seen her, bubbling with excitement over the news that Ukrainian forces have forced the Russians back out of Kharkiv. This was something that seemed impossible only a week ago.”