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Painting windows to the world

By Ruslana Sirman and Chris Schuepp

Popasna, Ukraine, 8 June 2017 – For the children in Popasna in eastern Ukraine, much has changed over the last three years. Their home city used to be a quiet little place in Luhansk oblast of Ukraine, but today the sounds of the conflict only a few kilometres away from Popasna can be heard almost every night. To get to Popasna you have to pass several army checkpoints, which is what renowned French artist Julien Malland did every day for the last week.

A boy running past a new mural called "Popasna's swing" at School #1 in Popasna - Julien Malland / 2017

“Before I came here, I didn’t know what to expect. Of course, I have heard of Donbas, of the conflict in Ukraine. And I have been to Ukraine before for art projects. But this was a journey into the unknown. As an artist, I had my ideas, but when I came here, it all changed.”

Use your imagination

Paris-born Julien (Seth) Malland is well known internationally for his colourful creative murals that he paints all over the world. Julien is also known as an artist with a social attitude. This really comes to life when he works directly with children, giving master classes in schools and encouraging them to use their imagination.

After having been to Ukraine twice before to raise public awareness on the rights of marginalized and vulnerable groups of children, this year UNICEF partnered with the Mural Social Club of Ukraine and the Sky Art Foundation to join Julien in his global “Back to School” initiative that aims at giving children in different parts of the world a little insight into the art world and to stimulate their creativity.

The idea of the initiative is to engage artists in painting in schools that are mainly in underprivileged areas and to give children a chance to see artworks that are usually only visible in big metropolitan cities.

“When we arrived in Popasna, we gave the children some books as presents. It was amazing to see how they reacted. Their eyes got bigger and bigger and they were totally into the books. So I immediately knew that I would use the books in the mural that I was to paint on the outside of the school.”

Children standing in front of the new mural painted by Julien Malland on the side wall of School #1 in Popasna - UNICEF Ukraine / Chris Schuepp / 2017

A few days later, an impressive 9x13 meters image of a boy scaling a mountain of books, sticking his head through the clouds to see what’s beyond, is prominently visible on the wall of School #1 in Popasna.

6th grader Oleksandra who came every day to see Julien transforming the school wall in Popasna into a work of art says: “As far as I understand, this means that books give you knowledge and the more books you read, the more you understand. You grow with it and it opens a new world for you. I love the mural, it’s so colourful, it’s so cool!”

Arts as a form of psychosocial therapy

On one of the other walls of the school, the wall facing the contact line of the conflict, a girl sits on a swing, facing the open blue sky. Right next to her on the wall are the scars of war where School #1 was hit by shelling at the height of the armed conflict in 2014. The classroom windows near the wall are reinforced with heavy wooden plates in case the school comes under fire again. Children in eastern Ukraine, especially in the areas that are close to the ‘contactline’ have been living in chronic fear and uncertainty due to shelling, unpredictable fighting and dangers from landmines and other unexploded ordnance.

Only last year, with support from several international donors and in cooperation with local partners, UNICEF Ukraine reached approximately 200,000 children with psychosocial support through community protection centres, mobile teams, teachers and schoolbased psychologists.

“The children spent so much time in school, they need to feel happy here. They need to have an environment where they enjoy their education. Their lives are grey enough already, why should we leave the school walls grey? We need more colours in life and show the kids that there is always a new horizon and always something to look forward to,” says the French artist at the end of his stay in Popasna. “The mural now dominates the wall, not the mark the shell has left in the bricks.”

Recognizing that children face different circumstances and have different needs, UNICEF supports the Government of Ukraine in ensuring that schools are equipped with adequate resources and appropriate conditions for learning.

The idea is for the school is to be a safe place for learning and development that builds on the advantages that children bring from their homes and communities and also compensates for some shortcomings that might exist there.

Colouring up their lives

On the last day of his visit, Julien also delivered another master class for children of School #1. The task was to paint windows on the only remaining grey wall of the school and fill the windows with whatever the children want to see through these imaginary windows. Of almost 100 liters of paint and dozens of spray cans Julien used in Popasna only little is left, but the children use everything they can get their hands on to finish their paintings.

Julien Malland (left) with 16-year-old student Anya painting "Windows to the world" - UNICEF Ukraine / Chris Schuepp / 2017

What you can see ‘through the windows’ are peaceful villages, sunrises and sunsets, starry nights and villages covered in snow. The French artist is impressed and the young participants are proud of their work. Anya, 16, says: “We wanted it to be colourful. We didn’t want to use dark colours at all. We can be creative here, why should we fall back into grey images. This really gives us a chance to forget the situation we are in, so we are opening new windows, not old windows.”

Oleskandra (12), still busy painting a mosaic of handprints in shining colours, adds: “This is here to stay. Every day I walk to school now I will see these windows and the murals and I will be reminded of the beautiful days we spent here together creating this.”



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