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AIRLIFT: students with Ukraine in their hearts

Airlift, the charitable organisation of Ukrainians in Berlin, is getting ready for a Ukrainian art auction, to be held on June 10, 2023, at the Museum Berlin-Karlshorst. Airlift is partnered by the G.ART Gallery. Airlift and G.ART Gallery first met at the famous Cafe Moskau in Berlin, where a large-scale forum “Cafe Kyiv – We Choose Freedom” was held on February 27. They got to know each other and realized that they could join forces to promote contemporary Ukrainian art in Europe and charity.  

Airlift was founded by Ukrainian students, who are now living and studying in Berlin because of the full-scale Russian invasion. They could enjoy their youth, travel, socialise with their peers and take a “break” from war, but decided to take an active part in helping their country. In the midst of preparations for the auction at Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, we talk to Airlift co-founders Vitalii Lutskyi and Kateryna Honcharenko.

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Airlift co-founders

Please tell us how you came to Berlin and what are you doing here?

KH: I arrived from Kyiv almost a year ago. I’m studying at both Kyiv and Berlin universities as an exchange student, studying international business and business administration. At the same time I do charity work and my hobbies are floristry, drawing and other kinds of art.

VL: I am also studying in Kyiv and Berlin, I am focusing on Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, business administration. I’ve been here for a year and a half, even before the full-scale war. The outbreak of war, on February 24th, 2022, caught me in Kyiv, where I was on holiday. But as I was 17 at the time, I was able to return to Germany to continue my studies.


When did you set up Airlift? And who is part of your company?

VL: We founded Airlift in the autumn of 2022. There are five of us, myself and four girls. Three are from Kyiv, one girl is from Kharkiv, one is from Lugansk, but they haven’t lived in Kyiv for the first year either.

KH: That’s where we met – all of the girls are studying at the Institute of international relations Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv. We moved to Berlin one by one. Our two Anastasias were the first to arrive, back in March 2022. Of course, it was not easy for them to go practically nowhere. And the two of us, Sofia and I, came to Berlin first as guests and planned to return to Kyiv in a week. But as the war was going on and it was unclear what would happen tomorrow, we thought – why not try to live and study in Berlin, get acquainted, make connections? We went home to get our things and soon we returned to Berlin without any excitement, to people we already knew.

VL: It was a little bit more difficult for me, because I had arrived earlier, and back then there was not such a large and active Ukrainian diaspora in Germany, in Berlin. I can’t say that all Ukrainians here know each other or become friends, but there are such cases. For example, right after we moved here, our girls lived in the Wannsee district, in the centre, where they received children from Ukraine, and met young men there. We are all in touch now, we had a picnic the day before yesterday.


How did Airlift get started?

VL: First we held a charitable analogue photo exhibition in the format of a silent auction at the Gästehaus Blumenfisch am Großen Wannsee. Then we were invited to the International Green Week Berlin at the Messe Berlin Halle. We collected about 8 thousand euros and bought three generators, among other things, for a hospital in Bachmuth, which was already engaged in heavy fighting.

KH: We transferred money for medical needs, for medicines, for example, we helped families with many children. And also we support creative centres, because we want to help Ukrainian art, and one of the Houses of Culture, where children develop their artistic talents. At the auction at the Museum Berlin-Karlshorst, the works of these children will be exhibited alongside those of professional artists.


How did the idea for the charity auction at the Museum Berlin-Karlshorst come about?

VL: The idea for the auction didn’t come about right away. Through one of our sponsors, we met the Deutsch-Ukrainische Gesellschaft, which wanted to do an auction for a German artist. At first, we were very excited about the idea, but we soon realized that it was more important for us to support Ukraine and to work with Ukrainian artists. When we met Dzhemma Grebenko, co-founder of G.ART Gallery, at the Cafe Kyiv – We Choose Freedom forum and saw the level of works presented by G.ART at the exhibition, we were absolutely convinced that we have to work with Ukrainian art and to show it to the world. And just then, a man who had bought one of the photographs at our previous auction, introduced him to the director of the Museum Berlin-Karlshorst. He really liked the idea of the auction. True, the museum was not ready to offer the main hall, but we persuaded the management that this was the best arrangement – a large-scale auction with works by contemporary Ukrainian artists should be held in the main hall!

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And what did Airlift present at Cafe Moskau / Cafe Kyiv? 

KH: Originally, we had the concept of event’s, with pictures taken with a film camera at the centre. We want today’s events to be captured on film. It’s reality without photoshop, without retouching. The pictures we collected show Ukraine during the war; there are some really tragic and tense images, but we did not want to focus only on the war. We are talking about the beauty of the country, the people in the moment, the culture of Ukraine that has been preserved. At Cafe Kyiv, where these photographs were placed next to Ukrainian art presented by G.ART, we saw how different media and different angles complemented each other. That’s how the idea of a joint auction took shape – photography, painting, collages and other techniques.

VL: We really like contemporary Ukrainian art and like the work of artists, so the project harmoniously combined two tasks: promoting art and raising funds for humanitarian purposes.


How does the selection of works of art for the auction at the Berlin-Karlshorst Museum go?

VL: We’re selecting them together with Dzhemma Grebenko.

KH: The G.ART Gallery art platform already has an excellent collection of works by talented contemporary artists, so there’s a wide range to choose from. You know, we wouldn’t want the auctioned works to be too psychologically difficult. Yes, in Ukraine there is a great war going on and the artists are passing all the events through their hearts. But we understand that potential buyers would not want to see a tragic subject in a home interior, something too sad. So among others, works will be selected with a melancholic mood appropriate to the moment, but not aggressive. And of course there will be lots of visually pleasing, beautiful, aesthetic works for all tastes, with meaning and implication. There won’t be mediocre and boring works for sure!

VL: I would like to add that there will also be some Ukrainian classics of the 20th century among modern paintings. We love the work of famous Ukrainian artist Yuriy Khymych (1928-2003), who was a master of architectural landscape. We have contacted the gallery which has a collection of his works and have received five of Khymych’s paintings for an auction.


And what format will the auction take?

VL: First we will invite guests to the exhibition so they can look at the works and discuss them. Then there will be a concert with live music. And then the auction will start around 20:00. We are looking forward to a beautiful and solemn evening and we hope that Berliners will enjoy Ukrainian art and, of course, we will raise a lot of money to support Ukraine.

So be it! But when the auction is over, what do you want to do next?

VL: We would like to move in that direction and develop the concept of cultural diplomacy, allied to charity. So we will probably go on with organizing auctions to promote Ukrainian art in Germany and raise money for humanitarian causes. And we are also discussing with Dzhemma Grebenko a large-scale art fair in Berlin, where Ukrainian contemporary art will be presented.

KH: If before we focused on photography, now we are interested to work with different kinds of art, and maybe go beyond the Berlin cultural scene, to show our projects in other cities. It’s simple: we want to promote Ukrainian art, to raise money, to help.

The common main wish now is for the war to end. And here we are imagining this happy day, Ukraine has won… And how do you see your future? Will you stay in Germany? Or will you live in two countries?

VL: As soon as the borders open, I plan to live in two countries. The war will be over, but Ukraine will still need a lot of money to rebuild. I would like to take part in collecting them. There will be a lot of work.

KH: As long as my studies continue, I have to stay in Germany. But I will be looking for areas where I can be useful to Ukraine. If it will be possible to collect money here to rebuild cities destroyed by Russia, I will work here. If my knowledge and skills are more useful in my home country, I will go back there. It is difficult to make plans now, but in general terms they are like this.

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And what you do now, do you perceive it as a kind of necessity, as something that distracts from your studies and other nice activities, or as a new and useful experience?

KH: I see my activities as both a necessity and a very necessary experience. I know for sure that if I stayed in Ukraine now, I would not be able to do so much good. It makes me feel better to think that I can help my country and bring the end of the war closer, even at a distance.

VL: This is also a necessary and important experience for me. A great work that I personally and all of us in Airlift, I’m sure, are very happy about. We love what we do. We will develop further, I think that is our future.


Marina Polyakova

Cultorologist, journalist, art critic

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