Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas, the lauded artist of Haida descent, has a special relationship with Ukraine. When he visited Kyiv in 2019 to share his work and ideas, he marvelled at the spirit of the people. Volodymyr Zelensky had just handily won an election against the previous president, whose government was accused of corruption.
Ukraine was determined to forge an independent path. Zelensky, Yahgulanaas kept hearing, “was the new guy without a political background, saying the right things, and we hope he does the right things.’”
“There was a sense of confidence that Zelensky was going to do it,” he recalls.
The hopeful mood, tempered with seriousness of purpose, was infectious. Yahgulanaas made close friends in the Ukrainian art community and together they planned an exhibit of his work in Kyiv, including an opera based on his Haida manga fable, Flight of the Hummingbird, which was to open in autumn of this year. “The ground felt very fertile there,” he says.
Now Yahgulanaas’s voice breaks as he speaks of what those friends have communicated to him from the hell of Putin’s war. Some told him they were hiding in basements while Russian tanks terrorized their town outside of Kyiv. Others, fleeing with their children, are now refugees in European countries.
Never mind the exhibit, swept away like so much else by the brutal invasion. What could Yahgulanaas do to help?
An answer is the print shown below, Kyiv Child, a limited-edition piece he and collaborators Malaspina Printmakers are selling with all proceeds going to UNICEF and Doctors Without Borders to support their work in Ukraine. The prints sell for $500 and are available at the Malaspina Printmakers website. The goal is to raise $100,000.
The artwork has a rich pedigree. It is inspired by a centuries-old stone carving in a Kyiv cathedral of a warrior on horseback carrying a spear. Yahgulanaas changed the rider to a mother and child. Given the images beamed from Ukraine now, says the artist, “it seems apropos of the moment, women and children fleeing violence.”
Yahgulanaas is highly regarded for his “Coppers from the Hood” series of Haida-themed copper leaf inlays on automobile hoods — one has been collected as a “cultural treasure” by the British Museum. During his visit to Ukraine, Yahgulanaas asked some of his hosts where he might find a hood from a Lada. The brand of car is common in Ukraine. But it's made in Russia. Which is why his request was met with “icy stares.” And why Yahgulanaas was then instructed about the Slavuta — a car developed and built in Ukraine until 2011, against all odds, because Russia didn’t appreciate the competition.
Suffice it to say that the original Kyiv Child, a stunning work with black lines flowing over platinum and gold leaf, is painted on the recovered hood of an old Slavuta.
Yahgulanaas has long been an advocate for social change, very involved in the successful struggle of his Haida people for self-determination.
“We have made a robust effort to make it better here,” he says. “How do I take that and apply it to the situation in Ukraine?”