Sofia Riabchuk stood in a gallery in Warsaw’s National Museum and pointed to a medieval wooden statue of the Virgin Mary cradling a smiling baby Jesus. Then she started asking questions.
“What do you see?” she asked. “Are they happy? What are the secrets here that are not obvious for you? What would you wonder about the colours? The nudity of Christ?”
This wasn’t an art history test and there were no right or wrong answers. Instead, Riabchuk was demonstrating how she prompts a discussion about art and much more with a special audience: refugees from Ukraine.
Riabchuk leads an innovative program at the museum that helps newly arrived Ukrainians open up about their emotions and begin to heal from their ordeals.
Every couple of weeks about a dozen refugees gather around a painting or a sculpture. For up to an hour, Riabchuck guides them through a conversation about the piece and what the artist was trying to convey. Participants are encouraged to talk about what they see in the artwork and how it makes them feel.
“I don’t call it therapy,” Riabchuk explained. “I just call it ‘slow looking’. We talk about, let’s say, a painting, without knowing anything. And I just provoke them to describe what they see. If the topic is about feelings … we are looking for this, for some feelings.”
Riabchuk can relate to the people who attend the sessions. She fled Kyiv with her three young children when the war started. They lived briefly in Lviv, in western Ukraine, and then moved to Warsaw at the encouragement of Polish friends. “I remember a great fatigue, that was the worst part,” she said of her first weeks in Poland. “I was so exhausted physically that I could not function more than a few hours a day.”
She’d been running the education department at the Mystetskyi Arsenal museum in Kyiv and had connections to the National Museum in Warsaw, which has now hired her to run its educational services. She had been on a fellowship to Poland six years ago which focused on art programs for children. Officials at the National Museum “were very, very open-minded and eager to share their experience. And then they helped me to have context in other museums in Warsaw,” she said.
She started the refugee program a few months ago and said the meetings often follow a theme. “One day we talked about fear, one day we talked about sadness, one day about joy,” she said. “Quite often people in the same group see the opposite feelings in the same painting. What that means is we are talking about ourselves.”
Fellowship and community are important parts of the program because many refugees have come to Warsaw on their own. “Some people feel really lonely, especially older people who have no relatives here,” Riabchuk said. “People meet people who have more or less same interests, like the arts.”
Svitlana Kryventseva, 74, left Kyiv by herself in early March and found living in Warsaw difficult at first. “I needed to reflect on my emotions, like gratitude, what is good, what is bad,” she recalled.
She said she has always loved art and decided to try Riabchuk’s program. She has attended several sessions and found them enormously beneficial. “The art project provided the space for getting deeper in those positive emotions.”
One of the museum’s best-known paintings – the Death of Barbara Radziwiłł by Jozef Simmler – has generated some of the most heated discussions.
The painting depicts the dying moments of Queen Barbara, who married Poland’s King Sigismund II Augustus in 1547. The marriage caused a scandal because Barbara was seen by many Poles as a lower-class harlot and Sigismund had to persuade parliament and his mother to accept her as Queen. Barbara died of a mysterious illness five months after she was crowned. Some suspected that she had been poisoned by Sigismund’s mother.
Riabchuk showed one group the painting without telling them the backstory. “Some people thought he’s happy she’s dying. Some people thought he’s very sad. Some people thought he’s very mad she’s dying. And it was really controversial,” she said. “For everybody it’s different.”
She added that she always tells the groups that there are no wrong perceptions. “Many people are just afraid of interpreting because they say ‘I know nothing. How can I interpret?’ And I tried to show that there is no bad interpretation.”
Riabchuk is trying to better understand why the group talks have had such an impact. She’s pursuing a postgraduate degree in psychology and plans to use the art program as part of her thesis. “As a student of psychology, I am looking for the answer to why those meetings are so joyful. At the end, everyone feels really, really, well,” she said.
Kryventseva said she has been fascinated by Riabchuk’s discussions about artists and what they were trying to portray. “First we are coming to the picture. We dive into the into the content and then we have tea and discuss more of what we have experienced,” she said. “And then we can bridge from discussing the emotions activated by the picture, to the feelings related to our day-to-day lives.”
She has been particularly interested in the depictions of Ukraine by several Polish artists who are featured in the museum. For example she noted works that show Kyiv’s Saint Sophia Cathedral and landscapes of the Ukrainian countryside.
“This is an exciting experience and I can’t wait for the next meeting,” she said. “It means my days are productive.”