Óskar Hallgrímsson and Mariika Lobyntseva, power couple behind textile art collaboration “Comfortable Universe”, join us on video call from Kyiv, Ukraine, with bursts of technicolour visible in the background of their art studio. They have only recently been reunited with their art. For the first six weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, the Ukrainian military had been utilising the building.
Their art consists of brightly coloured wall hangings, hand-sewn from wool and acrylic, depicting minimalistic characters engaging in beautifully mundane activities that we often take for granted. It all began during lockdown, as a response to the boredom and discomfort of the pandemic.
Tough times, soft solutions
COVID-19 created a need to escape to a more comforting place, even if just through creativity and imagination. It was Óskar and Mariika’s “way to not go crazy,” she says. They built what they call “an opposite world” to the one they were living in.
“Comfortable Universe,” their newly adopted studio name, was the title of their previous exhibition held last December. The soft pieces offered a sensory experience which endorsed closeness, touch and warmth—a stark contrast to a pandemic lockdown. “It portrays the comfortable feelings we missed during the pandemic,” Óskar says. The ageless, raceless, genderless characters depicted through fluffy tufts of yarn in Mariika and Óskar’s art personify the moment in time when all of humanity struggled against the same invisible force that made it grind to a halt.
Longing for safety
Then came war. Mariika and Óskar found themselves facing an entirely different kind of monster. “It’s not unseen and unfelt, it’s very, very real” Óskar says. Mariika adds: “It is shocking how quickly you adapt to your new reality.”
“If we are walking down the street and look slightly suspicious, soldiers will stop and search you. The second they realise that we mean no harm, they are smiling and happy to let us go,” Óskar explains. “Although it was scary at first, now it makes us feel safer, knowing they are being extremely careful.”
Confined once again, they made the best out of their situation, using art to express what words cannot. It is this feeling of safety that Comfortable Universe has focused on for their upcoming show, “Ljómandi Þægilegt”, at Gallery Port from July 16th to August 4th. They will be bringing the work over to Iceland soon, in as many checked-bags as they can carry. “Ljómandi” translates to “glowing” but it is often used colloquially as a synonym for “great.” It describes the glow we can feel inside “like a candlelight—warm, comforting, cosy” Óskar says.
In these newer pieces, beings peek from behind objects, hiding. Mariika sketches the designs, which are then reworked and adapted by both Óskar and Mariika. “Art evolves as you go along”, Mariika explains. “Often you don’t realise until later, when you exhibit your work and people see all kinds of meanings you didn’t even realise were there.”
Flowers are prominent in their latest work, with giant daisies and flower-covered barricades. “I was never into bouquets, but now when we see people selling them, we buy one if we can. It’s a little bit of happiness,” Mariika smiles. “There are a lot more flowers in my work now.”
“Our art this time is not meant to be an ‘escape’, we are merely ‘dressing’ our reality. It’s about defiance,” Óskar clarifies. “We don’t want to use obvious war imagery, but it’s not that we don’t want to acknowledge the pain and the hurt. We know there’s a lot. We have seen it.”
The only exception to this rule of theirs is what Óskar and Mariika like to refer to as “a symbol of defiance.” One of their little beings, throwing a molotov cocktail. It is not in the form of a fluffy wall hanging, but rather one of the most popular tattoo designs at one of the flash tattooing events that Mariika attends. The events take place in an old warehouse that has served as the central hub for making molotovs, camouflage nets, and occasionally hosting raves. All the proceeds from the tattoos go to support the Ukrainian military. “Everyone is contributing something, we do what we can with our skills to help,” says Mariika.
Defiance is the other pervasive theme in “Ljómandi Þægilegt.” It can come in many forms. A person buying a bouquet of flowers, the trees blooming for spring in cities yet to be liberated, or creating art under a sniper occupied roof. It’s a soldier taking up gardening tools while on break, to make sure the roots of their city’s beloved trees get enough air. His AK47 rested on his back, swinging from side to side with every motion of the trowel.
Russian officials will try to have you believe that Ukraine won’t even exist in a few years’ time. Óskar and Mariika assured us it is just noise, and every small act of defiance helps to drown it out, becoming another voice that joins the ever louder chant: “we’re not going anywhere.”
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