Aggressive's latest exhibit offers extraordinary perspectives on Ukrainian creativity.

01 August 2023

Written by

Adam Bennett

Alex Topaller, Daniel Shapiro, and Ana de Diego tell LBB’s Adam Bennett how their LA-based exhibition is telling the harrowing and defiantly human story of the Ukraine war through art

The Sweetshop

A war is never one story. When Russian forces first entered Ukraine in February 2022, it precipitated a world-shaking event with ramifications across the globe. But it also upended the lives of people living in Ukraine, with millions either leaving the country as refugees or adjusting to harsh and drastic new realities at home. 

Amongst those people are countless profoundly talented artists and creatives, who suddenly found their voices and options limited by events outside of their control. It’s those artists who Alex Topaller and Daniel Shapiro, the co-founders of the production company, Aggressive, wanted to help. Their initiative, Paper Planes, has over the past year connected Ukrainian creatives with gainful employment and commissioned over 500 unique pieces of art. You can find out more about the project here

That artwork will also form part of an upcoming exhibition at Los Angeles’ Show Gallery, created by AGGRESSIVE in collaboration with the team at Spark & Riot, entitled “War Knocked on the Door to my House”. The experiential exhibition will place attendees in the conflict by guiding them through a Ukrainian apartment before the war began and after, in which they can engage with Paper Planes’ collection of works by Ukranian artists. The event is set to ran from April the 27th until the 13th of May 2023.

To find out how Alex and Daniel helped create this extraordinary archive of Ukrainian art and creativity, and why this upcoming exhibition is the most impactful way to tell these stories, LBB’s Adam Bennett sat down with them both alongside Spark & Riot’s founder Ana de Diego…

LBB> Alex, Daniel, and Ana - can you tell us a little bit about how this exhibition has come together, and what motivated you all personally to spearhead it?

Alex> When this all began and the war first started, we were just the same as anyone else: Shocked, and kind of terrified as the reality of it washed over us. But it wasn’t long before, via some friends of ours in Poland, we could see that there were potentially some quite grassroots-level ways to get involved and make a positive difference. Not to the war in a macro sense, of course, but maybe to the lives of some of the people who were being affected and displaced. 

We started out by getting in contact with some refugees who had arrived in Warsaw. We were able to connect them with some work - they were adamant they wanted work, not charity - and from that moment things started to grow. We ended up being put in contact with people who were still in Ukraine, and who also wanted to work. Some of these people were actually living in the occupied territories which had been attacked by Russia. Of course, in that situation, your instinct is to try and help them in the best way you can. 

Daniel> For us, that was to continue finding ways to connect these incredibly talented people with work. Even if that was a case of us commissioning some artwork, where we asked people to simply draw what was happening to them. Paper Planes is the result of all that artwork. At this point, we’ve collaborated with over fifty artists based in Ukraine and have an archive of more than 500 artworks. 

As anyone who comes along to the exhibition will see, a lot of that work is incredibly moving and affecting. Our hope is that it’s provided a gainful artistic outlet for those involved, as well as a kind of cultural document which communicates something about the nature of the war itself. 

Ana> Ever since we launched Spark & Riot in 2018, we’ve maintained a policy where we give a certain percentage of our profits for each project to a non-profit. Since war broke out in Ukraine, we’ve focused a lot of our efforts into providing help for people caught up in that conflict. We see that this is a part of the world where people desperately need support, and while it’s been immensely eye-opening to witness the reality of what’s happening on the ground I honestly believe that the groups we’re working with have been making an enormous difference to people’s lives.

It was through reaching out to various non-profits in Ukraine that we connected with Alex and Dan. We also brought in The Chimera Project - a registered nonprofit where I sit on the board - so that we could ensure our donations were tax deductible. Speaking with Alex and Dan, and looking at the work they’d collected with Paper Planes, we initially wanted to launch an NFT project but that industry has of course run into a lot of problems. So, we settled on the idea of a physical exhibition - something more experiential than just a gallery that people would want to attend and be a part of. Our feeling was that an exhibition would be uniquely powerful, and ultimately raise more money for the cause. 

LBB> In terms of the artwork itself, have you noticed any changes in its tone or content as the conflict has continued over the past year? 

Alex> Yes. I think at the beginning there was a palpable sense of dramatic shock. There’s a kind of hopeless awe at the scale of what people are seeing and experiencing, which is overwhelming to think about. But as time went on, I think we have seen a shift in tone towards what you might call defiance, or purpose in the way that people are now living in new realities. For example, for someone living in Kyiv who has been able to conduct close to a ‘normal’ life at many points over the past year, there’s absolutely a sense of defiance in that. 

When I visited Auschwitz, there was an exhibit which featured cartoons that had been drawn by Jewish prisoners. Some of them were even made by children. Many of them weren’t about the camps, or the war - they were just cartoons. That was a profound way of taking a human perspective on something deeply inhumane, and I’m reminded of that museum when I look at a lot of this artwork. 

Ana> There’s a human - and deeply shocking - aspect to so much of the art in this collection. Something which leaps out quite profoundly to me is the sense of acceptance that war has become a part of daily life. It’s inescapable - life itself has become war-torn. 

The chronology certainly adds another layer of impact. It adds to this idea that war has become part of routine. There is a sense of defiance, and a glimmer of hope. But I don’t want to sell this as a kind of uplifting exhibition that will leave you feeling more positive about this terrible conflict. It won’t do that. It’s an accurate portrayal of the reality of war, expressed through the prism of artwork by amazingly talented creative people who’ve found themselves caught up within it.  

Daniel> As time goes on, you can see how these artworks are a bit of a mirror or a resonator for events that are happening. We’d invariably see more being created in response to a major event during the way. There is a chronology to it, which I think adds something and makes this a really important collection of work. 

LBB> Yeah, on which note - did you originally approach this project with the idea of creating something that future historians could use? 

Alex> That wasn’t our overt intention, no, but I think it is true. Like we said, it was very organic in the beginning in how it came to be. People wanted to be connected with opportunities to work, and we wanted to help them do that. But yes, at a certain point you do realise that you’ve been building up this document which is of genuine historical value. 

Daniel> There was never a grand vision to create a historical document or anything like that. Fundamentally, I think this has come about because so many of the people involved have a production mindset - we’re problem solvers! We’ve been involved with projects that have moved food and supplies into Ukraine, which is just another example of problem solving. We can’t fix the war, but I think we can attempt to fix things for the individuals we can help. 

It’s also worth pointing out that, up until February of 2022, Ukraine was a real hub of creativity and production. We’ve shot there a couple of times, and plenty of people that we work with have as well. That’s not uncommon, because Ukraine is a country with so much creativity and craft in its DNA. I hope that Paper Planes provides further evidence, or maybe a reminder, of that. 

LBB> As for the exhibition itself, can you tell us a bit about the concept behind it? 

Alex> It’s split into two sections. The first is made up to resemble a traditionally Ukrainian family home, where you might find a diverse array of artwork along the walls. It’s kind of funny - we’ve had feedback from some of our Ukrainian friends who’ve told us that it looks nothing like their apartment in Kyiv! But that’s fine, as it's supposed to be more like homes in the rural and eastern areas where much of the fighting has taken place. 

The second part of the exhibition shows this home more in the context of the war. The back wall has been blasted off, and there’s a lot of damage visible. Broken glass adorns the floor and the furniture is coated in dust. An image of the Ukrainian countryside will be projected onto a rear wall through blowing shredded curtains.

LBB> Ana, can you tell us how this concept came together? 

Ana> Our team decided early on that the best way to raise money was not necessarily just through selling the art. Rather, we wanted to give people a reason to come along, take pictures, and really feel like they’re part of an experience. So it was important to create a space that people would really want to come into, and be able to say “I was there”. 

Personally I felt like the most powerful idea we had was this concept where we shared what the experience was like for an artist whose home - the place where they make their art - had been destroyed. It’s a visceral feeling that people can connect to. 

LBB> I understand that there’s also going to be an audio aspect to the exhibition, in the form of poems and stories. Where have you sourced those from? 

Daniel> That’s right, we wanted it to be as immersive as possible. It’s actually a mixture of music by Ukrainian composers alongside those short stories and poems. They’ve actually come from our artists, and there’s an extraordinary mixture of experiences in there. In one case an artist based in Kherson is talking about her experience of evacuation, and another based in Odessa writes about his friends who have joined the Ukrainian military. 

LBB> And finally, what plans do you guys have for this collection of art going forward, beyond this exhibition? 

Daniel> It’s all still very organic - so we will see! We’ve actually just been invited to help create an experiential exhibition at Cannes, so stay tuned for more information on that. Something we’d also very much like to do is create a book which compiles all of the artwork together. 

Whilst this isn’t necessarily our day job, I am conscious that we have a duty of care with this art, and the people who are making it. So we’re making sure that, whatever comes next for Paper Planes, it’s respectful and worthy of what we’ve built so far. 

The artwork on display at “War Knocked on the Door to My House” will be available for purchase with all proceeds going to UKRAINE.EXPRESS, a grassroots initiative which makes monthly deliveries of medical and civilian supplies to the war-torn areas at the front. To date, Ukraine Express has sent over $1m worth of aid to Ukraine.

Ana de Diego: Spark & Riot, Founder and EP
Paloma Mendoza: Spark & Riot, Executive Coordinator
Summer Griffiths: Spark & Riot, Executive Producer
Alex Topaller: Aggressive, Founder and Filmmaker
Dan Shapiro: Aggressive, Founder and Filmmaker
Dustin Pownall: Aggressive, Producer
Isabella Crawford: Aggressive, Production Assistant  
Jena Serbu: Creative Director and Production Design
Levan Tsikurishivili: Ukraine Express Founder and Filmmaker
Margot Ross: Show Gallery, Curator
John Gheur: Show Gallery, Founder of Signature Creative
Josh Falcon: Producer and Sound Design
Alberto Garcia de Quevedo: Printing
Arsen Igorev: Web Designer
Lina Maria Shlapak: Designer