19 December 2012

Inside the Picture

Victoria Lomasko is a Russian artist who is probably most famous in the West for her drawings from the frontlines of the Pussy Riot trial. Recent weeks have seen the publication of a German-language edition of her book Forbidden Art, about the 2007 trial of two Russian curators convicted of inciting religious hatred. She has also produced a stunning series of illustrated reports on the women freed from slavery at a Moscow grocery store last month (in Russian and English). Finally, the latest issue of Volya features her “Chronicles of Resistance” about the past year of protest in Russia. Earlier this year, Lomasko spoke with Maria Kravtsova of Artguide magazine. This interview has been abridged.

Maria Kravtsova: I have never understood how you hold up in the courtroom purely emotionally. In my view, the level of aggression at such events is through the roof.

Victoria Lomasko, drawing from the book Forbidden Art, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

Old woman: “Do you have the blessing to draw?”

Victoria Lomasko: I become a different person when I start drawing. I am grateful to absolutely everyone portrayed in my works. For example, the old Orthodox women from the courthouse during the Forbidden Art trial, who sat in the corridor and told tall tales about the artist [Avdei] Ter-Oganyan: I listened carefully to every word and every detail, and examined their kerchiefs and skirts. At such moments, the excitement of the artist awakens in me, the excitement of someone who runs like a hound on someone’s trail without knowing how it will end. Maybe the hound is chasing a bear that will smack it down with one paw. But this excitement—or rather, the fact of finding an interesting topic—is overpowering.

Victoria Lomasko, drawing from the book Forbidden Art, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
Old woman: “They’re a bunch of bums on a mission to discredit Russian Orthodoxy.”
Priest: “This is only the beginning. We will sweep the unclean spirits from the face of the Russian land.”

МK: The aggression of, say, the Orthodox activists didnt get on your nerves?

VL: Actually, it is easy to understand and pity these people. They are mainly old people who lived in one country, but ended up in another. Nearly all of them say they used to be true-believing communists, and some of them had even wanted to blow up churches. This man, for example, is a former communist. [Victoria shows me a drawing of an overweight middle-aged man with an icon on his chest.] He was a professional stonemason and restorer, and worked in the Kremlin, but then he was disabled and reduced to poverty. Now he travels the forests, restoring abandoned churches.

 

Victoria Lomasko, “Orthodox Activist,” from the series Black Portraits, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.
Caption: The stonemason Sergei. A former militant atheist, now a Russian Orthodox activist.
Sergei: “The west wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.”

МK: I dont want to exaggerate my personal experience, but I have difficulty accepting [Russian] leftists, whom I know mainly from the art scene. With a few exceptions, like you, what I see are not leftists, but what they call the bohemian bourgeois or gauche caviar, that is, people who espouse leftist values only verbally. What does the leftist idea mean for you?

VL: For me, the leftist idea is embodied in grassroots assistance; moreover, I’m a believer in pinpointed support. It’s hard to see how things will end when a global idea is deployed in real life, but at all times and under all regimes there are plenty of poor, disadvantaged people and plenty of injustices. I’d rather try and fix one specific injustice than sign onto a global project only formally. And that is why I am really glad I met the human rights activists from the [Moscow] Center for Prison Reform. These people are focused on selflessly helping others, and compared to them I feel like a nasty bourgeois, doing “projects.” I travel with them to penal colonies for minors and see these human rights activists, most of whom are in their sixties and seventies, dragging seventy backpacks of humanitarian aid on their back, because when the boys and girls are released from the colonies they often have no street clothes. Human rights activists do this regularly, but few people know their names. However, many of the wards in the colonies need not only material, but also psychological support, which we are trying to give them—by, for example, giving drawing lessons, as I do.

Victoria Lomasko, “Cafeteria,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011. Courtesy of the artist

MK: Another aspect of your civic activism is coverage of rallies and protest actions. Do you think these are a waste of breath or in fact an effective tool for society to exert influence on the authorities?

VL: I think that protest rallies are concretely beneficial because the people who attend them can then plug into specific causes—protests against the demolition of architectural landmarks, injustices in the justice system, and so on. People have learned not to be silent. I also think it is necessary to go to court hearings. Judges have begun to feel public pressure: their faces are there for everyone to see, and they immediately become targets of caricatures and criticism. My personal arsenal of protests includes the trial against the administration of the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, which had illegally fired a number of teachers. As a result, the dismissed teachers were reinstated, while the rector got the boot. The trial was presided over by a good judge who took our side. In addition, several alumni and students drew in the courtroom, and the next day their graphic reportages were on the Internet. This was a real shock for the university administration. They had hoped no one would find out about the trial, that they would do their dirty work and get away with it. They blew a fuse when they saw how I was drawing them. “Who do you think you are?” they said to me, “How dare you draw us! We’ll expel you tomorrow!” And I thought, “Nothing will come of that: I graduated from the university a long time ago, and tomorrow the drawings will be in Advokatskaya gazeta and on Grani.ru!” [Two major online Russian news sources —Trans.]

Victoria Lomasko, Rally against Election Fraud. Sakharov Avenue, Moscow, December 24, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.
Woman talking on phone: “All of Moscow is here.”

MK: I have been observing you for a long time, especially the way you draw during street protests. You stand or walk through the crowd sketching in your notebook, even though whats happening around you—the crowding, the riot cops, flares lighting up, shouting, rain and snow—could really get in your way. But you could easily simplify the procedure and make it safer by taking photos at events that interest you and then drawing from them later. 

VL: I think that drawing from photographs is a way for fake artists or artists who have gone lazy. Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me. Photographs are a one-byte reality, whereas in my all drawings, time is layered, people come and go, the subject and the composition slowly emerge. I stand and wait for something interesting to start happening in the empty corner of my drawing, for people I find interesting to cross a bridge at the right angle. My role models are the artists from the Thirteen group, who talked about how an artist has to capture the flow of time. Just like a dancer dances to the music, an artist must draw to the tempo of what he sees. 

Victoria Lomasko, from the series Drawing Lesson. Mozhaisk Juvenile Penal Colony, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.
Yevgeny: “I take out my anger on the world by drawing.” 
Caption (lower left): Each drop is a grievance—its like rain.
Caption (right panel): Yevgeny was a gambler: he was sent to the colony for breaking open a slot machine. He did not know how to draw and did not want to learn—he came to class to get things off his chest. Yevgeny always looked tense. He hated his surroundings and once said he wanted to kill. The skinhead Oleg took him down a peg: Shut up. You dont know what murder is.


Victoria Lomasko, from the series Drawing Lesson. Mozhaisk Juvenile Penal Colony, 2010. Courtesy of the artist.
Oleg: “A swastika is encrypted in Raphael’s pictures.”
Caption (left panel): He draws a lot. He has his own views on Renaissance masterpieces.
Caption (right panel): Oleg is a skinhead. It all started when, at the age of eight, he witnessed the murder of a friend: teenagers from the Caucasus killed him to get hold of his telephone. At fourteen, Oleg organized a fight club, in which he was the youngest member. The fighters staged flash mobs at Caucasian markets. Oleg said that in his small provincial town, the population was divided into skinheads, people from the Caucasus, and suckers. He was convicted of a gang killing. He expected to be rewarded for his patriotism, not punished. Oleg has kept up his spirits in the penal colony: he has been studying foreign languages, philosophy, and economics. He dreams of becoming a politician: Yanukovychs convictions didnt stop him from becoming president. In the autumn, he was transferred to an adult penal colony. 

 

MK: As an artist, you are nowadays primarily associated with political activism. How did you come to this? How did you find yourself in a courtroom with a sketchbook for the first time?

VL: At a certain point I felt like I was suffocating from loneliness and that I needed kindred spirits. Then Anton Nikolaev suddenly appeared in my life. I met him by accident and had no idea that he was an actionist, the stepson of artist Oleg Kulik, and son of the famous cultural studies scholar Ludmila Bredikhina, that he collaborated with Voina. When we were getting to know each other, he told me he’d just gotten back from Rzhev, where he’d been filming a documentary. Then I watched all of his movies and just fell in love with them. The next time we saw each other, when he said, “I’m planning a new trip to the provinces. There’s room in the car, do you want to come?” I gladly agreed. We went to different towns a few times. I made sketches and Anton made captions to them that I really liked. The result was the book The Provinces. 

Victoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, illustration from the book The Provinces, 2011. Courtesy of the artists.
Younger man: “Did you steal this from your wife?” Old man: “No, it’s all my own stuff, from the garden.”

After that, Nikolaev invited me to the trial of the organizers of the exhibition Forbidden Art, to draw the performance staged by the group Bombila, “A Fascist Beats Up Themis.” Honestly, I was appalled during the first court session. But after the second one, the Orthodox community had completely captured my imagination.  

Victoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, “Terrorist. Psychiatric Hospital in Burashevo, Tver Region,” illustration for the book The Provinces, 2010. Courtesy of the artists.
Nurse: “Why did you take hostages?” Patient: “There were voices in my head.”

MK: You dont collaborate with contemporary art galleries. Your work, however, can be seen not only in magazines and on the Internet, but also in very unusual places. I recently visited your solo exhibition for the Walk On By Gallery, in a pedestrian underpass in Moscow that functioned as a gallery for an hour.

VL: It was a gamble, and it was completely unclear how the audience—i.e., the pedestrians—would react.

Victoria Lomasko during the installation of her Walk On By Gallery show in a pedestrian underpass. Moscow, 2011. Photo by Maria Kravtsova

Walk On By Gallery exhibition in a pedestrian underpass. Moscow, 2011. Photo by Maria Kravtsova

MK: It was obvious from the get-go the police were going to show up and take everyone involved down to the station. 

VL:  I told Alexei Knedlyakovsky, who organized the show, that the police would come, but he assured me he’d staged four events in this underpass already and the police had reacted calmly. But at my show there were posters that said, for example, “Let Us Free Russia from Putin,” and after seeing stuff like that they simply had to take us in. Nonetheless, I have to say I was happy with the police’s reaction to my work, how carefully they looked through the pieces, and how asked me to leave them some posters as keepsakes. I gave them a few with my autograph: “To so-and-so and so-and-so from Victoria Lomasko.” I am really inspired by authorities reacting this way. I’m not one of those people who believe all cops are beasts you have to hate and despise. I think artists should reach out to people from all segments of the population. I would even be quite glad to give a lecture on reportage comics to police officers. 

Victoria Lomasko, “Let Us Free Russia from Putin,” poster, 2011. Courtesy of the artist

MK: Do you sell your work?

VL: So far, I haven’t sold a single piece.  

MK: I meant something else. There are some artists who part with their work easily and others who cant part even with a seemingly minor sketch. 

VL: I belong to the second category.

This version of the interview is abridged. For the full translation, see Chto Delat News. 

Image: Victoria Lomasko, Rally against Election Fraud. Sakharov Avenue, Moscow, December 24, 2011. Courtesy of the artist.

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