Tuesday 21 May | Victoria Lomasko's artist talk took place in conjunction with her exhibition, Victoria Lomasko: Separated Worlds.
The talk intertwined issues of personal and collective narratives, creating a space of free-association that unfolded like an author’s diary. Lomasko detailed her movements from her characteristic methodology of documentary drawing to symbolism; from journalistic analysis of political events to poetry, communicating subjective feelings and experiences.
Lomasko focused on her decade of intensive travel – initially within her home country in the creation of her celebrated graphic novel, Other Russias, and more recently across Europe and the United States, which crystallised Lomasko’s conception of the contrasts between east and west. The panoramic murals that dominate the walls of the gallery from floor to ceiling throw these two worlds into collision: on one side, Lomasko illustrates the Russian world striving to return to the USSR or the pre-revolutionary era; on the opposite wall, a mirrored modern western world is rendered in nuanced contrast, with expensive universities and skyscrapers sat alongside abject urban poverty. Symbolic landscapes are interspersed with the artist’s poetry, musing on her journey across physical, metaphorical and political borders.
Victoria Lomasko graduated from Moscow State University of Printing Arts in 2003. Lomasko draws on Russian traditions of documentary graphic art, exploring the inner workings of contemporary Russian society and its subcultures, such as Russian Orthodox believers, LGBT activists, migrant workers, sex workers, and collective provincial farm workers. Her book Other Russias was awarded the 2018 Pushkin House Best Book in Translation award. Lomasko collaborates with various non-profit human rights organizations on creating materials for publication and taught workshops in places of incarceration. Recent solo exhibitions include Truth, Power, and the Art of Resistance, Miami University Humanities Center, Oxford, Ohio, USA, 2019; Apparition of the Last Soviet Artist, GRAD, London, UK, 2018; On the Eve, Pushkin House, London, UK, 2018; Other Russias: Angry, Ellis Gallery, Carnegie Mellon University with the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA, 2017; Unwanted Women, Ortega y Gasset Projects, Brooklyn, New York, 2017; Bishkek - Yerevan - Dagestan - Tbilisi. Feminist Travels, Goethe-Institut, Tbilisi, Georgia, 2016. Her work features in significant public collections including the Reina Sofia, Madrid, Spain; National Centre for Contemporary Arts, Moscow, Russia; Arsenal Gallery, Bialystok, Poland. Lomasko lives and works in Moscow, Russia.
Find below a transcript of Victoria Lomasko's presentation:
I have decided to talk about my strategies and practices using my book Other Russias because it is a collection of my works over the last seven years. The book was published in 2017 in New York by the publishing house n+1 and in London by Penguin.
German and French versions will be published this March.
The book includes two parts, “Invisible” and “Angry”. “Invisible” is graphic reportage about marginal, closed social groups—for example, children from juvenile prisons, Orthodox activists, sex workers, teachers
from village schools, people from the LGBT community and so on. It could be said that the majority of citizens in Russia were and continue to be invisible because we don’t have a voice in public space, and we know nothing about our rights.
I started to work with such topics in Putin’s time of stability, when social problems weren’t interesting to the liberal intelligentsia and weren’t shown in contemporary art. Russian society was changing, and my practices were changing also. When the big opposition protest started in Moscow and in other big cities, for me it became more important to show people who struggle for our rights. The second part of the book, “Angry,” talks about Russian protests.
This spread from the book reflects my idea to place between two covers people from different social groups who in real life fear and hate each other. On the left side, the Orthodox activist says, “The West wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.” And on the right side, a typical person from Moscow’s liberal intelligentsia, from the middle-class, says, “Russians are shit. But me, I’m seventh-generation intelligentsia.” Both of these meetings happened in one day, only one hour and a few meters separating them, but in real life such people never communicate with each other.
In Russia, I very often hear the question, “Why do you draw when you can use a camera, make photos or videos? Drawing is the medium of the past.” I think that drawing can be a very contemporary medium; there are also many cases when photos are not possible. Most of my works were made in collaboration with human rights organizations or independent activists. For example, for four years I worked as a volunteer in juvenile prisons – I drew and gave drawing’s lessons for teenagers. In such places to take photos is forbidden. It is also forbidden to take photos in the courtroom during a trial.
My first book, Forbidden Art, which was printed in Russian, German and French, was about a trial: Orthodox activists against curators of a contemporary art exhibition. Often photos can be dangerous for the heroes of the reportages. They agree on drawing but not photos. For example, my reportage about the life of sex-workers is not legal work in Russia. Before I started to work with this topic, I was a little worried because I had ideas about brutal sex workers from Russian media, where their voices aren’t heard. But in reality they were women in usual dress, not very young and/or sexy; many were single mothers who must provide for their children, and that’s the main reason that they decided to do sex work. For me it is important to protect the words of sex workers from any censorship. One from them said: “Some clients ask us to piss on them, but I would happy to shit on them, on behalf of all women”.
Sometimes to draw and not take photos is better for me. For example, these homophobic guys were planning to beat us at the LGBT festival in St. Petersburg, but they were surprised and proud that I drew them, and they started to pose for me.
I think a lot about modern alternative forms of journalism. For example, in Russia there is so much bad news, and even the worst news people forget the next day. I follow my heroes for a long time and share fragments of their stories on social networks; the idea is to make heroes closer to readers, so that readers start to help. And it works.
In 2012, in Moscow and other big Russian cities, big rallies started—demonstrations and other protest actions against Putin and the government. I took part in every event in Moscow. Again for me it was interesting to collect in one series people with opposite political opinions. I drew ordinary participants, not leaders or famous politicians. Russian audiences always laugh nervously—for example, when I show the portrait of Kapitalina Ivanovna, who I met at the communist demonstration on November 7th celebrating the anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution. Kapitalina Ivanovna prayed all night to God that the rain wouldn’t destroy her self-made icon with Lenin, Engels and Marx. I suspect that the audience laughs not at this concrete woman, that they laugh at the absurd system of our society—the government hands down new and new directives on how we must live and in which ideology we must believe, but poor people don’t have time to quickly digest propaganda. It’s interesting, how using the words of a concrete person we can show a big political situation.
My second goal was to create portraits of rallies like living beings with their own mood and characters. What are the differences between these rallies other than the number of people who took part: 50,000 in one and 100,000 in the other? At what time of day did they take place? What was the mood of the crowd? What kind of flags and slogans predominated?
Take, for example, the drawing of the protest “White Circle,” which happened before the presidential elections in 2012. The protesters formed a huge circle along the Garden Ring of central Moscow stretching for 15 kilometers. White was the chosen color of the protest and the protesters came in white clothes, with white balloons, white flags and white flowers. To top it all off, it was snowing on that day adding to the white color of the event. Participants were happy seeing a large number of like- minded people. And this image was made on the next day after the presidential elections in 2012 when Putin was elected president. It was a weekday and people could gather only after dark when the workday was over. The demonstration was allowed on a small square; this is why many had to stand in deep snow. One of the leaders of the protesters shouted out: “We begin peaceful acts of civil disobedience!” But almost immediately the protesters were dispersed by police.
Sometimes I denote various political movements with their flags, using colors and other political symbols. Sometimes color had symbolic meaning, as in this image of an “Occupy” camp. Moscow’s Occupy campaign lasted for two weeks in May, but the green color did not symbolize the spring grass. It is also the color of hope—hope that civil society in Russia has a future.
I prefer to work with the same topic by using different formats and media so that works can be shared in different spaces with other audiences: in exhibitions of contemporary art and street exhibitions, in journalist projects, in political sites and forums, in publications of sociologists, in activist camps, in comic festivals and so on.
The project titled “A Chronicle of Resistance” is a good example of how this works. First I made completed drawings during the demonstrations, at the place of the events. Then I made prints, which were shown in street exhibitions, for example at the Occupy Abai camp, where participants of the camp could recognize themselves in the pictures. All reportages were printed at this time in the anarchist newspaper ВВВВ, which in Russian has two meanings: “will” and “freedom.” The best images from “A Chronicle of Resistance” have been featured on the covers of Russian and foreign periodicals. When the project was finished, I collected all reportages in one newspaper. The newspaper was translated into English, German and Czech and was distributed at book festivals, exhibitions of contemporary art, and as part of activist projects. Later the series was shown in museum format—in a glass box—at the Triennial of Russian Contemporary Art at the Garage Museum in Moscow.