21 July 2022 A Russian artist and activist known for her documentary drawings was invited to Kassel to capture the spirit of Documenta 15, curated by Indonesian art collective ruangrupa. Russian Art Focus publishes the first series of images from her forthcoming book.
Victoria Lomasko (b. 1978) is more used to drawing in courtrooms and at protest rallies than in comfortable, airy studios. She was born in Serpukhov a small town near Moscow and trained in book illustration at Moscow State University of the Printed Arts. She works on the boundaries of art, activism and journalism; what she creates can be described as documentary graphic novels, a genre almost non-existent in Russia. During some of the most high profile court trials against art professionals in Russia, her graphic reports have become the only source of visual information available because Russian courtrooms do not allow photography or filming. Among her best known projects is a book co-authored with Anton Nikolaev (b.1976) about the “Forbidden Art” exhibition trial, and “Chronicles of Protest”, a series dedicated to protest rallies in Moscow in 2011–2012. Yet her activities go beyond sketching in courts.
Lomasko has taught drawing to inmates of teenage correction facilities, organized a series of exhibitions called Feminist Pencil together with art historian Nadia Plungian and depicted the LGBTQ+ community in Russia. Her book Other Russias, published in 2017 in English, has been translated into German and French. Over the past ten years, her work has been mostly exhibited abroad, due to the unforgiving political climate at home. In March this year she left Russia, along with hundreds of thousands of her compatriots in a stand against the government’s actions. She is currently a fellow at the Academy Schloss Solitude artist residency in Stuttgart, Germany.
At the end of last year the curatorial team at Documenta Fifteen invited a dozen artists from around the world, including Lomasko, to take part in the event as ‘harvesters’, their role ‘to listen and relfect’. They document meetings which take place at the show in the form of texts, sketches and drawings bringing their own personal perspectives and observations. For Lomasko, who attended the opening in June and will come back for another three weeks in August, this was an unusual and unexpectedly challenging experience. “Now I am in safe place where I don’t have to fear the Russian police all the time. But from an artistic point of view I find it more difficult, as when you are witnessing historically significant events, reality itself provides you with words and images. Here, there is no story lying in wait for you”, she told Russian Art Focus. At Documenta, there are thousands of ways to tell a story, she admits. “It can be about contemporary art and activism and the difference between them. Or you can focus on the visual side. Or on your conversations with artists.”
Victoria Lomasko, Harvest, 2022. Courtesy of Documenta Fifteen.
Lomasko has not attended any large exhibitions since before the pandemic, when she took part in a group show in Vienna in March 2020. “My view of Documenta was not the impression of someone who travels from one biennale to the next and compares one with another”, she explains. “My impressions are from someone who has had to flee from her own country with just one suitcase and a short-term visa and who has changed her place of residence four times within a few months”. Of the scandals that broke out at this edition of Documenta with accustions of ‘anti-semitism’, Lomasko does not want to pay particular attention to them. “It is more interesting for me to concentrate on the art, not the scandals”, she says. The controversy over Indonesian art collective Taring Padi’s anti-Israeli mural lead to the resignation of Documenta’s general director Sabine Schormann, but Lomasko is reluctant to take sides. “I wanted to write a poetic essay about the artwork on Documenta, but a major scandal has happened, and as a guest artist-journalist I now have to do something about it as well, as ignoring the scandal would also be a political decision”, she confesses. “Maybe I should just duplicate the accusations already made and say how outraged I am? But that is not the approach of a journalist, and it is certainly not the approach of an artist who wants to create his own work about Documenta. In good journalism all sides should be represented, not only the accusers but also the accused should speak, but there is a sense that Taring Padi are already so frightened by what has happened that they are not prepared to speak in a public space. To write a good piece of reportage about what happened, or even more so a piece of essay, I need to talk to Taring Padi as an artist to artists: to ask about the significance of every detail; about their life experiences; perhaps about the dramas they have experienced; about their feelings; about the meaning they themselves have put into their work. I need live human voices to be heard... But, you know, I'm already afraid myself – the subject seems so taboo that no discussion is possible in principle.”
During the two weeks she spent at Documenta in June, Lomashko’s point of view oscillated between the role of a participant and an impartial observer. For her, the highlights of Documenta Fifteen turned out to be impromptu encounters with strangers. “I went to a meeting with an art group from Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, and I felt almost at home, as I have been there many times and worked with local artists and activists”, she recalls. Two elderly German women also came to the meeting who spoke fluent Russian. It turned out they were born in Kyrgyzstan and belonged to a dynasty of Germans who moved there in the 18th century. They re-patriated to Germany after the fall of the Soviet Union. “They invited us all to their home in a small town near Kassel and cooked a delicious traditional Kyrgyz soup called Gulchatay. The walls of their home were covered with paintings by Soviet artists who depicted the Kyrgyz steppes. I had a sense of belonging there too, there was a sense of common history uniting us”. Yet, an uneasy feeling invaded that unexpected moment of peace and unity, as she recognised how fragile it was. “I can only hope that Russia does not invade Kyrgyzstan in the future and does not interfere in Central Asia, as it has done in many former Soviet republics, and these places remain as open for us as they are now”.
Lomasko’s favourite place at Documenta Fifteen was St. Kunigundis Roman Catholic church where Atis Rezistans, an art collective from Haiti, exhibited works made from the most unusual materials, including human sculls. “I have worked extensively in the field of social art, making narrative works with rather rigid drawings and compositions. With the Atis Rezistans artists I saw forms that sprouted freely from one another, like in the plant world. Yes, they also work with political and social themes, but not in the same way as western artists. In my opinion, there is also a place for mysticism in their work. To be honest, I like that, and I want to move in that direction myself.”
Lomasko still owns a special and not insignificant memento from this unforgettable encounter. “I spent a lot of time with them, interviewing and portraying them and in the end they even gave me a sculpture of a benign spirit which they had made. It does not fit in a suitcase, yet there was no question of refusing, it is a museum piece! And I'm sure this good demon will help me get to where I want to be.” One might wonder if Lomasko is inadverently following in the footsteps of Post-Impressionists who found inspiration in the exotic ‘tribal’ art of the African colonies. The concepts and narrative may change, but art history repeats itself more often that we dare to admit.