06 November 2022 The first was Zehra Dogan, a Kurdish painter imprisoned in Turkey; then was Badiucao, a Chinese activist. Now Victoria Lomasko is exhibiting at the Santa Giulia Museum in Brescia, a hub of dissident art. We meet her during the installation of the exhibition: 'I escape from a big prison'.
'Russia is a big prison. When people raised their heads and realised this, it was too late. Many only realised it now.' Victoria Lomasko didn't: she has known it for many years. She is now 44, and for a decade she has been reporting on the protests, street demonstrations and trials of activists who have opposed the Kremlin, often ending up imprisoned, beaten to the point of disability, or killed. She does this in a style somewhere between comics and illustration, about events that happened before her eyes: her graphic reportages, full of drawings and long texts, in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia, Georgia and Dagestan, as well as in the courts and streets of Moscow and Minsk, recount the everyday life of former Soviet peoples, minorities, the marginalised, ordinary people, ultra-Orthodox ladies and LGBT+ activists, and frame the generational clash that splits Russia in two. Also on the war. 'Mostly people of Putin's age and those who were educated in the Soviet Union support the Kremlin. The others don't, especially the young people. They don't protest in the streets because they would end up in jail, but they burn down army recruitment centres. Sooner or later, one way or another, we will get rid of Putin. I don't think with a revolution, but maybe with chaos and anarchy.'
Forms of resistance. Victoria Lomasko, very short hair, round spectacles, a red scarf wrapped around a leather jacket, tells this story as she slowly nibbles on cheese toast in a café in Brescia. As long as she lived in Russia, she called herself 'a political author, not a dissident, but my work had already caused me a lot of problems: I had no right to be published, nor to organise my own shows'. One of the regimes' ways of silencing dissent. 'Between 2013 and 2016, I went through years of destitution. I used to publish graphic reports on activist websites, but I was not earning any money and I was exhausted. One evening I was sitting in the kitchen and I was doing two accounts: I could not pay the bills, I had no money to repair the broken camera or to buy painting materials. I felt that it was the end, that I could no longer be an artist'. Then came the turning point in her career: in 2017 the magazine 'n+1' published her first book, Other Russias, in New York, which made her known to the world. The second turning point, in the opposite direction, coincides with Putin's attack on Ukraine: Lomasko escapes to the West with a suitcase, the cat Dwarf, a few sketches and a visa that is always too short.
Today she is in Italy to 'show a complicated world, rich in details and nuances': from Friday, November 11 to January 8, the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia opens the doors of her solo exhibition Victoria Lomasko: The Last Soviet Artist, the third appointment that the Fondazione Brescia Musei, curated by Elettra Stamboulis, organises with artists who oppose a regime, after the activist Badiucao in 2021 China (not) is close. Works by a dissident artist and the Kurdish painter Zehra Dogan in 2019 We will also have better days. Works from Turkish prisons. 'My life, however,' explains Lomasko, 'did not begin in 2022. It goes far beyond the war. As an author, I can use the whole spectrum of themes, not just dictatorship'. In the workshop in the Brescian museum, she painted Five Steps, five large panels about her last year, inspired by the Mexican muralism of David Siqueiros. In the first, Isolation, one glimpses Victoria's face hidden behind military statues and threatening symbols of the USSR: 'This is how it feels when you are trapped in a state where the police can do what they want with your life, in a place with no future'. Then Lomasko looks at Escape, the second step: an Apocalypse in which the angelic arms that save her, 'those of the European Union', also have long claws: 'It is my criticism of this selective humanism. Because here, I have a very short visa, very few things, I have no money and no prospects, and sometimes I am abandoned, boycotted, insulted'. For the mere fact of being Russian, even if explicitly against Putin: 'I dream of moving to a country where I won't be considered and looked at because of my passport'. Today, however, she lives as in the third painting, Exile: in exile. The objects and memories she has with her are depicted in it: a pair of shoes, her cat, but also the snow in Moscow and the gifts from her hosts. For now, she travels back and forth from Germany, 'the country where it is easier to get a visa for people who have fled Russia'. There she experienced for herself the 'collective shame' that many Russians feel for a fault that is not their own, 'but which someone would like us to share: it feels like going back to my childhood in the Soviet Union where the idea was that of the anthill'. In the painting Shame 'there is the friend with whom I lived in a tiny room in Brussels after fleeing Russia. She was seven months pregnant. In Moscow, her partner had taken part in a demonstration against the government, had been arrested and she was so stressed: she was in danger of losing the baby, so she ran away with me. During the day I would draw political comics and sketches on the war. Everyday we listened to the news from the front and talked about it. This - says pointing at an explosion - is the bombing of the hospital in Mariupol'. The woman with the belly on a stretcher, who has become a symbol of those atrocities, is in control compared to Victoria's friend. 'These events haunt us every day. But when I wake up after a raid, I am glad I am not in Russia.'
The Last Soviet Artist, already the title of a 2019 documentary about her, is an effective formula that can be deceptive: Lomasko has no nostalgia for the USSR. Growing up in Serpukhov, a small village a hundred kilometres from Moscow, she is the daughter of a Soviet propaganda illustrator who secretly hated power and imagined becoming a dissident. She has realised that dream. 'As a child', she recounts in the video, 'I had no toys but only his brushes and colours: that's how I started.' Then she adds: 'I get sick of hearing about ideology'. The Ukrainian aggression has turned her life and her art upside down: 'Now I can't travel to Russia to draw, just as I couldn't during the Covid. In two years there, excluding work with foreign countries, I earned 15 thousand roubles', about 250 euro. The pandemic, Lomasko is convinced, has helped the Kremlin to make the Russians digest the conflict: 'Until 2019, we were part of the world: talking about a war like this would have been absurd. Since 2020 we have become accustomed to living in the trap we had been in for years. In 2022, the world reopened to everyone, except for us vaccinated with Sputnik. During the Covid, many foreign visas expired, and this discouraged internal protests: I believe the invasion was premeditated in this sense'.
Away from Russia, Lomasko has changed her style compared to the graphic reportages from the former USSR, present among the 50 paintings on display. But what if the next one, tomorrow, was a story from Ukraine? 'Most Ukrainians today hate Russians. To be painted by me they should be saints. Some attack me on social media even though I have been opposing Putind for a decade, they say my art is useless.' Many do not forgive the common people Lomasko loves portraying - not to rebel against Putin. 'Those who could have done it were the liberals in Moscow and St. Petersburg: they preferred to get rich and live in nice European houses. The situation falls on simple people. In 2012 there were fierce protests, but how did they end? With a very violent repression and an exemplary trial: activists went to jail for years, others were killed, one (Mikhail Kosenko, ed.) was locked up in a psychiatric hospital, and everyone understood the new mechanisms. Today, in order to organise a demonstration, someone has to write the date and time somewhere, but he has to be ready to serve 10 years in jail. The police state takes two weeks to destroy you'. For now, Lomasko is safe, as are her pictures, which are kept in London. Perhaps one day they will serve to erase the stigma: 'It is the characteristic of art and culture: it brings one closer, it transcends borders'.