09 November 2022 At the Santa Giulia Museum the first solo exhibition in Italy of the Russian dissident artist. "From liberators we have become murderers. From now on, even a reference to the word 'Soviet' will be impossible".
Opening on Friday 11 November from 6.30 p.m., with an extraordinary opening until 10 p.m., in the exhibition spaces of the Museo di Santa Giulia in Brescia, the first solo exhibition in Italy of the Russian dissident artist Victoria Lomasko (Serpukhov, Russia, 1978). Organised by the Municipality of Brescia, the Brescia Musei Foundation and the Brescia Peace Festival, and curated by Elettra Stamboulis, the exhibition Victoria Lomasko: The Last Soviet Artist (until 8 January 2023) takes the shape of the third act of the research undertaken by Fondazione Brescia Musei in 2019 on the great theme of human rights and the relationship between contemporary art and political art.
"With Zehra Doğan, then Badiucao and now Victoria Lomasko," explains Stefano Karadjov, Director of Fondazione Brescia Musei, "we had set out to bring to the attention of the Italian public independent political artists whose emphasis had hitherto been placed on the theme of political dissidence rather than on their artistic language and poetics. Artists who had never been curated and never published in Italy. A considerable effort aimed at shedding light on three different authoritarian regimes, Turkey, China and Russia respectively, and perhaps facilitated by our less than central museum context. Paradoxically, this allows a wider margin for experimentation, while the fear of being judged is somewhat eased by the peripheral positioning.
Considered by critics and the Anglo-Saxon press to be Russia's most important social graphic artist, with her concise and precise stroke, never disjointed from the word, Victoria Lomasko challenges the prevailing aesthetics by placing herself in the realist tradition. Capable, through her artistic gesture, of blurring the boundaries between objective fact and subjective narrative, she has reconstructed the political and social history of Russia from 2011 to the present, documenting the anti-Putin demonstrations and turning the spotlight on the daily lives of the last and forgotten, the 'unpeople' as Orwell put it, who are the chosen subjects of her work. We interviewed her.
The Last Soviet Artist is the title of your latest book, which you finished writing three weeks before the start of the war in Ukraine, but it is also the title of this complex exhibition project. Why do you call yourself the Last Soviet Artist?
All the characters and themes I have dealt with over the last ten years are very closely linked to my destiny, that of a person born and raised in the Soviet Union. The events that are happening now take me back to my childhood, the dictatorship and the totalitarian state. So much so that last night I had a nightmare: I dreamt that I went back to Russia to find my parents and that I could no longer go out, that I was stuck there. In one of the works I made for this exhibition, I took up a political caricature, entitled Suicide of the Post-Soviet Reality, which I had made as soon as I arrived in Brussels, the days immediately after the start of the war in Ukraine. The drawing depicts a famous monument in Berlin, the statue of the Soviet hero who liberated Russia from Nazism, holding a little girl in his arms. Now that little girl falls bloody from his arms. Times have changed so much that from liberators we have become murderers. What we are experiencing will make it impossible, from here on, to even refer to the word 'Soviet'.
This is the first time you are exhibiting your work in Italy. What kind of architecture did you want to give to this project created especially for the Santa Giulia Museum?
It was important for me to show the work created on the eve of the war, the entire 2021 cycle, because a very strong presentiment is contained in it. For example, there is a forest in which tree branches become weapons and Soviet monuments that come to life and kill the new Russian generation. I also wanted to exhibit a monumental work, made in Brussels last April, entitled The Changing of Seasons: a work against the war in Ukraine and the dictatorship in Russia. But of course, because of the drama of the moment, it was necessary for me to also create new works. Thus 5 Steps was born, a mural composed of five panels, each depicting a symbolic step: isolation, flight, exile, shame, humanity. In the one referring to shame, I also drew a pregnant friend of mine with whom I escaped from Moscow. It was an extreme situation, not only because at various times she could have lost the baby, but also because we landed in another country, Belgium, as refugees but without having the dignity of refugees. At that moment, you don't even understand what you are.
Your practice, which could be described as graphic reportage, combines images and words with an underground aesthetic. The former take up the tradition of the diary drawings of newly enlisted soldiers or the sketches that documented life in Soviet prisons. The latter have to do with your history as a writer. I recall that your books have long been translated into English, German, French and Spanish and that Other Russias received a special mention from the Pushkin House Book Prize in 2018, although it has never been published in Russia.
I work in two directions: one is graphic reportage, the other is murals. All the details I depict in the murals are taken from sketches made in real situations. I depict scenes from everyday life in a style that in some ways harks back to that of forbidden art, by which I mean unofficial art, which historically could only make use of limited tools and resources, such as a scrapbook and a pencil for example. I always combine images and words together, even if sometimes they are short texts, little more than captions. But somehow for me the word is even more important than the image. I think this is due to the fact that I am a drawing writer per se and every time something happens I have to write about it, even if it is just a comic strip, I have to tell what is happening. I am intimately convinced that deleting words is more difficult than deleting pictures and when I am struggling to work I think of how much the Russian writers and poets suffered, so many of them shot or repressed. Compared to them, I live in a simpler condition.
You say that for you it is essential to draw in the place of the event, that of the happening, to convey the rhythm of the action in the drawing. That is why you could never use any other medium, photography for example. You speak of yourself as a transmitter of energy. Can you explain this aspect?
There are events about which you have no doubt: you are inside the story. It happened to me when I drew and documented the Pussy Riot trial. I remember as if it were now the mass of journalists crushing me against the bars that delimited the cage, in Russia these are real cages, inside which the defendants were locked up. And right in there, just a step away from me, I watched activist Maria Alyokhina recite some verses by Russian poet Mandel'štam. The whole scene then came together in an image. The story was there, in that happening, in that energy. I had no doubts. The important thing to do on those occasions is to draw as quickly as possible.
Your father was also an artist, although to follow his passion he was forced to draw Soviet propaganda. How did your father's work influence yours? Perhaps your story can be taken as a metaphor for the generational clash taking place in Russia?
For most of his life, my father was a deeply unhappy man and an unrealised artist. He wanted very much to be able to draw, but the only drawing-related work he could do was to create Soviet propaganda. I don't think he influenced me in any way as an artist. He did it as a person of course, immensely. A man who had never been abroad and very rarely left the small town of Serpukhov where we lived. Now he is an old pensioner who spends most of his time looking out of the window waiting for something to happen. I have this image of him, of a man who spends his life looking out of a window without ever deciding to go out into this big world. Maybe it was seeing my father that made me decide to leave my small town by getting on a spaceship. People who lived most of their lives in the Soviet Union experienced things that are very difficult to understand and change, even for us of the new generation. My father is fortunately against the war in Ukraine, but unfortunately many of his peers support it, and often for no specific reason, but only because they remember when they were young, when we were all one people, all united and surrounded by terrible enemies who wanted to destroy us: the Americans and the Europeans.
You speak of art as a gift, as an instrument of peace. What role and responsibility do you feel you have as an artist in the contingency of this moment?
Perhaps in this time of war, the most important thing is to show that humanity is one and indivisible and feels the same emotions. Of those it is clothed. We take it for granted that life goes on peacefully, but we have realised how easy it is to lose peace. I would like to witness the values and existence of ordinary people, to show that geopolitical games are nothing and that the real value is the lives of simple people. And I hope that when this horror ends and we have overcome this tragedy, this fact will be evident to everyone.