22 November 2022 In recent years, she has won over Western critics and audiences, but her work - a mix of images and words that leaves its mark - has never been officially published in its original language. An artist, Russian and dissident, born in 1978, today Victoria Lomasko experiences the difficulties, sometimes grotesque, of exile. On the run from her country since March 2022, she has landed in Brescia where, for the third year, the Peace Festival is giving space to the voices of out-of-chorus artists from the most diverse realities of the planet. After Zehra Doğan: We will also have better days. Works from Turkish prisons and Badiucao: China is (not) near. Works by a dissident artist, Victoria is the protagonist of the third act of the project Contemporary Art and Human Rights curated by Elettra Stamboulis.
During her artistic residency at the Santa Giulia Museum, she created Five Steps, a vast site-specific installation in five stages, to share with the Italian public the experiences she has had over the past year. But it does not end there. In an exhibition itinerary that is itself an artist's creation, Lomasko invites us to look through his eyes at Russia's social and political history from 2011 to the present, revealing in engaging and original reportages "the hidden geography of the world's largest country", from anti-Putin demonstrations to the lives of the last, the forgotten, in the deep provinces of the empire.
Inaugurated on 11 November in an atmosphere of participation and curiosity, Victoria Lomasko: The Last Soviet Artist will animate Brescia's cultural life until 8 January 2023. 'Being 'the last Soviet artist',' says Victoria, 'means not fixing our gaze on a single point (the Russian war in Ukraine), but recognising in what is happening an epochal change, a change of generation. To see the transformation of the huge space that until recently was described as 'post-Soviet', when 'post-Soviet' is no longer possible'.
'To describe these changes,' the artist continues, 'it is necessary to have a good understanding of the era that is passing, to know the Soviet reality not through films, books, other people's stories, but through direct experience. The Soviet Union collapsed when I was a teenager, but the trauma of living in a closed, totalitarian country is still inside me. Three weeks before the start of the war in Ukraine, I finished writing a book for which I had started collecting material in 2014. The book has the same title as this exhibition. Only an author of my generation could write such a book: it is like acting as a go-between for the old people who were fully formed in the Soviet period and the young people who cannot perceive or understand that surreal reality.'
How did your life and work change after the outbreak of war?
'You could say that the war made me an artist in exile. Although in reality I had already realised by the end of 2020 that sooner or later I would have to flee Russia. At that time, they had changed the law on 'foreign agents' so that anyone who carried out activities related to political issues and collaborated with western organisations (which were the only things I did) could be listed. When this law was passed, I immediately started to review my huge archive of drawings, with the idea that I would probably have to send it abroad. On 5 March 2022, I left Russia, and a few days later the French Embassy in Moscow helped me get my archive to Europe. The exhibition The Last Sovier Artist would never have existed without this help. Emigrating is never easy. Western sanctions still weigh on emigrants with Russian passports. I always have to fight for new visas. And to this day I have no chance to start building a new life in a European country. I have no close relatives or friends from Ukraine. The fact that I am against the war in Ukraine and that already in 2014 I spoke out against the annexation of Crimea for most of my Ukrainian artist acquaintances does not matter, they stopped talking to me, some even said that with the start of the war in Ukraine my art lost any meaning. During these months I have been meditating on the war, on this tragedy, and also on the role of the artist. The result of my reflections is that art stands above any political event, and that the most important task of the artist is to serve art in any situation'.
What significance does the recently opened exhibition in Brescia have for you?
'An artist comes to an exhibition like this over several years. It is obvious that such a large museum exhibition is very significant for my career, but it is much more important that I was able to show 'Lomasko's World', my small universe. Curator Elettra Stamboulis and the museum staff did everything necessary to turn my idea of a perfect exhibition, reminiscent of a theatre show, into reality. I love lifting that heavy velvet curtain, passing through the dark blue labyrinth and then into the dark forest space. I created a new monumental series, Five Steps, especially for the exhibition. These panels, Isolation, Escape, Exile, Shame, Humanity are located in an oblong room, somewhat reminiscent of a church. As I walk through Five Steps, visitors accompany me on my journey. I spent a month and a half drawing in the studio set up in one of the rooms of the museum, it was wonderful. I was really happy to donate Five Steps to the collection of Fondazione Brescia Musei'.
The book Other Russias won the Pushkin House Book Prize, but has never been published in your country...
'When I started doing my first graphic reports in 2008, I had no idea that a book would come out of it, and that it would be published in New York and London. At that time I had never been to Europe, let alone the United States, and I never thought I would have a Western audience. I wanted to tell the stories of simple people who survive as best they can in Russia, invisible and unheard, to equally simple people. For example to people living in my Serpukhov and other provincial places. Initially, all the reports were published on the internet in Russian, for free, on sites of rights activists and the opposition. They were sites with a very limited audience, but now you can't even think that sites like that exist anymore (they are all blocked or banned). I also used to post on my social media. After the huge success of Other Russias (in Italy Altre Russie, published by Becco Giallo, ed.) in the West, a Russian publisher proposed to publish the book in Russian. First, however, we decided to consult a lawyer: the answer was that if the book had come out without any self-censorship there was a very high probability that both the publisher and I would have been given a few years in jail. Since I am against any kind of self-censorship, we decided to postpone publication. Now this publisher is also in exile and I have already asked him: now maybe we can publish it?'
Your work is graphic reportage, an explosive cocktail of images and words...
'My work is a synthesis of text and images. It is like the work of the composer who creates a musical work. Suppose the text is a violin and the drawings a flute and my task is to establish when the melody of the violin emerges in the foreground and when the melody of the flute emerges, how these very different sounds interact and how they intertwine to create something even different.'
In the West, you are considered the most important Russian graphic social artist. How did your artistic language take shape?
'I never wanted to paint on canvas, but I was always interested in the genre of the artist's book. As a child, I liked to write poems and short stories that I often illustrated. At the age of 19, I enrolled in the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, Graphic Art and Book Design, where I had dreamed of studying since I was a child as they taught graphic book art there. After university I worked as a commercial illustrator, while at the same time trying to deal with what we call 'contemporary art'. I felt unfulfilled and unhappy. Instead, I only felt happy when I tried to add sentences I had heard them say to the characters' portraits. 'I must move in this direction!' I told myself. I was already in my thirties then. The more I write, the happier I am'.
You often use metaphors related to nature, animals and plants in your works. How come?
'Initially, for several years, I studied Russian society; it was work at the crossroads of journalism and sociology. Then, when I collected enough material for a complete image to form in my head, the sketches from the reports started to turn into complex symbolic compositions. Russia appeared to me as a dark forest full of strange and sometimes dangerous beings. The roots of the trees are our grandparents, our parents, the forever traumatised Soviet generation. The branches, the young generation, are unable in any way to free themselves from the influence of the roots. In this forest is the tree of violence, the trunk of which consists of the violent and his victim. At other times, I have thought that I live in the abysses of the sea: on the surface there is only the Western world, and from there down to us, who stand on the bottom, fall objects, dirty dishes and empty glasses after the banquet.
When I look at the people in Russia, I imagine them as weeds struggling to grow in the ruins of the Soviet empire. No one takes care of them; on the contrary, they are often pulled up by the roots. But these weeds have a wild life force. When I look at Europeans, they look like show flowers, grown under artificial conditions, in a greenhouse. But I would like us all to be flowers exposed to the sun, in a meadow, where there is both care and freedom'.