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New Russias, Old Russias, And Argumentative Russias: A Talk With Victoria Lomasko

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‘Where can I get a machine gun to shoot Putin?’

Yesterday evening, Russian graphic artist Victoria Lomasko spoke at the Harriman Institute about her new book, Other Russias, an anthology of her work documenting protesters and disenfranchised, “invisible” social groups in Moscow. Managing Editor Betsy Ladyzhets was the youngest, the most inspired, and the most likely to take advantage of the fancy cheese person in attendance.

I go to IAB pretty frequently – by which I mean, I use its elevator to take a shortcut from EC back to Plimpton at least once a weekend. Last night became a nice change in this routine, as I took the elevator up rather than down; I ascended to the Harriman Institute on the twelfth floor, where a small reception room awaited the presentation of one Victoria Lomasko. That elevator ride would soon prove to be symbolic ascension as well as literal, as I heard Lomasko describe her work and became inspired to join her legacy.

Lomasko is a Russian graphic artist, and/or journalist, and/or activist. Her work draws on a traditional Russian style of graphic reporting, yet focuses on parts of Russian society that would never have been considered appropriate subject material in any older regime: protests, sex workers, children in juvenile detention centers, and other people occupying unconventional societies. Yesterday’s talk focused on her new book, Other Russias, and advertised a solo show of her work downtown, opening this Saturday. She spoke with the help of a translator, but easily commanded her audience – the majority of which appeared to be fluent in both Russian and English.

Other Russias has two major sections: “invisible,” which includes portraits Lomasko did before 2012, and “angry,” which includes sketches of the 2012 rallies in Moscow protesting Vladimir Putin’s reelection. Lomasko explained her motivation for beginning to go into the city and seek out interesting people to draw as one of widening her worldview. People from her circle did not know how people of other circles lived, she said. To this end, she sketched in public places, then began to write down what she heard people saying as well.

“The moment I began writing down what people said began my journey into graphic journalism,” she said.

Lomasko aims to document people who are very specific individuals, as well as people who represent archetypes of modern Russian society. For example, she showed an early diptych with an Orthodox activist at a prayer rally (a man she said “represents 90% of Russian people”) on the left, and a diplomat to the Western world on the right. The man on the left says, “The West wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.” The man on the right says, “Russians are crap – believe me, I’m seventh generation intelligentsia.”

“In real life, these people never would have come into contact with each other, but in my book, they are side to side,” Lomasko explained.

The artist then showed drawings from the second part of her book, documenting the 2012 opposition rallies. Lomasko said that she saw these rallies as an exciting opportunity, both because people from all over Russia with vastly different political views were gathering in the same time and place, and because she had never been able to experience such a powerful movement before.

“We were raised to accept whatever the government told us,” she said, “So when I found myself living in Moscow in 2012, I decided not to miss a single opposition rally or protest.”

While this section features Pussy Riot (a feminist protest group whom Lomasko knows from running in the same activist circles), most of its characters are common people. One particularly striking image that she discussed showed two old women of about the same age (called “бабушки”) marching side by side at a rally. One is a nationalist, holding an icon of Lenin and saying that Lenin is her reason for living, while the other is a liberal, saying that she wishes she could be dancing with Pussy Riot.

Lomasko’s art is particularly striking in its context because graphic novels and graphic art do not currently exist in Russia as a medium. During the Soviet period, socialist realism (accurate graphic representations of common people) was the only permitted art style for propaganda purposes. As a result, when the USSR fell, artists wanted to stop drawing realistically, and the art community now looks down on realistic and socially charged art such as Lomasko’s. But this doesn’t deter her – in fact, she takes it as a challenge. She extensively studies past socialist realism, and strives to use similar techniques in a broader, more powerful scope.

“My goal is to return socially engaged art to Russia, but without government censorship,” she said.

To this end, Lomasko is a curator as well as an artist. She promotes graphic art, and uses social media to show its many cultural uses, such as drawing political trials (as photography is not permitted in Russian courts) and sketching people who want their stories told, but do not feel comfortable being photographed, such as sex workers, HIV positive Russians, and migrant workers. She has also worked with children in juvenile detention centers, both drawing them and teaching them art; an exhibit with her portraits, the children’s drawings, and their stories of how they came to be in the detention centers is now in a museum in Madrid – because no Russian museum would want to show art.

Although Lomasko’s work clearly has an activist bent, she considers herself an artist first and foremost. She is very concerned with capturing character and tone in her drawing, more so than with being realistic or summarizing the full scope of an event. She described loving being in the center of a crowd, where she can “capture the mood and feeling of what’s happening.” (She never draws at home on the computer.)

Lomasko tries to make her work as widely available as possible. This includes posting it on social media, online, and in an anarchist newspaper called “воля” (which translates to “will”) that was distributed at protests. When she documented Moscow’s Occupy protest, she brought sketches from one day with her on the next, displayed on a rolling cart; people would be able to recognize themselves in her art. She does run into problems with censorship, however; she showed us a postcard advertising her NYC show with the caption, “Where can I get a machine gun to shoot Putin?” Such a postcard would not fly in Moscow.

The talk concluded with Lomasko’s discussion of her most recent works, including documentation of a protest of truck drivers outside Moscow and a new book that captures life in former Soviet republics outside Russia. After that, she took a few questions – but the question-and-answer section quickly devolved into a political debate when one audience member asked if she supported the actions of Pussy Riot desecrating a major Russian Orthodox church during the 2012 riots. He was joined by several other audience members, who felt outraged at the protest group’s insult to the Orthodox religion.

“Why are we concerned with the feelings of Russian Orthodox people when we aren’t concerned with the feelings of other Russian citizens?” Lomasko replied. The audience was not satisfied with this answer, but it got me thinking – conversations like this one are precisely why her art is so important. Lomasko captures people and events that are impossible to accurately photograph, and in making her work widely available to both national and international audiences, she incites dialogue that never would have otherwise existed. She is a medium through which the disenfranchised can make their voices heard. The combination of her subject matter, her style, and her audience make her work irrevocably powerful. I can only hope that other artists, both in America and around the world, will be inspired to join her artistic movement.

A provocative postcard via Betsy Ladyzhets

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