Fusing traditional and contemporary designs, St Petersburg-based artist and filmmaker Uldus Bakhtiozina’s ornate headpieces are equally beloved by glossy magazines, London’s Royal Opera House, and ordinary Russian babushkas everywhere. We talked to Bakhtiozina about her signature style, Tatar Baroque, what social media means for her as an artist, and her many creative projects spanning across design, photography, and film.
When did you first realise that you wanted to become an artist?
Even as a child, I was always doing something creative, but becoming an artist just never seemed to be an option. My family saw it as something very unpractical and unsustainable — not a real job. I studied at the North-West Academy for Public Administration: I wanted to become Russia’s first female president. I quit before my final year and moved to London to study design at Central St Martin’s instead. But I never had an epiphany: I think you can’t decide to become something that you already are. Although at some point I noticed how closely my life is followed online, especially on social media, and I realised that now people widely know me as an artist.
You mentioned having attention online — how do you deal with that? Do you read the comments on your social media?
I do read the comments, if there’s a readable amount. Generally, my audience is very polite and well-educated, but of course, there will always be hateful comments as well. Sometimes it comes to a boiling point, like when I started getting xenophobic comments and threats. I wrote a whole post as a reply to that. People say we shouldn’t pay attention to psychos — well, I think that we should.
What I am more concerned about is artists who sometimes borrow elements from my work. They are mostly very young, and I understand that we all make mistakes, but my advice for them would be to wait until they find their own style before putting their work out there.
You call yourself an ambassador of your own “Tatar Baroque” style. How did it originate?
I’m half Tatar, and it’s an important part of my identity. For me, it represents something impulsive, bold, energetic, and even belligerent. The word baroque comes from a French word that means “irregularly shaped”; it was a jewellery term that mostly applied to pearls. I had a baroque-inspired series, and I decided to combine these two words to get Tatar Baroque, an impulsive style without rules.
I later learned that Marina Abramović had a project called Balkan Baroque: it was completely different from my work but I thought it was interesting that two artists from smaller ethnic groups decided to use that same term.
You mostly work with female models and characters. Is that a deliberate choice? Would you call yourself a feminist artist?
I think that has happened very organically. I don’t know, perhaps I understand women better, being a woman myself. I like working with female or queer models because generally they are more open to experimentation, especially with their make-up or clothes. And, although my photoshoots can be quite tough, I don’t think I’ve ever had a female or a queer model complain about conditions.
Could you talk to us about your interpretation of Russian folk motifs and designs, especially the traditional headdresses that you use in your works?
Again, there wasn’t a moment when I decided to focus on folk motifs; I was just gradually drawn to them. I find Russian fairytales fascinating. When you re-read them as an adult, you realise that there is this darker side and all of these grey areas: characters that are supposed to be “bad” but do good things and vice versa. It also might be escapism from routine and the gloomy St Petersburg weather. It’s an endless source of inspiration.
It takes me two to three months to work on one kokoshnik (Russian traditional headpiece); I really feel like they are my children. It’s hard work, but it’s important for me to create something that won’t fall apart after I take a selfie, something that will last. It takes skill as well: I went to church embroidery classes and studied techniques that have been used since the 16th century. But the headpieces I create are not historic —I create these designs myself. They are often influenced by art nouveau, and I also like that a lot of them look a bit like helmets and remind you of armour.
You worked as the costume designer and style supervisor for a Royal Opera House’s production of the ballet Aisha and Abhaya. What brought you to that project?
I was invited to create costumes for this project. Unfortunately, in the end, the costumes of the two main characters were included only in a film that was screened during the performance but not presented on the stage, which, in my opinion, impoverished the connection between the two media. I did not agree with that decision, but the choreographer had a different vision. I think the final result proved that I was right. People are often shy to talk about their failures, but I learned a lot from this experience: I loved working with dancers and the crew, and it was especially interesting to have a team of seamsters making costumes from my sketches.
You used your iconic headdresses in the production costumes. How can Russian tropes be translated into multicultural contexts?
Some people didn’t understand where [the headdresses] came from, but a lot of people did. In this story, the particular country [where a piece of costume originated] didn’t matter. It was a very multicultural project, with the crew and dancers coming from all over the world and bringing together different backgrounds. The whole production was about refugees and mixing different cultures, and I think the headpieces and costumes really helped tell this story.
Your latest project is also your debut film. Could you tell us a little about it?
In English it’s called Tzarevna Scaling, but its Russian title is A Fisherman’s Daughter. It’s an autobiographical title — my father worked as a fisherman, so I am a fisherman’s daughter myself. But it is a proper fairytale, in which the protagonist learns that being a princess, or a tzarevna in Russian, is actually a very hard job.
We had a team of 60 people on the set. This is independent cinema, so they were not there for money but purely for the love of art and each other. I was the film’s executive producer, and it often felt like leading an army into a battle. I think that I have mastered photography to a certain degree, so now I want to try something different. I’m always looking for new artistic challenges.