From Pyotr Pavelensky to Pussy Riot to Voina, Russian artists have built a legacy of attention-grabbing political art. For younger generations, art continues to be a tool for positive social change in the face of growing government control, political unrest, police brutality, domestic violence, and cultural censorship. And, compared to Russia’s predominantly male actionist artists of the 90s and 00s, with the country’s growing feminist movement it’s no surprise that women artists are at the forefront of today’s anti-establishment art crusade.
Together with Curated, The Calvert Journal’s guide to contemporary Russian visual art, we bring you the new faces of protest — artists, researchers, and activists — and the causes that are important to them.
Katrin Nenasheva hopes her art will help people understand the experiences of individuals and communities in Russia that continue to be systematically marginalised. Originally from Krasnodar and now based in Moscow, she is interested mainly in performance art. “I’m an artist first,” Nenasheva comments, “but each project combines art, research, activism and community building.” Her most recent venture, Argue With Me (2020) was produced from conversations she had with passing by strangers on the topic of everyday violence. Projects such as Punishment (2016) and Between Here and There (2017) scrutinised Russia’s residential care homes (for children and neurodiverse adults, respectively), while Don’t Be Scared (2015) looked at the cultural erasure of incarcerated women.
Distributed Cognition Cooperative is a duo composed of Anna Engelhardt and Sasha Shestakova. The artists and researchers explore how power manifests itself in our social lives and structures — and how these can be dismantled. Anna Engelhardt is the alias of a media artist, researcher, and writer based in London. She investigates what she refers to as “(de)colonial politics of algorithmic and logistical infrastructures in post-Soviet space”. Sasha Shestakova’s interests include non-linear time, promoting diversity in Russia’s contemporary art scene, rethinking homogeneous categories like “post-Soviet” and “New East”.
Ekaterina Muromtseva’s work ranges from large-scale paintings and murals to videos and community work. The Moscow-based artist is interested in the relationship between power, authority, and protest, and the way that they exist in our cultural landscape and our collective consciousness. The Picket (2019) — a large watercolour work showing red figures carrying empty banners — was inspired by the 2019 anti-corruption rallies in Moscow, reflecting on Russia’s protest movements past and present. A Tough Male Portrait (2019), on the other hand, is a documentary that follows a tennis coach striving to paint a portrait of Vladimir Putin: a metaphor for the country’s blind obsession with masculinity and the role that art plays within it.
Based between Moscow, Minsk, and Paris, Hanna Zubkova experiments with sculpture, video, illustration, objects, and performance in her practice. The ideas for her performances come from extensive research into social history. Ideology of Working Class Doesn’t Impose Any Boundaries on Love (2019) features a pair of red curtains from a former brothel in the Red Light District in Amsterdam: we watch as they travel to cultural institutions and public events across Amsterdam and Moscow, from a museum to an international symposium to a contemporary art festival, before returning back to their original place. Axe de Révolution (2014) centres on another journey. Zubkova walked along the Moscow Ring road, from the very north to the south of the city, carrying a six-metre-long heavy metal; a commentary on the increase of state violence and militarisation in 2014.
Katya Ev lives and works between France and Belgium, where she currently studies at Ghent’s HISK. With a background in political science and art, she works across performance and video, revealing the workings of cultural institutions and power at large. Ev’s practice often puts the spectator at the centre. For Blue Room (2018), she invited visitors into an isolated room with nothing but a bed, a sleeping pill, and a laptop with access to the dark web — musing on freedom of choice and our individual agency. Ev is also part of a media collective dedicated to preserving and promoting the work of late artist and feminist, Oksana Shachko, the co-founder of Femen in Ukraine.