Artist Roma Durov captures contemporary Russia on a patchwork canvas, depicting the sordid and the silly side-by-side. Otherwise known as 9cyka, Durov paints scenes of police injustice, abuse, and overbearing orthodoxy with the striking naivety of a child sticking out his tongue to those in charge. After all, he says, “laughter and good humour are tools probably as powerful as love. That’s why I paint policemen with pig features and toy-like pinkish faces. Laughing is helpful.”
Durov grew up in the early 2000s in a Moscow suburb where he spent his time “having fun, running away from the police, and hiding from drunks and angry neighbours’. As a child, he witnessed violence, fights and abuse, fostering a strong sense of justice — at one point, he even dreamt of becoming a police officer himself until he came face to face with the corrupt nature of the Russian system. Those scenes still make appearances on his canvases, he says.
Now, Durov sees himself both as an artist and an activist. “I go to protests, I get arrested sometimes, but I don’t make political art,” he says. “I paint what bothers me personally and don’t try to fit it in with any activist agenda. But I’d be happy if my art helped someone to overcome fear or leave behind their prejudices.”
The former design grad mainly works with acrylic and canvas, although paintings on the concrete and wood can also be spotted on Durov’s page on Instagram. His drawings bring back memories of the Soviet children’s books with a defiant tongue-in-cheek twist. This whimsical world is infiltrated by pop-culture characters, while modern-day riot police contort themselves into ballerina-esque poses to spell out Russian swear words (particularly potent under laws which make it illegal for the Russian media to publish such phrases).
Despite his irreverent outlook, atheist Durov considers the Russian Orthodox Church to be chief among his inspirations. He finds religion essential to the Russian cultural context. “Christianity is something scary and repulsive but tender and charming at the same time,” shares Durov. Yet the contemplation of old wooden temples and deep-rooted rituals does not stop the artist from criticising the institution, including the ubiquitous construction of giant churches, or the contradictory law protecting the Orthodox believers from alleged insults — legislation introduced by the Russian government in 2014 as a response to Pussy Riot’s performance at Moscow’s cathedral of Christ The Savior. Durov’s artwork Double Protection, a painting of a mask with an Orthodox Cross on it, is a perfect example of Durov’s witty, naive, and politically-charged art.
The artist stands firm that it’s important to speak out against the state. Policies that Durov disagrees with include growing militarisation and a lack will to reform Russia’s legal and law enforcement systems. But away from the government, Durov has also acted in support of pro-democracy protesters in Belarus, and homeless people in Russia, who are among the most vulnerable Covid-19. Durov even offered to see his body tattooed to fundraise, with his roommate inking ideas sourced via Durov’s Instagram straight onto the artist’s body. “I never took my tattoos seriously and saw tattooing online as an effective PR act. We were tattooing for hours — and managed to raise money for us and for the foundation,” he says.