On the rise: 6 emerging artists on capturing Russia’s political reality

14 May 2021

Axyxyart’s Instagram page is dark, satirical, and timely. Filled with art from young and lesser-known artists across Russia, axyxyart — short for The Association of the Worst Artists — rallies against growing censorship in Russia with a daily dose of wit and political caricatures.

The Calvert Journal spoke to the curator and political activist behind the page — who prefers to remain anonymous — and the artists who exhibit there, on how political art fosters a sense of kinship among thousands of Russians seeking refuge online from a difficult reality.



Lev Pereulkov

Artist and photographer Lev Pereulkov began work on his series of surreal and biting digital collages, Russian Landscapes, in response to the detention of Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny in January 2021. Protests in support of Navalny swept the country, but were brutally suppressed by riot police, known in Russia as OMON. ”I was trying to make use of the most obvious visuals: the ubiquitous fence that blocked the capital’s main squares [to prevent peaceful protests], the Pushkin monument in Moscow where protesters traditionally gather, the patches and camouflage [you see on police uniforms],” Pereulkov comments.

Using 3D visualisation, Pereulkov multiplied images of OMON’s ubiquitous helmet, logo, and baton, so that they took on the shape of hills, mountains, and the sea. The use of easily recognisable symbols of the political regime is characteristic of Moscow conceptualists, such as Viktor Pivovarov, Ilya and Emilia Kabakov, and Eric Bulatov, who highly influenced Pereulkov’s vision.

“The quantity of riot police recruited ad-hoc by local authorities — allegedly to guarantee our security — has led to a complete outrage [in terms of police violence],” says axyxyart’s curator. Our modest attempts to riot against [state-controlled] “stability” might as well have been swept away in a storm of cops. But in the end, we shall win — unless we die first.”



Alena Alexandrova

Madonna AYE or Baby Jesus With a Green Maple Leaf forms part of a triptych by Alena Alexandrova.

The gouache painting mimics Da Vinci’s iconic Madonna and Child with Flowers, imbued with an energy that is both holy and ablaze with rage. “It’s hard to say how many laws we actually broke by publishing this image, with ‘offending the feelings of religious people’ and ‘propagandising drugs’ being the most obvious,” says axyxyxart’s curator, who finds the work strongly emblematic.

Alexandrova created the work, which sees Madonna and child clad in OMON’s signature balaclavas, in a single day in January 2021. Da Vinci’s original Madonna holds a cruciferae flower in her hand, believed to be a hidden symbol of Christ’s later crucifixion. Alexandrova’s Madonna holds a cannabis leaf instead. Many “undesirable” Russian activists or journalists have been jailed on charges of cannabis possession, with many claiming the drug was planted on them. They include opposition journalist Ivan Golunov, who was arrested in 2019 but eventually released from jail following mass street demonstrations. Meanwhile, the use of red and white security tape as halos is a comment on the almost sacral status that such temporary barriers have reached in the eyes of the authorities, who use the tape to close central squares and streets and obstruct peaceful marches. “I’m not a prophet, but I do feel like the Iron Curtain is sweeping back across the continent, and what’s left on our side is fear,” says Alexandrova.



The Inversion of Colors

Russia’s tower block-lined suburbs have gained a devoted cult following both in Russia and in the West. The collage artist behind the Inversion of Colors Instagram page sees them as the Russian analogue of TV show Twin Peaks, a place where whimsical things unfold in an ordinary, otherwise mundane environment. “In the quiet, measured life of the layman, there can be a place for crazy and surreal things,” he says. This March, at the beginning of Christian Orthodox Lent, the well-known scene of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper naturally came to his mind. He created an image that reinterpreted the famous image, with a photo of Russian post-punk band Shortparis placed over a grey Moscow landscape, suggesting a feast in time of plague rather than a holy dinner. It combines concepts that meant to foster the greater good but have somehow failed Russia instead: Christianity and social housing. “The greatest Soviet architectural idea — [housing for the masses] turned out to be a trap. We rot [in the suburbs] locked like worms in a jar,” says the curator of axyxyart.

Similarly, in modern Russia, the Orthodox Church also works to suppress protest. Following Pussy Riot’s notorious performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in 2012, a law against “insulting religious feelings” was passed by Russia’s parliament. Today, it is used to limit freedom of speech, using Christian morals as a form of control rather than a path to the greater good.



Likeforms Ceramics

Fine porcelain may be synonymous with the exquisite statuettes of ballerinas or wild fauna that dot palaces, stately homes, and museums. Likeforms Ceramics instead use it to craft gopniks, men covered in prison tattoos, and figures in luzhkov caps — a symbol of corruption that appeared during the rule of Moscow’s former mayor, Yury Luzhkov. They reflect a bitter reality in modern Russia, where many palaces are owned either by former criminals or by those involved in shady business dealings.

This sculpture arrived following the release of a documentary film by Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (FBK), claiming that Russian President Vladimir Putin used corrupt funds to build a luxurious residence for himself on the Black Sea coast. As for the curators of axyxyart, they believe that the use of fragile ceramics also reflects the general insecurity of the Russian state — where even the elite could lose their privileges.



Izaura Russia

The anonymous painter known as Izaura Russia (possibly a nod to Irada Zeinalova, a popular presenter for Russia’s pro-government TV) provides a like-for-like absurd response to Russia’s surreal political news media.

The artist’s gouache and aquarelle paintings feature politicians, spokespeople, and other famous faces from the country’s state-funded TV programmes. They appear on Instagram with captions that include hyper-conservative and patriotic cliches from the shows themselves, many of which have become memes on the Russian internet. A number of paintings on Izaura Russia’s feed evoke visuals from Russian TV series KUKLY (Puppets). Darkly comic, uncensored, and unashamedly liberal, the show was popular in the 90s but was shut down in 2002 amid pressure from the Kremlin after its policy in war-torn Chechnya was criticised. The irreverent brand of humour that KUKLYs championed is now limited to hidden corners of the internet, under constant threat from Russia’s heavy-handed media watchdog, Roskomnodzor.

The painting above is a self-portrait, featuring the artist (who maintained his/her exaggerated, anonymous alter-ego even while being interviewed by The Calvert Journal) watching yet another live presidential address. His/her feet rest idly on a real deer instead of a rug, a swap that both evokes the stereotype of Russia as a “wild country”, and criticises the country’s uncontrolled animal breeding industry.



@Bark_at_the_moon

Not the Right Year by @bark_at_the__moon is a collage of seemingly unrelated subjects: the flying DeLorean time machine and a hoverboard from the film Back to the Future, a group of men and a stranger. Is it a sci-fi movie set? No: it features a cut out from actual protest footage where large groups of riot police were seen attacking peaceful individual demonstrators on social media. Many of Russia’s current protests are being fuelled by young people who would rather skate or flick through comic books than be brutally attacked for demonstrating — yet see it as their duty.

The absurd collision of pop-culture staples and Russian reality in @bark_at_the__moon’s art captures that youthful energy. In his collages, he playfully makes Mark Renton from Trainspotting run away from OMON officers, or mashes up the Terminator and Lenin, a defiant act against reality.

MORE STUFF FROM RUSSIA Z
On the rise: 6 emerging artists on capturing Russia’s political reality

‘We were robbed of our future and we want to take it back’: art collective Kultrab on Russia’s young political revolution

On the rise: 6 emerging artists on capturing Russia’s political reality

6 subversive Russian artists battling power, capitalism, and catastrophe

On the rise: 6 emerging artists on capturing Russia’s political reality

‘Argue with me’: the Russian artist taking to the streets to break cycles of violence