Editor’s Note. It is no secret we think Victoria Lomasko is the best thing since sliced bread. And since Harvey Pekar, Joe Sacco, Love and Rockets—you name it. In the past year, we have published translations of her graphic reportages from the Pussy Riot trial and the trial against the Golos Association, and without her drawings of migrant workers, last year’s “Against Slavery” issue of our newspaper would have been right-minded but lacking a human touch and compassionate eye. Don’t take our word for it, though. In recent weeks, the German edition of her book Forbidden Art, co-authored with Anton Nikolaev, has been published. She has also produced a stunning series of illustrated reports on the case of the slaves recently freed from a Moscow grocery store. (You can find the first six reports here in English translation, and all seven reports here in the original Russian.) Last but not least and hot off the presses is the new, fortieth number of the newspaper Volya, with Ms. Lomasko’s illustrated “Chronicles of Resistance” as its highlight. So we thought it wouldn’t be out of place to translate and publish this nearly year-old interview with her from Artguide magazine. Our thanks to Victoria Lomasko and Maria Kravtsova for their permission to publish the interview here.
Originally published (in Russian) in Artguide magazine on January 12, 2012. All illustrations courtesy of Ms. Lomasko, except where otherwise noted. An abridged version of this interview has been published on the n+1 web site.
“Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me”
We are confident textbooks on twenty-first-century art history will include, along with photographs by the best photojournalists of our time, the graphic reportages of artist VICTORIA LOMASKO. In recent years, Lomasko has been in the middle of the most controversial social and political events, and she has drawn the trials of members of the contemporary art community and social activists, mass protests, and life in the Russian provinces. Critic MARIA KRAVTSOVA quizzed the artist about her attitude to Russian Orthodox activists, her experiences interacting with law enforcement officials, leftist identity and corruption in the art scene, and her parents and teachers.
Victoria Lomasko, with works from her and Anton Nikolaev’s series Tagansky Justice, at the exhibition of Kandinsky Prize nominees, 2010. Photo by Vlad Chizhenkov
Maria Kravtsova: Graphic reportages from courtrooms, grassroots protest actions, and sketches of provincial life are artist Victoria Lomasko’s calling cards. I have never understood how you hold up in the courtroom purely emotionally. In my view, the level of aggression at such events is through the roof.
Victoria Lomasko, drawing from the book Forbidden Art, 2011. Old woman: “Do you have blessing to draw?”
Victoria Lomasko: I become a different person when I start drawing. I am grateful to absolutely everyone portrayed in my works. For example, the old Orthodox women from the courthouse during the Forbidden Art trial, who sat in the corridor and told tall tales about the artist [Avdei] Ter-Oganyan: I listened carefully to every word and every detail, and examined their kerchiefs and skirts. At such moments, the excitement of the artist awakens in me, the excitement of someone who runs like a hound on someone’s trail without knowing how it will end. Maybe the hound is chasing a bear that will smack it down with one paw. But this excitement—or rather, the fact of finding an interesting topic—is overpowering.
Victoria Lomasko, drawing from the book Forbidden Art, 2011. Old woman: “They’re a bunch of bums on a mission to discredit Russian Orthodoxy.” Priest: “This is only the beginning. We will sweep the unclean spirits from the face of the Russian land.”
МK: The aggression of the Orthodox activists, say, didn’t get on your nerves?
VL: Actually, it is easy to understand and pity these people. They are mainly old people who lived in one country, but ended up in another. Nearly all of them say they used to be true-believing communists, and some of them had even wanted to blow up churches. This man, for example, is a former communist. [Victoria shows me a drawing of an overweight middle-aged man with an icon on his chest.] He was a professional stonemason and restorer, and worked in the Kremlin, but then he was disabled and reduced to poverty. Now he travels the forests, restoring abandoned churches.
Victoria Lomasko, “Orthodox Activist,” from the series Black Portraits, 2010. Caption: The stonemason Sergei. A former militant atheist, now a Russian Orthodox activist. Sergei: “The west wants to destroy the bold and beautiful Russian people.”
МK: I don’t want to exaggerate my personal experience, but I have difficulty accepting [Russian] leftists, whom I know mainly from the art scene. With a few exceptions, like you, what I see are not leftists, but what they call the bohemian bourgeois or gauche caviar, that is, people who espouse leftist values only verbally. What does the leftist idea mean for you?
VL: For me, the leftist idea is embodied in grassroots assistance; moreover, I’m a believer in pinpointed support. It’s hard to see how things will end when a global idea is deployed in real life, but at all times and under all regimes there are plenty of poor, disadvantaged people and plenty of injustices. I’d rather try and fix one specific injustice than sign onto a global project only formally.
And that is why I am really glad I met the human rights activists from the [Moscow] Center for Prison Reform. These people are focused on selflessly helping others, and compared to them I feel like a nasty bourgeois, doing “projects.” I travel with them to penal colonies for minors and see these human rights activists, most of whom are in their sixties and seventies, dragging seventy backpacks of humanitarian aid on their back, because when the boys and girls are released from the colonies they often have no street clothes. Human rights activists do this regularly, but few people know their names. However, many of the wards in the colonies need not only material, but also psychological support, which we are trying to give them—by, for example, giving drawing lessons, as I do.
Victoria Lomasko, “Life Drawing,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011
МK: There are two attitudes toward people in prison. Some believe they have only themselves to blame, while others believe that people who have committed crimes and are paying the penalty for them are victims of circumstance. As I understand it, you belong to the second group?
VL: I’m somewhere in the middle, because all cases are unique. For example, after learning certain details [of a particular case], you might feel disgust for a person, which in fact happened to me with one pupil at the girl’s colony. There are only three penal colonies for underage girls in Russia. While boys often commit violations out of foolishness and usually under the influence of alcohol, girls often experience more severe tragedies and commit more violent crimes. When you interact with such prisoners, a sense of revulsion often arises, and it is quite hard to overcome this feeling. On the other hand, even the Bible says you can condemn someone only if you understand what it is like to walk in his or her shoes. And the life circumstances of many young convicts are such that I’m not sure I could be honest and decent were I in their shoes. The worst thing is that when they get out of prison they return to the same vicious circle—alcoholic parents, violence and poverty—and there is no escape from this. As a result, they don’t have the psychological wherewithal, when they get out, to become normal, law-abiding people. They cannot find work, and so they either become dependent on their parents or, if that is not possible, they go back to stealing and robbing. And the state behaves meanly toward these people simply by failing to develop any program for rehabilitating them.
Victoria Lomasko, “Cafeteria,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011
MK: Another aspect of your civic activism is coverage of rallies and protest actions. Do you think these are a waste of breath or in fact an effective tool for society to exert influence on the authorities?
VL: I think that protest rallies are concretely beneficial because the people who attend them can then plug into specific causes—protests against the demolition of architectural landmarks, injustices in the justice system, and so on. People have learned not to be silent. I also think it is necessary to go to court hearings. Judges have begun to feel public pressure: their faces are there for everyone to see, and they immediately become targets of caricatures and criticism. My personal arsenal of protests includes the trial against the administration of the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, which had illegally fired a number of teachers. As a result, the dismissed teachers were reinstated, while the rector got the boot. The trial was presided over by a good judge who took our side. In addition, several alumni and students drew in the courtroom, and the next day their graphic reportages were on the Internet. This was a real shock for the university administration. They had hoped no one would find out about the trial, that they would do their dirty work and get away with it. They blew a fuse when they saw how I was drawing them. “Who do you think you are?” they said to me, “How dare you draw us! We’ll expel you tomorrow!” And I thought, “Nothing will come of that: I graduated from the university a long time ago, and tomorrow the drawings will be in Advokatskaya gazeta and on Grani.ru!”
Victoria Lomasko, Rally against Election Fraud. Sakharov Avenue, Moscow, December 24, 2011. Woman talking on phone: “All of Moscow is here.”
MK: By the way, what is your education?
VL: I was educated as a graphic artist. I graduated from the [Moscow State] University of Printing Arts, also known by its Soviet name, the Polygraph [Moscow Polygraphic Institute]. I had loved Soviet illustration since I was a kid, especially the work of Viktor Pivovarov, and I wanted to become a book illustrator. I loved Ilya Kabakov’s amazing book “The Magic Apple,” as well as, of course, the illustrations of Erik Bulatov and Oleg Vasiliev, though I later noticed their work was quite similar to the work of another favorite Soviet artist of mine, Henrik Valk. Although in fairness it should be noted that in his memoirs Vasiliev honestly admits they took Valk’s graphic works as a template. Valk was no fool himself and quite deliberately developed his images of Soviet life—of Soviet children, Soviet nature and Soviet technology. Vasiliev and Bulatov not only borrowed this set of pictorial clichés, but also, to some extent, took them to their logical conclusion.
Victoria Lomasko, from the series Drawing Lesson. Mozhaisk Juvenile Penal Colony, 2010. Yevgeny: “I take out my anger on the world by drawing.” Caption (lower left): Each drop is a grievance—it’s like rain. Caption (right panel): Yevgeny was a gambler: he was sent to the colony for breaking open a slot machine. He did not know how to draw and did not want to learn—he came to class to get things off his chest. Yevgeny always looked tense. He hated his surroundings and once said he wanted to kill. The skinhead Oleg took him down a peg: “Shut up. You don’t know what murder is.”
MK: How did your parents react to your idea of becoming an artist? Was it not clear to them that, with rare exceptions, it’s not a lucrative profession?
VL: I was not born yet (no one knew whether I would be a boy or a girl), but Dad was already insisting I would be a born artist. At the age of three, I was handed pencils and paints. My dad is a self-taught artist. He graduated from the ZNUI (People’s Correspondence University of the Arts). Moreover, he studied with the university’s founder, Mikhail Kriger, whom he visited at home and drank vodka with, and whose favorite student he was. But their relationship was simultaneously tragic: Dad did not understand Soviet art and socialist realism, but he did not know any other art and at the same time was always going off on tangents. So he decided to draw an iconostasis entitled “Madonna of the Century,” to portray modern women as Madonnas. Dad showed me his correspondence with Kriger on the topic. “What, have you perhaps lost your mind, Valentin Iosifovich! What Madonnas are you talking about? Look around, there are lovely Soviet female workers, women, in our country!” Plus, Dad never had the chance to show his work in Moscow or abroad. And I believe I have to make this up for him [through my own work].
Victoria Lomasko, from the series Drawing Lesson. Mozhaisk Juvenile Penal Colony, 2010. Oleg: “A swastika is encrypted in Raphael’s pictures.” Caption (left panel): He draws a lot. He has his own views on Renaissance masterpieces. Caption (right panel): Oleg is a skinhead. It all started when, at the age of eight, he witnessed the murder of a friend: teenagers from the Caucasus killed him to get hold of his telephone. At fourteen, Oleg organized a “fight club,” in which he was the youngest member. The fighters “staged flash mobs at Caucasian markets.” Oleg said that in his small provincial town, the population was divided into skinheads, people from the Caucasus, and suckers. He was convicted of a gang killing. He expected to be rewarded for his patriotism, not punished. Oleg has kept up his spirits in the penal colony: he has been studying foreign languages, philosophy, and economics. He dreams of becoming a politician: “Yanukovych’s convictions didn’t stop him from becoming president.” In the autumn, he was transferred to an adult penal colony.
МK: Most Polygraph graduates calmly work in design and don’t fret it.
VL: After graduation, I went through real stress: we’d been taught one thing, but life was quite different. I absolutely did not want to work in design, and there were no commissions for books I would have wanted to illustrate. I was lucky, however: almost immediately after university, I was hired as a staff illustrator for the magazine Ekspert, despite the fact that nowadays it’s the rare magazine that has illustrators on staff.
Victoria Lomasko, from the series Black Portraits. Gannushkin Psychiatric Hospital, 2010. Patient: “When Dad got hit by a trolleybus, my life became quite lonely.”
MK: Many young artists with whom I’ve spoken have noted how they are taught one thing, while the demands of our time are completely different. What is the training like for printing arts students?
VL: There were two kinds of professors: ones who were engaged and often completely insane, and the other kind, who had come to terms with the fact they needed to teach us to work as designers. My parents couldn’t afford to pay for the necessary preparatory courses I needed to get into the Polygraph, so I decided I would take classes in their night school. I enrolled and began commuting between Moscow and Serpukhov, but I really liked the classes, because in the night school they had amazing professors like Vladimir Petrovich Kosynkin, who fell into the first, “insane” category. He didn’t care about what was going on in the world, the so-called demands of the market and the modern world; he had kept on drawing, and drawing was what he taught us. The assignments he gave us were awesome—for example, he set up a still life that crawled out of the room and descended the stairs. You could pick any chunk of this giant indoor scene/still life and draw it sitting on the steps, in the classroom, on the floor in the hallway, wherever you wanted. He taught us various drawing techniques and told us lots of things about composition via the theories of Vladimir Favorsky, Natalia Goncharova, and other theorists of drawing and printmaking.
But then, at some point, the rector decided I had to transfer to the regular degree program since I was the best in my class. On the one hand, this was really great because I was able to get a dorm room, but on the other hand, the teachers in the regular program turned out to be the decadent kind. None of them drew anymore and all they wanted to talk about was design. “Come on, you silly girl, you’re going to be a designer anyway, so learn how to use a computer,” is what I’d hear from them constantly. While Kosynkin had showed us wonderful books—Kathe Kollowitz, Alexander Deineka, the artists of the group Thirteen—in the regular degree program, catalogues of western computer-generated illustrations, which I hate and still believe to be inferior to handmade drawings, were constantly foisted on us as examples. As I’ve already said, they didn’t teach us anything at all about contemporary art. Although at a certain point I had made friends with Anya Neizvestnova, who took me to the NCCA (National Centre For Contemporary Arts) and the Zverev Center, and showed and told me about another, contemporary and conceptual kind of art. At first, I didn’t understand anything at all, but I wanted to, and this impulse led me to [Joseph] Backstein’s school (ICA Moscow), where I began taking classes with Stas Shuripa. In the end, though, I was disappointed in this part of my education.
Victoria Lomasko, “Found Guilty,” from her graphic reportage of the trial against the Golos Association, 2011. Judge: “[Its] guilt has been wholly proven insofar as the Golos Association published voter polls and its own research less than five days before the elections.”
MK: It’s strange to hear you say that, because I see that a lot of young artists, ICA students, simply adore Shuripa, quote him constantly, and practically idolize him.
VL: That is exactly what I didn’t like. He is entirely focused on his followers. If a person wants to do their own thing, Shuripa simply stops teaching them. He is very diplomatic: first he feels out potential followers to find out how willing they are to follow in his footsteps. At first, he liked me, as it were, but soon there was a rather unpleasant incident. I was getting ready for an exhibition in Sweden and came in to show him my work, which was a series of fantastical illustrations of what was going on in my life, these rather fairy tale-like, sweet drawings. He looked at them and said, “Yes, yes, these are pretty interesting, but there are too many allusions to the Soviet style. You need to redraw them exactly the same way, but so that part of the composition gets lost in the white space.” “Getting lost in the white space” is this western, European style I knew about without his telling me, and I had no idea why I should be emulating anyone. I refused to redraw them, and with that, my education was over. Like many other students, I continued going to class, but I was no longer in the loop. That is when I understood it wasn’t only the powers that be in our society who are divided into clans, but that these kinds of structures extend to all social strata. You have to attach yourself to a powerful person, create this quite particular relationship with the person and their milieu, manipulate and submit to manipulation, and never follow your heart.
Victoria Lomasko, “Seamstress,” from her graphic reportage on the girls’ penal colony in Novy Oskol, 2011
MK: Yes, that is what happens if an artist is geared toward what they call a career, that is, toward being integrated into the artistic community, if they are interested in showing their work at galleries and museums, participating in various biennales, and fame, albeit relative, in the west. It seems to me you distance yourself from being that kind of career artist out of principle, or even that you reject this idea.
VL: I try to work only with people who like my work, people who understand it. So far, I have found people like this only in the west. My work has been shown at the Angoulême International Comics Festival and Arte Mare Bastia. I have some offers from western publishers, but I’m not ready just to draw comics. Andrei Erofeyev could support me here if he weren’t in a difficult spot himself. He actually loves the art he shows, which is a rare thing among curators today.
Victoria Lomasko, “The Store Clerk Makhbuba, Kazan Station,” a drawing for Chto Delat newspaper, 2011. Makhbuba: “We came to earn money and teach our children how to provide for their future. Just don’t write in your newspaper that we are ‘wogs.’”
MK: I have been observing you for a long time, especially the way you draw during street protests. You stand or walk through the crowd sketching in your notebook, even though what’s happening around you—the crowding, the riot cops, flares lighting up, shouting, rain and snow—could really get in your way. But you could easily simplify the procedure and make it safer by taking photos at events that interest you and then drawing from them later.
VL: I think that drawing from photographs is a way for fake artists or artists who have gone lazy. Being inside the picture is a matter of honor for me. Photographs are a one-byte reality, whereas in my all drawings, time is layered, people come and go, the subject and the composition slowly emerge. I stand and wait for something interesting to start happening in the empty corner of my drawing, for people I find interesting to cross a bridge at the right angle. My role models are the artists from the Thirteen group, who talked about how an artist has to capture the flow of time. Just like a dancer dances to the music, an artist must draw to the tempo of what he sees.
Victoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, “Terrorist. Psychiatric Hospital in Burashevo, Tver Region,” illustration for the book The Provinces, 2010. Courtesy of the artists. Nurse: “Why did you take hostages?” Patient: “There were voices in my head.”
MK: As an artist, you are nowadays primarily associated with political activism. How did you come to this? How did you find yourself in a courtroom with a sketchbook for the first time?
VL: At a certain point I felt like I was suffocating from loneliness and that I needed kindred spirits. Then Anton Nikolaev suddenly appeared in my life. I met him by accident and had no idea that he was an actionist, the stepsonof artist Oleg Kulik, and son of the famous cultural studies scholar Ludmila Bredikhina, that he collaborated with Voina. When we were getting to know each other, he told me he’d just gotten back from Rzhev, where he’d been filming a documentary. Then I watched all of his movies and just fell in love with them. The next time we saw each other, when he said, “I’m planning a new trip to the provinces. There’s room in the car, do you want to come?” I gladly agreed. We went to different towns a few times. I made sketches and Anton made captions to them that I really liked. The result was the book The Provinces.
Victoria Lomasko and Anton Nikolaev, illustration from the book The Provinces, 2010. Courtesy of the artists. Younger man: “Did you steal this from your wife?” Old man: “No, it’s all my own stuff, from the garden.”
After that, Nikolaev invited me to the trial of the organizers of the exhibition Forbidden Art, to draw the performance staged by the group Bombila, “A Fascist Beats Up Themis.” Honestly, I was appalled during the first court session. But after the second one, the Orthodox community had completely captured my imagination.
Victoria Lomasko during the installation of her Walk On By Gallery show in a pedestrian underpass. Moscow, 2011. Photo by Maria Kravtsova
MK: You don’t collaborate with contemporary art galleries. Your work, however, can be seen not only in magazines and on the Internet, but also in very unusual places. I recently visited your solo exhibition for the Walk On By Gallery, in a pedestrian underpass in Moscow that functioned as a gallery for an hour.
VL: It was a gamble, and it was completely unclear how the audience—i.e., the pedestrians—would react.
Walk On By Gallery exhibition in a pedestrian underpass. Moscow, 2011. Photo by Maria Kravtsova
MK: It was obvious from the get-go the police were going to show up and take everyone involved down to the station.
VL: I told Alexei Knedlyakovsky, who organized the show, that the police would come, but he assured me he’d staged four events in this underpass already and the police had reacted calmly. But at my show there were posters that said, for example, “Let Us Free Russia from Putin,” and after seeing stuff like that they simply would have to take us in. Nonetheless, I have to say I was happy with the police’s reaction to my work, how they looked over the pieces and asked me to leave them some posters as keepsakes. I gave them a few with my autograph: “To so-and-so and so-and-so from Victoria Lomasko.” I am really inspired by authorities reacting this way. I’m not one of those people who believe all cops are beasts you have to hate and despise. I think artists should reach out to people from all segments of the population. I would even be quite glad to give a lecture on reportage comics to police officers.
Victoria Lomasko, “Let Us Free Russia from Putin,” poster, 2011
MK: You also work as a curator. For example, you organized an exhibition of work by Argentine artists as part of curator Tatyana Volkova’s Freedom of Choice project at Proekt_Fabrika.
VL: I had never planned on becoming a curator, I just don’t like the situation described by the saying, “All the same old horses in the ring.” When you go to an exhibition and you don’t see anything new there, it’s all been online and in other shows. I wanted to push the boundaries. There are a lot of Latin American artists involved in civic life, who do systematic work in different segments of society. They don’t seek out themes they can exploit to make their career, but instead help people in prisons, migrant workers, the vulnerable and the poor. I’m very impressed by the fact that helping people is a mundane matter for them.
Victoria Lomasko, illustration from Forbidden Art, 2011. Caption: One of the female Orthodox activists, an elderly woman who, it turned out, was well versed in nineteenth-century painting, had edifying discussions with NCCA director Leonid Bazhanov. Old woman: “Repent while you can!”
MK: Do you sell your work?
VL: So far, I haven’t sold a single piece.
MK: I meant something else. There are some artists who part with their work easily and others who can’t part even with a seemingly minor sketch.
VL: I’m in the second category.
Translated by Bela Shayevich and Chtodelat News
Victoria Lomasko, “The Future Belongs to Them,” from her graphic reportage of the trial of artist/activist Dmitry Putenikhin (aka Matvei Krylov), 2011. Lawyer: “The future belongs to people like Dmitry Putenikhin.”
Victoria Lomasko, “United Russia Party Member Golovnyov,” sketch from a polling station in Khimki, 2011. Golovnyov: “I have portraits of Putin, Medvedev and me hanging in my garage.”
Victoria Lomasko, “Heroes of Krapivna,” on-the-job sketches from the Krapivna state farm, for the Krapivna Newspaper, 2010