Sketches of Resistance: An Interview with Victoria Lomasko

by    /  April 26, 2017  / Comments Off on Sketches of Resistance: An Interview with Victoria Lomasko

Graphic reporter Victoria Lomasko. Image via Seattle Twist

Russian artist and activist Victoria Lomasko uses graphic reporting to explore and document the diverse, “invisible” communities of Russian society—from enslaved Kazakh migrant laborers to the sex workers of Nizhny Novgorod. When people went to the streets in 201l, Lomasko became a fixture at many protests, documenting individual Russians striving to be heard. These stories and more are compiled in her most recently published book Other Russians. met up with Lomasko at her gallery showing in the Ellis Gallery (Carnegie Mellon University, School of Art) where she discussed the Russian art scene, her process, and her influences.

You’ve written that one of your goals before starting this project in 2008 was to “get over you fear of reaching out to people”—could you unpack this fear for us?

When I started about ten years ago it was the period of “Putin-ist civility.” It seemed like a good time for the intelligentsia to do things with ordinary people. For example, they could put on exhibits that we opened and made accessible to the wide sectors of society. I was surprised that at art exhibits the only kind of people you met were just people from the art scene. So first and foremost, I had to work through this problem within myself—to find a way in my own work to get outside that scene and do things that were interesting to other people. 

My methods changed as a result for the first period I could only sort of spy on people, look at them secretly and listen in on them secretly. And then I felt the courage to start asking questions. And then I started making trips, organizing my own projects. For example, when we went to Nizhny Novgorod to do a series of drawings and interviews with sex workers. Now I’m studying different journalistic practices, sociological practices, and I am actively using them in my work. The text used to be just a kind of title for the drawings, but now they’ve become a full-fledged part of the work itself. 

Since you’re trying to incorporate more journalistic techniques, with your art, especially in terms of reporting protests do you ever find yourself grappling with the tensions between creating art and reporting truth?

When you document and draw a protest, it actually means you have to be really engaged with what’s going on. If I just protested—carrying a sign and shouting out the slogans instead of drawing or talking to people—it would feel like I was only half involved. My work makes me more involved. I have a series, it’s a slide projector show, “The Chronicle of Resistance” that I did in 2011 and 2012 when the Russian protests were going on. When documenting these protests, I had two main tasks: First was to document everyday participants in protest, and not just the famous people giving speeches, but all the different layers of society were involved, that you don’t hear about every day. The second thing was to make a specific portrait of each demonstration because each protest had its own sort of character and atmosphere.

While drawing the series, I would get into several different mindsets. Sometimes I was completely lost in the rhythms and the emotions of the things I was drawing. Sometimes I would ask myself questions like a journalist about what should be documented. Sometimes I thought about my work in terms of sociological questions about which types of social groups were being represented. 

What energy do you feel you’re communicating when you’re drawing on-site that isn’t really captured in photos or videos? 

A drawing is very different than a photograph especially with regards to the ways I create a synthesis between the portrait and the words that the people in the portrait are saying. You get a richer evaluative representation than a photograph. Photographers are also limited in certain ways. For example, if a photographer takes a picture at night then it will be a picture at night. Whereas I might be interested in something else, and if I’m drawing something that happens at night I can just draw through the darkness and focus on the lines. And sometimes I will do these composite drawings, bringing together things from various experiences into a single drawing. 

How do you balance subjectivity and objectivity? 

I’m doing a special, alternative type of journalism. I am not limited by a temporal framework. I have the time to do what I want. I choose what I want to represent. 

For example, I worked on the long-distance truck driver’s protest panel. At events like these, journalists come just to hear the agenda for the day or to do something for the news that day, and then they wouldn’t return for another month. But I was there regularly and, as a result, I noticed subtle changes happening in the camp and in the peoples’ thought processes. 

Do you think the reason why your work resonates with people in the 21st century is because we’re just so inundated with digital media? 

I don’t think any one method is better than the other. The medium is not the most important thing. The most important thing is the reputation of the person who is doing the reporting. For example, if it’s clear that I’m drawing something that’s filled with self-censorship or it’s done under someone’s orders, it doesn’t matter if it’s a drawing or photograph—I won’t be trusted. At the same time, in Russia it is easier to do drawings as opposed to photographs because a lot of people are afraid of having their picture taken. 

This is one of the reasons why the first part of my book, Other Russians, is called “Invisible,” because many of the people who are documented in that part would have refused to be photographed or interviewed. 

The organization of the book into two parts, “Invisible” and “Angry,” is interesting because “Invisible” comes first—Is anger the inevitable result of invisibility? 

I do think that some of the people who were featured in “Invisible” could have participated in the protests in the second part. But, in some ways, what was most important were the changes I went through myself over the ten years of doing this work. I found the strength to become a more public figure. To speak out more and talk to people. All these different kinds of people. 

In the first part, there is a focus on individual people, and then in the second half it felt like a collective. How did your own personal progression align with seeking out the individual and then going into this sort of team work?

The work that I was doing before 2012 forms the “Invisible” part. The main thing that I am most interested in and surprised by is the degree by which all these different types of people are extremely alienated from one another. In 2012, what happened for me and many of my comrades was a kind of miracle: For the first time since during the Perestroika period, thousands of people were suddenly going out to the streets. At the time, the protestors didn’t really have a clear social agenda or set of demands. But people felt it extremely emotionally. These demonstrations provided a sense that there are a lot of other people around that think like I do. We hung out and spent time together after these demonstrations, but after they were done we went home and didn’t see each other again. 

The protest in 2015 and 2016, were more grassroots, like the truck driver protests. They were very different. They had very concrete demands, the people who participated in the demonstrations were there every day and became friends for life at these events.

One of the things I try to do in the book is give a feeling and a sense for parallels between the different stories so that you can get a sense that when people are overcoming alienation there is this potential for the miracle of coming together. 

How do you see the relationship between men and women shifting in Russia? If you do?

Most changes I see are in other post-Soviet Republics like the ones in Central Asia that are majority Muslim. In parts of Russia—for example the North Caucasus—the changes since the Soviet Union are so great that it’s incredible. In central Russia, the changes since the end of the Soviet Union have been minimal. However the Russian state is trying to enforce a new model for how a woman should act: She should have children, she should be Orthodox, she should be a patriot, she should do what her husband says.

But most women spit on this propaganda. They want to look sexy, dress up, and enjoy life. 

What other Russian artists, writers, and journalists inspire you?

For the most part I’m not interested in contemporary artists. But one person I really like is the artist and writer Vasily Vereshchagin who went to the Russo-Turkish colonial wars against Turkistan in the 19th century. I’m very interested in the theme of orientalism , which hasn’t been explored really at all in Russian art history. A lot of Russian artists from Central Russia went to Central Asia, the Caucuses looking for exotic subjects. Now I’m working on a new book that will be focused on post-Soviet space. My goal for this is to be like Vereshchagin in the sense that I will notice all the little details and be extremely Italian orientalism.

I don’t want to produce an image of a scary or gloomy Russia. When we first started exhibiting in the States, there was someone in here who was saying how sad the exhibit looked. Having spent some time here in America I’ve seen similarities between the States and Russia in terms of a lot of the same kinds of social inequalities and it’s not surprising that Trump got elected. The workers of all countries, along with the intellectuals and the artisans need to unite. 

Is there a particular piece you want to talk about?

The “Chronicle of Resistance” is about the protests from 2011 to 2012. In the beginning, these drawings were distributed through the anarchist newspaper Svoboda (Freedom). I also showed a lot of drawings on street exhibits. They had a big Occupy camp called Occupy Abay named after the statue of the Kazakh writer they gathered near. And I would display the drawings and people would recognize themselves. But this time I chose a different way of representing the work. Because it’s now a part of history, I can’t show it the way I did before. I chose this form as a way of understanding that these events are now distant from us. It’s interesting that they chose this series for one of the biggest exhibits they have in Russia. And they hung it in a glass box that looks like an aquarium which also gave it a sense of a great distance. It’s interesting that they did not choose the series about the long-distance truck drivers which is from 2015-16. 

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