What happened at the exhibition “International Women’s Day. Feminism: From Avant-Garde to the Present”? (Moscow, Russia)
On March 7th, 2013 the exhibition International Women’s Day. Feminism: from avant-garde to the present curated by Natalya Kamenetskaya, Marina Loshak and Olesya Turkina opened at the Manezh Museum and Exhibition Center “ The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman” in Moscow. However, accusations of censorship soon emerged when two artists’ works, those of Victoria Lomasko and Masha Umnaya, were reported to have been removed from the exhibition. Here we re-publish statements from those involved in the conflict, originally published in Russian on Colta.ru, in an article by Sergey Guskov.
Victoria Lomasko, artist
Sergey Guskov: Tell us how you came to be invited in this exhibition.
Victoria Lomasko: I was originally invited by Nadia Plungian, whom the curators had asked to contribute a text for the catalog. She suggested them to invite artists from the exhibition “The Feminist pencil , ” which I had co-organized last fall. Nadia asked me what work I would like to show. I had no desire to stage a provocation. I originally wanted to show works from my series “Feminine,” which was exhibited in the “Feminist pencil.” This series is not related to politics – it consists of portraits of women and their conversations about their condition. However, on the eve of the opening, Nadia told me that the curators would rather show the series “Chronicles of Resistance “ – as I understood it, because it is more critical, and they wanted to add something more political and polemical to their exhibition. And in the catalogue, without my knowing – at that moment I was in Berlin – they reproduced my portrait of Kapitalina Ivanova and two other works about the protests in Russia. After my return to Moscow, I explained to them that I could not give them the original drawings to hang in the exhibition – as they, together with the respective texts, were created on my computer in Photoshop and could be reproduced only as prints. But, there existed drawings from this series, portraits of women in the protests, representing how they felt during the events, what they said – where those their words, or did someone influence them ? I am very interested in elder activists.
In the end, I proposed two diptychs: one representing the pensioner-communist Kapitalina and the liberal Valentina, who is supportive of Pussy Riot; the other, the young women in the rainbow [LGBTQ] column and the elderly women wearing headscarves from the nationalist column. In my view, these works would have been ideal to show in this feminist exhibition. It didn’t strike me as odd that some works mentioned Pussy Riot. For example, in one drawing they are shouting “Pussy Riot – in the trash!”. There has been so much said about Pussy Riot that it is strange to think that it could be a provocation, that some people are afraid of showing them – indeed, these are not posters in support of Pussy Riot, but documentary scenes, and some of the characters depicted there are actually against the women.
Moreover, I was sure that there would be other works in the exhibition referring to Pussy Riot. They are a feminist groups, and besides, these women are political prisoners who are still in prison – and the exhibition claims to be the largest feminist exhibition in Russia.
SG: How did you find out that your works were removed?
VL: In the beginning I was asked to send images of the works for the contract. I did not personally communicate with either Kamenetskaya, Turkina or Loshak. The contract came through their assistant, whom I met and signed the document; the original contract included reproductions of all the four works, but I did not receive a copy of it – later I was given to sign another contract in blank, which only mentioned one work.
A day before the opening Nadia called me and told me the curators refused to exhibit any works referring to Pussy Riot. The artist Mikaela was also present , and she confirmed their statement: anything but the mention of Pussy Riot.
SG: And who made this observation?
VL: Kamenetskaya and Turkina. They asked me to come urgently and hang other drawings from the same series, “Chronicles of Resistance,” without any Pussy Riot references. To be honest, I became immediately infuriated. I could not make any sense of it – as if the curators had been afraid of some incredibly bold, provocative work! Pussy Riot is a feminist group, and the whole world knows they are in prison right now, but at the same time a large-scale collective feminist exhibition cannot allow the name of the group to be even mentioned. To cut a long story short, I told them I am not going away, and that I would write about it. At that point, there was only one of my works left in the show (which did not mention Pussy Riot), but I did not care one way or the other. For me this ceased to be a feminist exhibition. Nadia wanted to have at least one of my works up. But even this work was removed in the end, as was witnessed by Nadia and Mikaela. They took it down the day of the opening, because, according to the curators, this works was of poor quality. According to Nadia and Mikaela, they mistreated other “Feminist pencil” representatives, taking down a work by Umnaya Masha, also without explanation, although there was plenty of space to hang it.
And I am not sure if they would have not taken out Mikaela’s stenciled graffiti, were it not have already been applied on the walls. Several times, the curators wanted to exclude her work. There were many similar episodes in this exhibition, it is just that not all the artists are wiling to talk about it openly.
SG: But all these statements – about Pussy Riot and about the “poor quality” works were made informally. Was there any official explanation ?
VL: Officially they did not tell me anything. Of course, I was sick and I could not attend the opening. But they did not write, nor call – none offered an explanation. I only heard with Nadia Plungian’s version. Most people don’t want to show my works in their exhibitions. I am so used to this, that it no longer impresses me. But I resent the fact that in a feminist exhibition the “feminist”-curators insult their artists. This I simply cannot understand. These past days Nadia and Mikaela called me, telling me how they mistreated them and our works during the installation. And after all this, these curators call themselves feminists who organized the most grandiose “feminist” exhibition in Russia!
Comments from other artists and curators involved in the conflict
Nadia Plungian, senior researcher at the State Institute of Art, member of the Moscow Feminist Initiative
This exhibition was organized by the curatorial collective composed of Marina Loshak, Natalia Kamenetskaya and Olesya Turkina. Loshak is the curator of the gallery “Proun” and the director of the space “The Worker and Kolkhoz Woman,” where the exhibition takes place. Kamenetskaya is a Moscow-based artist, known for her exhibition «ŽEN d’Art,” dedicated to women’s art in the former Soviet Union, which took place a few years ago at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art. Turkina is a known Petersburg art critic, who curated one of the first post-Soviet feminist exhibitions in Russia. These three women from the older generation are diligent, but they usually ignore young feminist artists and try to elide political aspects of women’s art.
I was invited to write a critical text about new feminist art for the catalogue of the exhibition. I wrote the text and asked the curators to include some works from the younger generation in the project, which after long discussions they agreed to. I immediately suggested Ekaterina Samutsevich [of Pussy Riot] – they refused, explaining that they did not want any trouble. It was clear that when the stakes are so high, any connection to so-called “extremist art” puts the exhibition at risk. However, they did not have any problem with including Pussy Riot and their political position in the catalogue essay. I asked: “If you can include the text, why not also some of their works?” To which they replied: “You are not the curator, you cannot make these decisions, do not forget your place.” However, as I am knowledgeable of the contemporary art scene and I just co-organized “The Feminist Pencil” with Victoria Lomasko, I managed to convince them that new feminist art should be a part of the exhibition and the catalog.
Initially, the curators we very much against Mikaela’s series, which is currently still in the show. Then they said they would only include this series and not even consider the rest. Their decisions were chaotic, and the editing was also very strange, changing something every day: they wanted to cut my already edited text three times, then remove it completely. The final episode happened during the exhibition installation, which took place a day before the opening.
That morning I went together with Mikaela to install the works expeditiously, but this turned out to be impossible as there was no clear organization and coordination. Several times we had discussions with the architect and the curators about which works to hang. It is important to note that all this was published in the catalog and many times discussed before. It is absurd to claim that, under the pretext of lack of space, works which were already agreed upon could not be hung. This is not done in any museum.
I insisted that Lomasko participate in this exhibition. As this was a feminist project, we proposed the series “Feminine” (2012) about women from her native Serpukhov, where Victoria travels frequently. On the one hand, there are women living there from the Soviet generation, on the other contemporary women, who live in a small town and talk about surviving through all the conflicting norms young women have to abide by – it is like a documentary report, visually interesting and socially engaged. The organizers unanimously said “no” to the series. They demanded that Lomasko send a different work, however the artist was then in Berlin. Victoria then had to send high-resolution images of her other series [Chornicles of Resistance], without being able to argue back. This series represents graphic works depicting the Moscow protests. The organizers immediately observed that these works have more to do with feminism than the series on every-day problems of women around us. I think this is very characteristic…
Generally speaking, Lomasko’s works are divided into two categories. She has exhibition originals, entirely drawn on paper and also reportage drawings which she works on with digital technology. The drawings which Victoria sent the curators from Berlin had been worked out in Photoshop. I informed the organizers about this right away, and they replied: “We will only take these” – but they did not offer any funds to produce the prints and no one really thought about this at the central museum in Moscow. And so, with everything going on, they did not have time to see how the drawings turned out, as they had the deadline for the catalog, which was produced very fast, literally in the last few days. I was surprised at this haphazard process and have not experienced it before, as a catalogue is a serious undertaking and it is not something you leave for the last week. Unfortunately, in Russian “contemporary art” this is considered normal.
The curators told me they do not care whether Lomasko’s works were actual drawings or digital works, but that they wanted precisely the ones from the “Chronicles of Resistance” series which in my opinion are not so much about feminism. I consulted with Victoria on what to do. Among the selected drawings there was one with the pensioner-communist Kapitalina holding a banner, and since Umnaya Masha’s banners were supposed to also be exhibited, we thought it would be a great juxtaposition. The Kapitalina work is part of a series of four plates. They are beautifully colored with black, bold strokes, as is characteristic of Victoria’s style. They are all dedicated to the protests and portray the crowd – part of the protesters scream “Pussy Riot – in the trash!” and others wear balaclavas , hold a feminist icon and a banner on which it is written “Start the Pussy Riot!”
In the morning I went to the installation and found that precisely these works were excluded. We were shouted at : “We are going to be sent to jail! Why did you send us these? It cannot be!” It was unthinkable to find replacements for these works on the same day and impossible to have everyone agree on a new selection on such short notice. I managed to convince them to leave the last work up, the one with the pensioner holding a banner with Lenin. However, in the end they removed this work as well as Umnaya Masha’s banners.
I think the reasons behind all of this are political. The curators were generally dissatisfied with the young artists’ participation. The feminist Anna Bryus of the “Queer Front” heard at the opening that they remarked that contemporary feminists are “absolutely incompetent and uncritical because of their ambitions.” In addition, they repeated that “this is an exhibition, not a boudoir, and we cannot include so many such works as you have.” Natalia Kamenetskaya declared that Lomasko’s work was “just bad, on the level of “The Feminist Pencil,” not for a serious exhibition.” They called the artist Marina Winnick “too feminine” – like the qualification “boudoir,” it is strange to hear such a remark uttered by a feminist. There were a lot of insults and derogatory remarks against us, despite the fact that I had been working on this project for a month for free.
However, I do not think that the decision [ to exclude the works] was made by the officials. Marina Loshak could have uttered pejorative remarks about us, as she expressed a rather dismissive opinion of the work of young feminists. But we never had a direct conversation with her. So to me this is more about self-censorship and a rejection of the political in art as such. This is the case not only with these three women-curators but also characterizes the self-positioning of “contemporary art” which is very reminiscent of Soviet artistic policy – including institutional policies. These are people who want to show their loyalty, but they do not particularly understand to whom. Loyalty outweighs the desire to create a new message, a new artistic meaning. I have been criticizing the contemporary art system for many years now, and I dedicate my work to socially engaged projects which strive to give people knowledge. That was my goal here, which is why I accepted to be part of the catalogue and the exhibition.
Mikaela, feminist artist, activist
[The curators] hurt my friends and colleagues, with which I share a common political position. I feel a solidarity with these artists. I am deeply shocked about what happened. I never thought such a thing is possible. Victora Lomasko’s series of drawings was selected and approved by the curator, so what we have here is the height of un-professionalism. They did not even take responsibility for their own actions – like openly admitting that they made the decision to remove the works and then to apologize to the artists. They never said anything like this and instead issued derogatory remarks. Either directly or through third parties the rumors began – as in the anecdote, when a neighbor takes another’s vase and breaks it and, when confronted with what she did, she says: “The vase was standing in such a way that it could not have not been broken and besides, I did not take it.” That is a defense mechanism similar to this case. The day before the installation Turkina and Kamenetskaya told us that [Lomasko’s] work could not be hanged because it mentioned Pussy Riot. Nadia Plungian, who came with me suggested that if that was the case, then they could show at least one of Victoria’s works in which Pussy Riot is not mentioned. The curators agreed to this but on the day of the opening even this work had been eliminated from the exhibition. Furthermore, they took down Umnaya Masha’s work, about which there was previously no controversy. In her case, the works had been vetted even by the designer of the exhibition. We received no apologies, explanations or statements – nothing that any proffesional curators would have done in this situation. Obviously, there are always unforeseen circumstances during an exhibition, but then why not discuss these problems openly? Here the opposite occurred.
During the opening I was approached by the curators who said that Lomasko’s work is of bad quality, not of the level that is appropriate for that museum. Even though she is a great contemporary artist. Umnaya Masha’s work was removed because they said “it’s an exhibition, not a boudoir,” however, this was a banner which was carried at protest rallies. Where is the boudoir in that? I do not understand how this was all possible in an exhibition which includes works by the Guerrilla Girls who precisely protested against this kind of attitudes. The only explanation I could find was that the curators took the word “feminism” simply as a brand, something which is fashionable to talk about and looks prestigious for a Westerner. Myself, like the artist-activist Umnaya Masha, I simply do my work in the street. Nadya and Victoria did a great job with the exhibition “The Feminist Pencil,” which brought together several feminist artists. Their exhibition was small, but nevertheless very poignant politically. For over four years these women have been engaged in the development of a local feminist movement, paving the way for feminist-artists. Because of their work it is now possible, or even fashionable to talk about feminism. And then come these people who were not engaged like them, but having some connection to them, take the fruits of their labor and then pour mud of them. I think that this is an usurpation of creative work by the mainstream: in the end, they just took these women’s works, using “feminism” as a facade for their prestigious exhibition. This is similar to a patriarchal mechanism, just as when men ask women to do their dirty work for them and then take the credit for it. It would seem that in a feminist exhibition, women should not be devaluing other women according to the same logic.
Olesya Turkina, curator and art critic, co-curator of the exhibition
The history of feminism in Russia spans a bit more than twenty years. In a country of victorious socialism, feminism as we know it did not exist. Aleksandra Kollontai believed that women’s plight should not distract from class struggle. And the totalitarian state, despite granting women equal right formally, was in fact very patriarchal. Women were given a certain quota of the so-called male spheres of activity. At the same time, images of heroic women tractor drivers, leaders of collective farms, astronauts were produced throughout the history of the Soviet Union. During the Russian Avant-Garde, women artists preferred not to have an explicit gender aspect to their work, associating primarily with certain groups and movements. Only during Perestroika did gender become a major issue in art.
When together with Victor Mazin I organized the first feminist exhibition “Women in Art” in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) in 1989, the word feminism caused confusion, horror and even disgust. Back then we were faced with denigration in the media. The TV-program “600 seconds” showed us speaking at the opening of Vladislav Mamushev Monroe, calling the artist a hermaphrodite. And angry citizens began to chase the artists in the street, threatening his life. Most people who came of age in the Soviet Union considered homosexuality a disease, for which a person should be forcefully treated or sent to prison. As time passed, the infamous Article 121 of the Criminal Code was repelled in 1993. In my worst nightmares I could not have anticipated that in 2012 this would come to be replaced with the shameful article 108-18 in the St. Petersburg penal code, which basically equates homosexuality with pedophilia. To be different was again prohibited.
The history of feminism in Russian art evolved with difficulty. On the one hand, for the past 20 years there have been group feminist exhibitions, such as, for example, “ZEN d’ART.” Gender-based art in the former Soviet Union. 1989-2009″ (at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, curatorated by N. Kamenetskaya and O. Sarkisyan), conferences, anthologies, and some universities introduced “Gender Studies.” On the other hand, in the collective conscious, feminism is still associated with something unknown, frightening, even perverse. That is why, together with Marina Loshak and Natalia Kamenetskaya, we decided to make the exhibition “International Women’s Day. Feminism: From the Avant-Garde to the Present.” The occasion was the centenary of the celebration of this date in Russia, when in St. Petersburg fifteen hundred women came out to demand their social rights. We wanted to bring back into memory the historical aspect of March 8, which originated from a struggle for equality, as opposed to a celebration of “love, spring and all women.” The most important task for us was showing art from a feminist perspective, from the Amazons of the Russian avant-garde, to key figures of Western feminism of the 1960s-70s, to contemporary art. But we were again faced with the fear of the word feminism. Despite the professed love for this centenary anniversary, no one wanted to sponsor this exhibition.
Several Contemporary Art Foundations led by women, and women’s organizations refused to fund us. Formally, none of them said they were against feminism. Given these circumstances, women-artists themselves helped us by donating their works, while galleries, collectors and consulates helped us with bringing in Western works. Despite all these difficulties, we managed to organize a conceptual exhibition on feminism in art in the 20th century. The largest piece in this show was Vera Mukhina’s monument, “The Worker and the Kolkhoz Woman,” a famous symbol of equality in the USSR. By making an exhibition at the base of the monument we showed that feminism was the basis of equality, and not vice-versa.
To complete the spectrum of feminist art, we decided to invite to participate in the exhibition some young Russian artists and activist, Umnaya Masha, Mikaela and Victoria Lomasko. We selected some works for the exhibition which their curator, Nadia Plungian promised to deliver. When she brought the folder with Lomasko’s drawings we were surprised to find that those were not the works which we had negotiated and are printed in the catalogue. Instead of works from the series “Chronicles of Resistance. 2011-2012,” Plungian brought us works with references to “Pussy Riot,” which now, thanks to the media, became the most popular thing about the exhibition. We refused these works. Still, we decided to try to put one of Lomasko’s drawings, “Kapitalina holding a banner with Lenin” to keep the artist in the exhibition. But we failed. The drawing was very small, and we did not have at our disposal other works by Lomasko. Plungian explained that she could not deliver what we had agreed upon. That very evening it was reported on the internet that we “censored” Lomasko’s works. That was the first misinformation. The curators were accused that they did not hang works in the exhibition which had not been agreed upon originally. At the opening, the Feminist Initiative distributed postcards with Lomasko’s works which mentioned they had been removed from the exhibition, when they were not accepted in the exhibition in the first place.
But more importantly, the following instance of misinformation happened when the curators were accused of “repressing” Pussy Riot. That is, not showing these artists in the exhibition equals repressing them. Here in my opinion is a case of radical substitution of an aesthetic discourse with a political one. However, it is not enough for these artists to use political discourses to enter into the sphere of art. Thirdly, the media substituted Lomasko with the group Pussy Riot. Paradoxically, the strategies of the Feminist Initiative resemble those of the First Channel [ The official TV channel in Russia ]. This is also supported by the fact that Plungian’s article in the catalog states that Pussy Riot avoided feminist activists, and that after their imprisonment “the media and art journals narrowly focused on covering solely Pussy Riot, openly ignoring local feminist initiatives and women-artists working in the field.”
The Feminist Initiative has achieved its goal – instead of integrating feminism in the Russian cultural sphere, their discourses remained in the field of political scandals. As a result of this, the media does not focus on the works of art in the exhibition, the concept of the exhibition, on ideas of feminism and civil rights, but on the “repression” and “censorship” of which they accused the curators. But, as the Guerrilla Girls said, do not let yourself be stereotyped! For me, this story is most revealing of the process of replacement of aesthetics with politics going on in Russian art today.
Marina Loshak, art director of the museum and exhibition space “Manezh,” co-curator of the exhibition
This is an absolute falsehood, fabrication, which bears no relation to reality. No works were removed by anyone. I have no opinion on this and I do not even think about this subject.
Translated from Russian by Corina L. Apostol from an original article by Sergey Guskov, prepared with the help of Gleb Napreenko and Aleksandra Novozhenova.