Victoria Lomasko is a graphic artist, with a specific focus on graphic reportage. Topics of her work are some of the most provocative issues of Russian society today: the tension between religious tradition and the ever-evolving modern society, the true mission statements of current political protests and LGBT activism, and the problems in migrant and sex work including underage prostitution. She recently had her book “Other Russias” published in English and is currently doing her book tour in the USA.
Theory and practice
My education background can be divided into three main parts: two of them are unusable and one is quite acceptable by Russian standards. My first education in the teacher training college of Serpukhov, the city I come from, was an absolutely useless waste of time. The only useful thought that stayed with me, is that every lesson should be thoroughly prepared: with an introduction, a culmination and a conclusion. Later, I used this knowledge in my project for juvenile prisons, where I designed ten drawing lessons specifically for imprisoned children. Without having a pedagogical education or the practical skills of an art teacher, who worked in art and middle schools, this project would not have been successful.
I always dreamed about getting into the Moscow State University of Printing Arts, also known among its students as Polygraph. One of its founders was Vladimir Favorsky, a famous illustrator, painter and theoretician. There, all professions related to books and the printing industry were taught, and its art faculty was for many years the most important one in the USSR and Russia. While I was studying, the institution itself was already beginning to lack in quality. Luckily enough, I studied at the institution while the few remaining old teachers who still had the capacity to teach something were still there. Though Polygraph is no longer as popular, I am satisfied with my education there, as I would not have gotten anything better in my country. In fact, my experience with foreign colleagues made me realise that our Soviet education was actually very progressive.
Nowadays, one can get an education as an illustrator or designer. In comparison, what we had at the time was a whole complex system. We studied design, illustration and book modeling, and additionally, we had a lot of theory: theory with a capital “T”.
Unfortunately, we were barely taught in disciplines like literature and philosophy amongst others, and literally nothing on modern art. Therefore, when I started experimenting with the creation of conceptual artworks inspired by Pivovarov, Kabakov and Rubinstein on my own, I had to endure this way independently, because I couldn’t receive substantial understanding or criticism from anyone at the University. After graduating from Polygraph, I continued my education at the Moscow Institute of Contemporary Art, in Russian it is called IPSI – Institute of Problems of Contemporary Art and indeed, the only thing they create, are problems. This one-year educational programme disappointed me because it was very subjective.
Art universities in Russia are mostly boring and conservative. Students are forced to draw endless still-lifes and learn how to shade and glaze in a hundred different ways until they forget why they began to study art in the first place. No one questions if all of it is really necessary in our modern world and why. The most important idea I’ve learned in Polygraph, is that we shouldn’t treat a sheet of paper simply as the space on which we are depicting something, or on which we are painting something from the outside world. But rather, we should treat it as valuable material, like that of a seamstress from which he or she makes the dress. In the end, we shouldn’t add a single unnecessary element on it.
Leaving the circle
In Russia, there is no such thing as healthy competition. Too many ideas face silence and disregard. Without being in the right scene or a part of an artistic family dynasty, professional death awaits you. After graduating, independent art projects were not an option for me, because I had to work with “the flow” to just provide for myself. This mode of constant production of an infinite number of illustrations for different publications with sometimes hour-long deadlines is very destructive for the psyche. I had no idea where my place was and felt like a servant who painted endless orders. It seemed like there was no place for me in the current modern art world, especially because at the IPSI I’ve been told that drawing is dead, life drawing in particular.
Within the artistic circle, I felt a constant fear of falling out of it, the fear of talking to people from the outside. This fear is understandable: an artist in Russia is always a belittled person, an eccentric weirdo who can feel normal only within this circle and its hierarchy. “Look at us! We are not weirdos! We have our own hierarchy where one can move from one step to another, and we can even make a personal exhibition in the center of Moscow!” All these achievements are very irrelevant for other Russians who simply do not care about contemporary artists and their hierarchies.
I constantly questioned myself. Where is my place in the world? What does this world represent? What happens if I leave my professional circle and what is waiting for me out there? Why do we have such little interaction between all spheres of our life and art? Why do we know so little about each other? How can I start talking to other people?
After a self- exploratory process through struggling in art, the most important thing happened – I decided to include text in my work. Pure drawings, just for the sake of color, texture and compositions, became uninteresting to me. Recently, I went through my childhood drawings, and noticed that there was always a story inside them, sometimes even with the text inscribed. And these drawings were almost always arranged in series. Even now as an adult, I create a story in order to to understand the essence of anything and everything. For example, when the Moscow protests in 2012 took place, I did not miss a single protest. I could have gone there with just a poster and a white ribbon. However, that would not have allowed me to say what it was all about, why it developed that way, and what part the participants and I were playing in it. In the beginning, I simply included randomly overheard sentences in my drawings with my comments on them, because starting a conversation with strangers seemed like an impossible task. Finally I overcame my hesitation and began to ask questions, and planning visits and meetings with certain people. My projects are similar to the work of a reporter who comes to the event without knowing anything, then learns everything, to eventually tell others about it.
Hierarchies and cultural connections
These vague ideas crystallized into a project where I travel around the post-Soviet countries and make a series of interviews. All post-Soviet countries and cities are very different, but they are all united by two terrible common denominators: widespread patriarchy and the overwhelming colonial influence of Russia. My project started in 2014 when I was invited to Kyrgyzstan by a Bishkek feminist group, and that experience turned out to be the most interesting adventures of my life. They organized three open master classes on drawing and painting in the center of Bishkek, which gathered up to fifty participants. I spent a whole month there talking to the bishkek activists and made my first report from the series „The Trip to Kyrgyzstan“, with the main focus on gender rights and activism. The report caused a great stir among the Russian public in the places of all former Soviet republics, though generally they are not well-informed on the political happenings. In the mind of this public there is emptiness. The russian public, doesn’t really know how people live there or what language they use. It turns out that in big cities, young people mostly think and talk in Russian. And when these people – the bearers of Russian culture, with all their loyalty, having read all the Russian classics, fluently speaking Russian – come to Russia ( or as they say to the „big brother“) they suddenly find themselves treated as absolutely second-rate people, forced to survive through attacks, beatings and general rudeness. I see it as a very big conflict.
Speaking of the Soviet regime, though mostly oppressive and colonialist, there were still some positive aspects I see in it: museums and art schools were built, and the provided education was more or less good, so local artists had the opportunity to be part of a bigger context. Unfortunately now we lost these cultural connections, and as a result I was the only cultural agent, the only Russian initiative in a kyrgyz city Osh since the collapse of the USSR. In the course of this initiative I did three master classes on comic books, and another three on feminist stencils. People learned these new artistic practices and their works were shown at the first exhibition of Social Graphics in this region, and eventually were published as a catalog for this exhibition.
My next hell-bent adventure in this series was a trip to Dagestan. My ideas about Dagestan were based on Taus Makhacheva’s artworks that support the myth about this wild and mysterious country, with all its mountaineers driving around on fur cars. Some danger is implied in that narrative, but it is still a rather pompous one. When I actually got there, I saw nothing but the wildest domestic squabbles with a huge number of patriarchal hierarchies. Аfter hosting a master class, I planned a trip to Grozny that was cancelled last minute. That same evening, a girl approached me, introduced herself, and invited me to go with her to a mountain village where she was doing research on female circumcision. Not only was it my first time in a very dangerous region, I had been crazy enough to go to the mountains with a stranger to participate in a research on female circumcision. It takes seven hours to get to the village, driving along the gorges without any borders on the brink of a precipice, with the only comfort in that for the last three hours, it was dark and I saw nothing. It was very scary! When we got there, we talked to a woman who performs the circumcisions, and we saw her tools. We talked to women who went through the circumcisions and planned to do it to their daughters. When we published our material, which was the first to cover this topic, it became a huge scandal with 35 thousand views and thousands of reposts, and even the mufti reacted. I was indeed overwhelmed with the topic, but the circumcision itself was just the tip of the iceberg! I was more shocked by the impressive amount of the total control and violence that every woman was expected to endure there until her death.
Free from ideologies
The more works I created, the more I denied any political ideology. When the protests of 2012 began, my ideas were close to those of a communist. To clarify, I did not identify with the idea of a new Stalin or returning back to the Soviet Union, but rather with the idea of all main resources being owned and controlled by the state, so that free education and healthcare could exist. However, witnessing how people with rainbow flags were thrown out of the leftist parties column because of their fear of being marked as “untouchables” and observing their attitude towards migrants, I changed my views. When we did a series of exhibitions called „Feminist Pencil“ in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, Oslo and Berlin (in Berlin under the title „Post-Soviet Cassandras“) I was disappointed in feminism.
I realized that there are decent people regardless of the ideology they have. Even more important is that they are doing their own thing, while everything is spinning around them and holding onto them.
Recently I read a book called „The Real Reporter“ by Dmitry Sokolov-Mitrich, which is a collection of reports with his comments. There is an essay where he writes that a reporter with an ideology is a defective reporter. My activities are very close to that of the reporter. Our world is changing constantly, and journalism will change accordingly. We need a new style of journalism that will explain things in intelligible and interesting ways, that will collect facts and point out the cause and effect relationship between things in a way in which everyone could understand. For example, if I would have ultra-feminist views, and the first answer to the question on my identity would be: “I am a feminist”, perhaps I couldn’t talk to all men openly. I would ask only provocative questions and they would respond defensively. In contrast, my core interests in the first place include humanism and overcoming alienation between people. My work requires the kind of flexibility in communication where I’m not just polite to this person, but I’m truly open – I’m with this person, I’m on their side and ready to hear their arguments. With this evolved open-mindedness, amazing things suddenly appear: the picture of the world becomes very complex and much more complicated than in any ideology. This is what not only the journalists should strive for, but also artists. Art is not propaganda or agitation, and it should strive for this complexity.
The depth of simplicity
In the art of reportage illustration, it is interesting for me to combine different sets of time in one space, which is impossible to make, in photography as an example. While standing in one place for an hour, connecting several events and flags from different columns into one picture, you can make a special selection through which image becomes symbolic and rich. You don’t invent things because all these events took place in reality, but only you were able to connect them in that one precise moment in your picture. Most of my illustrations already have text in it which could be a comment, a historical fact, a notice, or a part of a dialog. All these elements should be united in one flow of sound and I am like a conductor of an orchestra: I hear, see, draw and analyse at the same time.
I also experienced research that was based on a different principle, while working with sociologists Alexander Bekbopov and Olga Reznik in the project about truck-drivers on strike. Their research is written according to academic laws through which not every person can break through. Their books will be very important to people from their and surrounding fields, but truck drivers themselves won’t be able to read their research. My task is to make my research just as deep and thorough, but also accessible, so that the material could absorb the reader in itself, without obstacles to overcome in the text . The plot is given and the challenge is to think through its form and rhythm, so that the viewer’s eyes move along by a certain trajectory and linger on a certain character, to think through the colors so that they could trigger necessary emotions in the viewer. For me, the form and content are always connected, but many academic researchers do not raise the question of form, thinking that clearly written text is enough. When I sent my report to the trucker drivers, they understood it at once without making any special effort. Considering how modern media works, it is very important to report impartially, captivatingly, clearly and simply. In order for a research paper to reach a wider demographic and have a greater impact on its readers, the writer must follow the unspoken laws of art.
Also check this out:
Victoria Lomasko – Unwanted Women. Solo Exhibition at Ortega y Gasset Projects
On poetic qualities of academic research see also Dirk Baecker “Wie sieht die Gesellschaft der Zukunft aus?” and Cordula Gdaniec “Aus Marx wird Mall” (In German)
Text: Saltanat Shoshanova
Editing: Olga Sokolova
Proof-reding: Ihnseon Park