By JULIA SINELNIKOVA December 22, 2023
Nadya Tolokonnikova (aka Nadya Riot), a founding member of the global art and activism movement called “Pussy Riot,” has been dubbed the “Queen of Art Basel Miami” by some this year, and it is easy to see why. The intrepid creator has been building momentum throughout the past two years, with the release of the group’s pop album, “MATRIARCHY NOW,” an exhibition at LA’s Deitch Projects, and at the end of Basel week - the Dallas Contemporary museum debut of Tolokonnikova’s performance video artwork “Putin’s Ashes.” I caught up with the artist at the start of the week, making it through bumper to bumper traffic for her 1:00PM talk at SCOPE Art Show. The talk was moderated by globe-trotting curator Valentine Uhovski (previously the long-term fashion director at the blogging platform Tumblr).
Nadya is a shortening of the artist’s first name Nadezhda, which translates to “hope” from the Russian. This meaning relates well to her improbable life story. After she participated in Pussy Riot’s 2012 protest against Putin at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior (in a balaclava-cladden act of performance art), she, as well as members Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich, were arrested and sentenced to two years in a penal colony. Tolokonnikova’s faux-fur framed, blood-splattered wall sculptures, which were on display at the Turner Carroll Gallery booth in Art Miami, reference this experience: during her imprisonment, she was forced to perform labor with decrepit sewing equipment, and to work through bloody injuries. The fuzzy frames display sardonic, cliché phrases such as “This art is too political” and “This art is not real art,” set over lacy white backgrounds with bows. After public figures such as Paul McCartney, as well as Amnesty International, spoke out for the release of the Pussy Riot members, they were freed under a general amnesty in December 2013.
At the SCOPE talk, Uhovski probed the basis for Tolokonnikova’s new video artwork, “Putin’s Ashes,” which was simultaneously displayed on giant screens surrounding the stage. The artist explained that, “finally we decided to use magic and rituals, because we needed something bigger than ourselves to combat evil. Because Putin is evil – he sold his soul. I know Putin is very superstitious. Some people say he consulted a shaman for the date to invade Ukraine.” The work features eleven red balaclava-clad performers in black lace slips, who bring a large portrait of Putin to the desert and burn it. This is all filmed in slow motion, and accompanied by Tolokonnikova’s haunting soundtrack. Other questions were kept simple at the talk, such as, “What is your biggest dream as an artist?” Tolokonnikova cited Judy Chicago as an inspiration, and responded that the opportunity to keep building her and Pussy Riot’s hopeful world is her greatest vision. “Artists function as good fairies, penetrating all layers of society, finding meaning in a chaotic world, giving dozens or, sometimes, millions of people reasons to get up in the morning and be good. Artists - alongside philosophers, ethicists, activists - weave a nervous system of humanity.”
“Holy Squirt” was also displayed at the Art Miami booth: a white relief sculpture in the shape of a traditional holy water font (a vessel containing holy water). Within it, a praying female figure is covered in a glitter-pink splatter. “Holy Squirt baptizes believers in the Holy Rainbow Church of Matriarchy,” according to Tolokonnikova’s statement. This artwork perhaps serves as an embodiment of the cutesy, youthful aesthetic the artist has applied to presenting her serious political artworks. While dealing with concepts of protest and violence, these physical artifacts transmute radically playful, feminine energy. From the pink, to the faux fur, to the quirky phrases, the artworks reference contemporary meme culture and visual tropes from instagram bedroom models. In this sense, the work cements itself in the present. The tension between political concept art and angelwave home decor creates cognitive dissonance, which calls into question the numbing monotony of internet scrolling in a time of war.
Tolokonnikova’s art and activism has continued to come at a personal cost. Shortly after “Putin’s Ashes” opened at Deitch projects in Los Angeles in Spring of 2023, she was placed on Russia’s “Most Wanted” list. In November, the Moscow City Court issued an arrest warrant for the charge of “insulting believers’ religious feelings.” Back in 2021, she was added to Russia’s registry of “foreign agents.” While her influence is growing, with TV appearances that include last year’s interview with Anderson Cooper, these state actions against an expatriate artist reek of dictatorship in a nearly comical way. With friends and collaborators in her home country continuously targeted, Tolokonnikova’s new conceptual art objects seem to make the best of an impossible situation, by channeling horrible memories through Dadaist humor and tactile softness. Indeed, seeing the echoes of the performative 1910’s and 20’s Dada movement (which started out being called “anti-art,” championed absurdism, and rejected colonialism), in Tolokonnikova’s practice seems apt during today’s global rise in fascist ideas, 100 years later.
A series of black faux fur-outlined prison shivs, each mounted on white embellished satin, occupied a wall at the Art Miami booth. Tolokonnikova’s “Knife Play” reminds viewers that her visually playful body of work is not all fun and games. During the SCOPE talk, the artist mentioned that “Sasha Skochilenko and her art action with anti-war stickers inspires my art and activist practice immensely. Her calm and friendly attitude towards her prosecutors and the judge who sentenced her to 7 years in jail, inspires me to be a better person.” Having been a political prisoner herself, the artist continues to confront the censorship of artists back in Russia, many of whom have been imprisoned for speaking out against the war with Ukraine. Now that the “Putin’s Ashes” film has made it into the museum circuit, the world has likely only seen the start of Tolokonnikova’s shift into fine arts. WM
Julia Sinelnikova is an artist and writer in New York City.view all articles from this author