The art of protest
Political and social protest graffiti has been moved from the street to an indoor art exhibition at Etagi.
Published: December 5, 2012 (Issue # 1738)
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
This Patriarch-moneybox was originally created as graffiti and remade as a bust for the exhibition.
When people feel their freedom of speech is limited, and what they are fed by the media is often pure propaganda or mere informational noise serving to distract their attention from pressing issues, they start to express themselves on the streets, be it through rallies or political graffiti.
An exhibition titled “Voice of the Streets” that opened last month at Loft Project Etagi, an arts center located in a former bread factory, documents the current state of the messages expressed on city walls in St. Petersburg and other Russian cities, ranging from anarchist and left-wing to feminist and pacifist.
Although a number of the exhibits seem apolitical, most represent direct forms of political and social protest.
Surprisingly, the exhibition’s organizer, PublicPost, has links to both the authorities and liberals.
PublicPost is a website created in November 2011 by the Russian state bank Sberbank, news agency Interfax and Alexei Venediktov, editor of Ekho Moskvy radio station, which enjoys a reputation as a liberal station. The website combines blogs and professional journalism, according to Interfax.
Venediktov was quoted as saying that “very diverse social and political figures will be able to discuss the fate of Russia freely” on the website.
The works for the exhibition were picked by Stanislav Reshetnyov, who works at PublicPost as a programmer in Moscow, and Alexandra Kachko, a local artist known for her paper graffiti, frequently featuring a memorable female character named Zoa.
“Usually they [PublicPost] go to different cities and support things that are already happening there, but here Stas [Stanislav] suggested that they should organize something of their own,” Kachko said.
“Of course, nobody [at PublicPost] had any idea what street art was. But thanks to them, the local offices of Interfax gave us a room in which to draw and prepare the exhibition, and we got this room at Etagi for free, even if we were forbidden to make any extra holes in the walls.”
For the first time in St. Petersburg, art was collected directly from the streets in the form of photos and reprints. According to the curators, the only selection criteria were that the works should have a clear message and express a plea for dialog.
The organizers have not divided the works according to ideology or movement, so “Voice of the Streets” reproduces the world of Russian street art, in which non-political graffiti sits side by side with radical mottoes, and well-known artists are displayed alongside amateurs, they said.
Artists and art groups presented include Slava PTRK, Incubus, ZukClub, Grigory Yushchenko, Mikaela, Bez Aftora, p3ncil, Volodya Kirilin, Sne*ok, Maria Bovenko and about 30 anonymous artists.
The opening days of the show were marked by censorship, when the administration of Etagi asked for a work made by the group Ispravlyai! Ugarai! (Correct! Hoot!) to be removed. The group had altered a City Hall outdoor advertisement for the controversial new Russian public holiday People’s Unity Day, celebrated annually on Nov. 4. The holiday commemorates the expulsion of Polish occupiers from the Kremlin in 1612, and replaced the Day of the Great October Revolution, which was celebrated every year on Nov. 7.
Replacing the faces of the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on the poster with those of President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, respectively, was seen as an “anti-religious message” by Etagi, whose publicity manager denied that the arts center’s request for the work to be removed was prompted by a call from City Hall.
“Considering the situation in the country now, we realize that religious people might stage a protest,” she was quoted by Interfax as saying.
“So at our own initiative, we decided to preempt that.”
The organizers agreed to the request in order to save the exhibition, which is due to run through mid-December when it is set to travel to Kaliningrad, from closing.
“We were confronted with the decision to close the exhibition or to compromise and remove the picture,” wrote Reshetnyov. “We could have shut the exhibition down, but we need it to exist so that the ideas spread.”
According to Kachko, it was more important to preserve the exhibition rather than shut it down as a protest.
“We wanted people to be inspired and start to do street art, too,” she said.
After the work in question was taken down by the organizers, the group Ispravlyai! Ugarai! and its sister group KHUYA DSPA removed their other works from the show in protest and urged the other artists to do the same, but no-one else followed their gesture.
“The organizers ordered to remove one of the exhibition’s main works dedicated to the merge of the church and the state,” group Ispravlyai! Ugarai! said in a statement.
SERGEY CHERNOV / SPT
‘Guerrillas’ by Alexandra Kachko, aka Avdotya Kablukova. The artist regularly attends political protests.
“We find it unacceptable and hypocritical — to flirt with street art and at the same time engage in political censorship. If the owners of Loft Project Etagi fear for their property and openly censor any statement relating to power, then let them openly declare that Loft Project Etagi is a shopping mall-cum-entertainment center, not a space for art.”
However, the Etagi administration had no objections to other anti-clerical works, such as a bust of Patriarch Kirill with a coin slot in his head, referring to scandals over the head of the Russian Orthodox Church’s real estate and possessions and over the commercial activities of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow. An image of Kirill as a moneybox is repeated on a painting, showing a hand dropping a coin in his head slot.
The Patriarch as a moneybox was originally created by Slava PTRK, an artist from Yekaterinburg, as graffiti, and was remade by him as a bust especially for the exhibition.
Apart from the patriarch, the most popular graffiti anti-hero is obviously Putin.
“In fact, a lot of people do Putin, so at one point we decided to stop collecting Putin and Gundyayev [Patriarch Kirill’s born name], because it is not profound and has grown tiresome,” Kachko said.
Putin is, however, featured in “Little Brother Is Watching You,” a work by Finnish artist Sampsa, and is shown upside down in the anonymous work “Crab,” which takes its title from a derogative nickname for the president.
Inevitably, the slogan “Free Pussy Riot” can be found as part of a larger work at the exhibition, while “Bye Bye, Democracy” shows three colored-balaclava-clad faces behind prison bars.
Many works are devoted to street protests and their dispersals by the OMON riot police. Kachko’s own large-scale work called “Partizany” (“Guerillas”) depicts policemen, protesters and her Zoa character sitting, detained, in a police van, all made out of cut-out paper graffiti.
As an activist with The Other Russia, Kachko has been a frequent sight at protests and had her wrist broken by an OMON policeman while being detained on July 31, 2011.
“Guerrillas” is credited to Avdotya Kablukova. Kachko said she got her new artistic name due to a mistake, being erroneously listed as “Avdotya Kablukova” on the guest list for a concert by the politically conscious Belarusian rock band Lyapis Trubetskoy. A free pass to the concert was a reward for her contribution to the band’s video to the song “Bronenosets” (Battleship).
Inspired by Sergei Eisenstein’s 1925 revolutionary film classic “The Battleship Potemkin,” the video alternates the silent film’s famous Odessa Steps massacre sequence with contemporary chronicles of massive demos being dispersed by OMON police, and features graffiti by about 60 street artists.
Out of about 100 works on display, “Voices of the Streets” features photographs of graffiti and other street art and actual stencil prints, but a number of artists are also represented by other forms of their work. For instance, local artist Alexei Varsopko exhibited his cardboard creations, which he makes by carving out layers of cardboard.
“We thought that if we only had photographs, it would be rather boring,” Kachko said.
“What Varsopko does out of cardboard is similar to street art in spirit, moreover, he is very political and civic-minded in his work.”
One of the few apparently nationalist-minded artworks shows a sign saying “Russian Means Sober,” reminiscent of nationalist campaigns for a healthy lifestyle, while another is called “The myth of Russian tolerance will not last forever” and is made out of packaging for the Russian soap powder Mif (Myth).
The stencil print “What’s Berezyuk in Prison for” is devoted to The Other Russia activist who was arrested in the wake of nationalism-dominated protests on Manezhnaya Ploshchad in Moscow in December 2010 and sentenced to five and a half years in a prison colony on charges of “rioting,” “the use of violence against a government representative,” “inciting hatred or enmity,” “group hooliganism” and “involving a minor in a crime.”
His supporters say Berezyuk was handpicked as a scapegoat, because he belonged to The Other Russia party disliked by the Kremlin and the police for its uncompromising stand, and that he did not commit the offenses with which he was charged. Two other activists of The Other Russia were sentenced to lesser terms alongside Berezyuk, with Ruslan Khubayev getting four years, while Kirill Unchuk was given three.
One of Kachko’s graffiti works shows a girl with her mouth plastered with the number “282,” the Criminal Code’s “counter-extremism” article, which is frequently used to suppress political dissent.
Voina art group, one of the leading street art groups in St. Petersburg, and the group responsible for painting a giant penis on the Liteiny Bridge next to the local FSB and former KGB offices, is not represented at the show.
Kachko said Voina, two of whose activists are wanted by the police and are in hiding, frequently without Internet access, had initially agreed to take part, but later stopped answering emails.
According to Kachko, some streets artists did not participate because the organizers could not meet their demands. “There were people who asked for fees or, for instance, their second-class train fare or hotel accommodation to be covered,” she said. “But our budget was very modest; for instance, Stas [Reshetnyov] and I worked for free as the curators. But there were people who painted everything, brought it, nailed it up and didn’t want anything in return.”
The “Voice of the Streets” exhibition runs through Dec. 14 at Loft Project Etagi, 74 Ligovsky Prospekt. Tel. 458 5005. www.loftprojectetagi.ru.