Visual Art

Report from Art Basel MB 2023: An Interview with Art Activist Pussy Riot

Written By Michelle F. Solomon
December 8, 2023 at 1:46 PM

“This art is a hammer that shapes reality” (2023), part of a series by Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova now at Art Basel Miami Beach. The artist has other works at Art Miami and SCOPE Miami art fairs during Miami Art Week. (Photo courtesy of Pussy Riot)

I meet Nadya Tolokonnikova for our interview inside the Miami Beach Convention Center amid the crush of people at the first VIP preview day of Art Basel Miami Beach 2023.

She is flanked by her publicist, a few out-of-town journalists and Lauren Taschen, one of the original members of the team of the now- legendary Art Basel Miami Beach since its inception in 2001.

There’s a buzz surrounding Tolokonnikova’s appearance at Art Basel by people who have followed her activism art and her political activism activations.

“It’s my first time here as an artist. I’ve been coming to Art Basel for the last 10 years to see it, but it is the first time for me to be on this side of Basel, because, well I haven’t been important enough usually to get a preview ticket. But for me, that’s good because I like to be with everyone else,” she says unassumingly.

“Holy Squirt,” Pussy Riot’s take on a holy font. “Holy Squirt” baptizes believers in the Holy Rainbow Church of Matriarchy. A series of the fonts are at SCOPE Miami. (Photo courtesy of Pussy Riot)

News breaks the same day as the preview opening on Wednesday, Dec. 6, that Tolokonnikova, the creator of the notorious Russian feminist protest art collective Pussy Riot, had reached a deal with STX Entertainment to develop a scripted series based on her still unfinished memoir.

The young girl from Siberia who moved to Moscow at 16 is famous at 34. Convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” along with fellow Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Yekaterina Samutsevich in August 2012 after an impromptu protest performance against President Vladimir Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church inside Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, she was sentenced to two years at a labor camp. Not long after her release, she and other members of the group protested at the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014. Uniformed Russian Cossacks surrounded the group, and they were attacked with whips.

“I’m a strong believer in persistence and in being consistent with what you do,” she says.

Nadya-Tolokonnikova in Moscow, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Pussy Riot)

Just a few weeks before her Basel appearance, on Nov. 24, a Moscow court ordered the arrest of Tolokonnikova in absentia. She faces a two-month incarceration when she crosses the Russian border or extradition back to Russia. “Today I’m on Russia’s most wanted list, labeled as a foreign agent . . .,” she says.

She was put on Russia’s most-wanted list for “obscene” NFTs. That NFT was titled “Virgin Mary, Please Become a Feminist,” sold on the cryptoart platform SuperRare in 2021. One could be led to believe that it wasn’t so much the NFT, but a gallery show “Putin’s Ashes” at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles in early 2023 that prompted scrutiny once again of the artist.

The invitation to see the Los Angeles show and Nadya’s public art performance was to join and see the “protest against the authoritarian leader of Russia who started the biggest war in Europe since World War II.”

“Putin’s Ashes,” a 10 X 10-foot portrait, 2022. (Photo courtesy of Pussy Riot)

“Putin’s Ashes” began in August 2022 when Pussy Riot burned a 10 x 10-foot portrait of the Russian president, performed rituals and cast spells aimed at chasing Putin away. Tolokonnikova bottled the ashes of the burned portrait and incorporated them into art objects.

But today we are here to talk about her work at three locations for Miami Art Week.

At Art Basel Miami Beach at the Miami Beach Convention Center, at the Jeffrey Deitch Gallery booth (A2), a series of three works “This art is a hammer that shapes reality.” (2023).

At SCOPE Miami Beach, between 8th and 10th streets at 801 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach, there is a series of sculptures made of 100 percent wax, “Fragile Masculinity” (2023) which gives the collector/buyer the choice of what to do with the piece:  “Lighting the wick of this sculpture burns down the patriarchal systems of oppression.” The artist instructs that it can be burned or preserved by the collector.

Works at the Turner Caroll Gallery booth at Art Miami, One Herald Plaza, downtown Miami, are “Icons (2023),” a take on traditional religious tropes and “Knife Play” (2002), a series of handcrafted prison shives in faux fur frames.

She compares her career as an artist to that of a cultural worker.

“St. Matriarch,” part of “Icons” (2023), Pussy Riot’s take on the traditional religious tropes. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

“It’s a very pragmatic perspective on it. Cultural worker creates a different perspective to me because it’s humbling. And it’s not about artists expressing necessarily all of their feelings, only those feelings that are helpful for society to learn something new about itself. That way, I’m not centering my art about myself. I’m bringing myself into the art only when it makes sense for conveying my message,” she says.

Tolokonnikova says she was asked about the goal of her art during an interview with a Russian journalist recently.

“My goal is not to talk to the other side, to people who hate me. My goal is to meet people who are on my team to help them feel more empowered and feel like they have a voice,” she says.

Then the subject turns to censorship and her fight against it — something that has landed her in difficult and life-threatening positions.

“Self-censorship is really the backbone of a modern authoritarian regime,” says Tolokonnikova.

She admits: “I have a lot of fears. I love comfort, I love being alive. I don’t love being in jail. I’m like everyone else. But these ideas are central to my life and in my practice that fear is an instrument of authoritarian regimes. And I think spreading this courage . . . Courage is not an absolute category. It’s not a coin that you can have in your pocket. It’s fluid. One day you have more of it, one day, you have less. And it’s important for me to spread this message and inject that into places like Art Basel, SCOPE, Art Miami.”

The artist with her work “Fragile Masculinity (2023, sculpture). A series of “Fragile Masculinity” is on display at Art Miami, Turner Carroll Gallery booth. (Photo courtesy of the artist)

Shortly after the Miami appearances, Tolokonnikova was hopping on a plane to head to Dallas, Texas, where she’ll be speaking at the opening of “Nadya Tolkonnikova: Putin’s Ashes” on view at Dallas Contemporary through Jan. 8, 2024.

And ongoing is work on the memoir.

“(The book) starts from my childhood upbringing,” says Tolokonnikova.

The artist is one of those people who looks into your soul when she speaks. And this is what happens as she describes the memoir that will be turned into the deal for the scripted series.

Born in the Siberian arctic town of Norilsk, she says she became involved in performance art after moving to Moscow in 2007 then co-founded Pussy Riot in 2011. The group began organizing unauthorized live performances of political punk music and wearing brightly colored balaclavas, their faces covered with only their eyes and mouths exposed.

“It’s truly a story of how a little girl from Siberia from the outskirts decided ‘I’m going to make political art and I’m going to move to Moscow,’ then everyone told her, ‘You’re not going to be able to move to Moscow, you don’t have money to have connections.’ My parents did not support me in that my mom was strictly against it. But I just got a ticket to Moscow when I was 16. And I was very results-oriented and very determined. So, to me, it’s a story about dreams and the power of dreams. And I think ultimately, most of my art and my statements, and movies or series, I make for a 16-year-old version of myself in a parallel reality living somewhere else. Let’s say, it’s Indianapolis, and a girl’s parents tell her you cannot do this. I want to instill this idea in her that you can fight for your dreams, and you can get closer to that.”

She pauses for a moment, then says: “I’m not trying to paint rose-colored glasses like everything is possible. Sometimes you get shot in the back in front of Kremlin like my friend Boris Nemtsov, a politician who went against Putin. (Nemtsov was a Russian opposition politician and a former deputy prime minister who was murdered in 2015 when someone in a car shot him four times in the back as he crossed a bridge in view of the Kremlin, according to police). Sometimes you get sent to jail and it’s not an easy task, but you can fight for it, and you can make some of your dreams possible.”

Members of the radical feminist punk group Pussy Riot stage a protest against Vladimir Putin’s policies in Moscow. STX Entertainment has reached a deal with Nadya Tolokonnikova, the artist, activist, and creator of Pussy Riot, to develop a limited scripted series. (Photo courtesy of Pussy Riot)

Tolkonnikova says that she doesn’t live on pipe dreams – that the political activism through her art or any of the other acts of protest may not dissuade minds already made up. She talks about Pussy Riot’s appearance at the Indiana State House in early November protesting the state’s near-total abortion ban.

“We came to Indiana with a God Save Abortion action. People tell me, ‘Your art is so gruff, it’s so abrasive. It’s not going to change the opinion of a person who is against abortion.’ You know what? I don’t think it’s gonna change it, but I think it’s probably going to empower the younger version of myself to feel like, ‘Well, I don’t have to follow what my conservative friends tell me, or my parents, or my government to tell me what do with my life.’ ”

At the state house in downtown Indianapolis, Tolkonnikova led 18 women, reportedly mostly female students from Indiana University. Newspaper reports described the group as dressed in black slips and boots, wearing balaclava face coverings gathering outside of the statehouse.

Within minutes, they had inflated a large pink vagina and began filming. It was a peaceful protest. And no one was arrested or sent to a labor camp.

WHAT: Nadya Tolkonnikova: Pussy Riot at Art Basel Miami Beach, Art Miami, and SCOPE art fairs

WHERE: Miami Beach Convention Center, 1901 Convention Center Drive, Miami Beach; Art Miami, One Herald Plaza, Miami; SCOPE Miami, 801 Ocean Drive, Miami Beach 

WHEN: Through Sunday, Dec. 10. Art Basel Miami Beach: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Friday, Dec. 8, Saturday, Dec. 9 and Sunday, Dec. 10;  Art Miami, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday, Dec. 8, Saturday, Dec. 9 and 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday, Dec. 10.; SCOPE, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday, Dec. 8, Saturday, Dec. 9 and Sunday, Dec. 10.

COST: $150, $95, $75, $60, $58 depending on venue. 

INFORMATION:  artbasel.com, artmiami.com, scope-art.com

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com

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