Paper Activist Victoria Lomasko Scales Up

Victoria Lomasko. Cocoon, 2023. Courtesy of the artist

Victoria Lomasko is giving a voice to disenfranchised outsiders of Putin´s Russia, through the genre of activist drawing which she is now expanding into large-scale canvasses and murals. One of the few Russian artists who today is being courted by western museums, now she has solo shows at Kunsthaus Göttingen in Germany and at the Edel Assanti gallery in London.

It was over a decade ago that I first heard the name Victoria Lomasko (b. 1978) when she was working as a courtroom sketch artist. It seemed a rather old-fashioned, odd occupation, part comic-strip, part reportage. A peripheral activity in comparison with the bombastic statements of Russian contemporary artists. Looking back, it was a time of relative stability and the Moscow art world was blossoming there were contemporary art fairs, hip converted factories, and new galleries and museums popping up all over the place. Medvedev´s interim presidency was a time of superficial freedoms and the creative intelligentsia quickly espoused them, turning a blind eye to the warning signs of a nascent totalitarianism. However, Lomasko sat quietly drawing in a courtroom.

And at the time it seemed unlikely that it would be Lomasko´s modest monochrome sketches which would rise to the top of this mad cacophony, pulling through the crash of Russian culture and the country itself. Always sceptical, weary and critical, Lomasko never trusted the state and now she is one of very few Russian artists who are still exhibited in large scale art institutions in the West since the invasion in 2022. There have been shows in Belgium, Italy, Germany and London, (the first three in national museums); two awards (PEN Catalan, and Couilles au cul in Angoulême for courage); she has participated in Kassel Documenta; her books are published in seven languages with more on the way and she is the heroine of two documentary films, one about to be released. Despite all of these accolades, she has been virtually ignored by the Russian art community, both at home and abroad.

Lomasko´s extreme modesty hides the fact she is a cutting-edge contemporary artist. In a recent essay in n+1 magazine (the New York based publishers behind the English-language translation of her book ´Other Russias´ which brought her recognition in 2017), she compares herself to some Europeans of her age who happen to share her train compartment – they have the relaxed air of people who have never experienced humiliation, she observes, whereas in the Soviet Union, this was normality. “Life in a closed, totalitarian country means that you’ll inevitably come up against humiliation, which is itself a form of control and punishment.” Today, despite her successes, as one of many exiled bearers of a Russian passport, this humiliation continues, her existence teeters on unpredictable visa decisions, hoping she can remain in the European Union.

Lomasko comes from an artistic family, her father served the state, making propaganda murals for factories, and at home he made paintings criticising the Soviet regime, which he could never show in public. She was given art materials rather than toys as a child, her father hoping she would fulfil his own failed ambition of becoming a great independent artist. Lomasko went on to study at the Moscow State University of Printing Arts. When she began to paint murals, she immediately took to the brush, perhaps a genetic inheritance from her father, she wonders. Her latest mural in the Kunsthaus Göttingen is 12 metres long and three metres high.

Lomasko calls herself the last Soviet artist: the title of both her recent exhibition in Brescia, Italy, and of her latest book. What does she mean by this? On one hand she is the last generation to have witnessed and to remember the Soviet Union first-hand. But there is not the whole story, despite the ending she identifies as being Soviet. In a sense she is a reflection of the characters she depicts, unpopular minority groups such as sex workers, inmates, truckers, the LGBTQ+ community, protesters - all the ´invisible´ people caught in a chasm between two connected totalitarian systems: the USSR and Putin’s Russia. She gives them a voice, respect and compassion.

Over recent years, Lomasko had been keeping a close watch on the government’s increasingly oppressive militarism and she had attended all the anti-government protests in Moscow. Earlier works bore a strong premonition of what lay in store: On the Eve was the title of her 2018 show at Pushkin House, and Separated World was her 2019 show at Edel Assanti, both in London. How did she predict the future, I ask: “Because back then I was already experiencing severe censorship, no one in Russia wanted to work with me, publish or exhibit my works, except website. I had to pack my work in a suitcase and show it abroad, which made my situation at home even worse. I felt this gap was widening and there would come a point when the doors would slam shut, and I would be faced with a choice as to which side I would stay on.” Lomasko left Russia a week after the February 24th invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

She hasn’t been back since. Having gained the status of one of the most publicly outspoken artists to criticise the regime, her return would almost certainly land her in prison. Sasha Skochilenko (b. 1990) recently was handed a devastating seven-year sentence merely for sticking some altered price tags in a supermarket. “There is every reason for me to be included on the list of foreign agents though it has not happened yet,” says Lomasko.

Lomasko is currently the subject of a retrospective of sorts at the Kunsthaus Göttingen, devoted to her drawings from the past thirteen years. These sketches came to form her three books, all of which have been published in Germany. These three volumes, although conceived independently, have now been pieced together into an organic trilogy.

Forbidden Art (2011) follows the court trial by representatives of the Orthodox Church against contemporary art curators, which marked the beginning of a nascent censorship and court crackdowns. Other Russias which she began in 2012 and was first published in Germany in 2013 and 6 other languages since then (except Russian), is the most political, she admits, following mass protests and repressions in the wake of Putin's re-election to presidency. The Last Soviet Artist was completed three weeks before the invasion in February 2022. It is a series of observations of everyday life and people in Russia and beyond, in former Soviet countries. Lomasko travelled to Minsk to witness the riots in 2020 and as she left Belarus she noted: “I watched the black sky through the window and thought about how, in the course of history, it wasn’t that important what Putin or Lukashenko were going to do now . . . The river of time moves forward, even if it’s moving slowly, washing away the traces of everything Soviet like so much flotsam.”

There is a concurrent show in London at Edel Assanti gallery, which the artist herself couldn’t attend due to visa restrictions. Her show Cocoon is a meditation on the artist’s mission in today’s shattered world. I am surprised to find easel paintings, for me Lomasko is associated with the contrasting formats of sketches and murals. It turns out by a bitter twist of irony that while exiled in the German city of Leipzig, it is the first time that she - this last Soviet artist - could finally have a studio of one’s own, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, and hence afford herself the luxury of painting. She has been going there every day, making the most of it. She’s been reading the diaries of Diaghilev and emigre artists of the early 20th century. “They give me strength”, she says. “Sometimes I would paint and imagine Larionov and Goncharova standing over me, or Nijinsky dancing next to me.”

Sometimes it seems that Lomasko is alone carrying on her shoulders the banner of all the ostracised and displaced Russian dissident cultural figures, tired by hopelessness, a lack of acceptance and cancel culture. Her show in Brescia was on at the same time as concerts of Tchaikovsky´s music were being cancelled. “The museum and I were braced for a scandal”, she says, ready to defend their position. But they met only acceptance. “Dozens of people wrote to me on social media that they came to the show full of hate but came away wanting to know more about what actually happened in Russia.” Why do her pictures cut through to people, in an era when we are fatigued by too much media imagery? “I think my works are the opposite of the media,” she says.

“I think that contemporary media can no longer serve the people, it makes them aggressive and conformist. Artists need to regain the power to predict and influence the future. Up until now political artists have been reacting to past events, one step behind the media. […] We need to think one step ahead. […] We need to work on creating a new reality for ourselves when the current situation ends. Nothing lasts forever, I say this as someone who witnessed the fall of the USSR with my own eyes. Even that fell apart, so will this. And when that happens, we need to be ready.”

Victoria Lomasko. Impossible Return. A Chronicle of Thirteen Years

Kunsthaus Göttingen

Göttingen, Germany

7 October – 10 December 2023

Victoria Lomasko: Cocoon

Edel Assanti Gallery

London, UK

3 November – 22 December, 2023

Sign up to receive our regular newsletter


Sign up for our newsletter