Russian Dissident Vika Begalska's Poetic Portraits at Janet Clayton Gallery

Russian Dissident Vika Begalska's Poetic Portraits at Janet Clayton Gallery
"Schoor," "Dot," and "Woosha" by Vita Begalska
(Vika Begalska and Janet Clayton Gallery)

Ukranian born, Moscow based dissident artist and activist Vika Begalska is perhaps best known for her controversial performance works but it is her paintings that are the subject of the exhibition “Podes and Antipodes” currently on show at Sydney’s Janet Clayton Gallery. Russia's answer to Tracey Emin, Vika is an incredibly talented artist who works across a variety of mediums including installation, painting, and peformance.

“Podes and Antipodes”consists of two separate series of portraits one of which has its roots in Russia (podes), the other in Australia (antipodes). Style-wise, Vika's paintings exhibit Expressionist and Post-Expressionist characteristics but are perhaps best described as “outsider” in spirit, abstract in appearance. It would be easy to dismiss the somewhat child-like appearance of her paintings as the product of naivety or incredulity, but when subsumed into her performance practice the paintings become performances themselves.

The common link between the two cultures explored in her work, Russia and Australia, is, surprisingly, racism, which Vika says is a big problem in Russia. However, her paintings are really not protests against racism, Vika explains; they are more observational – reflections of people she encountered in Australia and the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. “If you see my paintings you can recognise the part of them was made under the influence of Aboriginal feeling,” says Vika.

Having been born into a culture of oppression and suppression, Vika’s experience of life and art has been shaped by authoritarianism and dogmatism – themes that she explores in her work. Although there is an unmistakable element of political and social protest in her work, one gets a sense that her artistic practice is more escapism than activism – an escape from oppression as well as an escape from the rigours of her performance practice.

When asked whether she prefers performance or paintings, Vika explains that it is impossible for her to do only performance or painting. She says that she quickly becomes tied of one media. “I can say that performance demands much more energy from me so when I go to paint it means that I have a rest from performance and obtain energy from painting.” She might see her paintings as an escape from performance but there is an unmistakable vibrancy and theatricality in her work that suggests that her paintings are an extension of her performance practice.

The generic names given to her portraits – “Doolick”, “Bazza”, “Bluey” – allude to the fact that they are not images of anyone in particular; her figures are essentially social constructs, characters in an invented yet very real narrative. In response to the question of what message her paintings have for the world, Vika explained that she is more interested in asking questions rather than giving answers. Her focus is on questions that she perceives are important and that excite her – questions relating to religion as well as more specific questions such as why people are cowardly, why people are cruel, and why people are racist. “I create art in the hope that it can be platform for discussion,” Vika says.

There is plenty more to say about Vika’s work, especially in relation to the political, social, and cultural situation in Russia. But perhaps it is best to approach her work from a more impartial perspective and experience her paintings for what they are: poetic, beautiful, and theatrical expressions of the human condition.

As well as producing amazing art, Vika is also an active supporter of women’s rights and has even launched her own union for sex workers in Russia. In an interview with Vika posted on the Janet Clayton Gallery website, Vika explains that “While I’m not an activist per se, I’m launching a collective project via a website, in which we are developing a union for sex workers, inviting the community to support and join the union. I want to integrate my skills as a filmmaker to communicate the objectives of the union, one being the legalisation of prostitution in Russia.”

Podes and Antipodes” is at Janet Clayton Gallery until the 16th of March.