To Russia with Love

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Damian Siqueiros is an artist with a goal. His newest project, “To Russia with Love,” portrays iconic queer figures from Russia’s history as well as symbolic couplings of present day relationships in order to shed light on the LGBT narrative often lost behind the country’s current politically charged climate. 

With only 7 days left to go on Kickstarter, Siqueiros needs some help to raise funds to host a series of exhibitions in New York, Los Angeles, Montreal, and additional cities in North America and Europe. 

“Throughout history some of the greatest Russian artists and influential figures have been homosexual,” says Stephan Rabimov, publisher of DEPESHA and contributor to FourTwoNine magazine, who is helping Siqueiros to raise those funds. “We set out on a journey to show some of them, their love and their vision for a better world. This project is as much about the past as it is about the future.”

429Magazine spoke with Siqueiros to find out more about his motivations and influences that inform his art. 

429Magazine: Where did the idea for the project come from?

Damian Siqueiros: It’s been a little odd that for the last months Russia has been very present in my life. From Anna Karenina rekindling my love for the Russian art palette to making pictures for Russian dance companies.

The surge of acts of homophobia in Russia, institutional, organized or random, started to appear in my radar about 9 months ago. The feeling that I had to do something about it came a bit latter when talks about a law challenging the custody of gay parents was introduced to the DUMA.

I knew an approach that would focus on the negative would be counterproductive. First because I don’t see the sense of perpetuating a cycle of hate. Second I didn’t want to alienate the Russian LGBT community by making them choose between their sexual orientation and their national pride. Third, I think that of I’m going to change minds I can’t do it by creating something that will only appeal to the people that are accepting of the LGBT community.

Representing Russian history seemed like a perfect strategy as I could appeal to nationalism and pride, and than tie the history of homosexuality to it. It took me about 3 months of research, visual and historic, to start working on production.

429Mag: There is such a distinct feeling to the images created by the lighting and the composition. Tell us more about what you’re trying to achieve?

Siqueiros: I like to call this technique Photo-painting, as the end result is a photograph but the rendition, the quality of the image resembles a painting. When you see an old painting in a museum you are able to appreciate so much more than the image. If you observe thoroughly you can grasp the gaze of the time, the vision with which the artist saw society. 

By using the aesthetic of a particular art movement, such as in this case the Romantic Nationalism (from Russia), I’m able to present both a contemporary perspective, as the themes are relevant now, and compare it to the time where the images were made. It allows an historical perspective. You can easily detect what ideas have changed and which remain the same.

The colors and the composition are directly taken from 19th century Russian art, though these appear often in my work. I wanted the lighting to be romantic, intimate and comforting. The characters should feel like they are secure and the spectator as well.

I also find that a pictorial aesthetic is more appealing to a general public. I think it’s because it appeals to their collective memory and they feel that they can relate and understand what’s happening more easily.

429Mag: Some of the figures are actually from history, and some are symbolic about a larger idea, like Stalin and Putin and the police officer with the Olympic athlete. Are there additional large concepts you would like to depict in this project? 

Siqueiros: I wanted to plant very specific iconography and symbolism. I wanted people to tell right away that the series is about Russia, so we have the Saint Petersburg church, the contemporary flag of Russia, an orthodox religious icon. By representing religious elements I point to the involvement of the Church in participating in inciting homophobia. and in a paradoxical way it also implies that being gay doesn’t mean a lack of faith or being against religion.

I wanted to concentrate on the intimacy of the characters, not necessarily sexual, but the strong bonds that usually occur in any successful couple. This is about proving that family values (which are at the core of Russian homophobia) are not opposed to being outside heteronormativity, in other words, conforming to a heterosexual paradigm. A part of eradicating homophobia is convincing society to enlarge their ideas about what a family and a couple are.

The background in the images remain the same while the characters change. This is because the backdrop represents the stagnation of ideas. Time goes by, the world changes, but Russia, amongst many, hold up to obsolete values in which homophobia is valid and homosexuals become scape goats for the problems of the country.

429Mag: You mention on Kickstarter that “art heals and breaks cultural and language boundaries.” What do you hope to heal, and what boundaries do you hope to break with this project?

Siqueiros: In my case Art healing can be both literal and metaphorical. In the case of “To Russia With Love” it serves the purpose of starting conversations from a place of empathy and compassion, love and pride. By converging the historic and positive iconic figures with homosexuality, the latter can be associated with pride rather than with shame.

The project also seeks to establish a dialogue between Russia and the West. One were homosexuality is proven not to be a Western influence but an integral part of Russian history. It seeks to create conversations where the West doesn’t recur to it’s usual biases about Russia and this can’t be used to discredit the former’s opinion as propaganda.

429Mag: How has the response been so far? 

Siqueiros: The response has been great and positive. I’ve been able to create interest amongst people outside the LGBT community. Most of the media coverage has been with media that is not only directed to queer public (Vice, Radio Canada International, La Presse, etc). It was important for me to have both, since this is not an issue that concerns only gay people, it is about human rights.

I’ve also had beautiful personal reactions and messages from people in Russia. One of the most endearing came from one of our collaborators, Russian artist Alexey Timbul, that told me that after showing the images to his mother now in her eyes he belongs to a lineage of great people that were also gay.

429Magazine

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