New Pittsburgh art exhibit explores propaganda amid Russian invasion of Ukraine

“Sites of Passage,” independent curator Tavia La Follette’s series of cultural exchange art exhibitions at the Mattress Factory, has always, almost by definition, faced the stress of global politics. Matching American artists with artists from other countries can be difficult when those other nations include Egypt, Israel, Palestine and South Africa.

When the current iteration involving Russian artists began about three years ago, such obstacles were not obvious. The vibe of the four American artists and four Russian artists in “Pop-Aganda: Revolution & Iconography” was upbeat, LaFollette said, practically upbeat.

But the pandemic has delayed the opening of the show from the end of 2020. And after the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the atmosphere is very different.

“Obviously there’s no spoofing now,” La Follette said. “All of our ideas that were much more festive have completely changed.”

In light of Russia’s wartime crackdown not only on anti-war dissent, but even basic information about its invasion of Ukraine, exploration through exposure of messages and disinformation seems tragically relevant. Russian critics of the war can face consequences, including jail time.

The mattress factory, La Follette and the four participating Russian artists publicly condemned the war. Three of the four artists left Russia on visas, and one goes by the nickname “Untitled” for security reasons.

Although each of the eight artists contributes to the exhibition with a room-sized installation, approaches to the theme vary considerably.

Offering a statement about the exhibition itself, “Untitled” features four pieces of cut-out black fabric, hung from the ceiling of a small white-walled gallery; each hanging is what remained after pieces of fabric were excised to create four “artist uniforms”. The negative spaces in the fabric refer to the absence of the artists who cannot attend (although LaFollette said she will continue to try to bring them to Pittsburgh before the exhibition closes in a year) .

Veronika Rudyeva-Ryazantseva contributes a large box-like installation that interior viewers can access by climbing attached steps or crouching down to look through floor-level trapdoors. Inside, video projections of childish artwork are watched over by video footage of dozens of large staring human eyes.

Lera Lerner’s installation is a huge round bed covered in pink synthetic fur. Viewers lie on it to watch a semi-abstract video, projected onto the ceiling, in which an anthropomorphized cancer cell speaks to its host – as LaFollette put it, “a kind of plea with the body, ‘This is what what i’m doing here, please don’t try to kill me, i’m just trying to live as you are.

Syanda Yaptik, a member of the Nenets tribe in the northern Russian Arctic, offers a performative video and installation, inspired by family stories, in which she laboriously assembles pieces of raw meat.

Among the American artists is Pittsburgh-based Emily Newman, an elementary art teacher who has also taught art to children in Russia. One of his three video installations explores competing versions of the story of the Chelyuskin, a Russian ship that sank in Arctic waters in 1933. Newman compares the official version of events – in which the more than 100 Soviet victims of the sinking cooperated to ensure their survival – with the conspiratorial version told by elderly Russian immigrants living in Pittsburgh, which is decidedly darker. Newman then studies how history is passed on to younger generations.

“The reason I wanted to work on this story was to illustrate how history is taught to children in different ways depending on the ideological framework of the regime in place,” she said.

Colombian-American artist Liz Cohen is known for her work based on motor vehicle iconography and transformation. His outdoor facility is a wittily restored and customized vintage Soviet jeep originally used on a Colombian coffee farm.

Sonya-Kelliher-Combs, an Alaskan-born Native American artist, offers an installation evoking the state’s heritage as a place where Catholic priests accused of sexual abuse were sent by the Church. And Pittsburgh-based Bekezela Mguni’s installation evokes his Trinidadian heritage.

“Pop-Aganda” opens with a reception on Saturday, April 16. More information here.

Christopher S. Washington