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Pussy Riot at The Polygon: Landmark exhibition documents a decade of political action

Activist and Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina brings Velvet Terrorism to North Vancouver.

When Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia first debuted, in Iceland’s Reykjavik in 2022, it moved its audience to such an extent that numerous guests exited it in tears.

Traversing the past decade of protests, political stunts and musical performances, the exhibition is the first museum survey of Russian, feminist art collective Pussy Riot.

It is an unapologetically undiluted documentation of the group’s fight against Vladimir Putin’s tyranny. In true Pussy Riot style, what lies within the exhibition’s walls is not for the faint of heart.

“There is a lot of brutality,” says Maria Alyokhina, one of the group’s members and curator of the travelling exhibition. “It is definitely fun and colourful, but there are beatings, poisonings, blood and unconscious bodies. We are living in the context of full scale war.”

Alyokhina, known to her friends as Masha, is hunched on a sofa in The Polygon Gallery’s sun-drenched venue space. It is mere days until Velvet Terrorism is due to open to the public and the exhibit, located in the adjoining room, is in a state of disarray. A state of fun and colourful disarray.

Some printed photographs have been plastered onto the exhibition’s installed labyrinthine walls with strips of neon duct tape. Others, still yet to be tacked, litter the tables and the floor. Crouched in corners and balanced on ladders are Alyokhina’s flock of helpers, scrawling messages and doodles with brightly-coloured pens. Televisions peer down from all corners.

They’re not switched on yet, but soon enough they will blare video footage of some of the group’s most notable public performances. One such television, located near the labyrinth’s entrance, is reserved for a stark scene depicting a balaclava-clad Pussy Riot member urinating on a framed photograph of the supercilious Russian president.

What follows is a circuitous tour of the collective’s history. It details the infamous anti-Putin performance at a Moscow church that led to the two-year incarceration of Alyokhina and fellow member Nadya Tolokonnikova, and the global notoriety of the group. It documents what happened in the months that followed, the brutal conditions endured within a Russian Gulag prison camp.

Alyokhina, who created Velvet Terrorism in collaboration with Icelandic artist collective Kling and Bang, admits she was surprised the exhibition incited such a visceral response when it first debuted. Sometimes she forgets that members of the general public aren't quite as familiar with such scenes of mass savagery.

“We see and witness death every day,” she says, in between long, drawn out puffs from a consistently clutched vape. “How I see things and how other people are seeing things, for the very first time, it’s a bit different. I’m pretty sure that people in the West aren’t living the same life we have been.”

Alyokhina, now free from Russia's grip, is currently bingeing the Emmy-award winning Handmaid’s Tale. She’s fascinated by the correlations between the lives of the oppressed in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian hell, and those of her comrades in the real world. Even her escape from the increasingly totalitarian country in 2022, shortly after it announced its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, played out like a scene from the HBO hit.

At the time under house arrest, Alyokhina evaded the police stationed outside her Moscow apartment by disguising herself as a food courier and leaving her phone behind as a decoy. It was a “foolproof plan” also executed just weeks prior by her girlfriend and fellow Pussy Riot member Lucy Shtein. The bright green costumes, along with photographs taken to document the escapes, make up part of the exhibition.

“Our goal is to show what we have, and we have our experiences, we have our lives,” Alyokhina says. “We don’t have anything else, we don’t have huge budgets to fund Ukraine and send them weapons, but we can show these experiences, and people can look at what happened to us and then decide – do they want to live in a reality like this or not?”

When Kling & Bang first suggested putting together an exhibition that would detail her actions and those of the guerrilla group, Alyokhina cringed.

“These actions were not carried out to be put in museums,” she had said, concerned that a gallery space would "kill its spirit." Ultimately her desire to educate would override her skepticism. What if all people knew of Pussy Riot was the bright balaclavas, neon tights and prairie dresses, wouldn’t that kill their spirit more?

“I realized that the majority of people don’t know most of our actions. They know that there were some girls, imprisoned by Putin in 2012, and that’s it. But there is so much more happening with us. So much more than people think.”

Reid Shier, The Polygon’s director, devoured an article on the exhibition when it first made the media rounds following its release in 2022. He says he was “blown away” by what he learned of the group, and knew wider education on them was paramount. One flight to Reykjavik later, and Shier was convincing Alyokhina to bring the show to Vancouver.

“So much of what I understood about Pussy Riot hadn’t necessarily been wrong, but there was so much more to the group than I had ever known before. What I discovered, and what I’m hoping other people discover, is the incredible bravery of these young women,” he says.

“This is really an example of an incredibly sustained act of bravery on the part of a group of young people in the face of increasing repression. I think there is a lot to discover, even for people who might know their work intimately.”

Shier says this might be one of the most important shows the North Vancouver gallery has ever hosted.

An artist talk and Q&A session, which will see Alyokhina joined by fellow Pussy Riot members Olga Borisova, Diana Burkot, and Nadya Tolokonnikova, is set to bring in more than 1,500 people to The Shipyards’ Pipe Shop when the exhibition opens March 21. A performance penned for the day after, a showing of the group’s award-winning Riot Days, sold out not long after tickets went live.

Whether there will be tears or not remains to be seen, but what can be guaranteed is an audience more educated than they were prior to Alyokhina's arrival. And education, as they say, is the biggest weapon of all. 

Velvet Terrorism: Pussy Riot’s Russia will run at The Polygon until June 2. 

Mina Kerr-Lazenby is the North Shore News’ Indigenous and civic affairs reporter. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

MKerrLazenby@nsnews.com
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