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Fetish Art and Russian Culture Collide in New Exhibition

Artist and illustrator Karina Akopyan melds Russian Orthodox iconography with the London fetish scene.


Squad. Image courtesy of the artist

Fetishism, Russian folklore and culture, and Orthodox religion are the subjects explored and subverted in a new show by Russian-born London-based artist Karina Akopyan. Akopyan's Martyrs & Matryoshkas opens this week at London's Truman Brewery and features illustrations, self-portrait photography, sculptures and installations that use the iconography of Russia, like the matryoshka doll and peasant clothes, to explore and question Russian identity, religion, values and Akopyan's relationship to it all. "The show looks at the place of tradition in contemporary society, and questions whether it’s a beautiful necessity, or conversely, a deceleration of progress," Akopyan tells The Creators Project.


Black Priestess. Image courtesy of the artist

Akopyan draws on her past and her experiences growing up in a place where she was surrounded not only by the doctrines of the Russian Orthodox Church, which she managed to avoid being drawn into unlike many of her peers, but also religious art. "I think religious art is just simply beautiful," Akopyan says. "It is very pleasing visually, and I can’t help but to be attracted to it—the patterns, the colors, the epic subjects. Scenes of hell and heaven...I also can’t deny they include some interesting, sometimes dark, deep topics. But just like people often use religion as an excuse for bigotry and judgment, I don’t have an issue with using religion for its symbolism decoratively and taking some ideas and analysis from their subjects." 


Borsch is Thicker than Blood. Image courtesy of the artist

Akopyan's work, however, takes the rich visuals of religious art and combines them with the latex corsets and rubber thigh-high boots of fetish culture. Russian nesting dolls are given spikes or their rosy-cheeked wooden heads become a fetishistic mask. Akopyan has been a participant in the London fetish scene for the last 10 years since she began going to famed club Torture Garden. It's been running for nearly 30 years and is now one of the largest in Europe.


Hell Raiser Face. Image courtesy of the artist

"I think that was a huge catalyst in my love of fetish art, which at that point was only developing," Akopyan notes. "I learned about artists like Tom of Finland, John Willie, Carlo and Eric Stanton a bit later as part of my 'scene' art education. I got a lot of inspiration by just talking to people, getting information first hand, not necessarily of already existing visual art, but also from performances and dress-up culture there. One of the things about it, which could be seen as both good and bad, is that a lot of creativity stays there and doesn’t get out to see daylight and a wider audience, but I think it’s a great place to find inspiration still."


Gzel I. Image courtesy of the artist

While fetishism and religion may make for an uneasy combination for many people, they have obvious parallels. The humbling religious acts of suffering or asceticism are both heavily masochistic. Even the ideas of confession, good and bad, and a sense of having wronged or sinned. "I really just can’t see how you can avoid fetishizing those things," Akopyan notes.


Night Train. Image courtesy of the artist

Suffering, as a concept, is one of the things that also intrigued the artist about the films of Andrei Tarkovsky. Citing Stalker, Andrei Rublev, and Mirror as influences, Akopyan notes that, like religion, Tarkovsky in these films uses suffering as a way for characters to reach enlightenment and wisdom.

Other filmmakers that have inspired her include Stanley Kubrick, Francis Coppola, Ingmar Bergman, Jan Švankmajer and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Other artistic inspirations include the perverse Japanese art of Toshio Saeki, British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, and Mexican culture and its veneration of death.


Holy Matrimony (Til Pelmeni us do Part). Image courtesy of the artist

All these feed into Akopyan's work, which both subverts and celebrates Russia, its history, religion, and culture, filtering its iconography through the provocative, stylised, almost talismanic imagery of fetish art. "I often ask myself what is it about the fetish scene that attracted me so much, and the answer I think is that it was a perfect escapism from the norms I’ve lived through back in Russia. It was the perfect answer: two fingers up to it."


Bad Matryoshka. Image courtesy of the artist

Martyrs & Matryoshkas is on 8 to 18 December at The Old Truman Brewery, Ely’s Yard, London. Visit Karina Akopyan's website here to see more of her work.

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