The Art Angle Podcast: Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova on Art, Activism, and Vladimir Putin

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Welcome to the Art Angle, a podcast from Artnet News that delves into the places where the art world meets the real world, bringing each week’s biggest story down to earth. Join us every week for an in-depth look at what matters most in museums, the art market, and much more, with input from our own writers and editors, as well as artists, curators, and other top experts in the field.

Born in Norilsk, an industrial Siberian town inside the Arctic Circle, Nadya Tolokonnikova was just 18 when she moved to Moscow and became a founding member of the Russian street art and performance art collective Voina in 2007. It was her strong feminist leanings that then inspired her to cofound Pussy Riot, known for playing incendiary highly political punk music while wearing balaclava head coverings.

The group rose to fame following a now legendary 2012 performance of the song “Punk Prayer,” at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, when Tolokonnikova and two other Pussy Riot members were arrested and then convicted of “hooliganism.” She spent close to two years incarcerated in a brutal labor camp in Mordovia, Russia. But her time behind bars has not deterred Tolokonnikova from continuing to act as an outspoken critic of Vladimir Putin, or from leveraging the power of art in the name of activism.

This week marks the opening of her first ever gallery exhibition for Pussy Riot, held at Jeffrey Deitch in Los Angeles. The centerpiece of the exhibition is the new performance Putin’s Ashes, in which Tolokonnikova leads a coven of women in a witch-like ritual to drive the Russian president from power, burning a giant portrait of Putin to the ground in the process.

Ahead of the show’s opening, senior reporter Sarah Cascone spoke to Tolokonnikova about the challenges of presenting conceptual performance art in a white cube gallery, and how she continues to remain optimistic about political change in her native country despite the ongoing invasion of Ukraine, and her continued persecution at the hands of the Russian government, which in December 2021 labeled her a “foreign agent.”

 

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