Resonating Narratives: an Interview with Elena Akaeva
This interview offers a captivating insight into the world of Elena Akaeva, a thought-provoking performative artist and photographer. Akaeva's unique perspective, shaped by her personal journey from Moscow to Venice and London, navigates themes of war, displacement, and identity with unwavering artistic dedication. Through profound discussions about her powerful performances, such as "A Year" and "Roads," Akaeva's connection to her subjects and her ability to convey deep emotions without words come to the forefront, showcasing the transformative potential of art to address pressing social issues and spark meaningful change.
Can you provide some insights into the key experiences, influences, and milestones that have contributed to your growth and development as an artist?
In childhood, I was nearly struck by lightning. That was one of the first times I had a deep thought about the finitude of life. The thought that days pass and disappear deeply moved me and I started keeping a diary to save the days there. Through writing, I developed a habit to ponder life's questions, both big and small. I continue to write my diaries to this day. When I reread the old ones I don’t recognise myself.
My first medium of self-expression was music and theatre. I played cello, piano and took theatre acting seriously. My father gave me a love for philosophy and poetry. My mum for subconscious and magic. My granddad for acting and adventures. I read a lot and somehow found out about Surrealism, Fluxus and Jung. I had a best friend with which we lived in a perpetual state of inspiration, we created together and went to gigs and galleries. Various music subcultures and countercultural movements were my schools. Hardcore punk, anti-fascism, left-wing ideas and social movements like Food Not Bombs, along with studying journalism formed a socially conscious part of me. And the subcultural world those days in Russia was literally a battlefield. I always tried to balance my life between art and activist circles. It all gave me the habit or even the necessity to balance polarities.
In my childhood, we were moving between different locations and cultural climates. Spending a year between Moscow and our summer houses in traditional North Caucasus and deep Russian village with cows and witches; spending summers in Ukrainian Crimea and Azov regions and springs in cultural St Petersburg. It made me appreciate and understand different ways of life and made me unable to live in one place longer than half a year.
Moving to England was a big milestone. My role as a migrant and inability to use my native language made me less logocentric in my art. And put ideas of belonging and home in the first place of my art research.
And the war had a profound impact both on my life and art. For the past two years, all I do is war-related or aimed to help Ukraine or those affected by war.
You are originally from Moscow, but left it nine years ago to live in Venice, and then London. How did these changes influence your practice? What do you feel are the main differences within the art world between these three countries?
Each country nourishes you and opens you up from a different side. It’s like parallel realities, people leave the same life but arrange it differently. Since I moved to London I always look at everything from two different sides, always comparing culture, political structures, and people’s interactions. It helps me not to fall to extremes.
I don’t write as much poetry, shifting mainly to the body as my medium, because I still don’t feel the English language as deeply as I feel my native one.
Venice was a transition place for me, mesmerising dream-like time that prepared me for the biggest change in my life. But it was Moscow and London where I truly immersed myself.
London is a small model of the ideal world, all cultures live together with respect and genuine interest in each other. And it's amazing how much counterculture of the past achieved in the UK. But mainly Britain for me is Hackney, my area. Dream place of my youth, creative, left-wing people live in a village-like place respectful of people’s differences.
My native Russia is a very traumatised society but deep and so interesting. In Russia, it was a cult of intellect since Soviet times. People from the same circles as in London would discuss much deeper philosophical and cultural topics. There were always debates and I came back culturally saturated. London has no less interesting but more cautious society. While in Russia you have external censorship, in London internal and reputational censorship prevail. In Moscow, it was difficult not to make socially oriented art, because of the perpetual social and political problems, that were in dire need of urgent responses, and local concerns took precedence over global ones. In Britain, art addresses important global topics, but probably because the threat is less harmful (than in a totalitarian state) and more distant from everyday, present life often their art responses feel, for me, like games.
Due to the lag behind Western countries during the Soviet era, Russia developed a sense of inferiority and there was an obsession with futuristic technologies. At international exhibitions, like the Biennale in Venice, it was interesting how Russia has always tried to apply digital, technological innovations in the art pieces (I wonder if it adds to the reason for Russia being so exploitative, destructive or merely blind to its nature and environment) when British art played more with crafts, with big respect to the environment, simple living and understanding of people’s differences. I adore this British respect for different nations, cultures, species and living forms.
The entire art scene in Russia has died now. All the most interesting and courageous artists left due to persecution, or unable to exhibit. Outspoken curators and directors were sacked. And mostly talentless opportunists now happily exhibit their tame and bland works in the best Russian galleries, as it was in the Soviet times.
In your practice, you develop a discourse around war, totalitarian politics, displacement, home, and the unstable situation of a migrant woman. What influenced you to create artwork around these themes?
These topics are not just abstract concepts for me. They are my life for the past nine years. All this was experienced by me or by people who are very dear to me, it was cried over and fought with, and I continue to overcome these difficulties to this day.
It is extremely important for me to draw people's attention to these issues because they cause great suffering to very vulnerable individuals, who are stuck shellshocked in the horror of events and labyrinths of bureaucracy, torn from their homes and safe places. All this can so easily overbear and break those who are in a fragile social state and who are in dire need of support and protection.
While all art has its place in the world, I can’t do anything empty or meaningless. I believe that art should help people or, at least, make them think.
What can you tell us about your performance A Year where you hammered coffin nails into a 3-meter-wide black mourning dress to mark a year since Russia started the war in Ukraine, each nail representing a victim of war?
The performance "A Year" signified a year after Russia invaded Ukraine.
During this performance, I was dressed in a 3-meter-wide black mourning dress, that was covering the entire floor of the gallery. I was hammering coffin nails into the dress, with each nail symbolising a victim of the war. The act of hammering the nails was meant to resemble closing a coffin lid. The nails represented tombstones, serving as a reminder of the human cost of this pointless war. In the end, the whole dress, as a cemetery, was covered with nails.
The performance is painfully personal to me, my friends lost their lives in the war in Ukraine. Two families I knew and loved died in Mariupol, and another friend disappeared in Ukraine. When I read daily reports from the frontlines, it becomes overwhelming, and I feel the urge to cry and scream.
The final nails were driven into the sleeves of the dress, immobilising me in a praying pose, lying on the gallery floor.
How do you balance the aesthetic and conceptual aspects of your political art to ensure both the message and artistic quality are effectively conveyed?
As much as I appreciate art with depth, I also find manifestos or direct statements without artistic finesse quite scary. Art should not aggressively dictate how people must think. The power of metaphor lies in its ability to encourage individuals to think for themselves, leaving room for personal reflections and perspectives.
Some pinch of ambiguity is essential, as it fosters dialogue with art, allowing it to be a two-way process. A monologue would amount to propaganda.
And it is far more intriguing and effective when the message, like a seed, lies deep within the metaphoric play and takes root in a viewer's consciousness long after he leaves the gallery.
Could you tell us more about your performance piece Roads, and the concept behind it? How did your personal experiences, including the challenges with your visa and being unable to return to both the UK and Russia, influence the creation and execution of this artwork?
The project is a video where I drag my heavy suitcase barefoot through streets and hills and sands in all countries I passed travelling from France to Turkey, Sicily to Copenhagen. With a voiceover of refugees, I met, talking about home and the hardships of the road. With my battered suitcase and broken sandals as a part of an installation.
As a migrant, the concept of home has always been on my mind. I’ve lost contact with my home country, living away for 9 years and I never let myself get used to England because each time I needed to apply for a visa (and didn’t know if I get it or not). But nothing was as challenging as the past year.
My country started the war in Ukraine, then my UK visa expired and I went to Europe to apply. It took me 7 months instead of 1. I packed a huge suitcase because I didn’t know if I get a new visa and I was unable to return to Russia (I was doing anti-war charity projects, collecting money for Ukraine (which is considered treason in Russia) and in addition, I got fine from Russia for defamation of Russian Army).
In the beginning, I was volunteering in Ukrainian refugee shelters and when I was unable to stay in Europe longer, I took a bus to Serbia (my suitcase was so heavy that I could travel across Europe only by buses, extra luggage would be too expensive on planes). Then Russia blocked all my bank cards with all my money on them.
So I ended up in a country where I don’t know anyone, without money and mobile internet. I even had to sleep at the railway station before I got help. Being without money in an unknown country with a heavy suitcase is dangerous and horrific. I couldn’t stay in many countries for long and had to move.
I decided to record how I drag this heavy suitcase from country to country. My suitcase lost a wheel in Paris and in each country, I was losing wheels, handles, and bits. So I ended up dragging it on one wheel keeping it intricately by the hole between the zip.
So suitcase became an embodiment of the struggles displaced people go through on their road. An embodiment of the idea of home that is heavy to carry with you and that is being destroyed bit by bit by hardships of the road living.
I met Afghan refugees when we both were travelling without money on a train. In Montenegro, I met Bosnian people who were refugees during the Yugoslavian war in the 90s. When I got to Turkey I met Russian political and Syrian refugees (we were living in the same abandoned hotel). In the end, I was able to return to Europe and I was doing performances for anti-war charity exhibitions of my beautiful Ukrainian friends. We spent many hours talking and I was recording stories of all of those people who lost their homes.
When everything is stripped away, your road becomes your home, and your identity becomes the road. It's a constantly changing landscape, and your identity is in a perpetual state of adaptation. You yourself become a facade of basic reactions, attuned only to the protection of your belongings and body. Apart from these struggles, I experienced moments of genuine connection and deep relationships with friends through adversity. We understood each other's hardships and shared an unspoken bond that was profoundly beautiful.
As an artist who has actively engaged in anti-war statements, performances, and charity projects, you are unable to return to Russia, which must have a profound impact on both your artistic journey and personal life. Could you describe the emotions and challenges you have experienced as a result of this situation?
I never thought that my identity was so intertwined with my birth country before. In the past, whenever I visited Moscow, I reclaimed forgotten fragments of myself and found balance. Since the door to Russia closed, a part of me fell silent.
It felt that the beautiful, profound heritage I grew up with was tainted by aggression and war. It took time to separate the culture that nourished me from the political ugliness and evil.
It also influenced my sense of security and trust in people. A place I could once return to for refuge is no longer accessible. I don’t know where my home is, I lost this feeling.
Formerly, I believed my friends would support me unconditionally, whatever happen, but not many people wish to lend you a helping hand when you don’t have resources. And some turned away and appeared on a different side. It is surprising, how (the closest people to you) can enjoy using their power when you’re in the most vulnerable state. My trust in people and reality has been severely shaken.
The emotional and psychological challenges brought on by these circumstances have been overwhelming. But my passion for anti-war efforts and advocacy for the oppressed has only grown stronger. This journey has taught me resilience and the importance of standing firm in my beliefs, even when faced with adversity and betrayal.
How do you handle potential backlash or criticism that may arise from your political artworks, particularly in relation to controversial or sensitive topics?
I was always ready for it. It’s the nature of art to provoke a reaction. And criticism is good, both for an artist and for the viewer because it shows that your statement touched or shook some ossified ideas about the world. A person will begin to think if this has given rise to an unpleasant doubt in them, and if the reaction is very emotional, as a rule, it was a reasonable doubt.
It’s good for an artist as well. Nothing is more scary than pride. It blinds.
Before I prepare any art piece I deeply think and weigh what I’m going to say and why. Only when I am confident in the truth and necessity of the message will I speak out.
I had a brutal response to my performances, and after my exhibitions/statements, I can’t return to my native country. Some friends of mine turned away and picked a different side. Someone even reported on me.
This war is like a psychology course. The metamorphosis people go through is truly unexpected.
Some colleagues edited out my messages against the war from the last performance we made together. Heavily criticising me, my anti-war position and my care for Ukrainians. They were finding arguments about why this war was right, the minute they had an opportunity to submit this work to “prestigious" anti-war exhibitions, they returned edited-out material back and tried to use my anti-war statement in the description.
I think it is scary.
Some art colleagues with which I did actions against the regime, surprisingly picked the side of the regime.
I felt disillusioned and betrayed but along with that I never valued the fragility of life that much. I think that nothing, no land, no idea, no virtue can be more important than human life. John Donn’s quote that I loved when was a child for its beauty, never was so meaningful to me as now. “No man is an island entire of itself;…any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind…”
Therefore I’m sure in what I’m doing and the idea that I add even a small bit for a good cause, make me handle all hardships that arose better.
In your opinion, how does political art differ from other forms of artistic expression, and what unique impact does it have?
Art carries immense strength on its own, as it’s formed by the subconscious of the artist, transcends logical barriers of the audience and delves into their subconscious.
Political art possesses even more power as it’s directed towards societal change, making it a potent force for transformation, it can even reshape the course of history.
It can save and empower marginalised groups and also challenge power structures, can illuminate blind spots in society’s perception. That’s why it can provoke strong critical responses and may even pose a danger to its creators, those in power will fiercely try to keep their positions and the more power they have the stronger they will try to defend it.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists who are interested in exploring political themes in their own work?
Be honest and be brave.
Mainly be honest with yourself. Revisit your doubts. Be responsible as art has power.
Be prepared for criticism and reaction. Political art is a hard but noble path. Which can demand a sacrifice from you.
Always keep your values in front of your eyes, so as not to be swayed by manipulation or threats. Art can save or ease the lives of the oppressed, that’s the reward.
Read our review of Eleana's work in the featured section.
Seed by Elena Akaeva. Image courtesy of Elena Akaeva.
I’m a performance artist, poet and photographer. I was born in Moscow, Russia and currently reside in London, UK.
I’m actively engaged in the anti-war movement, and at the moment can’t return to Russia due to anti-war statements, performances and charity projects I did or took part in.
In my works, I explores topics of war, totalitarian politics, displacement, home, unstable situation of a migrant woman.
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