A MEETING WITH OKSANA SHACHKO
By Armelle Leturcq
We have the immense sadness to learn the death of Oksana Shachko, promising artist that we presented in Crash and to whom we dedicated the cover of our December 2017 art issue. We presented her work in our gallery, the 22Visconti, on the occasion of the exhibitions Surface Sans Cible and Talking about a revolution. Oksana was an outstanding activist, co-founder of the Femen and political refugee in France because her life was in danger in her country. She had enrolled at the Paris Beaux-Arts school and her work as a painter has profoundly touched us with its light and strength. Here is the interview Armelle Leturcq did with her in November 2017.
Can you tell me a bit about your story?
Oksana: I was born in Ukraine, in the city of Khmelnitsky. It’s a very classic post-Soviet city. It was ruled by the USSR and its buildings avoid any historical culture or interesting stories from the past. When I was younger, I lived there with my family. Like all children, I liked to paint, and my parents thought I was very good at it. That’s why when I was eight years old they put me in an iconography school. Usually you had to paint religious icons there. The orthodox religion is very strong in Ukraine and Russia. Also, icons are difficult to produce from a technical standpoint because you work with wood, gold, and different metals. You paint in a very old antique style. All the icons are very codified: you always need to copy the symbols. That’s why it’s quite difficult for a child to stay concentrated. But the teachers found a special touch in me, and one of the professors forbid my parents to enroll me in any other art schools. They said it would destroy my talent. That’s how at eight years old, I was deeply inside the religious world and very concentrated on my craft. It started to take off for me. At ten years old I had already started painting in churches and exhibiting my art. I was deeply inside all these institutional bodies, and because of it, I started believing in God. I always went to Church to pray. When I was twelve years old I decided to go live in the church, to paint icons and spend my life praying. I wanted to stop living a normal life and become a monk.
It was possible to stop going to school at twelve years old?
Yes, it was. I found places that gave you special religious education.
Did you decide alone or with your parents?
I decided alone. My parents were religious of course, we always went to the church with my mom, she always prayed. I thought my parents were very happy about my decision, I didn’t even think to ask their permission. I was spending all my time at the iconography studio or at the Church, so my life revolved around religion. I packed my stuff and found a place, I organized everything. I was about to marry Jesus. But for me it came as a big surprise that my mom saw this as a tragedy, she started to cry and asked me not to leave. She also set up a big meeting with all the family, where she asked everyone to talk to me. As I was saying, I was a very serious child, everyone said that I was “born adult.” I started to think that I didn’t want to overwhelm my parents with stress, so I decided to stay. At that moment, I started to think about the meaning of believing. It was a big paradox for me. My parents are religious, they believe in God, they go the Church… But they refuse that I become a monk. I didn’t understand. I continued living with my parents and started searching for an answer to my questions. I continued painting icons but started engaging in more conversations with the people surrounding me. I wanted to know why they came and prayed in front of these icons. I also starting becoming critical of the Church. When I was fourteen, I found a group of young people from fifteen to twenty years old who organized philosophical clubs out of school. We met in parks and other public spaces. Some read a lot of philosophical books and were Marxists. They were very critical of religion. I found them very interesting. I started to come more and more and read their books. I discussed religion with them and continued to say, “God exists,” wanting to prove it to them. One year passed, two years passed, and I became a total atheist. Finally, I understood there was no place for God in life. Reading all these books and discussing these subjects opened my eyes. I understood that religion is just a fucking business and a tool to manipulate society. That made me very angry and I stopped painting the icons. I became linked to a group of young communists called Komsomol. We started creating this party of young communists, with elections. But it was not really working. In Ukraine, after the broken USSR, everybody hated communism because it was associated with Stalin and totalitarism. We were super young, we went to clean the statues of Lenin…
You’d never experienced the USSR?
No, never! When I was born, it was the last years of communism. It was totally broken in 1991. When I started to get out of the religion bubble, it was a time of total crisis and big problems in Ukraine. In the 90s, it was a very hard time. The crisis was economic as well as political. There was no product, no money, nothing. Maybe that’s also why I wanted to escape to religion. I come from a very normal family, with young parents who had me at nineteen and worked in a big factory. It was a traditional style, they didn’t have any creative plans for their life. Everything was written for them. After the USSR fell, all the factories closed and it was difficult to survive and my father became an alcoholic. Everybody was losing their jobs.
That’s why you were nostalgic about communism?
No, I was only interested in communism because of its ideology. We were very active and were the biggest group of young communists in all of Ukraine. The politician who controlled the Communist party started to get scared of us and our activities. He started making us stop our group. There is a lot of corruption in Ukraine and all the people who have power are there because of manoeuvring. They all place their friends and family in the parties. I started to understand that the party had nothing to do with politics and we decided to create something more modern called the “Center of New Perspectives.” We fought for the rights of students, against corruption. At this time, I met with Anna Hustol and Sasha Shevchenko with whom I created Femen. I never thought about feminism before. In Ukraine, feminism is never talked about. We had a lot of meetings with professors, the University director, the mayor, and some businessmen to gather money for the students. When I went to see those people, I was accompanied by a guy and they only listened to him. That was not normal. When I was seventeen, I started to get very angry about this with the other girls. That’s when we decided to create a girl movement, to prove to everybody that we are able to create, to do things, and to work. During two years, our group was called the “New Ethics.” We were five or six at the beginning and quickly it came to one hundred girls. For Ukraine, it was exceptional. We even created an intellectual game only for the girls. Everything was based around fighting against the preconceptions that girls are stupid and incapable. In 2008, there was a problem in Khmelnitsky at a hospital where women gave birth. Four women died in one day because of bad treatment given by corrupted doctors. The case was swept under the rug. We, as feminists, decided to take action. We came to the centre of the city with big posters, sheets, and blood, and started screaming about the hospital tragedy. We were amazed that many journalists from all of Ukraine came to shoot us. The next day it was everywhere in the news. Two weeks later, the special control from Kiev came to the hospital to check everything. They managed to fire the corrupt doctor and the horror was over. We understood that if we wanted to make the world a better place, we needed to take action. We don’t have money or power but when attention rises and people start talking about it, things can change. We thought the best place to do it was in Kiev because all the media is over there. Sacha, Anna, and I went to Kiev, the other girls preferred to stay in Khmelnitsky and continue New Ethics over there. We created a new name and that’s when we were called FEMEN and started to use performance as a way to fight. Our first big action was called “Ukraine is not a brothel,” because there were huge problems with prostitution and the sex industry in Ukraine. There were very cheap brothels for all the Europeans. They were controlled by the police and politicians. We even have specially organized sex tours. In the beginning, when we walked the streets as young girls, we experienced strong harassment. Some of the tourists think all Ukrainian girls are prostitutes. They imagine that after one cocktail, they can sleep with any girl. Which was also part of the truth stemming from our stupid education. I hope it has changed now. When USSR was closed, everyone dreamed of going to America or Europe. All the women dreamed of marrying a rich American guy to escape. They are seen as the prince charming. That’s why girls make themselves so easy to manipulate. We decided to fight against this image of women. We also used sexuality to prove our points and explained you didn’t have to be ashamed of your body as a woman. Our bodies were our weapons.
Did you also consider your activist work as artistic work?
Totally. We used art to talk about bigger problems. As an iconographer, in some moments I wanted to make iconic images of our movement. After two years of figuring it out, I think I managed to create this image: the girl with a flower crown in her hair, the strong positions with the fist up and straight legs, the slogans on the body and the angry face. It’s a lot of work to put all those details together. In the beginning, we didn’t know how to protest, how to scream, or how to move in general.
Have you seen the movie “120 BPM”? It’s about the Act Up movement and how they created high-impact, almost artistic demonstrations that were close to performances.
No, I haven’t seen it yet! It’s true that a lot detail goes into the preparation of a demonstration. You don’t notice it at first.
When did you stop being a part of FEMEN? Is it still ongoing?
We stopped at the end 2014. I think FEMEN still exists as an idea of rebellion. I think we created a new wave of feminism. As an ideology it exists but as a structure it doesn’t exist anymore because nobody really works on it. From 2008 to 2013, me, Sasha, Anna, and later Inna met every day. It took up all our life. We started speaking about women’s rights, and step by step we engaged in more political matters. We became more and more radical, and that led to being attacked by the government and the police. What we’ve been seeing for the last two or three years are activists who do three or four actions in the year and don’t work that well. They totally copy what we did before and always follow the news. When you talk about Marine Le Pen, all the journalists are already talking about it, everybody agrees with this problem. With FEMEN, we always put the attention on new problematics. Some girls who use the FEMEN name keep saying that we are a big organization that’s going to change the world. They’re just manipulating people, going to conferences… But the girls who use the name of FEMEN now, they do nothing.
Do you have any connection to Pussy Riot?
I knew some of the girls personally, because when we made an action in 2012 in Russia against Putin, I was in prison for three weeks. Pussy Riot contacted me and we were supposed to meet as activists. It was before they became well-known. People started noticing them when they took action in a church and got arrested three months later because of it. What’s funny is that when they were doing their performance in the church, their slogans said, “Virgin Mary, drive away Putin.” One month before, we were protesting as FEMEN in front of the same church with the slogan, “May God drive away Putin.” I like to think they were inspired.
Today, how do you see the connection between your activism and your artwork?
I started painting icons again, but in a provocative way. I still want to provoke and criticize society and religion, but I also want to start again. I’m not in contact with the FEMEN girls anymore. I don’t want to participate in this big lie. For me it was quite difficult. In 2013, when we chose to escape from Ukraine, it was a hard moment. We had protested against Putin in Hanover, we jumped out in front of him. I want to say that we were protesting against Putin and his bad influence on Ukraine way before the revolution started. Anyway, Putin saw this as a big personal affront and after that, in Ukraine, we were beaten on the street, we were kidnapped by secret services and special police from Russia. They did horrible things, they stole our dogs, took our electronic devices. They ended up putting grenades and bombs in the FEMEN offices, as well as pictures of Putin. So when the police came, they tried to pretend we were terrorists trying to kill the president. When they opened the criminal case, it was our moment to escape. We escaped without anything, arriving in France, where we had already starting building groups in 2012. We thought we would continue our actions here. We were still so angry that they had wanted to stop us in Ukraine. In France, we discovered very strange things with the girls involved in the project locally. Many were doing it just to be photographed in the press and had nothing better to do with their lives. They were losers. We were so surprised with Sasha because we thought we would find sisters, but actually they had different ideas in mind. We continued to take action on our side for a while but then we just stopped. We were in a kind of depression. It’s hard when you have to escape from your country after giving seven years of your life to create something, and then you see that the results are disappointing.
But today you are building a connection between your work on icons and your activism?
As FEMEN, we fight against the patriarchy, the sex industry, against the cruel rules of fashion which treat models like objects, against dictatorships and all the religions. In every single religion, woman has taken second place, with all the decisions made by men. In my icons, I replace men, I put women in the center and fight against this ideology. My work is still very feminist.
You don’t have the option of going back to Ukraine now? Is it still too dangerous?
First of all, I have political refugee status in France, so I can’t go back to the country from which I escaped. Second of all, it’s still very dangerous. Maybe if I go back not as an activist… But you never know. The power is still the same and even worse. It’s war in Ukraine, they kill people very easily. In the last year, fifteen activists or people who dissent in general have died.
So you are staying in France for the moment.
Yes. Right now, I am starting at the Beaux Arts school. I really want to continue doing some activism, but I need to think about it and adapt it to today’s world. Also, I don’t feel sad or depressed anymore because I can see that this kind of phenomena that we have with the women of FEMEN and Pussy Riot, this kind of political art was very strong in post-Soviet countries in the last five years, but none of us are active anymore.
You also want your work to be international, and not fight only against the Eastern world?
Yes, my ideas are adapted to the whole world. People from all sides of the planet can understand it. It’s as simple as possible.
What is your point of you on French society and the position of women compared to Ukraine?
Of course, it’s much better here. But I found some critical elements. It’s very modern here and open-minded, but at the same time, it’s also so traditional. It’s a difficult position for women because there are still a lot of clichés that need to be fought. Girls are not so free here. I was surprised to discover it. Complete independence is not yet achieved. For example, I was shocked to see that women are paid less than men for the same job.
And they are not paid for all the work they do at home!
Of course women are doing all this work at home that the men don’t do. It’s deeply ingrained in French culture.
Photos taken in the Surface Sans Cible exhibition at 22Visconti
Photographer: Boris Camaca
Stylist: Andrej Skok
Make-up artist: Alice Ghendrih
Hairstylist: Sebastien Le Corroller
Photographer assistants: Constantin Kyriakopoulos & Laure Lecat
Stylist assistant: Anne-Cécile Lemée