Katrin Nenasheva. Between Here and There, 2017. Performance

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Katrin Nenasheva: against stigmatization

This young performance artist demonstrates how art can reclaim the margins and bring the oppressed and stigmatized back into the limelight in today’s Russia.

“When I first moved to Moscow, I didn’t know anything,” says performance artist Katrin Nenasheva (b. 1994). “I didn’t know recent history, or politics, or what the Right or the Left stood for.”

This seems strange now, given how fiercely political Nenasheva’s performances tend to be, but she was raised in the southern city of Krasnodar, then far from the country’s cultural centres. She moved to the capital to study journalism, a subject she felt would bring her closer to her goal of working with marginalized groups in society.

“I was drawn to the lives of the oppressed,” she says, “the homeless, Roma people, the residents of closed psychiatric institutions.”

However, she quickly became disillusioned with the world of journalism. She therefore decided to work with charities instead. 

In 2015, one such organization took her to a closed women’s prison, where she was moved by how the inmates asked her to take photographs. They weren’t allowed to have pictures of themselves, since the prison administration assumed they’d be used to solicit sex work. 

“That was a turning point for me,” she says. “It became clear that there’s a system that oppresses people to the point of not allowing them to have an image of themselves.”  For Nenasheva, a photo is a sign of presence and visibility, especially for women locked away from the rest of the world.

It is thus that Nenasheva’s first performance was born. Called ‘Don’t Be Scared’ (2015), it was a series of photographs where the artist and other women posed in prison uniforms, presenting their bodies in solidarity with the women whose bodies were kept hidden away in institutions. The action combined art with social activism: Along with posing for photos, participants were encouraged to write letters of support to women prisoners. 

Helping such hidden individuals reclaim their visibility became a central theme in Nenasheva’s subsequent performances. 

With ‘Between Here And There’ (2017), she turned her attention to the lives of residents in closed psychiatric care facilities. She took to Moscow’s streets wearing a virtual reality headset that plugged her into a different world. When passers-by asked what she was looking at, she let them see through her glasses hospital rooms full of patients with autism, Down’s syndrome or other conditions. 

Her mission was to visualize the marginalized. The performance gained notoriety when she entered Moscow’s Red Square wearing her headset and was detained by police. Ironically, she was sent to a psychiatric hospital for examination before being released.

Her latest performance, ‘Argue With Me’ (2020), tackled the issue of domestic violence, especially during the coronavirus lockdown.

It dealt with stigmatized experiences that can happen in any home. Paradoxically, domestic violence is ubiquitous, yet invisible. But, as in all her work, Nenasheva combines art and activism in order to shine a light on issues we would rather ignore, ones that lie hidden under the veneer of everyday life. Her hope is that art has the power to make visible our inner lives and bring attention to the margins that are all too often left in the dark.

Katrin Nenasheva’s official web-site

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