Victoria Lomasko is many things: illustrator, activist, visual journalist, and sometimes a metaphorical “hunter who traced a bear.” Her bear analogy refers to the way she processes her materials and inspirations from the world around her, and transforms them into powerful series of imagery that tell the untold stories of the unnoticed people in her native Russia. “Sometimes I see ideal images in life around me,” says Lomasko. “All I need to do is pick them up and transfer them to paper. Once I see and understand that strong image, it could become a poster, a cover, or a mural. But other cases are more like prose, and to reflect the social aspects of certain topics I need to make replicas of the heroes and stories.”
Lomasko started drawing as a child, under the supervision of her artist father, who “couldn’t get a normal art education,” so she had to “realize his unrealized ambitions.” Unlike her papa, the young artist-to-be always preferred to work on paper rather than canvas, as text has always been a vital component in her work. She graduated from Moscow State University of Printing Arts in 2003, where she was taught by “old teachers, artists, and theorists,” who “remembered The Golden Age of Soviet books. They were teaching that a book is a live organism, in which all details are important and interdependent.”
After university she worked as an illustrator, and by age 30 could afford to stop taking on commercial projects and begin focusing exclusively on graphic reportage. “To draw was easy, the problem was to learn how to write big, complete texts. And I still feel that drawing is like a rest, and writing is like a hard job.”
Hers is an unusual approach to visual arts more akin to the traditional scoop-searching hack than the world of contemporary illustration. Lomasko works as much from a social conscience as a desire to create imagery; and her work forms a powerful cache of documents that reveal the injustices and tribulations of modern Russian life. This is most evident in her Other Russias project, the result of nine years’ worth of illustrated reportage presenting all manner of previously undocumented members of society, like stonemasons, Orthodox activists, political science lecturers, babushkas, Pussy Riot-supporting feminists, and sex workers.
The majority of the book uses crisp black and white, in a style that has roots in traditional woodcuts as well as 20th century political cartoons. It’s no-nonsense yet descriptive: the brisk, hard line work renders the stories so succinctly in each image, making them as powerful as a bombastic news bulletin but as matter-of-fact as a mild day’s weather report.
The lack of color in Other Russias is partly down to the fact that “the publishing house didn’t have enough budget for color,” but also because “many topics I’m concerned with don’t relate to color. In a graphic reportage of a courtroom, it isn’t important what color the defendant’s shirt is. Also in Russia during winter and autumn there is too little color—a black or gray sky, white snow, people in gray, black, and brown. I use color when it has political or symbolic meaning.”
Lomasko’s straightforward, no bullshit way of describing her work and engaging with the world is refreshing in a landscape of post-rationalization and art babble. It’s also perhaps a testament to the thick skin she’s had to develop as a female artist in a country that’s hospitable to neither females, nor art.
“I simply document the absurdities of Russian reality. It’s not a hard job, if you live in Russia—whether you want to or not, every day you collide with situations that induce cognitive dissonance, and meet a lot of people that are like living oxymorons.”
One such absurdity Lomasko has drawn from is that of the “corrupt” Russian court system: “you can see in the reportage about the Pussy Riot trial how participants of the group said to the judge that they wanted to go to the bathroom, and the judge answered, ‘you can go some other time.’”
Crucially, the book emphasizes women’s voices—not just those of public women like Pussy Riot, but all women. We see a prostitute kindly offer to “shit on [men], on behalf of all women”; and the Feminine series that was created from long conversations with women in the Russian provinces. An aged woman laments how her self, her town, and her viewpoint have irrevocably withered: “When I was young, I had a date lined up on every corner,” she remarks, before bemoaning that “there are no men in this town, and no factories.”
These are rich and detailed stories that are at once intensely personal, and simultaneously representative of wider issues for women the world over. We all age, we all see our “dateability” decrease, we all lament the good old days at some point. Lomasko drew many of these stories from life; sometimes using the sketched image as the final piece for the book, and at others transferring her initial image to glass and redrawing it using pen and ink.
“When I had to draw very quickly, for example, in sex workers’ apartments, I was drawing not by a pen, I used a bold marker,” she explains. “All the stories I’m drawing are from real life—they’re all replicas of people without changes and censorship.
“It’s probably because I’m too lazy to be creative, but I see that in real life there are a lot of unrealized topics for artists, writers, and directors. It would be difficult to find those sorts of topics in Europe, because life is more comfortable and reasonable there than in Russia. But in the U.S. during my tour I came across a lot of interesting topics for new reportages.”
It’s a crucial time to make such honest, steadfastly feminist artistic statements. Lomasko points out that while earlier this year there were anti-Trump women’s marches the world over, there were no marches in Moscow, despite the fact a law had recently been passed that decriminalized some domestic abuse in the home: “Now, women physically assaulted by their husbands will no longer be able to turn to the police for help.
“It’s not that women in Russia are indifferent to their rights being violated, but the fact is that recent new anti-constitutional laws and widespread repressions have halted mass protests for social and political change.
In Other Russias I call the characters that are deprived of civil rights and voices in the public sphere ‘invisible.’ Today, I want to be more blunt, and call them ‘unwanted’—people considered superfluous by their own government.”
The term “superfluous people” originated in 19th century Russian literature, and has been a widely used colloquialism up to the present day. By immortalizing the people placed under this rather cruel umbrella term, Lomasko hopes to reclaim even a shred of their agency and identity.
“Real women—migrant workers, feminists, sex workers, old ladies, lesbians—are considered ‘unwanted women’ by their society,” Lomasko continues. “Why am I interested in them? Because I’m a superfluous woman myself, both as an unmarried woman with no children, and as a woman artist daring to address social and political issues. I like the women in my work. If you listen to them closely, you will feel their tenacity, passion, and humor.”