Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina On Why We Need To Protest More Than Ever

The activist opens up about Brexit, prison and why punk is due a comeback

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Pussy Riot's Maria Alyokhina has the intense gaze of a revolutionary. She is in London for Art Riot: Post Soviet Actionism, a new exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery dedicated to Russian protest art over the last 25 years. It's the first time Pussy Riot's work has appeared in an art gallery, and their room stands out for its irreverent tone.

Videos of their activism are hung on walls painted in the vibrant colours of their iconic neon balaclavas, including the 'punk prayer' that outraged Putin and landed Alyokhina and fellow activist Nadya Tolokonnikova in prison for two years in 2012. This act of government oppression brought the group global notoriety and made them more determined to fight for freedom of expression.

Pussy Riot stage a protest. Putin Pissed Himself, in Red Square, Moscow, 2012
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The surrounding work is by their friends and peers, and Alyokhina explains that she is pleased to be able to place what Pussy Riot do in this context.

"It's a chance to show the works of all those artists who supported us since the punk prayer and our arrest, trial and prison term," she says, between drags on a cigarette. She is unfazed by this new, more formal context for their work. "The message and the meaning is more important than the place; it's more important what you bring to people. The main thing is the truth."

It's unsurprising, then, that she cites the self-titled 'grandmother of performance art' Marina Abramović as an inspiration – their work shares a powerful sense of anti-materialism.

Pussy Riot in rehearsals in 2011

The exuberant outfits that are Pussy Riot's signature aesthetic carry a subversive charge when combined with their commitment to performance as a tool for political change. Two months ago, the group staged an action in East Siberia to show solidarity with Ukrainian filmmaker Oleg Sentsov, who is unfairly imprisoned there. The stunt had immediate impact.

"The whole region started to talk about Sentsov," she says. "For me, it's the only reason to continue doing what we are doing, because people are dying there and I believe that we as artists are responsible to continue raising this topic."

Her own experience of prison intensified her belief in the power of direct action. The penal colony where she served her term was in the Ural mountains, 3,500km from Moscow.

"I think the idea was to send me as far as possible into the middle of nowhere," she says with a wry laugh. The conditions were grim. "There were 100 women living and sleeping together in one room, sharing only three toilets," she recalls. "There was no hot water, nor medicine. The work that prisoners have to do is quite cynical – they have to sew uniforms for police and for the Russian army."

Alyokhina spent five months in solitary confinement, which she enigmatically describes as "a strong experience". Ultimately, the incarceration taught her that Pussy Riot "can work in any conditions".

Alyokhina talks to the press after being freed from prison in 2013

She hopes that visitors to the exhibition will learn from her conviction, particularly in a post-Brexit world.

"I've seen people's faces after Brexit, I've seen the shock, and any shock can be a base for building something new," she says. "I think that Great Britain has an amazing history of riots and protests, and maybe it's just time to wake up and remember what you already have."

The activist says women who want to stage political actions of their own must "overcome fear and riot. If you do not fight for freedom it does not exist, it's just a word." Although she's passionate about the potential of collective action, Alyokhina also believes humour is an important tool, insisting that protest art "should be fun as well". Her hope is to inspire more Pussy Riots around the world. The British punk movement may be long gone, but that's not to say it should remain so. "So bring it back!" she says, grinning from under her beret.

Inside Pussy Riot is open now - 24 December 2017 at the Saatchi Gallery

From: AR Revista
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