Karina Akopyan: A Big Taboo in Russia
By Lizzy Vartanian Collier
Kokoshniks, crucifixes and sex – probably not what you expect from an “Armenian artist.” Born in Russia to Armenian parents, Karina Akopyan lived in Moscow until moving to the UK at the age of 15, where she has forged a successful career as an artist and illustrator. Her works are usually very busy, full of dozens upon dozens of characters suspended in a highly erotic world, engaged in sexual activity while dressed in Russian folk costumes. I had the opportunity to speak to Karina about painting, costume, and fetish.
Karina’s work spans many mediums: from illustration to photography. The common thread linking it all together though, is its foundation in drawing. “I started as an illustrator”, explains Karina, “Drawing was always something I did from a young age. I understand the formula behind it when it comes to drawing, it’s more set. When I work on paintings and illustrations I do my research then a rough sketch. I never do anything detailed, I don’t have the patience to do things twice.” Karina’s works are intricate, often with multiple characters in big scenes, which might be an orthodox church like in Escape from the Basilica, a hospital or another fantasy world. In some ways, her images could be compared to a Hieronymus Bosch painting, where hundreds of figures are depicted in dense landscapes, inviting the viewer to stare at the work for hours in order to understand the story of each of the characters.
Big Samovar Orgy, 2016
One of Karina’s most populated paintings is Big Samovar Orgy. Full of semi-nude men and women in kokoshniks (Russian headdresses), samovars, traditional foods and matryoshkas (Russian nesting dolls), the image is overwhelmingly Russian. It is also staggeringly sexual, with the majority of the characters engaged in coitus or some other kind of erotic activity. The Russian influence may seem strange for an artist who is Armenian by blood, but since moving to England Karina has felt the impact of her upbringing in Russia more than ever. “In Russia I was considered an Armenian. It even says Armenian in my Russian passport”, she explains, “But as soon as I moved here, I was considered Russian.” And, the sexual nature of her work is somewhat of a rebellion to her Muscovite upbringing. “The sexual bit is pretty simple”, she says, “I love sex.” That said, it was a big taboo in Russia, but it was something that Karina was always interested in, even when she was very young. “The funny thing is I used to do really messed up erotic drawings as a kid”, she tells me, “They were just as racy as the ones I do now. I wish I saved them but my mother discovered them and threw them away. I remember one was like a circus ring with a ringmaster and the women were the tigers with whips.”
Welcome to the Sanatorium, 2018
The large-scale paintings, like Big Samovar Orgy, often take Karina months to complete. She is currently working on another one, a hospital scene with 160 characters. It will be a comment on self-medicating, self coping-mechanisms and how we cure ourselves with things when we have a problem. “I’m using a lot of strange imagery from Soviet Russian health centers from the 1990s, the sanatoriums my mother and grandmother took me to when I was little”, she says, “They have weird procedures, like putting you in a sauna where your head sticks out.” The piece, she explains, is also influenced by the fear of motherhood and about becoming ill as she gets older.
St. Gregory, 2018 & Drowned Maiden, 2017 (left to right)
Drowned Maiden, photographed by Darren Smith
These larger works often influence subsequent projects too. “As always, when I work on something like this, I get a lot of ideas of what might happen next”, explains Karina, who is now planning a photo-shoot with costumes she had made influenced by this medical painting-in-process. “There will be a woman carrying a handbag that looks like a Russian kokoshnik with a Medusa-like head hanging out”, she says, “It will be Russian style in a strange hospital room with another character that has orthodox symbols on their cast.” This performative side of Karina’s work – costume and photography – often includes fetish, latex and Russophile influences. “I’m so seduced by photography and costume”, says Karina, “There’s something about seeing the things that you drew, that you imagined, in front of you, real, the character becomes real.” Often, Karina becomes the characters in her drawings, playing the role of her main characters, clad in sexualized versions of traditional Russian clothing (Saint George). Her illustrations make their way into the works, either being painted directly onto the costumes she makes (Cossacks writing a mock letter to the Turkish Sultan), or in the photograph’s background (Drowned Maiden). That said however, Karina does not view herself as a performance artist. “I wouldn’t be able to perform myself physically”, she explains, “I’d be quite happy to create one and have an actor do it. It’s something I’ll be looking into in the future.”
Escape from the Basilica,
Of her influences, Karina cites Grayson Perry, Egon Schiele and Pierre Molinier as sources of inspiration. Her biggest influence however, is Japanese erotic artist Toshio Saeki. “I remember looking at his work being about 19 and, you know how Japanese culture is so fetishized?”, she says, “I remember looking and thinking, ‘Why can’t I fetishize Russian culture like that.?’” If you put Karina’s work alongside that of Toshio Saeki, the influences are obvious. With both adopting an illustrative style, with depicting scenes that are sexual in nature. Another of Karina’s inspirations is British illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who is famous for the way in which he used black and white, where white is used to form the outlines of his illustrations. This style of “black-work” is also seen in some of Karina’s illustrations like Cellmates and Escape from the Basilica, where the outlines of the wolves at the bottom of the image are all in white. Interestingly, Beardsley was interested in Japanese art too, having been influenced by Japanese woodcut prints. Beardsley also depicted the erotic in his work, with huge genitalia appearing in illustrations that addressed themes of mythology and history.
Cossacks writing a mock letter to the Turkish Sultan,
Karina’s work represents fantastical scenes of euphoria, pain and sex. Highly detailed in the style of Russian folk art, it is also a comment on her upbringing and experiences. “There’s nothing wrong with women loving sex”, she explains, adding, “Being a woman in a Russian-Armenian family is extra hard because there is even more you can’t do.” Despite this, she proves within her work that in fact, thanks to her illustrations, in her world, there is very little she can’t do. “The product is a second or third stage”, she explains, “After about a year of doing [mostly] photography, I was like ‘no,’ it’s really important to still do drawings, it’s like the mother of everything for me.”
All images courtesy of the artist.
Lizzy Vartanian Collier is a London writer and curator who specializes in contemporary art from the Middle East and North Africa. She is a regular contributor to The Honey Pump Blog and you can follow her work on www.gallerygirl.co and on Instagram @gallerygirlldn and Twitter @lizzycollier