Karina Akopyan with her work Big Samovar Orgy at the exhibition opening - photo credit: Bojidar Chkorev
Russian artist Karina Akopyan had her first solo exhibition - entitled Martyrs & Matryoshkas - at the Old Truman Brewery last December. Her work is a curious and alluring blend of her strict Russian Orthodox heritage and the escapism of the London fetish scene, and seems to find more similarities between the two themes than it does differences.
Karina's work brings up questions around tradition, ritual, religion, patriotism, and sexuality, all of which she is always sure to leave unanswered: "why do you need to do all the work for the viewer? I think it's much more fun to let people find their own interest or meaning in it."
"One of the themes that catalyzes my attraction to religion is concept of suffering or denial of things to yourself in order to reach humbleness. It’s a rather masochistic concept and this where it crosses with my interest in fetish."
Karina grew up in Russia but left to study illustration at university, and you can still see illustration as the foundation of her work. While living in London she started becoming involved in the fetish scene and even after 10 years or so of her involvement she still cites fetish clubs like Torture Garden as one of her main inspirations, using the people she meets as characters in her work.
She is also influenced by a diverse selection of artists: Pierre Molinier, Louise Bourgeois, Marcel Dzama, Matthew Barney, Henry Darger, Nobuyoshi Araki, Egon Schiele, and, of course, Frida Kahlo. In literature, her influences are no less significant - along with Russian folktales heard in childhood, she cites Nikolai Gogol, a who delt with topics surrounding superstition, and Mikhail Bulgakov, famed for The Master and Margarita. Yet it is Russian cinema that comes through so strongly in Akopyan’s work – namely Andrei Tarkovsky.
Bad Matryoshka - wood & metal - 35 x 20 x 20cm - 2016
“I don’t think my work would be anything close to what it is if I haven’t seen Tarkovsky’s films. His work changed my life more than any other artist."
Karina's cultural influence does not only come from Russia. She's also fascinated with American culture that marries violent imagery and religious imagery. Karina also notes Japanese influences in her work - both in the formal study of illustration and in their bold and unapologetic approach in fetish art, for instance in the work of Toshio Saeki. "At some point I asked, if Japanese culture is fetishised like that, why can't Russian culture be?”
Martyrs & Matryoshkas ran for 10 days but was the result of months of planning and preparation. It featured some old works, but also pieces that Karina produced specifically for the show. She used a mixture of media to create these pieces including painting, photography, costume, and sculpture. As a result, the work varied from giant Hieronymus Bosch style illustrations, to painted wooden Matryoshka dolls, to full latex costumes. All epitomise the convergence of fetishism and Russian tradition that is so intrinsic in Karina's work.
LK: How would you describe your work if you had to give it a genre?
KA: I often use Russian Fetishism if I have to describe it quickly and simply.
LK: What was your favourite piece from the show and why?
KA: Big Samovar Orgy. I naturally built a strange relationship with that piece that took me over 4 moths to complete. It took me on quite a journey from total frustration and misery at times to hyperactive ecstatic moments. It was a mind map and I have memories and moods connected to different sections of it because it took so long, for example I can remember exactly what I was going though in my life while looking as small sections of it, can even remember what songs I've been listening to. I left my imprint on it and it left one on me. I would spend so long alone with it sometimes I would literally start talking to it. It was traumatic and took a lot of dedication but the result was worth it and I really love that piece.
LK: For some of the works, like the latex costumes, you commissioned friends to help you. Do you feel differently about this work than you do to your illustrations and works you've produced entirely on your own?
KA: I used to, but I think the more time passes, the less I start separating it. At the end of the day, they could not exist without me. I still think painting is my foundation. I like going though certain creative progress and it gives me satisfaction to see an idea travel from painting to a real thing I can hold. I do still sometimes feel insecure when I realise I need help with something but you just can't learn everything - but limiting your ideas' potential if you know it needs to be certain media is kind of wrong too. Also, with the costumes I often still feel they are my things and my possessions so I have a harder time letting them go.
LK: You use yourself as the model in all your photography work, and you've mentioned before that you're influenced by Frida Kahlo - are these self portraits intended as an allusion to her work?
KA: I mean it’s a very old concept for artists to do types of self portraits. Nearly every single artist must have done one at some point. That’s because you are only person you know best, only person you know for sure. You can analyse yourself, you can experiment on yourself and you are always there with you as a subject. Frida is indeed a strong influence for me because she didn’t just paint visual self portraits, she painted emotional portraits and stories linked to her life. She dissected herself for her portraits. It takes bravery to expose yourself like that but also does really make you understand yourself much better. I don’t have it as my target to make people think of Frida when they look at my work, but to someone who is familiar with her work her influence on me is not hard to spot.
LK: I've noticed one of the characters in Big Samovar Orgy has exactly the same tattoo as you and was interested in the idea of you drawing yourself into the work. Why did you include yourself in this particular work and did you intend for people to notice? Are you hidden in any of your other artworks?
KA: What makes you think it’s me just because I have the same tattoo? That character is not in any way more representation of me than any character. I designed my tattoo and it is a symbol for me and used as a symbol. I often get asked if various characters in my work are me. And my answer is: always. They are all me, even the animals and male characters, but not really exactly me at the same time. I do think of all my work as some kinds of self portraits in general, because all of my work is what I feel most passionate about, it's linked to my memories, relationships, worries, aspirations so I can’t really separate my work from me, we are linked at the hip. Some artists are quite good at separating their personal stuff from their work, but that’s definitely not my case.
Borsch is Thicker than Blood - ink, watercolours, and acrylics on paper - 39 x 39 cm
LK: Has your artwork always focussed on these concepts of Russian tradition and fetishism, or has it evolved from previous ideas? Were you producing work like this when you were studying art?
KA: No it wasn’t. Bits of Russian culture came in about 3 years ago and stayed for good. I was always attracted to darker topics and imagery though. At school I was trained more as a painter and worked mainly with oils and did reproductions of Italian paintings. At college I was a big fan of fantasy art, artists like Brom, who I still really like actually. I still worked with oils at that point. I do miss the media to this day, but everything was talking so long to complete, eventually I started looking for new media to put my ideas across. Then I discovered Aubrey Beardsley and my drawings because more line based. As he was inspired by a lot of Japanese art, I looked into that area and found a lot of fetish art, which I found was very imaginative. I was already going to a lot of fetish parties at the time so I asked myself why if Japanese culture can be fetished like that Russian cant? So this where Russian element joined it.
LK: Some of the works are quite graphic or shocking, and you've mentioned before that occasionally your work is misread as showing a "hatred" of Russia. Would you be able to produce works like these if you were still in Russia?
KA: 5 years ago probably not, but things are slowly changing and I think now it’s possible I can exhibit there. Of course it would get very mixed reactions but I don’t think it’s as bad as it used to be. I think contemporary art is very very slowly finding its way to general masses in Russia when before it was just demonised as degenerate art.
Karina produced a short film for the show, which is available to view on Vimeo.
To check out more of her work and keep an eye out for future shows, go to
Or follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/karina.akopyan.artist
Martyrs & Matryoshkas video: https://vimeo.com/198565062