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Engaged Feminist Maker

The pale skin of Yelena Myshko creates a peculiar contrast with the white background behind her. This image is a portrait, but we don’t get to see her face. Her bright grey eyes stare defiantly while the rest of her face and hair are covered by a niqab. Her shoulders and her breasts are not covered, as if they too were looking at the camera.

“I am aware some might find my work ‘triggering,’” Myshko tells Sabat. “But even if it is impossible as an individual to create real changes in society, art’s duty is to inspire, to challenge people’s thoughts and hopefully encourage them to fight for said changes themselves.”

Image courtesy of Yelena Myshko

Describing herself as an “engaged feminist maker,” the Netherlands-based visual artist Yelena Myshko strongly believes in the power of art when fighting against prejudice and censorship. “I understand I really am pushing the limits sometimes, but there is meaning to what I do.” She emphasises the word meaning, as though she’s had to explain this before. “If I decide to leave my breasts uncovered for a portrait, it is because they serve a purpose to the message I am trying to convey. It’s not showing for the sake of showing.”

Gender, ethnicity, religion… these are all topics Myshko finds are too often avoided by society, which leads to her own interest in exploring them further through her images. However, Yelena’s motivation goes beyond activism sometimes, which results in her art appearing unique in its approach, being a social statement and a personal diary at the same time. This process is what she refers to as “identity production” and has to do with expanding society’s conception of one’s self. “That’s why I like portraiture, it’s more personal and it allows me to learn how far can I go with presenting myself in a particular way.”

Image Courtesy of Yelena Myshko

Her desire to tackle controversial issues has got her in trouble in the past, particularly when it comes to posting her work on social media. “You just cannot post nudity on Instagram, for example,” she explains. That said, she also admits people are more willing to forgive art being political or controversial, but only because they don’t take it as seriously. “Honestly, ‘it’s just art’ is something you end up hearing more often than you would imagine,” Yelena says. “That’s good because it gives us artists more freedom to do what we want, but it’s frustrating when people fail or refuse to see the importance of what you’re conveying.”

Something Yelena has also noticed is that, as a female artist, she faces more difficulties than her male peers within the field of political art. According to her, male artists are more likely to get away with creating polemical work, whereas the audience is usually less forgiving towards female artists. A link could be drawn between Yelena’s observation of society’s different perception of male and female artist’s work, and her own understanding of the word Witch. “A Witch is the embodiment of the female desire to be self-sufficient… and society’s hate for it.”

Image courtesy of Yelena Myshko

Even though she’s been a feminist since her twenties, Yelena explains that Witchcraft came first, and how her fascination with magic has stayed with her until today and is visible in her art. “Do you know Papus?” she asks excitedly. I notice her tone has become more cheerful since the moment magic was brought up. She continues: “He wrote a book in which he compares magic with riding a chariot pulled by two horses, where one is constantly trying — and failing — to get a proper hold of the reins.”

Magic and art are similar in this way, neither is permanent or fixed, and they both find their strength in being mutable and subjective. This is, Yelena says, why she is not concerned about finding a label that describes her art. “I think the need to put something into words implies you want control over it,” she says. “I don’t want to label my work and end up controlling people’s opinions about it.”

The influence Papus had on Yelena’s photography is also visible in her project “Painful Subjects”. In it, the visual artist uses mundane objects such as a lighter, forks or pegs in order to prompt a more complex response. “The point of Papus’ magic was to alter oneself and one’s environment through rituals that featured very common items,” Yelena explains. Intuition is key to her creative process for this sort of projects because, as she says, there is a difference between an idea and testing if said idea will work. “For example, there’s this picture where I have pegs on my neck, right?” she says. “I didn’t go through the whole process of ‘Oh I am gonna put pegs around my neck and it will mean this’. I was just playing around with it and it eventually took a symbolic turn.”

Nevertheless, even before reading about Papus and his understanding of magic, Yelena says she always felt a connection between art and Witchcraft. Before she discovered feminism, even before she considered becoming a visual artist, Yelena Myshko was a teenager obsessed with turning her poems into spells. “I remember I was always looking for that perfect and magical combination of words… something powerful enough to trigger an euphoric moment, a feeling of ‘WHOA!’” She actually yells, then laughs, a bit at herself and a bit at the girl she used to be. “I guess that hasn’t changed,” she says, and for the first time since we began our conversation, she sounds nostalgic. “That is still my purpose today, what I am trying to achieve with the photography work I am doing now. I turn objects into symbols. Through these objects I create magical moments.”

Article written for Sabat Magazine

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