Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Gave Some Post-Election Real Talk in Miami

  • Photo by Yasmine Arman.

As crowds jostled for drinks around a poolside bar at the Nautilus hotel in South Beach, Miami, last night, few knew what to expect from the highly anticipated appearance of Nadya Tolokonnikova, the fearless founder of the Russian feminist-anarcho-activist band Pussy Riot and possibly the most glamorous political dissident of all time. Orchestrated by Kathy Grayson, founder of downtown New York gallery The Hole, the Pussy Riot performance—an unlikely event for Art Basel in Miami Beach—had been billed as a political happening and a discussion.

“I’m not entirely sure, but I think it’s going to be serious,” forewarned Grayson from her booth at the UNTITLED art fair earlier in the week. Given Pussy Riot’s resume, serious could have meant anything. The band began as a punk outfit in 2011; their first song, recorded on a phone, was a hardcore tune called “Kill the Sexist.” They famously drew global headlines following the arrest and imprisonment of three of its members for “hooliganism” after their 40-second anti-Putin performance in Moscow in 2012. More recently, they’ve made eroto-feminist protest-pop music videos, such as “Straight Outta Vagina” and “Make America Great Again” (both 2016).  

So it came as a surprise when Tolokonnikova delivered not a noisy, irreverent performance but a highly personal presentation about the “roots and influences” of Pussy Riot, centered largely around the French critical theory that shaped Tolokonnikova’s badass approach to life. It might have been the only party in Miami Beach that night—or possibly in the fair’s history—where the intersection of ideology, power, and oppression as framed by Michel Foucault and Louis Althusser was being discussed. “I love that we went to a pool party and ended up listening to a lecture about French theory,” said New York artist Mira Aldridge, echoing the sentiments of several attendees.

Tolokonnikova—“don’t try to pronounce my surname,” she said, “just call me Pussy Riot”—is a charismatic force, and her presentation was more inspiring than academic, as she gently egged the crowd on with advice like: “Radical honesty is a really good decision for everybody.” The evening was a welcome antidote to the week’s festivities and art fairs, where it was hard to overlook the troubling reality of the one percent holding up the art world as the country edges closer to what looks like a full-blown plutocracy.

Art can indeed be a good salve and a forum for radical honesty, but hearing some collectors celebrate what might be a less taxing (literally) Trump future was no comfort. Despite reports that fewer collectors had showed up to Miami than in years past, one anonymous dealer matter-of-factly remarked at Design Miami/ that the ones who did make the trip seemed to have a more relaxed attitude about spending, “because they’re feeling richer in a Trump regime.”

Add to that the relative dearth of politically charged art and Miami’s excessive use of (climate-changing) air conditioners, and the annual art world ritual is enough to make anyone who’s paying attention to current events a little uneasy. It’s not surprising that Grayson’s move to invite Pussy Riot to Miami was motivated by this bigger picture. “The art world might not be as blue as it thinks, here,” she said, explaining that she first reached out to Pussy Riot in the early fall.

While Tolokonnikova didn’t touch on the Miami-specific intersection of culture, power, and wealth, she did dig into some salient topical material, which, given the overlapping social conservatism of Vladimir Putin and our president-elect, is in no short supply. One of the activist’s current targets is the closing of borders amid an increasingly xenophobic world. “When somebody asks me where I’m from, I say I’m from Vagina,” she told the crowd. “When people say I’m from Cambridge or Paris or China, I say ‘no you’re not, you’re from Vagina.’ Globalism is in trouble today. There’s a rise in populism all over the world, and my version of ultra globalism is vaginal globalism. Vagina has no borders.”

She later circled back to the topic, balancing the comedic with the frighteningly real, as she does so well: “Nomadic life is under big pressure because of Trump,” she said. “Because of Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Putin in Russia. All those guys want to tell us who we are.” (Such is the subject of this past October’s “Straight Outta Vagina,” the band’s recent song and music video whose catchy refrain is: “Don’t play stupid don’t play dumb, Vagina’s where you’re really from.”)

But the moment everyone was waiting for was her take on the Trump victory, which had not yet occurred this past spring, when she made the prescient song and video, “Make America Great Again,” depicting the menacing results of such an outcome. Its optimistic bossa nova-esque beat serving as a foil to the subject matter—anti-immigration sentiment, government-sanctioned corruption, prison brutality, and rape, among other themes—the video stars a posse of violent prison guards wearing brassy Trump coifs, Tolokonnikova getting repeatedly branded like a steer with words like “outsider” and “pervert,” and news footage of Trump at some of his most dictator-like moments.

“We did this in May and didn’t know it would become a reality,” she said of the video. Her prescription for surviving a Trump presidency? “Find or create alternatives. Build our own social networks and provide safe environments for those around you. Start a foundation, an art gallery. We are in deep shit. It’s not just about America. We have to build and I don’t believe that we can do a lot by words alone. People don’t trust words anymore.”


—Meredith Mendelsohn 

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