Thursday 6 February 2014

Interview with Petro Wodkins, the Russian artist chased by Zimbabwe's government after mocking Mugabe

"If art can make people dance, sing and laugh in the face of a dictator, this is a reason enough for me to keep doing art. This and the face of a furious dictator"

So says famous Russian artist, Petro Wodkins, known worldwide for being behind a series of art happenings covered by the global media, who I had the chance to interview.

After his most recent daring art stunt Petro barely made it alive out of Zimbabwe. The artist was invited to a workshop in Zimbabwe but instead chose to put up a huge golden statue of himself singing a song mocking Zimbabwe's dictator, Robert Mugabe. Due to the nature of his work, the invitation to the workshop was withdrawn by the Zimbabwean authorities. But the artist went to Zimbabwe anyway, taking the statue and its song.

Petro Wodkins' gold statue
The Zimbabwean government reacted brutally, pulling down the statue and both the police and the army tried to arrest the Russian artist who managed to escape to Zambia.

During the interview, I asked Petro why he often chooses satire and mockery to make art. His response was that he uses different artistic approaches, but when he wishes to say something about society, then satire is very effective. This is particularly true when the subject matter is a tyrant, since when people start to laugh, the tyrant is in big trouble since fear and comedy do not tend to accompany one another. Thus, challenging fear with mockery is Petro's weapon of choice.

I questioned Petro as to why he decided to take the statue to Zimbabwe despite the Zimbabwean government's withdrawal of his invitation to participate to the workshop. He answered that this artwork was important and needed to be shown in Zimbabwe in order to be effective. He wanted to show both Mugabe and the people of Zimbabwe that it is possible to challenge authorities and that not everyone fears Zimbabwe's tyrannical dictator. He added that he felt that he needed to take a risk and display his work in Zimbabwe, and not at a safe distance elsewhere.

I asked Petro's opinion as to why art frightens more and more governments. His belief is that art creates a tricky situation for governments. If they don't react to criticism, it can be considered a sign of weakness or as an opening, which will create yet more protest art. On the other hand, if they do react and try to suppress the art, such censorship may attract even more attention to the art. Therefore, governments try to stop art before it does even become public. 

Finally, I asked the artist whether art should make people reflect on problems instead of being just "art for the art's sake." According to Petro, art should relate to people and highlight problems, and not just be exhibited in a gallery for a narrow audience of upper class people. Petro does not ask for authorization to show his art and if he does not see any reaction in people, then he is not satisfied. Most of his art is confiscated or destroyed, but he does not mind. His purpose is to reach as many people as possible.
You can see Petro's song and his filmed material here. Petro made them with hidden cameras, since filming in Harare is forbidden. 

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