Currently based in Toronto, Russian-born photographer Katya Ilina has exhibited work in South Korea, Canada and the UK, drawing on a diverse range of inspirations stemming from an upbringing inspired by her home country’s unique positioning at the intersection of multiple cultures and continents.
Throughout her work, which blends portrait, documentary and fashion photography, Ilina champions the female perspective and approaches subjects with an inquisitive softness and tenderness. Her artistic projects thus far have included documenting skateboarders, Seoul’s 24-hour party people and the Sakura blossom season in Japan.
Her latest endeavour, Rosemary & Thyme changes gear: launching into an exploration of male body positivity as lensed through Ilina’s female gaze. Celebrating the beauty of fluid gender expression, the series depicts a diverse range of male sitters in poses of suggested nudity which mimic the gesture and mood of iconic female nudes throughout art history: from Ingres to the Italian Renaissance.
These portraits are paired with black and white abstract representations of plant life. Plants, especially those with flowers, have complex reproductive morphology and that defy binaristic definitions of sex. In this vein, this strand of the series introduces a critique of the notion of a “natural” or “biological” division between male and female.
Photographed in Toronto, Canada, each sitter in the series represents different backgrounds and sexual identities – they are regular people who felt strongly about the series’ message. In her time spent discussing the project with each model, it became clear to Ilina how significant social expectations and restrictions are on male gender performance: realities she aims to deconstruct through the series.
Speaking of the series, Ilina said; “Rosemary & Thyme was inspired Grayson Perry’s book The Descent of Man. While one of the main themes in my creative practice is female empowerment, this book helped me see this topic from the perspective of men. I realised that much of inequality and intolerance to anyone who does not fit a definition of the “Default Man” who is white, middle class, heterosexual originate from heteronormative masculine ideology, [which is] outdated for contemporary realities.”
Continuing she explains that; “I decided to address this conflict through a body positivity lens because it is a concept we tend to hear about almost exclusively applied to the female body. With this project, I want to make a difference shifting our mindset towards normalisation of perception of masculinity, and gender overall, as a fluid spectrum, not a static binary.”
One of the portraits from the series, “David”, has been shortlisted for the prestigious Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, which celebrates the very best in contemporary photography. This image will be on display in the new National Portrait Gallery arts Bub at Cromwell Place in London from 10 November. For those not currently in London, the full series will be exhibited online from 22 November.
Rosemary & Thyme will be able to view as a digital exhibition on 22 November.