Enter the mystical, intricately-crafted world of Polina Osipova: one of Russia’s most exciting Gen Z artists. Fusing traditional folklore with a wide-ranging realm of digital possibilities, Polina is the winner of the Сothinkers Annual Prize 2021. Initiated by cothinkers, a creative enterprise exploring new forms of storytelling in contemporary culture, the annual prize is dedicated to championing emerging talent, culminating with an artistic showcase in the heart of London. Key criteria for winners include representing communities or areas overlooked on the global stage, and inventing new kinds of creative storytelling through a digital lens, with a particular focus on female and non-binary artists.
Based in St Petersburg, Polina Osipova belongs to the Chuvash people, an indigenous Russian ethnic group with roots to the west of the country’s Volga river. The self-taught artist inherited her interest in embroidery from her Chuvash family — applying their traditional knowledge to sculptural pieces, hand-crafted millinery, jewellery, textiles, and clothing.
The showcase is an immersive journey into digital mythology, and how it can expand our boundaries within storytelling. The exhibition is built around recurring symbols in the artist’s work: eyes, tears, hands, silver coins and the image of the wolf, a supernatural creature which is simultaneously animal and human. All of these motifs create a story which allows the viewer to muse on the power of nature and our place within it, while reviving and reimagining forgotten histories and connecting with ancestral female power. The wolf and the image of a Chuvash warrior woman endlessly appear in Polina’s work, often transforming into one another. In the same way, the past and present, digital and analogue constantly coexist, connected through the artist’s creativity.
For those who don’t know, could you explain a bit about who the Chuvash people are and what they face in Russian society today?
Chuvash people are an indigenous Russian ethnic group with roots to the west of the country’s Volga river. Chuvash culture is ancient, and has over centuries absorbed influences of Tatar and Mari El from neighbouring Russian republics with indigenous population. Still, it’s unique in its own right, full of everyday magic and rituals. My mother and grandmother can routinely talk about a spell, or a relative who was ostracised for practicing witchcraft.
All my family is Chuvash – very big and very tightly knit. Since childhood I used to spend time at my grandmother’s village. There are around 25 houses, and half of these houses belong to our relatives. Everybody knows each other. My cousins have always been more like siblings, and this sense of community is very important for me and my work.
I feel like people often don’t know much about Chuvash culture, and also don’t know that Chuvash people are indigenous to Russia. As Chuvash people look Asian, sometimes in big cities they can be treated like foreigners even though they belong here.
How has your heritage influenced your practice?
Chuvash culture was always a big part of me – the language, the traditions, the festivals. But when I moved away at 16 to live in St Petersburg, I wanted to forget about it and try different things. Rediscovering my Chuvash heritage was like finding a path to myself, finding a meaning and focus.
I learnt a lot of traditional techniques, like embroidery, from my family. Embroidery for me is therapeutic, it’s my whole existence, my life’s work which I do from morning to evening, this is how I express myself. In the last two years I’ve done lots of work tracing down original textiles and embroideries my family still had. Sometimes I would find old embroideries and hand-woven textiles in sheds, in the mud, treated like usual household object. It’s not our fault – we were never taught to preserve and treasure our heritage. It feels special to be able to work with my family’s photographic archive as well – I have collected over a thousand photos – I feel like I can honour their stories through incorporating them into my sculptural pieces and textiles.
What role does social media play in your work as an artist?
I like that in the online space my works become part of the free flow of information. I have been using social media to share my work and talk about Chuvash traditions for over a year. It feels very special when people who are based thousands miles away, can learn about my culture.
Are there any potential tensions between your work exploring features or motifs from a specific cultural artistic tradition and the globalised context of social media, where art is often decontextualised?
A lot of the symbols I use could be seen as very universal, even if for me they come from Chuvash traditions and folk tales. I think it’s fine that my work is perceived differently by different people – I like that it stays relatable. Also sometimes it’s interesting to hear from people about similarities they find: at one point, someone compared Chuvash traditional costume to the one of berbers in North Africa.
Nature is an overarching theme in your work — how does it figure into your art and what are you hoping to express by working with this theme?
Nature is something I’ve been mesmerised with since early age when I used to spend time at my grandmother’s village. When you’re in the middle of the field and there is no phone signal, you can really sense the presence of something bigger than you. I feel like it’s a part of Chuvash culture, being close to that power. In my work I use the symbol of the wolf which is associated with pagan powers, the uncontrollable yet vital, sometimes dark and primal forces of nature, and finding your true self through that energy.
What does this exhibition represent for your career so far?
It’s very special to be the winner of Cothinkers Annual Prize which is dedicated to supporting emerging artists, and especially female artists who are working with crafts and new ways of storytelling. It’s my first solo show and the first time I’m showing my work in London, so it’s a big thing for me! It’s amazing to put in the gallery context something which so meaningful for me and represents my background.
Polina Osipova’s London show runs on 27 — 30 October at Hoxton Gallery London, E2 7JN.