When we wrote about Georgy Guryanov and ASSA the other day, it struck us that some of the reasons that St Petersburg’s contemporary canon is not more widely recognized is simply that the works disappeared. Yes, many were ephemeral to begin with, painted on the walls of squats, crafted from garbage, etc, but then there were some canvases which just slipped out of the country, one way or another.
There was at one point a touring exhibition of works of the New Artists, which made its way through Sweden, Denmark, England the US, before about 25 of the works – including a rare portrait of Guryanov – just vanished, much to curator (and participant) Evgeny Kozlov‘s continued consternation. Five of those works reemerged this May when the museum of the Academy of Fine Arts in Petersburg presented an exhibition called “ASSA: The Last Generation of the Leningrad Avant-garde.” It featured works created around and for the movie ASSA (which we sampled here), drawn “from the collection of Sergey Bugaev-Afrika,” who was also the curator, as well as an exhibited artist in the show. Many perceived this as a necessary PR move, after Afrika’s political maneuverings (including signing a 2011 letter of support for Putin’s administration, and more recent rumors of foul play that linked him unfavorably to the tragic death of Vlad Monroe) threatened to shake him from his post as perennial darling of the Petersburg art scene.
While a household name in Russia, Afrika is an artist, curator and sometime musician, who landed the starring role in ASSA, then in 1990 went on to co-found the journal Kabinet, a murky experiment in art, psychology and the inner mechanics of the mind, which he ran alongside supermodel-turned-artist-turned-Mrs. Afrika Irena Kuksenaite, and a second husband and wife duo, Freud Museum of Dreams-founder Victor Mazin and the Russian Museum curator Olessya Turkina. In 1999, Turkina curated Afrika’s exhibition at the Russian pavilion of the Venice Biennale. This project Mir would travel to I-20 Gallery in New York in 2000, where Ken Johnson reviewed it. Along the way, his natural presence and charm made him the likeliest (though not always most likable) ambassador for the Leningrad scene. He established correspondence with the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Andy Warhol and Brian Eno, bringing visibility and even respectability to a scene that was about living on the fringes of a city in transition. Thankfully, in recent years, Afrika seems to have dropped the lethal charm act and concentrated on honing his formidable skills as a theorist, teacher and curator with his Institute of the New Man project, an exhibition and curatorial training program he runs with Turkina.
According to artist and art historian Andrey Khlobystin, it was Guryanov who discovered his long-lost work within the exhibition. Purportedly, when he asked Afrika to return it to him, Afrika offered to sell it to him. This news was enough to band together the other artists whose works Afrika has been ever-so-graciously preserving all these years. According to a press release circulated today, four of them are stepping forward, legally, to re-claim their rightful ownership. While the claim is headed up by Kozlov, it was followed by a second, filed by artists Oleg Maslov, Inal Savchenko and Oleg Zaika. The first hearing will take place Thursday, August 8, in Dzerzhinsky Court of St Petersburg.
While it’s always sad to see this kind of squabbling, we hope that freeing these works will lead to freeing others as well – if anything, to get more visibility to the New Artists. They certainly warrant it.
If you’re interested, Artguide has interviewed the involved parties (in Russian.) To save you some Google-translating, so far Afrika has not offered any comment.