Issue 2 - 2008

Publisher: Picture Booklets Publishers B.V. (2008).

Dimensions: 24.5 x 34 x 1.3 cm

pages: 192

Katerina Belkina

No man's world

Enigmatic. Desirable or elusive. Frigid. These are adjectives that come to mind when we look at portraits by Russian photographer Katerina Belkina whose work is remarkable for the immediacy of each woman's face it confronts the gaze of the viewer. With eyes wide open and dark like those of sirens in Pre-Raphaelite paintings, the artist's models lure the viewer into a world of dreams, desires and beauty. Their long necks resemble the subjects of Modigliani while the sensual curves of their bodies coul be straigt out of a canvas by Tamara de Lempicka.

Belkina presents her models in her most recent photo series No man's world as the heroines of fairy tales: Columbina, Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White. Each of these characters from fables or mythology symbolises an important aspect of the human condition, one that has personal meaning for the artist. All of them possess mysterious powers, whether it is to turn hearts into blocks of ice or incite the desire of a rich man. Of course, these portraits are in no way meant to illustrate childhood reveries, their gloss and hauteur reflects more the glamour of high fashion magazines.

Belkina explains that her images actually do reflect modern versions of fairy tales, but they are embellished according to contemporary pop culture. "My heroines are governed by the rules of youth culture," says Belkina. "Sleeping beauty never awakes from her drunken sleep, and young Snow White chooses to poison herselt instead of trying to understand reality. These are the young women of today, the women who live among us."

The women in these images are solitary and strong. Their cool beauty makes them distant figures inhabiting. a remote world that is, as title of the overall series suggests, not a man's world. This is a kingdom of women, where men are excluded. Finally, women are free to discover their inner beauty, desire, and strength. Upon closer inspection though, we see that each of the models are the same person: the artist herself.

Belkina adopts different costumes, and different masks to portray herself as Sleeping Beauty or Red Riding Hood. She follows an age-old practice of women everywhere, that a woman must assume many different roles each day of her life, whether it is as a lover, mother, wife, or daughter. To her audience she is saying, "Look, I can be vicious, I can be jealous, I can be sexy and cast a spell.... and so can you..this is ok." It's a strong message and one that makes Belkina's images read differently for male and female viewers. Men might see the anatomy of a woman's subconscious, one that is both sexy yet evasive. Women could hear a call to explore themselves and to discover the beauty of passion and the desire that nestles inside the subconscious.

Where then might the desire for the artist to present such a rich fantasy world of women originate? Basic socialisation might offer some answers. Belkina was born in 1976 in Samara - an old, industrial town in southeast Russia. At that time, the situation for women was lamentable. A woman worked the same long hours as a man, yet also had to take care of the family after work, in the evenings, and at weekends. It was a double burden for most women, with no chance for them to look upon themselves as desirable or powerful. Under such circumstances women grow old very quickly.

To a young Belkina, this exploitive reality prompted her to look at art as an alternative, perhaps even as something that could lead to her own empowerment. Belkina relates that she started to draw at four years old, and by 12 had started taking photographs. The fact that she grew up surrounded by fine art works (her mother was an artist) also heightened her sensitivity to the beauty she wanted to explore for herself and communicate to other women. While this early start helped move her toward a professional art education, Belkina recalls that the closed, dry academic routine of traditional Russian education quickly started to drain her interests. She had to rebel. Small town life could not hold her either. By the time she turned 26, Belkina had moved to Moscow - a big city full of promise for this ambitious photographer. In Moscow she gained further training at a photography school and began to work as a commercial photographer. Soon after she also started exhibiting her enigmatic portraits, in shows in Moscow and Paris.

An interesting parallel can be seen in Belkina's work with that of Anton Solomoukha, an expatriate Russian photographer living in France, who also draws inspiration from classical imagery evoked by fairy tales, an example of which is his provocative Little Red Riding Hood Visits the Louvre. What they share is a similar formal and literary referencing combined with a desire to embrace the visual language of pop-culture.

However, Belkina goes beyond her literary sources finding her inspiration in every moment she lives through: sounds, smells, people around her. They all arouse associations and reverie that is then morphed into her imagery. Belkina said, "Even the sound of a water drop that hits a metal surface and breaks into pieces is fascinating. When it reflects light into a myriad of other surfaces and wrinkles, my camera is ready to shoot. One only needs to have eyes wide-open to see this beauty." The wide-open eves are most remarkable feature of her portraits. Belkina sees not only for herself but also for many women with whom she shares her images. Her vision is empowering to render women desirable and elusive, enigmatic yet independent.

Another characteristic of Belkina's work is that while her photographs contain strong, sexy images of women, they are still contemplative. The artist purposefully resists clichés of cruelty and violence so widely adopted by today's pop culture. Belkina says, "My works are deliberately peaceful and meditative, not because I am oblivious to politics, but because I feel comfortable in the world that I construct for other women. We had enough politics, but attention was never given to women. I sing a song to women in my art."

Text by Yulia Tikhonova

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