Censored Russian artist threatens to boycott Louvre exhibition

Moscow backtracked on Friday from its initial refusal to allow provocative anti-government artist Avdey Ter-Oganian exhibit his work in France's Louvre museum. But Ter-Oganian told FRANCE 24 he will not take part in the exhibition until Russia ends its persecution of opposition artists. Read more...


Three of Avdey Ter-Oganian's abstract works.

After initially blocking the export of works by controversial Russian artist Avdey Ter-Oganian, Moscow has finally allowed the works to be shown in an upcoming exhibition in France's Louvre museum. But the artist told FRANCE 24 he won’t take part in the show unless Russia stops persecuting opposition artists.

A series of four works by Ter-Oganian are due to be displayed at the Louvre from October 14 to January 31, 2011 as part of an exhibit called "Counterpoint: Russian Contemporary Art". The works consist of printed geometric patterns with provocative captions such as "This work urges you to commit an attack on statesman V. Putin in order to end his state and political activities".  

Last Wednesday, Russia confirmed that it had blocked the export of Ter-Oganian's works because they could "incite extremism." In response, several major artists due to take part in the exhibition announced a boycott on Saturday in support of Ter-Oganian.

After intense negotiations with Russian authorities, the Louvre museum announced on Friday that Russia had authorised all of Ter-Oganian’s works to be sent to Paris for the exhibition. But the artist himself told France 24 he wants to use his case to draw attention to the wider problem of artist censorship in Russia.

A selection of Avdey Ter-Oganian's works.

Some of Avdey Ter-Oganian controversial works


Caption: "This work publicly insults his holiness Alexy II, the Patriach of All Russia."


Caption: "This work denigrates the dignitiy of Russians and Jews"


Caption: "This work was created for aesthetic pleasure." 


Caption: "This work is about prostitution".

This post was written with Ostap Karmodi.

"I don't want Russia to boast its modern art abroad when Russian artists are persecuted at home"

Avdey Ter-Oganian is a Russian artist who has been granted political asylum from the Czech Republic. He currently lives in Prague.

In present day Russia, both the Church and state censors regularly oppose freedom of expression. This is because the Russian government is fighting communist ideology, and it doesn't know any better than to try to replace it with nationalism and Orthodox Christianity. The government connives with the Church to persecute artists.

Twelve years ago, I was sentenced to jail for offending the Church [after a performance in which the artist chopped off a religious icon's head]. The same thing happened to my colleague Oleg Mavromatti ten years ago, and more recently to art project curators Andrey Yerofeyev and Yuri Samodurov.

"The accusations are the same as usual: my work sparks religious hatred, calls for the assassination of Putin, etc."

In the case of the government banning my works from the Louvre exhibit, the accusations are the same as usual: my work sparks religious hatred, call for the assassination of Putin, etc.

The Russian State Centre of Modern Art initially tried to bypass the censorship quietly, to avoid controversy. They suggested I re-print the works in Prague and send them directly from here to the Louvre. But I don’t want to hush up the government’s censorship attempts. I want to draw attention to the problem.

I wrote to both the Russian culture ministry and the ministry of Foreign Affairs and made two requests. Firstly, I want to be able to return to Russia and work there freely without risking imprisonment. Some people seem to think I was happy to leave the country and live in exile – that’s not the case. I want my works to be sent to the Louvre exhibition officially, not through a back door.

My second request is much more important. I want Russian authorities to address and resolve the situation of my colleague Oleg Mavromatti. He was forced to go into exile after a performance 10 years ago in which he crucified himself, and now lives between Bulgaria and New York City.

Three weeks ago, his passport expired. He went to the Russian consulate in Bulgaria to request a new one, but it was denied. He was told that he was considered a fugitive from justice and that he had to return to Russia to face trial. Now he is faced with the choice of returning to Russia and possibly spending up to 5 years in jail, or living abroad as an illegal immigrant. This is unacceptable. Myself and several other artists have created an online community in support of Mavromatti.

"Even if the State allows my works to be exported to France, I refuse to take part in the exhibition until Mavromatti’s situation is resolved"

Even if the State allows my works to be exported to France, I refuse to take part in the exhibition until Mavromatti’s situation is resolved. [The State Centre of Modern Art, which owns Ter-Oganian’s works, may choose to ignore the artist’s demands and send his works to the Louvre in spite of them]. Mavromatti’s situation is much more important than my work, which can easily be censored, then allowed, then censored again. Mavromatti, on the other hand, faces jail: his life and liberty are at stake.

I’m not so naïve as to believe that if my demands are met it will change the censorship situation in Russia. But at least a man will be saved.

I understand that Louvre is in a difficult situation right now, and I don’t want to make things even harder for them. They bear absolutely no responsibility for the current situation. But I don't want Russia to boast OF its modern art abroad when Russian artists are persecuted at home. The Russian Culture ministry claims that Louvre visitors may be offended by my paintings and that the "reputation of the Louvre would suffer". This is nonsense. The French people are capable of deciding for themselves what shocks them or not. The Ministry would do better to think about its own reputation. "