New East Digital Archive

Gen Z’s Polina Osipova is reimagining Russia’s indigineous cultures for a digital age
22 October 2021

Polina Osipova is a Gen Z artist whose creativity truly flourished in the digital age. Based in St Petersburg, she first appeared on the radar of Russia’s creative scene several years ago after posting some of her creations online: intricate, witty, original headpieces, jewellery, and sculptures created from pearls and gemstones. Osipova has since gained a sizeable international following, as well as collaborations with large fashion brands like Gucci. But Osipova’s debut solo show, running from 27-30 October at London’s Hoxton Gallery delves far deeper. It digs into the artist’s dedication to native Chuvash culture, the discovery of her roots and the space she has created for a new generation to artistically engage with their heritage.

Born and raised in the Russian town of Cheboksary, Osipova belongs to the Chuvash people, an indigenous ethnic group with roots to the west of Russia’s Volga river. The Chuvash people are one of Russia’s many indigenous nations, which include the Tatar, Nenets, and Evenki people, to name just a few. The unique cultures of these groups are often overlooked by the Slavic-Russian mainstream, although that is something that younger Russians hope to change. Projects like Your Yool are dedicated to the contemporary interpretation of Tatar heritage, while beauty zine Agasshin spotlights Russians of colour across the board. Osipova is one of the most authentic artistic voices pushing for broader visibility of her culture. It is one of the reasons she was chosen as a winner of the cothinkers annual prize in 2021, an award dedicated to supporting emerging talent with a focus on female and non-binary artists from underrepresented backgrounds. Bringing her stories to the global audience in London is certainly a big step.

“All my family is Chuvash: very big and very tightly knit. I’ve been spending time at my grandmother’s village since childhood. There are about 25 houses, and half of these houses belong to our relatives. Everybody knows each other. My cousins have always been more like siblings,” Osipova remembers.

Growing up so close to nature also had a powerful impact. Its uncontrollable power and mysticism are a big part of Osipova’s world, alongside symbolic creatures from the wilderness like wolves and Chuvash forest spirits. “Chuvashia, like many places in the middle of Russia, is all endless fields and endless skies. You can feel an immense power of nature, its mystical grip. When you’re standing in the middle of a field with no phone signal, you can really sense the presence of something bigger than yourself,” the artist says.

The same sense of belonging to a wider whole has also seen Osipova combing through her family’s photo albums, finding hundreds of photographs to be used in her art. The photographs have become tear-shaped body jewellery, gentle paper butterflies, and the basis for a large sculptural piece which resembles medieval body armour. The armour is covered with fragments of photographs that show Osipova’s female family members framed in pearls — an ode to her Chuvash lineage. It also refers back to the legend of “Volga Amazons”, which portrayed Chuvash women as having unprecedented amounts of power among many ancient societies. This story, combined with the image of traditional Chuvash costumes — where women incorporate large amounts of armour-like silver coins into their dress — have become very important for Osipova. They are elements of storytelling in her own hybrid creative world, where crafts blend with technology, and history is intertwined with myth.

Embroidery is also crucial to the artist — not merely a tool, but a way to connect with her identity. She first learnt needlework as a child when her aunt gave her an embroidery kit — in Chuvashia, “every woman can embroider, it’s like breathing, it’s not even something we’re conscious of”, says Osipova. The artist has created pieces together with children from her village, reworked old family embroideries made by her grandmother, and collaborated with her mother to create new embroideries on vintage doilies. “Needlework for me is therapeutic, something I can do from morning to evening,” the artist says.

For Osipova, Chuvash culture has become a path to herself and something which motivates her tirelessly. But perhaps surprisingly, her journey to her heritage has not been linear. When Osipova left Chuvashia at 16 and moved to St Petersburg, she initially didn’t particularly want to engage with her heritage. It took several years for her to come back to her roots, and this sense of rediscovery shines through in her recent photographic work. She stands in the middle of the countryside with her siblings, wearing a sword and headdress adorned with paper hands, transforming the landscape around them into a playground where past and present, reality and fiction merge.

But her work also has a more serious side — the preservation of history. Osipova recalls with sadness how many things have been lost or discarded, including hand-woven textiles, looms, and original Chuvash costumes. “Learning the history of my family was a long and tricky process. With the help of my mother, I did a lot of work to track down all the textiles, embroideries and national costumes which still existed,” she remembers. “These precious pieces of history are often treated like ordinary household objects – sometimes I would find things in sheds, in the mud. It’s not our fault – we were never taught to preserve and treasure our heritage”.

Through her work, Osipova creates new ways to engage with history creatively – a monumental work for a generation obsessed with newness in a country which is not used to reckoning with its past. It is a unique approach to creating a new type of storytelling, treasuring memory while looking ahead.

Cothinkers Annual Prize 2021: Spotlight Polina Osipova runs 27-30 October at Hoxton Gallery in London.