The Eastern European Fetish

Olga K, Eastern Eve by Sasha Rudensky

Recent studies show that only 30% of artists represented by galleries are female. This statistic is troubling, given that women comprise 80% of BFA graduates, and 60% of MFA graduates. In this series, The Sisterhood aims to shed light on this staggering gender skew in the art world. We will be interviewing different female artists, in order to discuss the way they navigate gender, sexuality, religion, family, and politics in their life and work.

Photographer Sasha Rudenksy describes her latest project, Eastern Eve, as a self-portrait, one that meditates on the fantasies of the Eastern European woman. The fascinating part? There isn’t a single self-portrait in the series.

Since emigrating to the U.S. from Moscow at the age of nine, Rudensky has spent the last two decades traveling between her two homelands. She uses her photography as a means of personally investigating the contradictions and continuities of contemporary Russian culture. Though her work defies being labeled as “feminine,” it culls from a sensibility that is distinctly gentle and yet perverse, that seeks to make photographs that are repellent and attractive. They trade in generalities, but their details establish her voice — a statue of Stalin in a hallway, a wall of faded shampoo advertisements, the surprisingly limber legs of an eleven-year old rhythmic gymnast. Each picture becomes a question, a statement, a kind of rhythmic curiosity of light, color, and form that points to a history and a future that both feel unknown. Rudensky received her BFA in Photography from Yale in 2008 and is currently an Assistant Professor of Photography at Wesleyan University.

I talked with Sasha over the course of two afternoons about her experiences with sexism as an undergraduate, her thoughts on photography as a medium, and her latest series Eastern Eve.

Hannah Rubin: What drew you to making art?

Sasha Rudenksy: When I came to the United States [from Russia] at age eleven, I experienced an incredibly dramatic visual shift — the world looked entirely different. I didn’t speak English, and so I was reintroduced to this very new kind of world without the ability to verbally express myself. Photography gave me a way to speak, and a language that felt more efficient and personal.

When did you first become aware of yourself as a female artist and how did that effect you?

My undergraduate photography education was very much riding on my femaleness — my professor was pretty exclusively interested in female nude self-portraiture. I think my consciousness as an artist, and a female artist, came along with this dosage of discomfort and a sense that that aspect of womanhood needed to be pushed in order to do well as an artist.

While I never very openly rebelled against this, I think that the work that I’ve ended up doing has been so the opposite of anything that was cultivated in the classes that were taught. For my Senior thesis, I did black and white documentary work in Russia, and since then I’ve been pretty adamant about not having any kind of conscious femaleness be apart of what I shoot. But then again, you also can’t get away from yourself and who you are, and when I look back at the work I’ve made, it does feel like it came through a female perspective. Everyone has a starting point from which they want to think about their work, and for me it has always had more to do with my cultural Otherness, then about my gender. I’ve often been asked why my Jewish background hasn’t played more into my work, and I think there is a similar answer — being Russian already identified me as being an Other. That is the lens that I look through.

That brings me into your newest work, Eastern Eve. Can you tell me about this project?

I’ve been working on it this series of portraits for the past five years or so, kind of as a side project. The youngest model in the group is twelve and her name is Sasha and I think maybe it was when I photographed her that the idea gelled and came together. There is a kind of fetishistic fascination of Eastern European women: a very specific kind of prototype is conjured up. And in many ways, it isn’t completely mistaken. But in the reality, of course, it is so much more diverse. So I wanted to play with both of these ideas, and make pictures of women that are very confrontational, and contradictory to the stereotype, but not always. The title Eastern Eve plays on the generic woman notion: something that denotes a kind of every day, or a kind of Jane version of the Russian woman. But then that generality gets broken down by the specificity in each image. The specific skin, specific body type, specific haircut.

On a more personal level, this series is, in many ways, a projection of myself onto these women — looking at these women, at these lives that perhaps I was meant to lead. There is always this idea for me of what would have happened if I had stayed in Russia and grown up there. So, ultimately, it feels like a self-portraiture project.

Anya In A Fencing Mask, Eastern Eve by Sasha Rudensky

Do you feel at a disadvantage in the art world because you are a woman?

I think so; I mean, yes and no. My year in graduate school, there were six women and three men, and the two people that are enjoying the most prominent careers right now are certainly the two men. I have never experienced any overt sexism, but I do feel like a lot of it is internalized.

I have this perspective, from having grown up in Russia, that I’m still so grateful to live here where, at least, the problems are acknowledged. Nobody talks about it in Russian or Ukraine. If anything, an uppity women who pushes her way through, is seen as having some fundamental personal failure. The word feminist is still a really bad thing — it’s a woman who is unattractive and can never really be happy. I can’t even have those arguments anymore when I’m over there because it’s just a losing conversation.

Suicide Girl, Eastern Eve by Sasha Rudensky

What can we do as women to feel confident and empowered, in face of all this?

I struggle with this myself. I don’t know if I could be put in a position where I could really offer advice.

When I have these conversations with my husband, where I share my intimate worries and insecurities, he always says to me, “you know it’s because you’re a woman. A man would not be having this kind of internal crisis. And, if they are, it wouldn’t actually stop them.” I think there is definitely something about externalizing that anxiety and making it actually a limitation or something that stops you.

I think that certainly many prominent art schools could do a better job at having faculty that is more evenly balanced between men and women. There are so many of these “All Women” shows, and while I think they do something important, they are also part of the problem too, because then women artists feel like they have to be relegated to this space of being shown alongside other women artists, like that’s the theme of the work, or that’s the reason for the project. Clearly there is no issue in terms of the number of women that are applying to grad schools and getting into top grad programs, I think its just a matter of what happens afterwards.

It seems like creating community with other artists is the most important thing you can do.

Yes, absolutely. My father works in the sciences, and I see a similar phenomenon in that world. Where women make up the majority of graduate schools and then the numbers start to dwindle. It’s really hard to try to have a family and also be on the cutting edge of a very competitive field. I have this anxiety now, that I’m about to have a kid, that I shouldn’t even start having studio visits — even though the work is finally ready. I think that a lot of gallerists would hesitate to take someone on who is pregnant, because they would be concerned over how committed they will be able to be while they raise their family. Will they be able to get on a plane and fly to wherever and work on their next project? These very basic things derail you.

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