Art

Slava Mogutin hasn’t been home in ten years. Exiled from his native Russia in 1995 for his unapologetically gay views, activism and work, the last time he returned from his adopted New York home was in the early 2000s. Between 2000-04 Mogutin shot the series Lost Boys, a raw and triumphant body of work that has since become known for celebrating the energy and vitality of youth in the face of severe oppression.

Mogutin today speaks to us from Prague, where he is revisiting the series with an exhibition at Artwall Gallery in the Czech Republic’s capital. Titled Lost Boys: From Russia With Love, the project sees Mogutin’s works go on show outdoors as part of the city’s Pride celebrations.

The streets are a fitting environment for the images, many of which were shot candidly on the those of Russia during its Independence Day celebrations. Sadly, it’s also more topical than ever, considering Russia’s relatively new anti-gay legislation prohibiting “gay propaganda” and adoption of children by gay couples, policies that not only encourage but sanction homophobia.

Mogutin is today more vocal about these issues than ever, using his work to highlight the problems Russia’s post-Soviet generation face living in a climate of economic and political corruption – as well as those queer youth face on a social level, day to day, around the world. Collaborating with like-minded creatives from Shayne Oliver (the Hood By Air founder known for his vocal stance on queer issues and culture) to Gosha Rubchinskiy (the Russian photographer and fashion designer known for his representations of post-Soviet youth) his output is more prolific than ever.

Shooting punks, skinheads, ravers, homeless kids and hustlers, Mogutin captures those he sees on his travels, aiming to create work that represents this generation. The images that make up Lost Boys are a vibrant and chaotic snapshot of one such generation, as relevant now as they were when they were taken.

Tempe Nakiska: Can you tell us how the series Lost Boys came about? 
Slava Mogutin: It’s a series of portraits and nudes shot during my trips back to Russia some years after my exile. I was mostly shooting on the street, guerilla-style, documenting various youth subcultures and uniformed men. Sometimes I presented myself as an official photographer for a government newspaper in order to gain access to some official events, such as the Victory Day Parade or Independence Day celebration on the Red Square. That’s how I got all those great shots of the military men and cadets.

“The Lost Boys represent the new generation in the grip of unprecedented economic and political corruption and social decay in Russia.”

TN: Who are the boys you photographed for the series? What are their stories and hardships?
SM: The principle subjects for this series are my friends, or friends of friends. One of them, Anton, was my romantic interest and muse at that time and I took one trip back specifically to photograph him. I took many iconic portraits of him, including the one on the invite for my Prague show. But there are also many beautiful strangers in Lost Boys, from street hustlers to athletes, ravers, skinheads, punks and homeless kids, each of them representing different subcultures. Collectively they represent the new generation of the country in the grip of unprecedented economic and political corruption and social decay visible in any aspect of today’s Russia.

Slava Mogutin 'Snakeboy' 2004. Courtesy the artist

TB: How did the Prague exhibition come about and why did it resonate with you to show the works outdoors?
SM: My work originated on the street and I’m happy to see it come full circle, back in the street domain. After being shown at galleries and museums around the world, it’s very gratifying to present an outdoor public project that breaks the institutional barriers between life and art, subject and audience.

TN: What kind of issues do you hope to confront with your work?
SM: My work celebrates diversity and nonconformism. My visual art is a continuation of my writings and queer activism. I tell stories of real people living on the fringes of our society—lost boys, beautiful losers, disaffected youth, vagabonds and dreamers who rebel against the system, against the mainstream and status quo. Over the last two decades, I’ve documented many urban tribes and subcultures all over the world and I came to believe that these outsiders and outcasts are the real heroes of our time.

“I’ve documented many urban tribes and subcultures all over the world and I came to believe that these outsiders and outcasts are the real heroes of our time.”

TN: What kind of experience do you think youth, and particularly gay youth, are having in post-Soviet Russia today?
SM: It’s not easy growing up under the autocratic dictatorship, especially being a gay youth. Unfortunately, since my exile over twenty years ago, the situation with gay rights and basic freedoms has been on a steady decline. With the recent introduction of the new anti-gay legislation prohibiting the so-called “gay propaganda” and adoption of children by gay couples, homophobia became the official Russian policy. There are countless videos and personal accounts on social media documenting horrific gay bashings all over the country, sometime with the cops watching passively or being actively involved in the harassment and violence against gay people. It’s sad to see such a beautiful country with such a rich culture resorting to such terrible crimes against its own citizens.

Slava Mogutin 'Ilya Boxing' 2001. Courtesy the artist

TN: You recently wrote an open letter to Mark Zuckerberg about social media and censoring of the gay community, what kind of experiences have pushed you to speak openly like this?
SM: I’ve been routinely censored over the course of my career first as a queer poet and journalist in Moscow, then as a photographer and multimedia artist in New York. The online censorship and bullying is a relatively new phenomenon that hasn’t been addressed properly. In recent years, especially after the unfortunate acquisition of Instagram by Facebook, the censorship has soared, targeting in many cases queer art and imagery that is not pornographic or offensive in any way. I know many queer artists in my community who became the victims of online censorship and bullying. After several recent cases of my images being removed by Instagram and Facebook and my Facebook profile being suspended altogether without any due process or notice, I decided that enough is enough and we must have an open and civilised debate about online censorship. We must fight back against these draconian corporate policies that undermine our fundamental rights and freedoms and threatens our community in more ways than one.

TN: How would you describe your relationship with Russia today?
SM: It’s a love-hate relationship. Regardless of all the bad things that forced me to leave my country, I took some of my best pictures there and did my best work as a writer, including seven books of poetry, fiction, and journalism. I still have a following amongst the younger generation of Russians who grew up on my writings. Nostalgia aside, I haven’t been back there in over ten years and I have no desire to endorse Putin’s corrupt regime in any shape or form. It’s sad that Russia came out of one oppressive system only to be forced into another, equally oppressive system in such a short period of time.

TN: What projects do you have coming up? You are working with Gosha Rubchinskiy?
SM: Gosha is an old friend of mine and we’ve been thinking about doing a project together for quite sometime now. I think what he’s doing in Russia is quite brave and unique and I support and admire his work. The project we’re doing combines art, fashion and queer activism and you’ll be hearing more about it very soon.

‘Lost Boys: From Russia With Love’ by Slava Mogutin opens today, 11th August and runs until 30th September at Artwall Gallery, Nábřeží Kapitána Jaroše 1000/7, Holešovice, 170 00 Praha, Czech Republic