‘Free Pussy Riot Tokyo’: Japan-based artists gather to raise consciousness, funds for jailed Russian duo

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(Originally published on Ten Thousand Things blog, November 9, 2012)

With calls mounting around the globe to release the two jailed members of the Russian feminist punk band “Pussy Riot”, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova (“Nadya”) and Maria Alyokhina (“Masha”), Tokyo joined the list of numerous cities worldwide hosting ‘Free Pussy Riot” events, protests and actions.

Drawing inspiration from the earlier traditions of British punk and USA Riot Grrrls, the group gained fame both locally and internationally for its edgy performances aimed at increasing awareness of issues such as feminism and gay rights, as well as protesting Russian President Vladimir Putin. The women drew fire from Russian authorities earlier this year, however, for a performance given by four group members on February 21, 2012 at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow, donned in their usual balaclava head coverings, where they denounced collusion between the country’s government and the Russian Orthodox Church.

Last Sunday’s event, held at the Tokyo Salon event space in the city’s artsy neighborhood of Aoyama, featured a lineup of performances and panel discussions including local bands, writers, and various other artists. All proceeds from the evening’s sales of tickets and ‘Free Pussy Riot” goods were slated to cover the two jailed women’s ongoing legal expenses, and event-goers were also encouraged to pen messages of support, similarly to be sent directly to their lawyers.

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The first panel discussion included Andrey Bold, editor of the contemporary art online magazine Gadabout, together with three members of the artist collective known as Chim↑Pom. Bold, who is Russian himself, began the talk by explaining that most of the country’s artists strive to please the government and other rich funders, with protests nearly nonexistent. He also said that because the church had rushed in to fill the vacuum left by the fall of Communism, any offenses against the church essentially now constituted protests against the government—meaning that the Pussy Riot members, in the eyes of the country’s power elite, had committed the worst possible double-offense. “They had to have known exactly what they were getting themselves into,” he commented.

Ryuta Ushiro, the leader of the Chim↑Pom collective, began his talk by stating that he actually felt great empathy for the jailed band members, as he and other members of his group had also been the subject of a criminal police investigation following their “defacing” of a mural by famous artist Taro Okamoto in April 2011 inside Tokyo’s busy Shibuya station. Titled “Myth of Tomorrow”, the mural served as a statement on nuclear issues by depicting the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Daigo Fukuryumaru** incident, to which Chim↑Pom added a piece titled Level 7—its statement regarding the Fukushima nuclear accident, which featured images of the still-smoldering reactors.

While some may criticize Ushiro for attempting to draw parallels with two individuals who now sit inside freezing Siberian prisons, the fact is undeniable that Chim↑Pom does echo Pussy Riot in terms of its subversive art that is deeply critical of the state. On April 11, 2011, exactly one month following the nuclear disaster, he and another band member parked their car near the Fukushima Daiichi reactor and walked 40 minutes up to a nearby lookout spot, where they unfurled a flag and then proceeded to spray-paint it with what first appeared to be the symbol of the Japanese national flag—which then turned into the radiation warning symbol.

The video, titled “Real Times”, is a powerful juxtaposition between what seems like a walk through the forest on a lovely day–belied by the eerily haunting reality of nuclear meltdown. It may be viewed here.

This was followed by a second talk session, including panelists Hiroko Okada, a contemporary artist concerned with women’s issues; Yoshitaka Mori, a professor of art and sociology and pioneer of cultural studies; and Wataru Tsurumi, a writer whose works have focused on controversial social issues including suicide, prison, drugs and anti-capitalism.

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While each offered different commentary based upon their different life experiences, there was indeed a common thread: the need for devising completely new social and economic structures and speaking truth to power by challenging the existing status quo—something that Nadya and Masha’s continued detention demands that we continue doing in our respective locales around the globe.

*name of a Japanese tuna fishing boat that was enveloped in a cloud of radiation fallout from U.S. a nuclear test on Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean in 1954

–Kimberly Hughes

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