Maria Babikova documents the drag scene of Novosibirsk, exploring fear and joy in Russia

“Joy itself becomes a form of repression,” Maria describes, “there are moments of freedom in the constructed safe space, but they can only be obtained and permitted behind the masks of beauty and entertainment.”

18 September 2020


It was while she was working in New York, as a model at the time, that Maria Babikova first came to photography. “A friend told me there was a big show of Francis Bacon in the Met Museum,” she recalls. “I went there and it completely blew me away, there I realised that I had no interest in what I was doing at that moment, it was purely to get away from the place I grew up and make money. I don’t think I have ever had anything impact me in that way before.”

The place Maria grew up was Chelyabinsk, a small industrial town in the Ural Mountains in Russia. When Maria was a child there, in the 90s, “there was not much emphasis on the arts as a career or even as an interest,” she tells us, so before that Francis Bacon show, she had simply never considered a career in the creative world. Today, she operates a research-based practice across photography and film with a focus on “the social systems of order and control,” while exploring “wider themes of identity, gender, fear and boundaries”.

One such project which Maria reached out to us with, and which wholly embodies these themes is Systems of Order, a series which focuses on the drag scene in Novosibirsk (a city in central Siberia) and examines the hidden relationship between fear and joy – “something that is deeply embedded within the Russian condition,” she tells us. It’s a fascinating insight into a little-seen community but beyond purely documentation, Systems of Order is a multilayered exploration of societal codes and boundaries.

The project began in 2018, when Maria was surfing VK (the Russian version of Facebook) and stumbled upon a group dedicated to Russian drag queen. Upon investigation to the work, Maria discovered that, in this world of joy, “there is a darker reality and often the truth must be hidden in this world and ‘joy’ can only be expressed through beauty – one has to place him/herself within the system. That, in a lot of cases, is based on oppression and boundaries.”

GalleryMaria Babikov: Systems of Order (Copyright © Maria Babikova, 2019)

Drag becomes the perfect vehicle to explore these contradictions; of oppression and exhibition, and the relationship between the two. “Joy itself becomes a form of repression,” she describes, “there are moments of freedom in the constructed safe space, but they can only be obtained and permitted behind the masks of beauty and entertainment.” She continues: “I saw a community happy with the ability to perform their art, but trapped by the reality that this form is the only place where they can touch on their true self. In the country, unsure of its own reality and fearful to discover the boundaries, many struggle to be themselves.”

In turn, the series is less about unfiltered freedom of expression and more about the boxes within which we, or society, allows us to express ourselves. It’s a nuanced and complicated issue, particularly in the context of Russia, a country which has undergone significant change in its recent history. While these changes have affected its economy and geographical makeup, it has also affected its collective morality, and it’s within this new morality that communities such as the Novosibirsk drag community is attempting to operate.

“My works are often influenced by my context – my relationship to place and where I am in the world,” Maria explains as a side to this idea. “I was born in the Soviet Union – the country that no longer exists. Since an early age, I was pushed into a highly competitive world of rhythmic gymnastics and later into an even more competitive world of modelling. These experiences underpin the relationship I am interested – the themes of beauty, fear and rejection.”

Systems of Order is the first part of a larger body of work that Maria aims to do, exploring different systems of control and order within society. “After the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia was left without a new system of values, but an assortment of different, often opposing ideas and identities,” she explains. “This project attempts to look at those identities, systems of order and operation within society now and the way they have been manipulated and morphed by власть (‘power’)/government in modern Russia.”

Beyond this body of work, Maria is also working on two other projects: one in the her hometown, “a photo residency, for the lack of a better word,” she says. “ I was working on a film project there for two years and I got excited about the possibility of showing work there in large new scale forms, that will be accessible for everyone.” The second project is “In recent years, I have felt that a lot of questions or ideas were hard for me to express through traditional or singular art forms, therefore I started the website as an online notebook and map for my thoughts about immigration, the European identity, the perceived idea of an ideal western world in the eyes of an eastern European (?) foreigner – i.e me,” she says. Once again, it’s a project which displays Maria’s research-led approach to creativity, and the compelling concepts which arise as result.

GalleryMaria Babikov: Systems of Order (Copyright © Maria Babikova, 2019)

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Maria Babikov: Systems of Order (Copyright © Maria Babikova, 2019)

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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