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Pussy Riot’s Maria Alyokhina – The Personal is Political

Photo by Albert Wiking, We have A Dream

Political artist, activist and protestor Maria ‘Masha’ Alyokhina has always been something of a Riot Grrl. From refusing Soviet style cookery lessons at school, to screaming anti Putin anthems with punk rock band Pussy Riot, to becoming a political prisoner – Alyokhina’s life is an evolving manifesto, a continuing prod at those in power.

Her new show RIOT DAYS arrives at the Islington Assembly Hall on 17th November. RIOT DAYS is a retelling of Pussy Riot’s 2012 performance in a Moscow cathedral and the prison sentence that Alyokhina served as a result.

Using spoken word, video footage and an experimental soundtrack, the show combines Alyokinas story. Proving the personal is always political.

Rhiannon Styles: How and when did you begin to question the systems of power surrounding you?
Maria Alyokhina:
I think it started when I was at school. In Russia we have a school system that we copy in many places from the Soviet time. During the Soviet period there was a huge censorship on free speech, so I started to protest against it. Somehow I understood that my teachers cannot explain their own rules and they hate questions, and I found it very strange.

Rhiannon: Can you give an example?
Maria:
When I was aged eleven we had so called ‘labour’ lessons. The teachers put me in a class with only girls and started to teach me how to stew things for hotpots in the kitchen. When I asked why we needed to use these things when we have hundreds of supermarkets, they didn’t answer me. They just said I need to learn this lesson, but I continued to say 'No'.

Rhiannon: Were you frequently getting into trouble?
Maria:
Yes, they called me into the director’s office and he said I’m a bad student. In many ways I’m still this girl from school. Authority is everywhere, it doesn’t matter if it’s a school teacher, a president or a prison guard. There is no leader who will come and solve every situation. Every person who is taking power has a responsibility to have answers for the actions they are doing. Power is a responsibility.

Rhiannon: When did you discover the power in political art?
Maria:
The first time I discovered political art was when I was in the institute (university). I had a friend from my course who showed me one action from a contemporary art group in Moscow, and that was really something for me. Before that, I was an activist with experience in organising demonstrations, writing statements and protesting on classical matters. When I saw this action for the first time, I was very excited and I decided that I wanted to know more, and after one year I knew.



Rhiannon: What was the action?
Maria:
One day my friend and Pussy Riot member Anastasia called me and asked for access to a roof in Moscow – because she knew I had access to it. After that protest she asked me to film her group performing a song in the middle of a court trial. This was a court trial against two art curators for the exhibition called ‘Warning Religion’. I’d never heard about political trials with art curators before and I was quite surprised that it exists. After that I was invited to join Pussy Riot.

Rhiannon: Was Pussy Riot the combination of action, art and politics that you wanted?
Maria:
I always questioned why art in Russia is so separated from politics. We have a political opposition, we have political activists, we have people with political position and at the same time we have artists who are totally out of these topics. I was in the poetic circle for three years, and when I started to talk about politics there - it seemed quite far from them. One of my dreams was to combine art and politics and Pussy Riot is the result of that.

Rhiannon: Was adapting your book Riot Days into a piece of theatre always something you envisaged?
Maria:
No, actually it’s not a classical theatre piece. This is our work, our manifesto, and we are using theatre to translate that. The book is one form and the show is another. I believe that we should use all the platforms that we have to speak out.



Rhiannon: How does it feel performing in RIOT DAYS and re-living that period of your life onstage? Can you describe the emotions you feel?
Maria:
Well, I’m not alone when I’m doing that, I’m together with the audience and I feel how they receive it. Parts of the words and music are staying with them, and that’s what I feel.

My very good Anastasia is also in the RIOT DAYS show - we have been friends for nine years, ever since the first class of school, she was also part of the Voina (“War”) Group - the pre Pussy Riot contemporary art group.

Rhiannon: Speaking of Anastasia, how do Asian Women on the Telephone (AWOTT) contribute to the piece, how does music work within the show?
Maria: AWOTT is Anastasia and her partner Maxim. When I was writing the book I was living in their apartment and we decided to create something together. In the apartment we recorded all the songs for the show. The songs are of Pussy Riot and Anastasia is singing.

Rhiannon: Why did you choose the director Yury Muravitsky for this show?
Maria:
Yury is from the one independent political theatre from Moscow which everybody knows - he has been working on political theatre for years. The first time I met him I gave him the book to read and asked him what he thought about that, and he said ‘this is a manifesto’ and I thought this is the right guy. Very simple, I’m not a complicated person.

Rhiannon: Do you enjoy the organisation and structure of theatre performances in contrast to guerrilla, protest performance art?
Maria:
We actually don’t have a final version, one show is always different from another, it’s always changing because it’s a life organism, and it’s low-fi. I think manifesto’s can be translated into any language of art, and again this is not final, this is just one of the steps. I’m very bad at finals, I’m always in the process.

Rhiannon: Are you hoping that RIOT DAYS will unite and build a community of more political artists?
Maria:
The reason why we are doing it is very simple, because we want to see more political art now in the western world, because of the political situations, because of the conservative direction we see in western politics. We believe that we should unite now and this is our small part of building this community.

In March we toured RIOT DAYS around America in eight totally different cities with totally different audiences. I was worried about how the show would be received because of some of the language and words and so on. However, I was so surprised after the show when people came and spoke to me saying they totally understood everything. They said that we need to do something as well. And this is the answer I need more than anything.

‘The personal is political’ - all global things that we are aware of, they come from our own experience and I think my story is not unique at this point. RIOT DAYS is for saying one simple thing: every single person has a voice and everybody should use it.

Maria Alyokhina @all_mary
Pussy Riot @pussyrrriot

Pussy Riot Theatre: Riot Days
Friday 17 November 2017, 20:00
Islington Assembly Hall
Info and tickets from barbican.org.uk

Suitable for ages 18+ only
Produced by the Barbican and Art Riot
Supported by the Tsukanov Family Foundation

Riot Days’ by Maria Alyokhina, Published 14th September 2017 by Penguin. Read an extract here. Available in all good independent book shops.