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Cothinkers: Polina Osipova
Courtesy of Polina Osipova

Polina Osipova is forging armour for the Chuvash warrior women of her past

The Gucci-approved, multidisciplinary Russian artist is staging her first exhibition at Hoxton Gallery

Being an artist today involves being an architect of your own universe online and offline. It’s not just making things, but also telling your stories, honouring your background, and finding a way to project your voice in the loud global chorus of creativity. Doing just this is Russia-based Chuvash artist Polina Osipova, whose unique approach combines heritage, craft, and vibrant vision. 

Based in St Petersburg, Polina Osipova is a perfect combination of a maker and a digital storyteller. Her pieces are often wearable objects, inseparable from the artist: headpieces adorned with pearls, embroideries and silver coins; body jewellery featuring photos from her family archives; miniature sculptures of wire and seashells which become extensions of your fingers.

The things she makes are part of her identity, but also artefacts to travel across time and space – from the rural wilderness of Russia, to the depths of mystical forests, to the small bedroom in which she works. By reinterpreting Chuvash traditions and stories and combining them with contemporary pop cultural references, Osipova transports her audiences inside her world through her immersive storytelling.

Now, Osipova has kicked off her first ever international exhibition, after winning the Cothinkers Annual Prize earlier this year. Taking place at East London’s Hoxton Gallery, two floors of photography, sculptures, headpieces, moving image, symbolism, and text reflect the artist’s world in a uniquely creative way. Like many Gen Z artists, Osipova is usually her own curator, set designer, and producer, and as much as the confines of a gallery can feel inspiring, collaborative, and exciting, artists now thrive on the idea that anything and everything can be an exhibition space. 

“Like a lot of teenagers who felt like black sheep and grew up in small towns all over Russia, I found the freedom to express myself on social media,” she explains. On the Instagram page she’s been using to highlight her work since 2014, Osipova can be seen interacting with the pieces she makes: trying on armour decorated with photos framed in pearls, or posing with an enormous silver, sparkly sword in the middle of wide rural fields.

The artist didn’t always find magic in the mundanity of everyday life and the traditions passed down by her elders. Growing up in Russia’s republic of Chuvashia, west of the Volga river, Osipova spent a lot of time in nature in her grandmother’s small village. It’s here that she learned a lot of the crafts she exploys now, like embroidery and needlework, all of which are passed down the generations among Chuvash women. 

As a teenager, she longed to escape her roots and set up home in the city, which she did at 16 years old in St Petersburg. Soon, however, her history caught up with her, as she turned to the skills she learnt as a child to anchor herself in her turbulent new urban life. “I started doing art to find peace and calm and come out of a depressive period,” she explains. “Since I started back then, I haven’t stopped. The process is important for me, it’s like meditation. Showing my work is a way of documentation – it’s like a past mark and also a beginning of a new work,” she adds. 

“I am very honest in what I share. I try to use my platform to teach people that Russia is not simply a slavic country – there are more than 180 ethnicities with their own native lands, languages, and traditions. I want to show how different our lives can be, even in the same country” – Polina Osipova

In recent years, Polina’s work has been snowballing across social media, resonating with followers around the world, and has even attracted the attention of major brands like Gucci. “I think the reason people respond to my work is because our world is so globalised,” the artist suggests. “I think people are generally attracted to honesty, and I am very honest in what I share. I also try to use my platform to teach people that Russia is not simply a slavic country – there are more than 180 ethnicities with their own native lands, languages, and traditions. I want to show how different our lives can be, even in the same country. In the future, I would love to collaborate with people who incorporate traditional crafts into their creative work in different places in the world.”

In her work, Polina merges various types of storytelling: fictional and documentary, archival and contemporary. Chuvash folktales from her childhood mix with paper cut-out cartoons she made herself, and stories of women from her family blend with legends of female warriors who are believed to have lived alongside the Volga river. Traditional costume also plays a big part: Chuvash national female attire includes a large amount of silver coins and full looks often weigh upwards of 30 kilograms.

In Polina’s works, authentic embroideries and garments are combined with more playful objects as she puts her own stamp on things. It makes for a compelling story about the complexity of Russian and Soviet history, and being indigenous under the weight of the dominant culture. At the same time, it’s also about the fact that history doesn’t always have to belong in the museum – about the possibility of reclaiming your story, in or outside the gallery walls. 

Cothinkers Annual Prize 2021: Spotlight Polina Osipova” runs on 27 — 30 October at Hoxton Gallery London, E2 7JN