Challenging stereotypes, subverting cultural lore, and encouraging diversity, photographer and artist Uldus Bakhtiozina blends history and myth with the beautiful and the haunting.
Uldus was born in 1986 in Leningrad, USSR, a city and country that by name no longer exist. She was a toddler when the Berlin Wall fell, when Leningrad became St. Petersburg (again), when the Soviet Union became Russia, and when a culture and people embarked on a massive effort to change their internal ways and their external image. Uldus was born to a Muslim father, a Christian mother, and grew up with a Jewish stepsister. She eventually left for university in London and traveled abroad in southeast Asia. All of this is to say that she has had an inspired and curious upbringing.
Now, at thirty-one years of age, she is the first Russian-speaker to give a TED talk, has seen her works exhibited around the world, and in 2014 was named one of the Top 100 Women by BBC.
While most recently she has an exhibition called The Circus 17 that deals with politics in general and the Russian revolutions of 1917 in particular, she received significant attention in 2016 with a collection of work called Conjured Life. The book most notably features series that attempt to blend the mythical and cultural lore of her homeland with that of modern life.
Not surprisingly, the legends with which Uldus grew up have their western and English parallels, with the names and minor details changed. As well, these original pagan stories meant for adults were later transformed and made palatable for children. Lastly, such stories were built upon old ideas of masculinity and femininity.
Not in her work.
Uldus’ notable photographs over the past few years play with such fairy tales, both mythical and modern. Uldus uses an analogue camera and does not digitally touch up her works, seeking a naturalistic look and the opportunity to search deeper to the soul of the work. Here are just a handful of brilliant photographs.
The Seven Knights and the Dead Tsarevna
This series is both modern and familiar: a young beauty lost to the world, unable to be saved by the work of seven men (Snow White, anyone?). In Dead Princess she is topless, pensive, and clutching a bright red apple. Adorned around her neck are pendants featuring the likenesses of her seven would-be saviours, but Uldus has reimagined them, too.
In another photograph, Seven Knights and Dead Tsarevna, her warriors are grown men, burly, bearded, but vulnerable and almost boyish. They are all eating apples, some looking determined, but others fearful. Some sport more feminine hairstyles, while all feature the kind of armour that is usually only relegated for action film stars — that is, sexy, revealing, and entirely impractical.
More importantly, though, like her other works, Snow White subverts traditionally held ideas of masculinity, blending it with the feminine, and trying to reframe the idea of heroes.
Tsarevna The Frog
Uldus explored Tsarevna The Frog (The Frog Princess) by staying nearly true to the original story, but with some clever changes. In the story, she is turned into a frog by her father, who resents her wisdom, but on brief occasions she is able to transform into a beauty beyond words. In Uldus’ work, she places the young beauty in water, trapped there by an emotionally and mentally deranged patriarch. It’s much easier to see a frog in the abyss than a woman.
The folktale also references Baba Yaga (not John Wick), as the ugly, demonic, hysterical witch she was widely known to be. Uldus instead imagines her as serene and wise, clad in white against a dreary backdrop. “I believe that all Baba Yagas were shamanic women who also had a connection with nature and with the supernatural,” explains Uldus.
The Russian Soul
While trying to dispel and alter archaic notions of gender, nobility, and age, Uldus also attempts to peer into the soul of Russians with this series of photographs. In a shot framed from her shoulders up, a young woman wears a mask and holds her gloved hands to her face, jewelry and other adornments littering her body. Made by Uldus, the outfit is highly detailed, meant to define the diversity of not just her own upbringing, but Russia itself. What’s more, the distortion is emblematic of myths and stereotypes outsiders have about Russia.
Pulling further back in another photo, Uldus reveals the woman as even more distorted, naked, a slab of meat covering one half of her chest. There is both beauty and the grotesque, the past and the present, and a history of misunderstanding and uncertainty within the photo.
Before Patty Jenkins gave her vision of the iconic female superhero, Uldus had a decidedly different take, featuring a woman donning some key Wonder Woman garb in a 2013 series called Desperate Romantics.
‘Wonder Maria,’ as she is dubbed, appears idealistic and proud, even though her surroundings indicate that she should be much more aware and practical. Maria and Her Illusion has the figure, adorned with a Wonder Woman bandana, holding a plastic baby in front of a fake tropical backdrop. In another image she stands proudly amidst crumbling buildings, while a bag with an American flag sits on the ground nearby. One more has Uldus’ super heroine scarfing down a giant cheeseburger.
Superman also shows up in Missing Supernatural — in a way. A hipster-type sits engrossed in the DC comic, while behind him a young woman is doing a headstand, coincidentally wearing a shirt with the iconic ‘S’ logo. You don’t have to spend thousands of dollars studying art history to figure out who the real Superman is here, or what Uldus has to say about gender roles and such superhero obsession in modern culture. After all, superheroes are more or less modern day fairy tales.
For what it’s worth, there are more superheroes (and stormtroopers!) in the series: the most blunt offering might be a shirtless man ironing a shirt while a blurry figurine sits in the foreground. Guess which superhero!
All images courtesy of the artist.