Self Portrait during COVID-19

Natalia Jezova – From Vogue to Virus – Artists during Lockdown Series

in Art/Spotlight

I was born in the Soviet Union but my family roots are a mixture of Russian, Ukrainian, Jewish and Georgian. My early years coincided with the ‘Khrushchev Thaw’ in which two interconnected but different subcultures, jokingly referred to as the ‘physicists’ (those engaged in technical sciences) and the ‘lyricists’ (writers, philosophers, artists, theatre and film professionals). Whilst the latter argued that society would be “empty” without culture, the ‘physicists’ claimed that scientific knowledge must take priority. My mother was  a Doctor of Philosophy, whilst my was father involved in Technical Sciences so they were representatives of both. When I was five my parents moved between Moscow and Vilnius (my father was teaching in both cities) where our houses were full of scientists, writers, artists and film directors. My older brother and I always looked forward to these parties and listened breathlessly to verses by contemporary poets like Sergei Yesenin, Marina Tsvetaeva, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Robert Rozhdestvensky. There were often improvised performances, in which we children also took part.

Natalja Jezova at the In Vogue Fashion Festival, 1998

From 7 to 16 I attended a music school and an art school. My favourite lessons at music school were composition and improvisation. We created musical images and composed music for different characters. This helped me later in working with sound in my own films. After University, I worked in Vilnius, which was then part of the Soviet Union. I became a journalist and my articles, interviews and reports focussed on cultural events, including reviews of exhibitions and fashion events.   In 1991 the Soviet Union collapsed. Within 24 hours everybody became citizens of different states. My mother, sister and brother became Russian Federation citizens, whilst my daughter and I became Lithuanian citizens. Our initial euphoria was soon replaced by a much darker reality. Ethnic conflict ensued throughout the former Soviet Union; in Lithuania we saw the rise of anti-Semitism and nationalism. Every day the media featured stories that stoked hatred of Jews and Russians. Most Russian, Jewish schools were closed and, in a very short time, the majority of the Jews and Russians had left Lithuania. I was told that I would not be published anymore unless I changed my Russian surname, so I took the pseudonym Natalia de Fine, which translates in Russian to “до фени” (do not care). It was at this time, I started my investigation into the destiny of Jews in Lithuania during WWII. I was under constant surveillance; my phones were tapped, my house was repeatedly searched by the Lithuanian secret service, which confiscated my laptop and related documents so I decided to immigrate to the UK.  

Self Portrait, Memory & Landscape series 2020

Six months later, the Lithuanian government demanded my extradition. The extradition order lasted for ten years, during which time I lived under bail conditions in London – without the right to a passport or travel. I was confined to my home and required to sign in at a Police station every other day. In 2007, my mother, who was still living in Russia, became seriously ill and died. I sent a petition to the Queen, to Parliament and to the Home Office asking permission to attend my mum’s funeral, but was refused. At that time, I was painting 18 to 20 hours a day helping me find a way to heal. I decided to study again and began a Professional Doctorate in Fine Art at the University of East London.

All Animals Are Equal, but Some Animals are More Equal than Others, Lady with Ermine Series 2019

Over the last six years I have concentrated on my Professional Doctorate studies: writing the thesis, making films and photographic projects. My personal traumas and displacement lie behind most themes in my work. Collective memory is very often a tool of manipulation, so I show how the past is transmitted into the present, the kind of impact that it has on our current understanding of the world. I researched my family history, collecting photographs, documents, letters and objects that belonged to then, taking footage and recording sounds in places where my family lived. As an archaeologist, I take inspiration directly from these primary research materials.  Over the 20th century my family suffered the consequences of pogroms and revolution, the barbarism of the Civil and Second World wars, the breakup Yugoslavia and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Some members of my family were killed while others were forced to leave their homes and escape to different countries. In June 2020 I should have had my Professional Doctorate’ degree show…I am a person in a high risk Covid-19 category due to underlying health conditions: I have to stay at home for at least twelve weeks, so I try to be creative. I have a huge collection of vintage gas masks which I was planning to use for my “H-Hour” degree show, they are now part of my ‘Masquerade Spring/Summer 2020’ self-portrait collection.

Still Life with Flowers from My Garden, Artist during Lockdown series, 2020

It is very difficult not seeing my daughter, grandchildren and friends.  However, I am experienced in lockdown: A decade under the extradition order…and then, as now, I am trying to concentrate on creating new works, not leave any time for sadness. I am trying to be disciplined and to keep the same tempo during the Lockdown as before. For me, making art is always therapeutic. I cannot imagine life without it. I think artists are more resilient in difficult times. We see situations from a creative point of view. In a dramatically changing world there are still some constants, which accompany and help us survive in difficult times – Love, Art and Beauty. We produce works dealing with tragedy in a useful way, try to inform the world of our experience during disaster, ensure our stories are passed down to future generations. Most of us have been touched or moved by a work of art at sometime in our lives, this transformative experience is what Art is about. I think that every artist wants to transform society for the better – hopes that Art will allow us to transcend reality and reveal other ways of seeing, living and doing. Think how incredible and hopeful the “Seventh Symphony” performance by Dmitri Shostakovich was in the blockade of Leningrad in 1942…Unfortunately, due to the huge cuts in funding for the arts in the UK, artists are in a very difficult financial situation.

At Home, Artist during Lockdown Series, 2020

Writer, poet, working on expanded novel, making poetry with artists, putting work in unusual public places