A Dark Place with Kalmyk artist Valeria Nokhaeva7 min read

 In Culture, Interview, Russia
Lossi 36 sits down with artist Valeria Nokhaeva. Nokhaeva’s work was recently part of the exhibit, Mu, which was on view October 3rd to 5th at the Amur-Sanan National Library in Elista, the very first contemporary art exhibition in the small Russian republic. Nokhaeva opens up about mental health, psychotherapy, and the stigma around therapy. This is just one of the series of conversations with artists in our new exhibit, Kalmyk Contemporary

What is your background and art training?

I graduated from the art school named after Rokchinsky in Elista. My period of study at art school was wonderful. It so happened that I studied with loving people. We always had a warm atmosphere that motivated us to come to school and draw. Тhanks a lot to the teachers from this school, I graduated knowing a lot. Sometimes I go back to visit old professors and see my old studio and classrooms, and I have nostalgia for the best times.

Toxic. Markers, pencils, pencils. 210×148 mm.

I was born and raised in Elista. Elista is beautiful in its own way. There is its own atmosphere of a quiet life. Life here makes it apparent that the steppe surrounds the city: it is calm, smooth and seemingly the same, and unremarkable, but the more you look at the steppe, the more you understand it and see beauty in it. For a while, my friends and I thought that living in Elista was boring and we needed to go to a big city, but the older we got, the more we realized our love for this place.

I live with my mom, and my sister lives and works in St. Petersburg. We also have a fairly large family: I have many wonderful aunts and uncles and cool cousins. Literally every month we celebrate someone’s birthday so there’s always excitement in a big family.

Apocalypse. Black Ink and marker, 210×148 mm.

Even with such an inspiring story, your work typically takes on a dark, apocalyptic tone with blood-like splashes of red. Why is that?

All these drawings are an integral part of my story. And knowing this story changes the point of view of all the drawings. They make more sense and they are the chain of this narrative. 

It all started with the fact that the 11th grade was very difficult for me because I confidently thought that if I did not decide on a specialty, then I would never achieve anything and that I wouldn’t become someone. But this, of course, is wrong. And it so happened that all the traumatic events of my life, combined with my personal conflicts, gave rise to a certain package of negative feelings: I felt fear, anger towards myself, envy, anxiety, sadness. And it went on every day. Because of the overload of such emotions, after half a year something terrible began to happen to me: it was as if I was losing my mind. It was hard for me to think and I was like a two-legged impotence that dragged its heavy body to school and home. 

One day I noticed that all I could think about was thoughts of self-destruction in various ways. I was afraid that others wouldn’t understand me, but I couldn’t live like this anymore. I came to my mom and cried, apologized, and said that I wanted to die and I needed help. My mom took me by the hand and took me to a psychologist. So my path of treatment began. I was diagnosed with a severe form of depression, a clinical psychologist and a psychotherapist worked with me. Psychotherapy and medication helped me a lot, it became much easier for me to think, now I know what I want and I continue to live, realizing how interesting life is. It was during this period that these drawings were drawn, they convey all the emotions that I was experiencing at that time. 

I’m no longer in psychotherapy, as I was before. There’s no need for that anymore. Now I am fully alive and trying to cope with problems thanks to the recommendations that my doctor gave me. I’m pumping the skill of independence!

More and more often, my friends and acquaintances who need psychotherapy turn to me, and seek advice on finding a psychologist. I fully support them and try to convey that it is not shameful and that it’s normal to go to a psychologist. The main thing is you are comfortable and find comfort in your well-being. I am always happy to help everyone, especially since I understand how terrible it is to be afraid of being misunderstood and how important the topic of mental health is.

Psychosis. Marker, 210×148 mm.

Themes of despair are apparent in your work, as well as glimpses of redemption. What narrative do you hope viewers take away?

I purposefully chose the works that would be a part of the Mu exhibition, knowing it would be the first time I would be able to tell my story. It was a kind of “recognition” to myself and others to not be ashamed. Before that, I kept the fact of my illness a secret. 

N. and K. Illustration. Marker, pencil, 210×297 mm.

I told one story that is connected with the painting N. and K. This happened to my friend, so I asked her permission in advance, she even came to the opening of the exhibition for this. This is a very sad story that happened just when I was undergoing treatment and it affected me very much. I rehearsed a lot for my speech, but it so happened that when I was in the spotlight, I cried from how important it was for me and this whole hard way was not easy, but it taught me a lot. I was very afraid that no one would understand my drawings or my story, but it turned out not to be so. After my speech, many people came up to me who wanted to thank me and hug me, some told similar stories. And I was so pleased with this unity that all this time I felt lonely, but it’s not like that. 

Two series of my paintings: Neurosis and Acceptance were also presented at the exhibition. I wanted people to understand the importance of mental health and I think I managed to convey this to the audience.

I’m not ready to talk openly about the traumatic experiences in my life that led me to seek help through psychotherapy. Each event has a lot of details and nuance; these are separate stories that I don’t think I’m ready to tell boldly yet. If I just list them, it will be pointless and it will look like I am a victim, and someone is a bad person, but this is not the case. I do not justify these people, but I do not want them to be accused of something, especially since some have already been punished: it was either mental remorse or criminal punishment, but these are separate stories.

Durak. Pencil. 210×148 mm.

Your works that contain the word durak [fool] is a recurring motif. What is the significance of this word in your life?

“Durak” translates as “fool”. In Russian, this word sounds fun, but it’s very insulting, depending on what kind of subtext to speak. And my subtext was sad and desperate. In fact, this work is my self-portrait for that period. I felt insignificant, stupid, and like a nobody. I got this drawing after my exam preparation class. In Russia, it is mandatory for admission. And since during my depression it was very difficult for me to think, do ordinary things and study became torture for me. I was ashamed that I couldn’t study properly and that I wasn’t motivated, so I called myself a “fool”. It’s a feeling from that period, it’s self-hatred and accusation.

What is a typical day like for you?

Now I have a gap year, I have been treated and am trying to maintain my mental health. I worked in film production, which I really liked, and am now writing various scripts. Now the preparation for the projects is underway. 

As for other creative opportunities, I think about where to go, what I want, and a lot of thoughts about who I want to be. And I think I’ve already found the answer! Now I draw my inner world less, I want to draw portraits of other people and nature more.

You can follow Valeria Nokhaeva’s work on Instagram here and view Lossi 36’s virtual exhibit Kalmyk Contemporary.

Featured image: Valeria Nokhaeva / Katherine Leung
Recommended Posts