Face Masks and Language Loss: a conversation on dying cultures with Kalmyk contemporary artist Cheebaa6 min read

 In Culture, Interview, Russia
Lossi 36 sits down with Cheebaa, a photographer and painter in Kalmykia. Cheebaa’s work was recently part of an exhibit, Mu, which was on view from October 3rd to 5th at the Amur-Sanan National Library in Elista, the very first contemporary art exhibition in the small Russian republic. Cheebaa talks about his influences, Russian society, and the plight of contemporary Kalmyk culture. This is just one of the series of conversations with artists in our new exhibit, Kalmyk Contemporary.

Where are you based? What is your background in the arts?

I was born and raised in Kalmykia, lived here for 18 years, then moved to Moscow where I started learning arts. Because of the pandemic, I had to return to Kalmykia.

I first went to college and studied to be a dentist but I felt that it wasn’t my dream career. In my spare time, I learned how to draw. At the beginning it was watercolors – one Japanese Youtube channel Watercolor by Shibasaki inspired me to begin studying arts. At this time I was already developing my signature style – drawings featuring balaclavas. Then I found an underground association of artists, a social media group named AXYXY (Association of the Worst Artists). There were a lot of talented artists with their unique styles, one of them, in particular, inspired me a lot. His name is Sergey Kvatrix. Once I saw his paintings I said to myself: “This is what I want to do; it is so close to my soul.” Basically, all I did was self-education via Youtube videos, themed topics on the internet, and with lots of practice.

Tell us about your artist’s alter-ego, Cheebaa. 

My name is based on the slang word for marijuana. I heard it a lot in songs like Smokin’ Cheeba by Harlem Underground Band. I really like how it sounds, especially for a Russian native speaker – to me it sounds more cute and pleasant than something that is associated with slang. Plus I’m a fan of Sonny Chiba, so I thought why shouldn’t I be able to name myself like that. I added double “A” at the end so it would be easier to differentiate and to make it more symmetrical on paper. As time passed, this name almost fully replaced my real name and I found it more fitting to me.

As for the alter-ego, it is inspired by musicians like MF DOOM, Madlib, members of the Wu-Tang Clan. I’ve been listening to them since I was a kid, I loved the concept that they had various side projects (or alter-egos) that are varying from each other. Making different things via different names, wearing masks, creating images and characters that include constituents of yourself – this attracts me way too much. I think of it like it’s a check and balances system – one is for main projects, second is for others, third makes something different and all of them are connected.

Were you a street photographer first, then a painter – or vice-versa? 

Street photography was my main practice in Moscow, paintings were more of a hobby. After I returned back home, photography was my medium of choice because of the unique atmosphere of post-Soviet streets with a little bit of Asian flavor and a lot of Asian people. But to be honest, Elista is a small town, there’s not much to do with street photos so I concentrated on other art practices like drawing, 2D, and 3D animation, music, and street art.

Cheebaa. Self-portrait. 35×45 cm, stretched canvas, acrylic paint

What is the significance of the face mask in your self-portrait? Is this an allusion to Pussy Riot?

I really love Pussy Riot and Moscow-centered activism. They played a big role in my inspiration but not in this painting. It’s more of a personal story – it represents part of my ego.

A tired, sad, and desperate stare directed straight through the horizon. Lonely and melancholic, sometimes detached from reality, sometimes auto-aggressive. The Santa suit is meant to show the intention of the viewer to please every single person without any greed. The combination of the ski mask and the Santa suit is supposed to reflect part of myself taking or stealing someone’s sadness and offering them moments of happiness instead. The controversy of green calming background and traumas on the body reflects an unstable mood. The scars on the painting are copied from my body.

Caramel. Self-portrait. 30×40 cm, stretched canvas, acrylic paint.

Masks are a recurring motif in your paintings. Why is that?

To me, ski masks or balaclavas are something more than just a face mask. I make them, wear them, draw them, try to put them everywhere I can. It is the main object in my art. When someone puts a ski mask on their face I don’t think about the person, I only see the image. It depersonalizes but at the same time, creates new forms, characters and meanings as well. I’m trying to find new images through the reflection of various balaclavas.

Your paintings are dark and leave the viewer unsettled. What is the narrative you are sharing with the viewer?

Most of my paintings are a confession instead of preaching. So it’s a form of my reflection about my personal experiences, problems, or even moments of joy. On the other hand, some of my works deal with global or regional social issues. 

For example, We are people too shows average Russian prisoners and is a commentary on our penitentiary system. Prisoners in Russia are one of the most marginalized groups in society and don’t have rights. They are going through inhumane torture and most of them can’t live a normal life after prison. I have more projects on this topic, but they’re still in the works.

We are people too. 13×18 cm, canvas on cardboard, acrylic paint.

What is contemporary Kalmyk art, to you?

To me, the art scene in Kalmykia is like a toddler. A year ago there was no cooperation between contemporary artists of Kalmykia. And now, the community can talk, soon it’s going to be able to stand straight and I really hope that it will be self-sufficient. I have many beliefs in this but unfortunately, there is a huge issue – the enormous centralization of Russia. Everyone wants to live in Moscow, Saint-Petersburg, or even abroad, only a few would prefer to stay in Kalmykia and keep their tradition and values.

Your paintings seem to speak to a Russian audience, yet you are Kalmyk. What is the significance of the symbolism in your paintings?

I think it’s a problem with Kalmyk culture. Our culture is in stagnation, our language is literally dying. Most of the young generation can’t speak the Kalmyk language at all. Me too. And I think to myself, that if my native language was Kalmyk then I would be more inclined to do ethnic art, trying to preserve it or promote it. Even though my father and his relatives are very conservative and tradition-oriented, and he can freely speak the Kalmyk language, I’m not into it. It’s almost impossible to make something “ethnic” if you are not part of it. That’s why my paintings speak more to “Russians” as I feel part of the larger national identity, rather than my own regional ethnicity, at least for the time being. 

You can follow Cheebaa’s work on Instagram and view Lossi 36’s virtual exhibit, Kalmyk Contemporary

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