Queer Studio and the Fight for LGBTQ+ Love: an interview with Victoria Naraxsa8 min read

 In Caucasus, Civil Society, Interview, Russia
In July last year, Tbilisi’s queer community was rocked by the far-right attack against pro-LGBTQ+ activists and journalists. But Tbilisi’s strong and fervent activist scene is fighting back against discrimination with an array of events organised by queer collectives across the city to fill your calendar this Pride Month. One such group is Queer Studio —  a collective made up of artists, activists and creatives who use artistic expression as a vehicle for LGBTQ+ activism.  I spoke with one of its founders —  Tbilisi-based filmmaker, director, activist and artist, Victoria Naraxsa —  to find out more about the upcoming Show Me Love 5.0 event organised by Queer Studio. Along the way, we discussed Victoria’s activism in the face of Russian repression and the empowering function of art within the LGBTQ+ community.

Speaking from the famed cultural hotspot Fabrika, Khabarovsk-born Victoria Naraxsa started by telling me about her own personal history of activism prior to the founding of Queer Studio in 2021. Beginning her career as a theatre director, Victoria later moved from her hometown in southeastern Russia to St Petersburg, where she was better able to pursue her art and activism. There, she worked as a choreographer, actress and director, collaborating with the likes of the Russian activist group, Pussy Riot

Victoria performs an improvised piece of performance art / Victoria Naraxsa

It was clear that during this time, Victoria’s mindset shifted from an unbridled sense of hope to a more realist, yet impassioned variety of activism. “When I left Khabarovsk… I thought that someday we would build a wonderful bright world. But now I realise that this is a war, no matter how trivial it may sound: good versus evil”, Victoria explains. “The struggle for a bright future, for some kind of future in general, is an eternal struggle”. 

Victoria later decided to pursue international opportunities, working on art-related events across Europe and the United States. In addition to her artistic projects, it was at this time that she also began to focus on more “socially useful” projects: “At that moment, I totally believed that we, as artists, as thinkers, as —  so to speak — civil society… We can change [our] reality”.

Victoria directed “Mother’s Shoes” —  a play which explored the real-life stories of drag artists in Russia / Victoria Naraxsa

In 2020, “Mother’s Shoes” was nominated for the Snob “Made in Russia” award / Victoria Naraxsa
The performance seeks to show drag as both a form of art and a way of life and showcased the talents of several Russian drag artists, including Nicky Jam, Sophie, Samantha KillBill, Miami, Canary, Vanilla Absolute, Frigida and Callista Black / Victoria Naraxsa
Russian repression

In January 2021, Victoria was detained alongside Pussy Riot’s Masha Alyokhina and Masha’s girlfriend, Lucy Stein, for attending a rally organised by Russian oppositional figure, Alexei Navalny. During her ten-day sentence in prison, she created sketches depicting her experience which she later made into a virtual prison diary and temporary exhibition for Untitled Gallery in Tbilisi. From that moment on, Victoria experienced what she described as “hellish” repression in her home country. 

However, the police reaction only further instilled in them that their cause was one worth fighting for. Victoria explained that as a consequence she was “more or less oppositionally thinking” by the end of the year. Yet, Victoria was quick to point out her reservations about being framed as “opposition” due to the complex connotations it raises. “Opposition… I do not like this word”, Victoria explains. “What exactly is the opposition? People, that want a healthy society? In a regime of tyranny, the opposition is just common sense, right?”.

Queer Studio is born

By spring that year, Queer Studio was born. Co-founded alongside Renat Davletgildeev (journalist and creative producer of Snob.ru), Alexander Sofeev (artist, photographer and Pussy Riot member) and Tim Bestsvet (spokesman for the Russian LGBT Network), Victoria and her fellow activists sought to use art to shine a light on issues facing queer people in Russia. Central to this was Show Me Love — a series of events showcasing artists from the LGBTQ+ community and creating a safe space for queer expression, all while raising money and awareness for LGBTQ+ causes.

In fact, the origins of Show Me Love can be found in Victoria’s arrest earlier that year. While Victoria and Lucy were released after their 10-day detention, Masha was further detained. Heartbroken by the forced separation of Lucy and Masha, Queer Studio created an event in solidarity with the vast numbers of queer couples who are forcibly separated or must hide their relationship on the basis of their sexuality: “It became… in principal in support of queer love”. 

Despite keeping the Moscow-based location of the event under close wraps, the first Show Me Love event was raided and completely shut down by the police. This had a deep impact on Queer Studio: “We lost everything really. I mean money and so on”. Unable to cover the incurred costs due to the abrupt closure, the collective turned to crowdsourcing efforts in order to keep the Show Me Love series from reaching a premature fate. But raising funds would not be enough: “By the end of the summer of last year, all, let’s say, “adequately-thinking” people were expelled from Russia one way or another”, Victoria notes in reference to the increased crackdown on dissent faced by journalists, activists and foreign organisations in Russia.

Only a few months after its formation, Queer Studio made the difficult decision to move its base from Russia to neighbouring Georgia due to increasing pressure from Russian forces. Working alongside Tbilisi-based activists, the collective put all their efforts into making Show Me Love 2.0 happen, this time in support of the Georgian queer community. For Victoria, it was very important that the event be held before the end of the year “to make it a symbol of the fact that no one is forgotten”.

In November 2021, Show Me Love 2.0 was held in Tbilisi at Cafe-Gallery and this time they did not need to keep the details so close to the chest. Quick to be the pessimist, I admit I let out a sigh when Victoria told me the police also arrived at the event. However, my pessimism was quickly turned on its head: “The police came to protect us. All night, near the establishment”. Reflecting on the success of Show Me Love 2.0, Victoria explained: “It became clear that it was necessary and it was important to do it in Georgia because… I wanted to regain the energy lost in Moscow.” Soon, it was followed by events three and four, held in Tbilisi and Berlin, respectively.

Show Me Love seeks to provide a safe space for queer communities to express themselves / Victoria Naraxsa.

As well as music and public discussions, Show Me Love incorporates experimental performance art pieces which explore the queer experience / Victoria Naraxsa

The joy of queer liberation / Victoria Naraxsa
Show Me Love 5.0 and the future of Queer Studio

Show Me Love 5.0: Support Ukraine is set to take place on June 8, setting off at 17:00 (GMT+4) and continuing into the early hours. With its return to Cafe-Gallery, one of the oldest nightclubs in Tbilisi, it promises to be a night of queer liberation and expression:It’s super exciting for me again in Tbilisi because [the event] is sort of clear now, but [this time] it is in support of Ukraine”. All proceeds raised by Queer Studio from the event will go towards charitable causes supporting Ukraine, with Ukrainian culture being a focal point of the celebration of queer love.

As for the structure of the event, there will be three sections: educational, cultural and ritual. “What we used to call ‘entertainment’, we now call ‘ritual’”, Victoria explains. “This is, in fact, the part that includes a public talk and DJ performances, because even these artists also want, and can, and should change the world for the better. In parallel, there is a market, an exhibition and tattoo artists. Then there is a concert, then a drag show.”

Attendees at the event are encouraged to dress as they want, including bright outfits, “crazy” make-up, Vyshyvanka and more / Victoria Naraxsa

Celebrating the joy of queer life / Victoria Naraxsa

When posed with the more abstract question of the importance of art in empowering queer communities, Victoria spoke with the kind of eloquence that only comes with a deep and genuine passion for the cause: “It is impossible to be just an artist or just a director. It seems to me that [art] is important… to instil in society an understanding that these are not some people hidden behind a fence.” Victoria adds, “Whoever you are, you can change something. No one is powerless and maybe somehow you can use art to convey this… To tell the stories of different people.”

Despite the success of the previous Show Me Love events, Queer Studio still faces difficulties. “We have no funding, unfortunately.” However, that is not to say Queer Studio lacks goals. “What we can do is highlight the problems, rethink the problems, break down the problems, raise money to solve the problems, get attention, and so on and so forth…” 

So, what of the future of Queer Studio? “We don’t have some big grandiose plan… Now it’s kind of hard to think about these plans. Therefore, we will look and think of ways to support Ukraine.” Victoria expressed her desire to work with LGBTQ+ from Ukraine in particular and her hope to unite queer people together through a form of art camps.

Ukrainian flag lifted at Show Me Love 4.0 event / Victoria Naraxsa

At the heart of its activism, Queer Studio has a fairly straightforward aim: “I just want LGBT [people] to have the right to love whoever they want and show that love how they want”. Combining avant-garde performances, sex-positive discussions and Tbilisi’s love of trance music, Queer Studio is giving LGBTQ+ folk a space to wholly express themselves without fear of judgement.

Show Me Love 5.0: Support Ukraine takes place on June 8 from 17:00 (GMT+4) at Cafe-Gallery, Tbilisi. Tickets cost 30 GEL (20 GEL for students).

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