Fairy Tales, Feminism and Negotiating the 21st Century as an Artist

Hannah Harding talks to artist Masha Nova about her collages.

HH: I’d love to hear a bit more about you, what’s your story?

MN: When I think about it, it’s been quite a weird journey. I was born in Siberia, Russia, in a very tiny town. When I was a teenager, my parents had an opportunity to send me abroad to study at a boarding school. It was a little bit crazy at the time because it was 2007 and although it was common practice if you were from Moscow or St Petersburg, not a lot of Russians studied abroad.

I studied in Canada at Bishop Ridley College – I grew up a lot during that time and influenced a lot of my view on the world. Then I moved to England and did a foundation programme at the Cambridge School of Visual and Performing Arts. I loved Cambridge, and there’s so much history there. I was obsessed with Silvia Plath, and because she used to live there, I would walk around, write in my journal like every typical sad teenager. It was a fun year though, because I got to meet a lot of students from Cambridge. The whole community was so much fun because everybody studies so hard but everyone also parties hard!

Then I went to Milan and, weirdly enough, I studied Marketing and Communications. I guess that’s what happens – you pursue all the things that you think you’re talented or good at, and then at some point you need to get a Bachelor’s in business or marketing, and you suddenly become this different person. The arts industry is so tough, and I suppose the fashion industry too. I worked in fashion for a little while, as a copywriter and interning here and there, social media too – so I’ve done a lot of social media management!

HH: I came across your Instagram page and loved it – you’ve really established a presence on there. Do you feel like that space has influenced your art in any way?


MN: It has influenced the way I work. A lot of times when I sit down to work, I think maybe I should film a behind the scenes or is this the day that I don’t take my phone or any photos or is this going to be the work that I show everything from start to finish. It gets into your head: you’ll be in the middle of something and then think “ah! I didn’t take a photo.”

I wanted to write a post about why people don’t follow artists online, and I think it’s because we’re so boring – often only posting the final work. You might see a progress shot, some work from a studio and then a random picture of a dog and then there’s never any context. Suddenly we’re on vacation and there’s 10 stories of that, and then it’s like “check me out at this gallery!” But I think it’s interesting that every job now is part of social media.

HH: It is a whole new space to navigate, and you have to wrestle and experiment with how you chose to translate your own work from the page or canvas, to the digital. You want to take advantage of the new form, and it can become quite complicated.

Whereabouts do you get your inspiration from?

MN: I love art history and different concepts of womanhood. I got into feminism relatively late, I always liked it, but I was sort of scared of it. It wasn’t until after university when I started to do some research that I realised, “Oh! This is what it’s all about.” It inspires me a lot and I always like to put a female figure into my art, or into the story behind it: it’s always a girl. Females have the most fascinating stories, and they’re the most fascinating creatures.

There’s so much history of women in art and art by women, and I think I’m adding to the conversation pretty well! And there’s always room for discussion – I see how people react to my collages, especially online. Some laugh, some are weirded out, or some ask questions like “what is this!”, “this is not art”: there’s so much debate. My collages often promote a reaction even though I think it’s sort of peaceful, it is just a bunch of pieces of paper.

HH: Your subject matter – femininity, patriarchal standards – is so provoking. I enjoy the wording you used there: just a few pieces of paper, displayed in a considered way but those political undertones are really what allows for a reaction–

MN: I always love making room for discussion. I love when people go beyond ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’. You start thinking: Does this trigger something? Do I feel something more about it? I love when art turns on your critical thinking.

HH: I completely agree, and that leads well into my next question, which is about the two pieces you submitted for Refresh. I’d love if you could give us a little introduction to them.

MN: Glitter Beach Ken was part of an ongoing Barbie series I did. I would make a collage with a Barbie every day and it was like a challenge; whether I liked the work or not, I would post it online with a caption telling the story of the main figure. Barbie, to me, is sort of faceless. Barbie could be anyone, she could be anything. Glitter Beach Ken was part of this continual storytelling, and her tale is that she dumped Ken because she wanted to go to Mykonos or something. She was more serious, into sustainability and saving the planet, and he was very surface level and also very plastic. It is one of my favourite pieces, because I feel like it is so immediate, almost like pop art.

The other one, Snegurochka, is part of my winter series that I did this year. I was in Riga, Latvia, where my family is based right now, and there’s so much snow in winter that I knew I had to take advantage of! Because I was with my family, I was reminiscing a lot about my childhood, about Siberia and Russia, things I used to watch and read including these fairy tales where females were the main characters.

If you look at Russian Soviet fairy tale movies there are a lot of bad ass females but considering the society, they are looked at through this patriarchal gaze. They’re bad ass, but they’re not 2020 bad ass. So, I began wondering what it would look like if I put them in 2020, flip the script and make them even more rebellious. Fairy tales are digested by Christianity and if you look at the originals there’s more of a woman archetype than a complex character (e.g., sexual, leadership, etc.) and with the decline of Christianity we see how fairy tales have taken a turn away from this. Long story short, there was a lot of snow and I took photos in winter and make all these main characters on paper that were inspired by these Russian fairy tales.

HH: When I first looked at these pieces, I really noticed this action of taking the male gaze, and pushing it as far as it can, to the point at which it is reclaimed by the female subject. That feels like a powerful process.

MN: I think that happens in real life with women too. You sort of unpeel yourself from social constructs and boundaries as you grow older. There are a lot of things that we, as women, need to unlearn and nowadays is a great time to do that. If you look at yourself being a little girl, the things you’ve been taught or the things you’ve been told. Even when you were a teenager, maybe you have encountered beliefs like “you’re being a little bit too loud” or “you’re taking up a little bit too much space” – not said directly, but implied from school, your family, the people you trust the most. So then as you grow older you begin to unpeel yourself and challenge these thoughts, like asking myself do I want children, do I want to get this Bachelor’s in Marking and Communications, should I get a Masters?

HH: Yes! There’s also this process of battling our own internalised misogyny. That is something I’ve realised, especially in the past year with everything flipped upside down. Realising that I can very much be my own, whole person without needing to compare my journey or compete with the other women in my life. I can sense that tone of challenging what we were taught growing up through the familiar childhood references that you have made in these two pieces.

MN: You see a lot of this narrative in the media, and I do take inspiration from social media and in pop culture too. I see something, laugh, and digest it in a sarcastic way.

HH: How do you feel your style has developed since you started working with collage?

MN: A lot. I remember not paying attention to this medium at all. When I was studying in Cambridge, I’d do a lot of collages in my sketch book but never thought that that could be a thing on its own, the same goes for graphic design. I think a lack of knowledge of art history played a role. There’s some brilliant collage work by female artists out there, like Hannah Höch and Lorna Simpson. I looked toward art history and thought, “oh this is out there, and this is a serious medium.”

To begin with I discouraged myself. I remember when I started it was an exercise, and I would do a collage or two before my paintings to get into the groove. Later when I put energy, time, and research into it, it developed quite nicely.

HH: Into its own living, breathing entity.

MN: Yes – and I now do a lot of throwbacks on my Instagram account too. When I was back home, I filmed my old portfolio, and I could see the step forward. All artists evolve eventually, and I hope I’m much better than I used to be!

HH: Where do you see your style going in the future? Are there any new techniques that you want to try, new subject matter or themes you want to explore?

MN: I have always wanted to try performance art. I had a small project in the works before Covid. I figured that with digital media nowadays you could do a piece and film it, and leave it out there, let it have its own life. I wanted to connect that to my collages, maybe bring some of the pieces to life. But now I am working on another project – I started reading this book on the burning of witches in colonial England, which is fascinating. I mean it is mind blowing that at any point in time women were burned on a stake because they were maybe too pretty, or too sexual, or took leadership positions or were too loud… But the stories are real. You get this “he said” / “she said” and I think “oh, right, she just didn’t know her ‘place’.

I met a practicing witch in Riga, and she was visually mind blowing. I take photographs on my polaroid quite often for my collages, so I just took these photos of her thinking how much fun it would be to make that project happen. I don’t know where that would take me, but through taking photos of modern-day witches (because they’re out there!) I explore more of how women have evolved.

And, of course, collages, I’ll be doing them – as they’re sort of a part of me now. We’ll just have to see where Covid takes me! I feel like the whole pandemic has influenced art and artists a lot. I went to an interesting exhibition in Moscow about artists during Covid. All these contemporary works were about the pandemic and the things that didn’t happen because of it. I could really see the limitations felt by these artists.

HH: I guess what those exhibitions also do is show what can come from limitation. What is born from pressure and restriction, which is always fascinating to me. You get to see how much limitation you can be faced with whilst still creating something that is reflective of your practice or interests or self.

MN: I think limitation is a brilliant exercise for artists everywhere. We do this all the time: a 2-minute life drawing sketch, or a drawing with just one colour. We put limits onto ourselves often, to get the work to a final point, but the pandemic is sort of an outside force. It’s not like you chose the colour you’re going to paint with, so that sort of limit isn’t necessarily welcomed.

HH: The pen was put into our hands and we had no choice but to draw with it and see what we could make… or something like that! I think it’s an aspect of being part of the Refresh community that I’ve really enjoyed. Although not all the pieces were created during the pandemic, there are a significant number that were, and through the online gallery (https://www.refreshartaward.com/2021-gallery) you see an exhibition of resilience, you can sense that perseverance in a time of extreme collective hardship.

Was there anything in particular that drew you to Refresh?

MN: I think that online galleries in general are so much more fascinating right now, because we can’t go to real ones! Suddenly everyone is paying more attention to them. Artists also get the opportunity to write more, a whole artists statement even – where else in a gallery (unless it is a specific exhibition) are you going to see a whole bio?! Online galleries have also opened to international artists in a significant way, which is really liberating.

It is also nice being able to look at other artists, see their social media and websites – it has become much more intimate despite the added distance. I’m so visually tired of coffee mugs, palm trees and skincare that it is so satisfying to look at other people’s art. Rather than fall into an explore page hole on Instagram, I can go to an online gallery. I don’t know if it’s going to last for that long, but while it does, I want to make the most of it.

Find more of Masha’s work on her website! http://wanderfeeds.com


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