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Pussy Riot member inspired by fellow activist Ai Weiwei

Speaking at the Prudential Eye Awards in Singapore, the recently released punk performer said she would discuss the Chinese artist’s work with her fellow inmates while in prison

Pussy Riot members Maria Alyokhina and Nadezhda Tolokonnikova in Singapore

A member of the feminist punk band Pussy Riot says she has been inspired by another artist and activist, the Chinese maverick Ai Weiwei. Speaking at the inaugural Prudential Eye Awards in Singapore last weekend, Nadezhda Tolokonnikova described how she would discuss Ai’s works with fellow inmates during her 16-month imprisonment in a Russian jail.

“I used to talk to the other women about Ai Weiwei and explain to them what contemporary art is,” she said, speaking through a translator. “Nobody knows what contemporary art is [in Russia]; the problem lies with the state,” she added, citing the performance art collective The Yes Men as another source of inspiration.

Tolokonnikova and her fellow Pussy Riot member Maria Alyokhina, continued to criticise the Russian government. “State support for artists only exists if you support a certain agenda,” Alyokhina said. “This pushes people away from the mainstream to the underground. Nobody can work ‘officially’ as an artist, including [the performance artist] Pyotr Pavlensky.” Last November, Pavlensky nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones in Moscow's Red Square in protest at police brutality in Russia.

Both women were freed in December as part of an amnesty deal made by the Russian president Vladimir Putin. They were found guilty in 2012 of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred” when they performed a “punk prayer” that denounced Putin and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral in Moscow. A film of the church protest, Mother of God, put Putin Away, 2012, was nominated in the digital/video section of the Prudential Eye Awards.

“Being nominated for the award means our work has been accepted, and its influence in the international arena has been understood. Our work is not just the piece but how the world reacted to it; the reaction was also the work,” Tolokonnikova said.

When asked about art schools in Russia, Tolokonnikova said that the “best education in Russia is self-education. Freedom is a responsibility.” The two artists are now focussing on prisoners’ rights. “We want to defend the rights of inmates against the [prison] administration. The prison system is corrupt and non-transparent,” Tolokonnikova said. The pair stressed that Pussy Riot remains an anonymous collective.

However, their video failed to win a Prudential Eye Award. The winners, who all receive $20,000, are: Daniel Crooks (digital/video); Jompet Kuswidananto (installation); Ben Quilty (painting); Trente Parke (photography); and Seoung Wook Sim (sculpture). Quilty was named as overall winner and received a further $30,000. The judges included the Russian art critic Andrei Erofeev, who curated an exhibition dedicated to Pussy Riot at Paris’s Palais de Tokyo in 2012, and David Green, the former director-general of the British Council.

Works by all of the nominees are on show at Suntec City in Singapore (until 5 February). As part of the prize package, Quilty is due to hold a solo exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London this summer. The awards are organised by the Global Eye Programme, a collaboration between the non-profit organisation Parallel Contemporary Art and the Saatchi Gallery.

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