An exhibition of 24 of works by the convicted Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout, who is serving a 25-year prison sentence in the US, opened in Moscow’s Civic Chamber building on 6 December. The drawings and paintings made using pencil, ballpoint pen, pastel, wax crayon, and oil paint were created by Bout, 54, behind bars and selected by his wife, Alla.
“TV channels are interested in Viktor’s case, they want to know what his life is like,” Alla tells The Art Newspaper. “There is also a lot of interest in his art, which he has spent the past six years creating. The exhibition proves that my husband has not lost heart and is still creative. His art is the only way he can communicate with the outside world.”
Bout sent the works to Moscow through Russian diplomats.
Alla explains that she originally tried to exhibit the works in Moscow’s State Duma so that “Russian politicians would see them and remember who my husband is.” The Duma refused but the Civic Chamber agreed to display them on the condition that the show only lasted three days.
She says she is “constant contact” with the Russian foreign ministry in Washington, DC because Bout is suffering from “a very serious infectious disease” but has not been able to see a doctor, despite appeals by the Russian embassy to the US department of justice.
“I can’t say that the show is some kind of political act or a call for something—it is just a reminder that life goes on and that despite the gravity of the situation, Viktor still has hope,” Alla says. “You can see that his works are not depressing, they are filled with light and charged with positive emotions.” She adds that limited edition prints of the works are available to buy and that she has received an offer to show her husband’s works in St Petersburg in late January.
Bout—a former Soviet military translator nicknamed the “Merchant of Death” and “Sanctions Buster” due to his willingness to bypass embargoes—was arrested in 2008 in Thailand after US authorities accused him of conspiring to sell smuggled weapons to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (aka FARC).
The Russian government has called his case “political” and there are rumours that he might be transferred to Moscow in a prisoner swap with the US.
"We are gathered here today so that the man who is in an American prison will not resign himself to the fate of America’s justice system,” said Alexander Vorontsov, the chairman of Russia’s Civic Chamber Commission, at the opening of the exhibition. “Victor's paintings are an expression of his soul and feelings, his striving for life and belief that justice will prevail.”
Maria Butina, a deputy of the State Duma, said at the opening: “We will not forget about Viktor and other compatriots who are in prisons abroad. We will not abandon them, and these are not just words. It is one thing when someone breaks the law and is imprisoned, but it is another thing when someone is locked up undeservedly.”