No Passports Or Pornography: Meet The Czarina Of Russian Photography

One of modern Russia’s most influential cultural figures has made photography a high-art form in the former Communist land. She’s also made some enemies along the way.

No Passports Or Pornography: Meet The Czarina Of Russian Photography
Sviblova with President Medvedev and Spain's King Juan Carlos
Claire Guillot and Marie Jégo

Anyone who meets Olga Sviblova never forgets the experience. Russia's ‘Miss Photography", and director of Moscow's new Multimedia Art Museum, is an inexhaustible whirlwind of human activity. Able to hold down two conversations at once, with a receiver in each hand (and a cigarette in a third!), she likes to cut off callers with the promise: "I will call you straight back". She never does.

Long and lithe, blonde and dressed in black, this graceful fifty-something with a ballerina's chignon has been known to fix business meetings at 3 a.m. She likes nothing more than to be chain smoking and talking art at the break of dawn. You should also factor in her inimitable vocabulary as well as decibel levels off the scale, because Olga Sviblova likes to shout. Only her French husband is graced with sweet purring words down the phone. "On several occasions, we have nearly come to blows', admits the artist Alexandre Ponomaref, whose work Olga exhibited at the Russian Pavilion of the 2009 Venice Biennale. "She is a difficult character. She never listens to anyone, but she has talent. Very few people of her calibre exist in Russia today, and she's done a lot to ensure Russian culture is represented on the international stage."

In a country like Russia, having a champion like Sviblova was crucial for photography. Agnès de Gouvion Saint-Cyr, former Inspector General of Photography at the French Ministry of Culture, says: "without Olga, photography would not have achieved its current profile in Russia." Sviblova puts it more bluntly: "When I launched the Moscow photography biennale, everyone thought photos were just for passports or of naked women!"

Fifteen years later, her biennale attracts more than six hundred thousand visitors. She has also set up a well-regarded state school of photography and the Moscow House of Photography, which brings together more than 80,000 works under its roof, including images by renowned artists such as Alexandre Rodchenko and Dmitri Baltermants.

After a five-year construction project, gallery has just recently re-opened in an ultramodern, 7,500 square-meter space. It now shows contemporary art in a variety of media as well and has a new and more expansive name: the Multimedia Museum of Art.

As a child in the 1950s, Olga Sviblova grew up in a world without images: her grandmother thought it better to burn the family albums, which featured images she feared could cause trouble under the Soviet regime. After a doctorate in psychology, this daughter of an aeronautical engineer decided she wanted to dedicate her life to art… and so became a street sweeper. "It gave me time for the things that mattered!" With her husband, the poet Alexeï Parchikov, she organised "unofficial exhibitions of unofficial art". It was through this hotbed of clandestine artistic activity - which eventually produced some of Russia's major artistic figures – that she was able direct a documentary, Carré noir (black square), which won a prize at Cannes in 1990.

But it was the annual Photography Month in Paris that ultimately inspired her to bring photography to Russia, "a country without any visual history." Her first photo biennale had 92 exhibitions and featured Russian and foreign photographers alike. The Maison européenne de la photographie (the European House of Photography or ‘MEP") along with France's state collection, Le Fonds National d'Art Contemporain (FNAC) lent her the works for free. Her second husband, Olivier Morane, an art insurer, helped with security issues, while she sent 400 faxes to Moscow in search of sponsors. "With Olga, there is always a bit of improvisation," explains Jean-Luc Monterosso, director of the MEP.

The new capitalist Russia proved to be the perfect soil for her talent. "Olga knows how to talk about art to everybody: the society crowd, the politicians, or the artists themselves," explains Paquita Escofet-Miro, a Russian art collector.

Making that old Russian adage her own: "It's better to have a hundred friends than a hundred roubles," she has managed to raise hundreds of thousands euros with just a few phone calls. And when it comes to support, she also enjoyed the favor of Youri Loujkov, Moscow's mayor for 18 years; while Roman Abramovich, owner of Chelsea Football Club and Mikhaïl Prokhorov, the energy industry magnate, bankrolled her when she curated the Russian Pavilion at the Venice Biennales of 2007 and 2009. "I have lived without money," she says. "But when I need it for a project, I become a maniac!"

With her latest museum, which had the support of Moscow's city hall, Sviblova had to face a major challenge when the Kremlin gave the mayor his marching papers when the project still needed two million euros. Kicking into gear, she hosted an auction with the help of her artist friends and raised 150,000 euros. "It paid for the flooring, the shelves and the furniture."

Sviblova's aggressive approach, not surprisingly, ruffles feathers; and she sometimes treads on the toes of the photographic establishment she has helped create. She featured her son, the photographer Tim Parchikov, in the line-up of an exhibition about young Russian photographers. More controversially, several odd-looking, poor quality digital prints of Cartier Bresson's work turned up at her new museum. Olga is adamant they were printed with the permission of the artist's widow, who nevertheless didn't seem to know about them.

Olga Sviblova's supreme position in photography is also being challenged today. "Her scorched earth policy annoys me, a Russian gallery owner confides. "There is no room for anyone else." But there are no signs of her letting up. Her next crusade? She plans to tell the story of recent Russian history with photographs, beginning with Perestroïka and the Yeltsin years. "We are a country without memory, she says, but I will always keep my eyes wide open."

Read the original article in French

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The Olympic torch is lit at the Archaeological site of Olympia in Greece.

Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Asham!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where Pyongyang test fires a suspected submarine-launched missile, Colin Powell is remembered, Poland-EU tensions rise, and yay (or yeesh): it's officially Ye. Meanwhile, our latest edition of Work → In Progress takes the pulse of the new professional demands in a recovering economy.

[*Oromo - Ethiopia and Kenya]


• North Korea fires missile off Japan coast: South Korea military reports that North Korea has fired a ballistic missile into the waters off the coast of Japan. The rocket, thought to have been launched from a submarine, is the latest test in a series of provocations in recent weeks.

• Poland/EU tensions: Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki has accused the EU of "blackmail" and said the European Union is overstepping its powers, in a heated debate with EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen over the rule of law. The escalation comes in the wake of a controversial ruling by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal that puts national laws over EU principles.

• Colin Powell remembered: Tributes are pouring for former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, after his death yesterday at age 84. Although fully vaccinated, Powell died from complications from COVID-19 as he was battling blood cancer. A trailblazing soldier, he then helped shape U.S. foreign policy, as national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs under Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and served as the nation's top diplomat for George W. Bush. Powell's legacy is, by his own admission, "blotted" by his faulty claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the U.S. war in Iraq.

• Russia to suspend NATO diplomatic mission amid tension: Russia is suspending its diplomatic mission to NATO and closing the alliance's offices in Moscow as relations with the Western military block have plunged to a new low. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced the move after NATO expelled eight diplomats from Russia's mission for alleged spying. Relations between NATO and Russia have been strained since Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula in 2014.

• Ecuador state of emergency to battle drug crime: President Guillermo Lasso declared a state of emergency amid Ecuador's surge in drug-related violence. He announced the mobilization of police and the military to patrol the streets, provide security, and confront drug trafficking and other crimes.

• Taliban agrees to house-to-house polio vaccine drive: The WHO and Unicef campaign will resume nationwide polio vaccinations after more than three years, as the new Taliban government agreed to support the campaign and to allow women to participate as frontline health workers. Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan are the last countries in the world with endemic polio, an incurable and infectious disease

• Kanye West officially changes name: Some say yay, some say yeesh, but it's official: The-artist-formerly-known-as-Kanye-West has legally changed his name to Ye, citing "personal reasons."


The Washington Post pays tribute to Colin Powell, the first Black U.S. Secretary of State, who died at 84 years old from complications from COVID-19.


Jashn-e Riwaaz

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Work → In Progress: Where have all the workers gone?

After the economic slowdown brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, companies all over the world are taking advantage of loosened lockdowns and progress on the vaccine front to ramp up operations and make up for lost productivity. But the frenetic spurts of the recovery are getting serious pushback. This edition of Work → In Progress looks not only at the coming changes in our post-COVID economy, but also the ways our world is re-evaluating professional obligations.

🗓️ Hail the 4-day week Across the planet, the shorter work week trend is spreading like wildfire. Four is the new five. Spain began experimenting with the concept earlier this year. New Zealand launched a similar trial run in 2020. And in Iceland, efforts to curb working hours date all the way back to 2015, with significant results: 86% of the country's workforce gained the right to reduce work hours with no change in pay.

🚚 Empty seats In the United States, meanwhile, a severe lack of truck drivers has the country's transportation industry looking to hire from abroad. The only problem is … the shortage is happening worldwide, in part because of the e-commerce boom in the wake of worldwide quarantines. The Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano reports that companies will be scrambling to fill the jobs of 17,000 truck drivers in the next two years. The article blames low wages and the dangerous nature of the job, stating that Italian companies are making moves to employ foreign workers.

💼 Key help wanted It's all well and good to question current working conditions. But what about 20 years from now? Will we be working at all? A recent article in the French daily Les Echos posed just that question, and posits that by 2041 — and with the exception of a few select jobs — automation and digitalization will decimate employment. The piece refers to the lucky few as "essential workers," a concept that originated with COVID lockdowns when almost all labor halted and only a minority of workers capable of performing society's most crucial in-person tasks were allowed to carry on.

➡️


I'm worried for my Afghan sisters.

— Nobel Peace Prize recipient Malala Yousafzai Nobel Prize tells the BBC that despite the Taliban's announcement that they would soon lift the ban on girls' education in Afghanistan, she worries it "might last for years."

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Are you more yay or yeesh about the artist currently known as Ye? Let us know how the news look in your corner of the world — drop us a note at!

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