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Ackland Art Museum in process of acquiring 'anti-Putin' works

Putins Ashes Film Still.jpg
Photo still from Nadya Tolokonnikova, Putin's Ashes original film, 2023.

The Ackland Art Museum is currently in the process of formally acquiring two works of art by Nadya Tolokonnikova, a founder of the feminist performance art collective Pussy Riot known for advocating against Russian President Vladimir Putin's leadership.

The museum’s Acquisitions and Loans Committee, which is made up of five members, decided to acquire the pieces after a rare vote on Feb. 21. The results of the vote were three members in favor, one abstaining and one against.

One of the pieces is a short film created by Tolokonnikova, which was filmed in the United States.

In the video, individuals anonymously don balaclavas and burn a 10-foot by 10-foot portrait of Putin, using shivs forged out of jail bars to put the ashes into vials. The other artwork is a multimedia piece that contains one of the vials holding the portrait's ashes. 

Tolokonnikova gained publicity after she participated in an anti-Putin protest concert in a Moscow cathedral in 2012, performing a “Punk Prayer” with Pussy Riot. Three members were convicted of hooliganism following the performance. Tolokonnikova and one other member served about two years in a Siberian prison labor camp after starting a hunger strike in prison protesting the conditions.

Peter Nisbet, the deputy director for curatorial affairs at the Ackland, said in a statement that the museum’s monthly meeting included a spirited discussion about the potential acquisition of Tolokonnikova’s works, which are a part of her “Putin’s Ashes” collection.

“There was concern that perhaps the performance glorifies violence or suggests a tacit support of a physical attack on world leaders,” Lauren Turner, the associate curator for contemporary art and special projects at the Ackland, said in an email statement to The Daily Tar Heel. “I am glad these concerns were voiced and discussed; as a museum, it is crucial that we consider how our own actions may impact a wide array of audiences.”

Nisbet said that the committee usually does not vote formally because a consensus is typically established before meetings.

He said the vote is purely advisory, because the final decision on all acquisitions is always made by the director, who then endorses the acquisition.

Turner was the curator and voting member who proposed that the works enter the Ackland's permanent collection. She said that she feels both works are part of a symbolic performance that allow for performative catharsis because Tolokonnikova and other performers live with the “very real” consequences of artistic resistance, including exile and imprisonment.

“I believe the meeting went exactly as it is designed to go,” Turner said. “If we didn’t anticipate the potential for differing opinions, we would never have established a voting process years ago.”

Carolyn Allmendinger, the director of education and interpretation for the museum, said she abstained from the vote because she didn’t feel she was sufficiently informed to vote responsibly. She said she feels like she still has a lot more to learn about the pieces before presenting it to the public. 

“I feel that the internationally known political consequences that Tolokonnikova (and her colleagues) receives again and again in response to her artistic output are proof that art can [be] an incredibly powerful method of communication,” Turner said. “And Tolokonnikova is part of a long history of art being used to such ends.”

Tonya Turner Carroll, the co-owner of Turner Carroll Gallery and CONTAINER museum venue,  also serves as a member of the Ackland’s National Advisory Board.

After meeting Tolokonnikova in October of 2022, Turner Carroll’s home gallery displayed her work.

“Of all the artists I’ve ever worked with, I believe that Nadya is one of the most impactful on contemporary society,” Turner Caroll said.

The visit to the gallery, which [Lauren] Turner attended, is what started the process of acquiring the two works. The two works are on-site currently and will be officially acquired when paperwork is processed, according to Turner.

Though these works will be a part of the museum’s permanent collection and often accessible to University classes and other groups, there are no immediate plans for them to be on display.

@dailytarheel |

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