In her current project “How To Sell Yourself to the West?”, Ada Mukhína investigates the conditions of becoming a successful artist in the Western art world. She reflects on her own experience as a female theatre-maker from Russia and stories of other international artists from diverse backgrounds who want to “make it” in the West. She is interested in the unique selling points, strategies, identity advantages, and how these points intersect with the burning issues of politics of art and representation.
The idea of the project was originally conceived in the art residency that Ada Mukhína was awarded by the JUNGE AKADEMIE of Akademie der Künste in Berlin. She decided to have a closer look at the art prizes and surrounding rituals that the academy performs, as an example. She conducted interviews with the current award winners, jury members, and employers of the art archive, as well as international artists who reside in Berlin. Who gets the prizes from the Western art institutions? What are the possible criteria? Who makes these decisions? And who is being left behind?
Drawing inspiration from this research, Ada Mukhína firstly wrote a text called “How To Sell Yourself to the West. A practical guide” which was published as a contribution to the book by the Young Academy. The second part of the project is the video performance that she shot in the historical rooms of the Akademie der Künste. The next step of the project development was a lecture-performance by and with Ada Mukhína at the Radar Ost Festival in October 2021 at the Deutsches Theater Berlin. The following performance in March 2022 at the opening of the work presentation What Matters by the Young Academy was canceled by Ada Mukhína. Instead, she prepared an installation with the written statement “Why the performance How to Sell Yourself to the West” is not taking place”, which is available below together with the two first parts of the project.
Let’s be honest. With this title, I’m trying to draw attention to my persona, but also to the topic of my research – the politics of representation in the performing arts. I’m a female theatre director from Russia, who was awarded a Berlin fellowship at the JUNGE AKADEMIE of Akademie der Künste in Berlin.
It is an unusual fellowship. You can’t apply for it or participate in an open call, as I often did before. You need to be nominated by a member of the Academy and then be chosen by other members at their annual meeting. It’s such an honour to finally be accepted by the artistic crème de la crème after all these years of endless study, self-advocacy, failures and precarious work, right? But did I really make it? Will my artistic future be bright from now on? In my current performance project, I research the possible conditions of “making it” in the Western art world. Here I present my initial research checklist, where I reflect on my own experience as an example. I am interested in the unique selling points, bonuses, identity advantages that could help an artist successfully “sell” his or her work to the West and how these points intersect with the burning issues of the politics of art. For the purposes of this text, I am looking at the specifics of the Berlin art scene, where I reside at the moment. It is just a starting point of my research, that will culminate in a performance about representation, hierarchies in the art world, gatekeepers, prizes and longing for success, and at the same time access and inclusion by yet unrecognised art practitioners.
I am not German. It is not necessarily a bad thing in Berlin, I guess, because Berlin is not Germany. It is Babylon. Look, for example, at all of these artists with multicultural backgrounds at the Maxim Gorki Theatre or … is there any other place? Right, there are some festivals and special programmes at other art institutions here and there. The most important thing is that I speak German. I have learned it for ten years at school in Saint Petersburg. I still remember traditional songs and verses from Heinrich Heine’s “Lorelei”. It’s not very useful in everyday life, I know. However, you can occasionally impress some Germans. For example, I once sang “O Tannenbaum” for the jury of the German Chancellor fellowship! Moreover, let’s face it, even though you can order a drink in English in Berlin bars, you won’t gain access to the professional art scene without mastering the German language. To start with, there’s an absence of English surtitles in most German theatres. And whatever feedback you get back will likely be in German, even though you wrote your PhD in English at one of the universities in Berlin.
Good Pass, Bad Pass
I was born and lived the first 27 years of my life in Russia, which is a good thing. Firstly, people know about its existence. The head of the country makes a lot of advertisements for it. Secondly, I am from St. Petersburg ‒ a fact that art people around the world adore. You’ll often see a veil of Romanticism glossing their eyes when they speak about Dostoevsky and white nights. The city is indeed stunning, and very close to the European ideal sense of beauty because European architects built it. I always introduce myself abroad as somebody from St. Petersburg and not from Russia ‒ because I identify myself with the “Western spirit” of the city more than the “uncivilised” rest of the country. I want to appear and to be accepted as European, meaning “equal”. Although I seldom reach my goal because most of the Europeans believe that Europe ends at its political borders of the European Union and not at its geographical boundaries of the Ural Mountains. Thirdly, I am from the country with a “bloody political regime” that makes Western curators and programmers ask me with worry and empathy in their eyes: How do I manage to create work about feminism and other social issues “there”? That brings me to another point in my “artistic account” aimed at the West. Of course, there are also some side effects. For example, the use of the colour red in my performance might be automatically interpreted as a reference to communism. Or I would be expected to talk about Russian men in power all the time, as if I dream about them all the time and I can’t think about anything else.
Nevertheless, even if it sounds horrible, it is a good set of cards to start out with. It is truly a much better hand than my art colleagues from Belarus have, even though their political regime might be crueler, as was recently shown by the armed police shutting down peaceful protests after the corrupted elections. Russia is the most significant influencer of the region as a successor of the Soviet Union. It has a “bad reputation” and “scary image” nowadays, and a long historical relationship with Germany and Western Europe, including two world wars. Therefore ‒ bingo! ‒ local artists, researcher and scholars get many more opportunities and grants from the West. Some of my Belarusian colleagues, who have lived and worked in St. Petersburg for some time already, are seriously thinking about changing their citizenship to Russian for that reason. My Indian colleague noticed a similar situation working in Nepal, which unlike India was not colonised by Great Britain and therefore has none of the post-colonial funding that is available in its neighbouring country.
In one of the multiple series of my RiskLab telematic performances, my collaborator, the Berlin-based Syrian theatre director Anis Hamdoun, and I asked the audience to share who among them has a “good” or “bad” passport. The interesting thing was that the holders of the “bad” passports immediately knew what we meant, while the holders of the “good” passports had doubts. After presenting some of the possible criteria like economic wealth, visa-free travel and a general protection of human rights and freedoms in the home country, we defined a range or a relative scale of passports among our audience members. Of course, “good” or “bad” passports are relative concepts. However, having a better passport than the one your neighbour has is definitely an advantage. Moreover, try to make the negative sides of your country of origin (such as it being a dictatorship) work to your benefit.
“You lived in the Soviet Union and you have been published in the West. You could’ve easily gone to jail. Western newspapers make a fuss in such cases. It would’ve helped if your books sold …” – In the 1980s Sergei Dovlatov ironically retold the words of his American publisher in the essay “From USA with love”. Nothing has really changed since then. Jail, arrest or any violent experience would definitely strengthen your position on the Western art market. Unfortunately, I don’t have any. I mean, of course, I don’t want to have them for myself or anybody else. Especially for a young and not-so-well-known artist, you cannot be sure if there will be any fuss in the newspapers because of you. You could disappear without anybody noticing it. So I would be careful with this “wild card”. Yet if you have it, why not to use it?
I am extremely white. Even pale, I would say. It is undeniably a bonus in getting access to positions in the Western art world, until the point when it becomes an obstacle. For example, when you are asked to fill in a questionnaire about your race by an organisation that genuinely cares about diversity. In this case, I chose “other white” because I also have some Jewish blood. That’s how you stay in the game, folks.
WomXn Director is The New Black
In 2020 a private company of Elon Musk manages to send astronauts into space. In the same year, for the first time, the Theatertreffen festival achieves gender balance in their programme of the most noteworthy theatre pieces of the season in German-speaking countries. What a time to be alive for space tourists and female directors! Helgard Haug (Rimini Protokoll) is one of the directors, whose theatre production Chinchilla Arschloch, waswas was chosen for the programme. She teaches at different universities, art schools and in workshops where around 80% of the theatre students are womxn.  Yet somehow, now several years after graduation, the gender statistics have changed drastically. Where do female theatre-makers disappear? Is Elon Musk sending them to a galaxy far, far away? “It is clear that we need to address this imbalance,” says Helgard. “At first, I was not sure, if the introduction of the quotes at the Theatertreffen was the right starting point. I thought that raising awareness among theatres would be a better solution: to pay attention to who you work with, whose plays you produce, who is on your stage. Now I think these quotes have already achieved a lot. They rushed the necessity of the discussion, and they made the position that we stand by in 2020 quite clear. If theatres want to be represented at the Theatertreffen festival, they might also want to increase their chances by hiring female directors. If it doesn’t work otherwise, you need to force them.” Let the Force be with me and other womxn in the theatre market and in space, of course!
 Womxn – a term used as one of the alternative spelling of the words “woman” or “women” to avoid the suggestion of sexism perceived in the sequences m-a-n and m-e-n and to be inclusive of trans and non-binary women.
Consistency of the Argument
“Keep the consistency of the argument over time” ‒ Farrah Karapetian, an incredible visual artist and my host at an art residency in California, told me in words of farewell. What an interesting piece of advice, one might say. In 1988, the year I was born, the Gorilla Girls presented to the world their famous poster The advantages of being a woman artist. One of the advantages listed was “knowing that your career might pick up after you’re eighty”. Do I need to keep being “consistent” for another 48 years these days as well?
A Signature Haircut
Now on to a real challenge. You would not believe how much hair I lost in Berlin! The city has much harder water than in St. Petersburg. It took me a while to find the right way to handle it: including changing all of my hair cosmetics and buying quite expensive vitamins. Besides, it’s not so easy to find a good hairdresser here, because most Germans I know cut their hair themselves to save money. However, I made it through this, too. Let’s hope that making it in the art world in Berlin will not be so challenging!
Scene 1. Sesselclub
“Hello, my name is Ada Mukhína. I am a theatre-maker from ‘evil’ Russia.” That was the opening of my humorous lecture performance How to Sell Yourself to the West. I came up with the idea during my art residency at the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) in 2020 when I moved from St. Petersburg to Berlin. At my lecture performance, you were supposed to learn what you need to do to become famous in the West, how to receive a prize, or at least end up in the art archives posthumously. Each performance is tailor-made for the art institution where it is presented. I have been preparing a new version for the Akademie der Künste, which includes the perspectives of artists from Russia, Syria and Cameroon for more than two years.
Since 24 February 2022, the start of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, my opening punchline does not work anymore. Now it feels more accurate to write evil Russia without the quotation marks. The context has changed drastically: a sarcastic review of the Western art market feels inappropriate when people in Ukraine are dying, fleeing or need to defend their homes. Two of my Ukrainian colleagues, also fellows of the Junge Akademie (Young Academy), whose works you can see in the exhibition were not able to come to Berlin. It did not feel right to do this performance today when they are absent because of the war. A war that has been waged by Russian forces but not in my name. A war that has crushed the future of both countries. A war that has already destroyed so many connections and human relationships.
The performance will not take place, but I decided to keep the scenery there for you to see. As a document of what we hoped would happen, but that will not happen. Or maybe it will still happen one day, in the unforeseen future. In the first scene, I wanted to ask you to look at the room. This is the so-called Sesselclub (Room with armchairs). Many famous artists’ butts sat on those chairs. For example, exactly here in 1961, Roma Bahn, who performed in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, received the Hermine-Körner-Ring Prize as an “actress striving for excellence”.
I wanted to tell you how I got accepted by the artistic crème de la crème and got into the closed fellowship at the Akademie der Künste. I wanted to tell you all the secrets for success I found out while interviewing curators of this art institution and its art archives. I wanted to hear applause and how much you loved my work. I wanted the Western curators I invited tonight to invite me back to their theatres and festivals. I want to be as famous as Roma Bahn and Bertolt Brecht together. It was hard to make this decision. But it is not the time.
Scene 2. Clubroom
Let’s move to the Clubroom. A lot of decisions are made inside these walls. I wanted to suggest that here you could slip into the shoes of the Akademie der Künste jury members and decide who will receive the Berlin Grand Art Prize worth €15,000. My two collaborators, Anis Hamdoun and Serge Fouha, would have joined me at the head of the table. Each of us would have presented you with a candidate to choose from.
Anis would have suggested himself as a Syrian director and playwright whose career caught fire on the wave of “refugee crisis” in Germany six years ago. However, the art market quickly turned its interests to other burning issues. Serge would have promoted himself as a black actor from Cameroon who has been living in Berlin for more than ten years. Nevertheless, he mainly works in Switzerland, Belgium and France because there are nearly no roles for non-white actors in German theatre. I would have suggested myself as a female theatre-maker from Russia. My shares are rapidly going down in the Western art market. That’s why international support is especially needed for artists like me who are critical of this bloody political regime and escaped the country. To which of the three of us do you think you would give the prize?
Anis, Serge, and I met in this room last week to make a decision about the performance under the circumstances. Anis said that he had never cancelled any of his shows. Because if he did that every time any violence occurred in Syria, he would not have created any art in the last ten years. I argued that this time is different. I hold a passport from the country which is producing death, fear and destruction at this particular moment. To such an extent that other countries like Germany decided to increase their military budgets. Where will it lead our world? Then Serge asked if the Akademie pushed me to cancel the performance. He will support my personal choice, but not a cultural boycott of me as a Russian artist. It is my decision and my chance to say something, I said. Let’s make it count. Then Anis said okay, if we decide not to do the performance because of the war, it should not be mistaken for cancellation due to COVID. We should write a statement together and use these rooms to talk to people. Serge said that wars constantly happen in Africa and, sadly, nobody cares. And that’s exactly why solidarity should be shown to every country in the world where violence occurs and to every human being who suffers. And now that means Ukraine. That’s how we came to this joint statement:
“On the day of the opening of the work presentation What Matters at the Akademie der Künste, two of our fellow artists from Ukraine are not able to come to Berlin because of the war inflicted on their homeland by Russian forces. In solidarity with them, we decided not to perform today. We are against Putin’s war in Ukraine, as well as his military aggression in Syria and other countries. Violence has a devastating effect on peace around the world. We stand for humanity and for equal value placed on people’s lives no matter their race, nationality, gender, religion, beliefs, abilities, age, sexual orientation, etc.”
Ada Mukhína (St. Petersburg, Russia/Berlin)
Anis Hamdoun (Homs, Syria/Berlin)
Serge Fouha (Yaoundé, Cameroon/Berlin).
*1988 in Leningrad, lives in St.Petersburg and Berlin
Ada Mukhina is a nomadic artist and theatre-maker with a focus on politically/socially engaged documentary and participatory performance. Her practices include directing, performing, curating, writing, teaching and researching. She graduated with distinction from the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts and earned an MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Her theatre work has been presented in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, the USA and Russia. As a winner of the Black Box Residency at the Meyerhold Theatre Center, she recently directed and co-authored two theatre productions in Moscow – Locker Room Talk and Caries of Capitalism.More about Ada Mukhina