She was most well-known as a founding member of Femen, the Ukranian, later Parisian activists whose topless protests took aim at male affronts from patriarchy to Putin.
She killed herself in July 2018, age 31. I saw her obituary, struck by the intensity of her being. A taut cord. Wild and beautiful.
She made the political protest an art event.
“The crown in her hair, painting on a bare bust: Oksana Chatchko invented an aesthetic grammar of activism,” notes an associate.
The value, and beauty of the human, was her driving force.
Everything — her politics, art, the longing to transform the world, even her obvious inner pain—seemed deeply Christian.
Jacqueline Feldman’s essay on Femen, “Marianne’s Breasts,” has a bit about Oxana’s early education (the spelling of her name varied).
When Oxana was a child, she told me, a Greek man opened an iconography studio in the city where she lived, Khmelnytskyi. Her parents, devout Russian Orthodox Christians, decided he would teach her to paint icons. She was eight. The man said she was much too young, but agreed to let her take a test. Handily, she passed. He said she had a gift from God to paint icons. Oxana rapidly advanced under the Greek man’s tutelage, even though, as she explained to me, this kind of painting is difficult, demanding masterful control of wood, gold, and tempera paints.
“She began to read religious books and to deepen her faith. At 12 or 13, she decided she would become a monk. She knew this decision would please her religious parents, so she did not think to ask their permission. She packed her belongings and wrote a letter of farewell, but as she was crossing the threshold her mother arrived home, early, and begged Oxana to stay, vowing her love, saying she wanted her daughter to provide her with grandchildren, which Oxana recalls as her first encounter with the hypocrisy inherent to any system of belief.
In a 2017 interview with Crash, Oksana speaks of her early years.
I was deeply inside all these institutional bodies, and because of it, I started believing in God. I always went to Church to pray. When I was twelve years old I decided to go live in the church, to paint icons and spend my life praying. I wanted to stop living a normal life and become a monk.
She’d say that she left religion, became atheist and communist. But her sense of the divine simply shifted? She found God now in the human, whom she saw as free.
If her leftist political sensibility was very developed, in her art, the central oppression was done by religious authorities, which I take to be the meaning of “God raped you.”
Her friend and lover Nicholas Mir Chaikin recalls Oksana’s monitoring of the entire planetary situation. Everyone matters.
She was as interested in saving Ukrainian women and girls from rape as she was of saving animals from industrial torture, or little boys from the lies of rapacious, heretical, and ideologically corrupt religions.
But her primary calling was to women? Every aspect of female personality, of female selfhood, she realized, was formed around a sexual imperative—to fashion oneself into a desirable, unthinking object.
She recalls her thought processes leading up to forming Femen.
All the women dreamed of marrying a rich American guy to escape. They are seen as the prince charming. That’s why girls make themselves so easy to manipulate. We decided to fight against this image of women. We also used sexuality to prove our points and explained you didn’t have to be ashamed of your body as a woman. Our bodies were our weapons.
As female is part of God’s creation, she’d bring the female into full consciousness. She can hear and feel everything.
Every photo of her can seem a stage of a revelation. A stage of her passion, with an insistence: pay attention. She’s in a situation that can’t last.
Eve in a wasteland, a frozen Eden. There’s no man—he isn’t yet created. This is a garden in which only woman is alive.
Her nakedness is deeply Christian. It strips away the tradition, the robes, rules, strictures, back to the human itself.
The Femen protests evoke Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas 37.
His disciples say to him: “On what day wilt thou appear to us, and what day shall we see thee?” Jesus says: “When you strip yourselves without being ashamed, when you take off your clothes and lay them at your feet like little children and trample on them!
Oksana seems never to have been a celebrator of sex, per se. The intimacies she contemplates most freely in her paintings are between men.
In a 2016 interview with 032c.com, she explained that after leaving Femen, she was depressed, searching for a voice as an artist.
The first two years were hard for me: I was in a state of depression because I was doing nothing. Now, I have started to draw again, like I was eight years old again, but this time, with a new idea. Now my icons are no longer images of worship. They are a kind of protest. Now, they are counter-religious icons.
I love her paintings, but her work that I am most drawn to is the Femen protests. Fascinatingly, Chaikin writes of it a ‘toolkit’ for everyone.
In her vision, anyone could be a leader of Femen, anywhere. She had developed the tool kit. She had a larger-picture understanding that placed feminism in a grander context of revolution for everyone. By reclaiming the commons. By working for a picture of justice that wasn’t cleaved into special interests or distracted by fashions.
“I am artist, activist, terrorist,” she’d introduce herself. Is that not a holy trinity for Christians? It is Jesus himself. Artist. Activist. Terrorist.
In the narratives of the gospels we feel the nervous, crazy energy he generates. The feeling, spreading through the nerve-centers of his people, that something electric and exciting and damaging and upsetting was happening. A new destructive energy had been unleashed.
It’s called love.
Oksana reached, in her view, the end of her storyline. Having protested with the slogan “I am a woman not an object” she couldn’t resign her life to making objects? To being an ‘artist’, making painstaking little universes for scraps of money that she gave away.
I think of her retreat from commercialism, from manifestos, tomes, and even “products.” She exists in the guerrilla documentary, the Instagram account, the memory of a friend. The snatch.
Hanging herself in a closet, she left a suicide note, which seems not to have been released. Perhaps it was something like her last Instagram posts, which suggests that her inner critique had become very extreme, focusing, in the end, into an attack on herself as well.
I think over her vision, however nascent.
Does she see a human activity of being, and creating, not as a formal activity of ‘art’? Rather, simply being, and creating the beautiful.
She sees a Jesus as human spirit who is trying to escape from Christianity—from the activity we call ‘Christianity’.
She imagines a world where the female, and the male too, is free.
Where sexuality may, one day, be possible?
Where a child will be able grow up and be.
May she be blessed.