The feminist illustrator Natalya Lobanova, whose work ranges from comic doodles on anxiety to surrealist lips on stalks, questions femininity in our society and the failings of ‘woke’ capitalism. Informed by her academic background, both art and writing come together in a subtle counter-cultural push for a fairer, kinder world.
After studying Art Foundation at UAL and then Philosophy and Politics at The University of Edinburgh, you started working as a writer. How did you end up as an animator, illustrator and painter too?
Honestly, I kind of just fell into it. I would always draw and post things online, which helped me get a job at a media company after I graduated. Whilst I was there, I also started making illustrations for my own writing as well as across the company, and taught myself to animate. Sometimes I wish I had a more direct path to a creative career but I’m also glad I got the experience of working in a different industry as it really helps to diversify what I’m capable of doing
Although it’s not always obvious, your work has a political undertone. I love your cartoon of someone getting made-up who finally admits, “I love performing femininity”. Do you think there are any gender constructions that aren’t performative?
Thank you! I wonder about this all the time. I have no idea, I don’t think it can ever be conclusively said as there is never a distinct line between nature and nurture. It’s also a question of whether all performative acts are even necessarily bad. I think that a lot of our behaviour as human beings will always be performative – laughing at a joke you don’t get so you don’t seem dumb or rude is performative and something we all do instinctively.
I think all we can aim for is a society in which performative actions are not strictly distributed by gender lines – makeup will probably always be performative to a certain extent, but makeup put on as a chore to make yourself look closer to what is deemed as conventionally attractive for a woman is very different the makeup a drag queen or an experimental makeup artist would choose to wear. When I dress up, it will always be a performative action, but I’d rather it be an attempt to impress others as a human and individual and not to fulfil some gender-based criteria. But I think we are still very far from this ideal.
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Your joke about #feminist t-shirts seems to frame them as a redundant product of woke capitalism. When is feminist fashion or art useful?
Feminist art and feminist fashion are very different, I think, so I will address this in two parts. Feminist art is important as a political tool, but I also think there is a history of art made by women being branded as feminist by default. Is it necessarily feminist to simply talk about your experience when it just happens to be that you are a woman?
I’m not sure if all discussions around, say, menstruation, or birth, or the experiences of individual trans artists should be immediately thought to be political – there should be freedom for people from oppressed communities to make art that is purely about them as individuals, rather than to have the responsibility of representing their entire communities be put upon them if they don’t want that.
There needs to be a greater discussion of what constitutes feminism and feminist art, as it does a disservice to both activists who make a conscious effort to disrupt the status quo, and more introspective artists whose work documents their individual experiences but is treated as political and universal.
What about feminist fashion?
Feminist fashion, on the other hand, is only feminist if the way in which it’s created is equal and fair – when all employees along the chain are treated fairly and with dignity. I think we should move on from congratulating brands from simply having ‘feminist’ branding and start demanding not just representation and ‘woke’ advertising, but thorough, company-wide feminist principles – equal pay, equal opportunity, parental leave, workers’ rights, etc. I don’t think a company can claim to be feminist whilst also being exploitative in their practices on any level.
Whilst you are openly anti-Tory on Twitter, your cartoons haven’t touched Brexit yet. Do you prefer to produce universal work, rather than pinpoint local issues?
To be completely honest, I think it’s because Brexit and what the Tories have done to the United Kingdom since 2010 is so grim that I don’t really think I could make a genuinely funny joke out of it if I tried.
“I don’t think a company can claim to be feminist whilst also being exploitative in their practices on any level.”
A lot of your art treats mental health, would you call yourself an activist spreading awareness through visibility?
I am really glad that people relate and find comfort in my work, but I’m privileged to not suffer from clinical anxiety or depression myself. I don’t want to be a spokesperson for those who do because I can’t really know what they experience, and to act like I do would be to diminish their suffering. It’s really important that there is greater awareness around these issues right now, and that people are creating work around their experiences so others don’t feel alone.
I do touch on themes of sadness and feeling anxious in my work but that is very different from actual clinical depression and anxiety, and I think this is an important distinction. People who do suffer from clinical mental health issues need to know that they can get help for it, and that it’s not just them being less able to deal with the kind of sadness everyone experiences.
If there is one thing I’d want to advocate, it’s for everyone to be vigilant for those around them, to make the effort of having the difficult talk of telling people that they need help, and then to get them that help. It’s not enough to just passively post helplines on world mental health day; there needs to be communal obligation towards others. It should not just fall onto those who are suffering – you wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to call the ambulance, you would do it yourself.
You published a great article on internalized misogyny on BuzzFeed. Do you prefer to articulate through writing or painting?
I think probably both, which is why I use text and comics a lot. I’m interested in getting the point across as efficiently as possible, and both text and drawings have their own merits in that regard.
Publishing art online facilitates an ongoing dialogue with the artist, unlike traditional gallery spaces. Does this uplift you as an artist? Also, does this influence the sort of work you choose to share?
I think it can be uplifting but it can also be very limiting. It’s incredible when stuff you create gets a reaction from others, but having that immediate response can make you feel like you’re providing a service, not just sharing your art or thoughts, and that you should be consistently creating the stuff people want to see rather than the stuff you want to make.
Online, the things that get the biggest reaction are that which appeal to the greatest number of people, but that should not be the only indicator or measure of what is and isn’t good. But it’s so hard to ignore actual numbers or to not take it personally when something you think is great doesn’t get as big of a reaction as something throwaway. It makes it really hard to focus on less accessible or more time-consuming projects. I’ve actually started deleting my Instagram in between posts so I can feel like I’m just making work just for myself, and not for a feed or an algorithm or even an audience.
“Online, the things that get the biggest reaction are that which appeal to the greatest number of people, but that should not be the only indicator or measure of what is and isn’t good.”
A series of your paintings take eyes and lips and put them in a surrealist context. Were you inspired by Dalí?
Yes! And Magritte, a lot. I love the surrealists. I love portraits but I feel that when I, personally, make straight-forward portraits, they’re not that interesting. I think taking distinctive parts of a person’s face and putting them in new contexts is like a fun exercise: what else can an eye or some lips look like? It’s basically an excuse to make portraits without just simply re-creating a photograph.
Living in London, there is so much going on in the creative scene – which exhibitions or galleries would you recommend to us?
I recently moved to Peckham so it would be rude of me to suggest anything but the South London Gallery.
Do you plan on exhibiting outside of the digital in the future?
Yes! There will be a lot of exciting stuff coming up in the second half of this year.
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