Oksana Shachko, the Ukrainian artist who has died aged 31 in an apparent suicide, was best known for her work as an activist with Femen. Weaponising her ethereal beauty in a series of topless protests under the slogan, “I came, I stripped, I won”, she brought the issues of inequality that drove her to the attention of the world.
It was in April 2008 that Shachko founded feminist activist group Femen with her friends Anna Hutsol and Alexandra Shevchenko. Their first public protest focused on the plight of Ukrainian women forced into prostitution by poverty. Shachko had personal experience of the economic crisis in the Ukraine. She was born in Khmelnitsky to an orthodox family. Her parents were both factory workers put out of work by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Her father subsequently turned to alcohol while her mother supported the family alone.
Showing great artistic talent from a very young age, Shachko, who was known to her friends and family as Ksioucha, first honed her painting skills at a school specialising in the painting of orthodox religious icons. By the age of 12, she was already making a living by painting church frescoes. Being steeped in a culture of religiosity and religious iconography inspired Shachko to consider becoming a nun. However, persuaded by her family not to join a convent, she began to question her faith.
Shachko’s thwarted religious fervour was soon diverted into activism. Describing the conversion, she said: “I’d gone from one extreme to the other.” As a member of Komsomolsk, the Communist party’s youth division, she helped to clean statues of Lenin. However, she found that privations the Ukrainians were still suffering post-independence made them unsympathetic to the communist cause.
While studying philosophy at Khmelnytskyi university, Shachko turned her attention to women’s rights and founded the Centre for New Perspectives. At the same time, she met Hutsol and Shevchenko, her future Femen colleagues.
Femen was originally formed with the intention of defending the rights of women students but it wasn’t long before the group turned their attention to wider issues. To attract attention to their protests against sexual exploitation, the Femen founders initially demonstrated dressed only in their underwear. It was Shachko who raised the stakes, going topless at a protest in Kiev in August 2009.
Explaining the decision, Shachko told her friend, essayist Jacqueline Feldman: “Nudity was an allusion to our poverty.” However, Shachko also understood: “Naked bodies and politics: it’s an explosive combination.”
The baring of breasts would soon become Femen’s trademark. The group’s topless protests drew attention, support and anger, particularly as the their remit widened to protesting government corruption. Femen’s members became used to being arrested. Between 2011 and 2013, Shachko and her colleagues were shadowed by documentary filmmaker Alain Margot, who captured some of their struggles.
During a protest demanding the release of political prisons in Minsk in 2011, Shachko was one of three Femen activists allegedly kidnapped by the Belarusian KGB. They were taken to a forest where they were stripped, soaked in oil and threatened with being set on fire. Later, she spent two weeks in prison in Moscow for an anti-Putin protest. After Femen protested the corruption which surrounded Ukraine hosting Euro 2012, Shachko’s home in Kiev was turned over by the Ukrainian secret service, who allegedly planted grenades to frame Shachko as a terrorist. Around that time she broke both her forearms jumping off a wall to evade capture by men she thought were state heavies.
Facing charges of terrorism and fearing for her life, Shachko fled to France. She was granted political refugee status in 2013. From Paris she protested against the French Front National as well as continuing to bait Putin from a distance.
While in Paris, Shachko cowrote a history of Femen with Galia Ackerman, a French writer. Alain Margot’s documentary, Je Suis FEMEN, was released to great acclaim in 2014. That same year, Shachko left the group she had founded, after disagreements with the French branch, which were perhaps foreshadowed in Margot’s film. Turning up at a fancy party, Shachko looked awkward in high heels and remarked of some of her fellow activists, who seemed more comfortable with the world of fashion and glamour, “Without Femen, we’d have nothing in common”.
Distanced from the movement she created, Shachko concentrated on her art, though her activism was never far beneath the surface. She told Feldman: “We call for a revolution: one person will use music, another painting, another her own body. An artist is always a revolutionary. I hope this is true in my case.”
Shachko had her first solo exhibition in Paris in 2016. Her work combined her political messages with the skills she had learned as a child painting icons. Earlier this year, she took part in a group show, exhibiting works including a triptych of a cross morphing into a Kalashnikov. She was working on a series called Iconoclast at the time of her death.
Shachko was found dead in her Paris apartment. It was reported that she had taken her own life by hanging, after leaving a suicide note. She is believed to have been suffering from depression. Her last post to Instagram said only: “You are fake.”
Five years earlier, in Je Suis FEMEN, Shachko spoke of her beliefs. “I’m not prepared to accept society as it is … I’m prepared to fight to the bitter end even though I know that it won’t lead to huge changes in my generation … I want to give people a wakeup call.”
Oksana Shachko, Ukrainian artist and political activist, born 31 January 1987, died 23 July 2018