(FEMEN-activists in front of the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, photo: http://femen.livejournal.com/, with kindly support by FEMEN)
FEMEN is a Ukrainian protest group founded in 2008 by Anna Hutsol. The members are mainly based in Kiev, where most of their past actions took place. According to the Ukrainian newspaper Ukrains'ka Prawda (effective: September 2010) there are more then 300 active members alone in Kiev. The organisation is known for organizing topless protests.
Is that art?
They do not call themselves artists, however, the artistic value of their actions is undeniable. They often use typical national, religious or traditional symbols. By combining these symbols with the activists' trademark (naked breasts), they ridicule and thus void them. Artistic guise, costume and political message, their use of e.g. the famous Ukrainian wreath (vinok) like in the picture above, is both. That their political campaigns do have a strong aesthetical value is obvious. But is it art? The curators of the 7th Berlin Biennale apparently did include a video showing a FEMEN-protest in Kiev into their exhibition.
The photo on the left shows FEMEN-activists in front of the famous painting Liberty Leading the People (1839) by Eugène Delacroix. The painting commemorates the July Revolution of 1830. The bare-bosomed "liberty" can be understood as a role-model for the FEMEN-movement. The painting owes its stardom not least because the symbol for the unity of the people is topless; just like the women from FEMEN. According to the German press agency, the girls want to galvanise the people, which has become tired of demonstrations after the chaotic years after the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine (November 2004 - January 2005).
The female body is an often used image in the commercial sphere. The famous slogan "Sex sells" has become a part of our daily lives and does not differ from commercials e.g. with little children. Nowadays it is commodity, not only in Russia and the Ukraine. But when it comes to "serious" topics or even politics naked breasts are a mere provocation. Critics say that the presentation of nakedness devaluates the actual message of their actions and that it is serves for nothing more than to give their protest a certain form of heroism, which is absolutely unnessential. Especially feminist (academics) criticise the performances. How can a group of young women protest against sextourism, rape, prostitution and for equal opportunities for women, while displaying the motifs known from commercials, that means: handle exactly those themes they are protesting against on a silver plate?
The end justifies the means. According to the FEMEN-logic their bodies are the best banners possible. They write slogans on them, and people will inevitably look, read the words and hopefully understand. They want to overcome sexism by sexism, just like postmodernist artists (like the Situationists) wanted to destroy culture by culture. "We are fighting an information-war and our bodies are our weapons", says Inna Shevchenko.
Anyway, the FEMEN-strategy works. The feedback they receive is immense. While other activists or groups need many year to achieve something, The FEMEN-women are well-known not only in the Ukraine and Russia. Almost every important German newspaper wrote about the group and their acitivities. The strategy is more elaborate than it might appear at first sight. FEMEN invites journalists, pressmen and television broadcasters. They can be sure that they will come.
Usually the actions do not last long. Normally policemen come, overpower the women - sometimes quite brutally - and haul them off, while the girls shout and scream. In many cases they get arrested. It is a popular photo motif for West European journalists. It is a strong contradition between the naked, slender women and the policemen, which look - in this situation - even more brutal.
Sometimes it appears to be awkward when four or five armed policemen carry away a single, almost naked woman. They master the play with the media, and being (almost) naked is just one of their methods.
On their website (femenshop.com) one can order FEMEN fan articles. One reason is that they need financial support. But another reason is that they provoke a star cult, and this is of a great use, says Simon Teune (a German prostest-researcher) in an interview with the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung. It is useful to be prominent to avoid repressions.
Fortunately there is no law that forbids women to walk around topless. Therefore the Ukrainian law enforcement officers try to use laws against hooligans or scandalisation. Sometimes policemen try to intimidate the members. According to Shevchenko it happens that policemen say they would smuggle cocaine into their pockets and hence would have a reason to arrest them for a really long time.