Victoria Lomasko: A Trip to Dagestan

 25 Jan 2016

from Drawing the Times

 Elmira, a Kumyk woman

Mostly homebound folks like me learn a lot by going on illustrated and narrated trips to various parts of Russia and the former Soviet Union with graphic reportage artist extraordinaire Victoria Lomasko. Her recent “Trip to Dagestan,” now published in English in Drawing the Times, is no exception. In fact, it will blow your socks off if you read it all the way through. 



 The first sight I was shown in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan, a Russian Federation republic in the North Caucasus, was the prison on Scorpion Hill.

“A rebuilt garrison fortress, it is one of the oldest buildings in town: the original masonry walls have survived,” the locals told me.

Another such sight was an ordinary nineteenth-century mansion, deemed the most beautiful house in Makhachkala.

The locals also suggested touring the numerous markets.

“Our city is one big bazaar,” they said.


The fish stalls of the second market I visited, where I sketched a Tabarasan man and a Dargin man.

I tried to draw and mingle with people at the markets. What is your ethnicity? is a question people are glad to answer in Makhachkala. Over thirty ethnic groups peacefully coexist in Dagestan.

After receiving a complimentary portrait from me, one man came back half an hour later, drawing in hand.

“I took a closer look at it and realized you drew the nose too big,” he said.

Another sitter, a female honey vendor, also rejected her portrait.

“Everyone says I have a straight Greek nose. But you have given me a Roman nose,” she explained.

The women had asked me to draw her with her son. An elderly passerby noted behind my back that Islam prohibited making images of human beings.

03_MaryamwebMaryam (left): “Muslim women are not supposed to let themselves be drawn. Am I committing a sin?” Her son Muhammad is on the right.


Students from Jemal College, where I gave a lecture, told me about cases when people had enrolled in the art department but then refused to draw models for religious reasons.

“Some ‘covered’ girls destroy drawings of models after critiques. They want to do only costume design,” I was told by the students.

“Covered” refers to girls and women who have donned the hijab.


Teacher Tatyana Borisovna: “Religion does not allow us to draw nude models.”

 There is no nudity in the art department.

“One year we sketched a guy without a shirt,” the students recalled. “But even that was behind closed doors. The model did not want everyone to know he was posing.”

05_MusawebMusa, aspiring contemporary artist: “I like contemporary art because it is incomprehensible.”

 Me: “You don’t want Dagestanis to understand it and come to exhibitions?”

 Musa: “No.”

 This was the conversation I had with a student who attended my lecture on socially engaged art.


06_KizilurtwebSaida (left): “If someone objects to me drawing, I’ll lose my temper.” Her friend and fellow student Raisat is on the right.

“What can a woman do in Dagestan?” asked Saida. “Islam says a woman cannot dance or sing.”

Friends Saida and Raisat hail from the town of Kizilyurt. They rent a flat together in Makhachkala. Their families calmly let the girls go to the big city to study art, and Saida’s mom even helps out with hanging their works during critiques.

“As a child, I saw a girl from a religious family dressed all in white and wearing a scarf. It was so beautiful. That was when I first asked Mom to buy me a scarf. When I read the Koran, I realized I was wearing the scarf for myself. Anyone can go up to an ‘uncovered’ girl and ask for her phone number. I feel comfortable wearing a hijab, a tunic, and jeans,” Saida told me.

“I would like to wear a scarf, but my parents would think the Wahhabis had recruited me. The husband of an acquaintance of mine was recruited, and they left with their children for Syria. They are convinced if they perish there they will go straight to paradise. There are girls who take off their scarves when they leave the house, and there are girls who put them on when their parents are not looking,” said Madina, another student.

Uma’s mom is a music teacher, and her dad is an artist.

“When I said I wanted to study art, Dad silently left the room. And he came back with a sketch pad.”


“They try and marry off girls in a hurry, while they still have no opinions of their own.”

“In a hurry” means before the age of twenty. In Dagestan, it is important the husband be able to easily train his wife to suit himself.

For the full text, please, go to Drawing the Times.


Text and art by Victoria Lomasko. This memoir and artwork were originally published by Drawing the Times, a project initiated by the Dutch graphic journalist Eva Hilhorst. Original publication: Translated by The Russian Reader.