Accessibility links

Breaking News

Rising Latvian Artist Says 'Holy Monkeys' Not Meant To Offend

A detail from Blue Monkey (above), which was so popular it was purchased before it could be featured in the annual winners' exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery in London.

All sorts of motifs turn up in Sergei Dyomin's mildly dystopic paintings -- pigs, sewing machines, railway cars. But it's the monkeys that proved the lucky break.

Dyomin, an artist living in the Latvian capital, Riga, won international attention in 2010 when his icon-style painting Boris And Gleb -- featuring two monkeys in the guise of the 11th-century Orthodox saints -- was a finalist in an online competition created by the prestigious Saatchi Gallery.

Another simian image won him a second-finalist spot in 2014 -- Blue Monkey, featuring a solemn, blue-faced baboon in Orthodox clerical garb. The painting was so popular it was purchased before it could be featured in the annual winners' exhibition in London.

"The logic is hard to explain, but somehow the monkeys really scored," says Dyomin, 41. "I've liked monkeys ever since I was a kid."

Dyomin's "holy monkeys" have definitely raised his profile in the art world. Most of his paintings now sell for upwards of $10,000 apiece.

Boris And Gleb by Sergei Dyomin
Boris And Gleb by Sergei Dyomin

But his casual intermingling of primates and Orthodox iconography is almost certain to raise eyebrows among Russian Orthodox faithful -- something the artist insists is not his intent.

"When I use the icon motif, I'm not attaching any significance to it," says Dyomin, an atheist who nonetheless keeps a collection of icon postcards at home. "I'm not striving to offend anyone. I simply like the icon style -- it's very beautiful, with its rich colors and the static figures."

Some people see the pictures as deliberately offensive; others as an eclectic mix of old and new.

"I let the critics search for philosophical meaning," Dyomin says, adding that the majority of his buyers are Russians who see no problem with his work. "If there's anything that pushes me to paint this way, it's probably partly irony."

Far from caricatures, the monkeys in Dyomin's work fare considerably better than his humans, who are often portrayed as blackened, skeletal figures sitting alone in a ragtag kitchen or throwing up in the shower.

Think Green by Sergei Dyomin
Think Green by Sergei Dyomin

In one particularly provocative work, he portrays three masked women clad in black burqas, wearing suicide vests and riding bicycles under a banner reading "Think Green" in Arabic.

The painting, he says, is as much about Greenpeace -- "kind of a totalitarian movement in its own right" -- as it is about terrorism. Dyomin suggests the subjects in his painting are "Islamic environmentalists" fighting for ecological protection by riding bikes, but ready to blow themselves up for a cause.

"I'm an atheist, but I'm not opposed to people being religious," the artist says. "If their convictions are really deep, then they should be impervious to offense. They have their path and they travel along it, ignoring outside irritants."

Many of Dyomin's paintings are sometimes affectionate, sometime ominous renderings of his hometown. In one painting, Premonition Of War, white dirigibles float in a cloudless sky over Riga -- Dyomin's response, he says, to Latvian press reports about the possibility of a Russian invasion.

Premonition Of War by Sergei Dyomin
Premonition Of War by Sergei Dyomin

"It's probably likely to happen," he says. "But what can Latvia do? Whether or not we're part of NATO and the EU, to the ordinary person here, it doesn't matter."

Dyomin, who holds a day job in the Latvian public archives, says only one thing matters to him: "I need to work less so I can paint more," he says.

Written by Daisy Sindelar in Prague based on reporting by Maria Kugel in Riga