WASHINGTON — Two separate pro-Russian art initiatives with opaque funding have launched in New York in recent weeks, raising questions of Russian involvement though their founders insist they're independent.
The first, a photo exhibition called "Material Evidence" in Chelsea, promises to tell "The full truth about the countries involved in civil conflicts," focusing on Syria and Ukraine. The other is a pop-up shop that appeared suddenly last week and sells Putin memorabilia. The people running both initiatives say they have no connection to the Russian government, despite how it might look from the outside.
The photo exhibit's curator, German photojournalist Benjamin Hiller, told BuzzFeed earlier this month that the exhibit was the idea of nine fellow photographers of different nationalities: Russian, Ukrainian, French, and Spanish, and that he had been asked to lead it. Hiller declined to name any of the photographers "because they are still working in eastern Ukraine and Syria."
The exhibit, which has already been shown in Moscow, Berlin, and Brussels, came to New York in September. According to Gawker, the exhibit "consists of a collection of enormous photographic prints and physical objects from the two titular countries' recent civil conflicts" and features photographs from the Syrian Ministry of Defense as well as displays that accuse the pro-Maidan Ukrainian protesters of being "extreme right-winged" militants.
The exhibit recently caused a small stir after Hiller said people had come in and vandalized it, leaving neo-Nazi pamphlets behind, and attacked him. Hiller said he thought people from the "right winged movement of the Ukraine Ex-Pat community" had carried out the attack.
Hiller told BuzzFeed News earlier this month that Russia, nor any other government, was funding it, and that they were relying mainly on crowdfunding.
"Nobody would ask if an Pro-Maidan exhibition or images showing the Free Syrian Army (my work on that was shown at several galleries in Germany and will be shown again at an Gallery in November in South-Germany) is funded, lets say, by Saudi Arabia, the US or NATO states," Hiller said in an email.
"The founding [sic] is coming in continuously - like here in NY we got already further donations and the main donations for getting the stuff to NY where given us in Berlin," Hiller said. "Mostly people approach us directly after visiting the exhibition, ask us how they can support us with money, if they can spread the word etc. Of course we are always running low on funds, that is why there was a lot of chaos and problems with payments in time for NY, as we had first to raise the money for it all." His co-curator has told Gawker that an unidentified "silent guy" left bags of cash to use for the exhibit.
Yet, as a story on the EuroMaidan Press site reported, Material Evidence is advertising "Journalistic Truth" grants for journalists that run up to 20,000 euros.
EuroMaidan Press noted that a RT story about an earlier incarnation of the exhibit in Moscow had identified Material Evidence's founders as Zhurnalistskaya Pravda (which itself translates to Journalistic Truth), a Russian paper reportedly connected to ultra-nationalist figure Vladislav Shurigin.
Hiller acknowledged the ties to Journalistic Truth, but said they were no longer in effect.
"The newspaper helped in Moscow to organize the first venue," he said on Friday. "After that - due to my 'intervention' - we split with this newspaper, as I want to stay independent. They have no connection to us at all, do not fund or sponsor us."
EuroMaidan Press also noted that the exhibit's website is registered to Svetlana Zaharova, a ballerina and MP in Russia's ruling party, which Hiller said was a mistake on the part of the web designer.
"If you read the piece carefully - you can figure out that she is not the owner of the website (that is a false claim)," he wrote. "The screenshot clearly shows her name is used for the Admin (!). That is a huge difference. We had a freelance Web-designer building for us the page. Why he used her name for the Admin name we have no clue."
Hiller sent a document that he will soon send to the press rebutting claims about Material Evidence (attached below).
Material Evidence is scheduled to wrap up in New York this weekend, according to its website. But Hiller told BuzzFeed News earlier this month that he hopes to take the show on the road to Chicago and Los Angeles.
New Yorkers looking for more pro-Putin entertainment of mysterious origins still have an option after Hiller's exhibit leaves: a shop that has appeared in the Gramercy neighborhood selling Putin t-shirts and portraying him as a "peacemaker."
Julius Kacinskis, an American born in Lithuania, opened the store on Tuesday.
"I went to college, did the whole nine yards," Kacinskis told BuzzFeed News. "I'm as Americanized as you can be."
Kacinskis said that 80 percent of the money needed to launch the shop — $20,000 — came from his "personal funds" and that he makes a living by investing in small businesses — "whatever makes a dollar these days." He said the Russian government was not funding the exhibit or the two security guards he has hired to protect it. The other 20 percent has come from "friends and family," he said.
Kacinskis is selling on average 100 shirts a day, he said.
As for Putin, "he's not the big Russian bear that people portray him as."
"I'm not really into the political side of it, I'm more into the education side of it," Kacinskis said. "People come in and ask, 'why this, why that.' I leave it very open to them to make their own decisions."
Russian news outlets like NTV, owned by Russian state energy company Gazprom, and Channel One, another Russian government station, have already interviewed Kacinskis, he said.
The future of the shop is still an open question, he said.
"We're very open ended on whether to shut down and go online, or go to a different location," he said. He's thinking of taking the shop "to other cities with higher Russian populations, which would be, you know, Florida or California."