51 Sayda Afonina

Prof. Sayda Afonina is a portrait painter and teacher at the Russian Academy of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture, in Moscow, where she graduated in 1995. She's a member of the UNESCO Federation of Artists.

She was born in the town of Syzran on the Volga River. I haven't found all that much about her life, apart from that she has daughters who study ballet. According to her website, she feels extremely fortunate and blessed to have been given the opportunity to study at some of Russia's leading art schools, and to teach painting. She explains that this dream was unheard of when she was a child. She also talks about her art, although the translation is a bit rough. I think what she mostly communicates is the importance of expressing beauty in her paintings and subjects. That, and trying to show realism through avoiding overly ornate costumes and places. She writes,

"Initially, it was fun to dress the sitters in old-time costumes. But portraying them against the background of the dreamed up palace and mansion interiors or fabulously beautiful scenery, I noticed that their expressions were changing. Contemporary signs and characters disappeared, and one could see a home theater with amateur actors."

Sayda speaks a bit about her influences, saying, "As I remain a contemporary painter, I admire the works by Jan Vermeer, Antoine Watteau and Karl Bryullow, whose characters are full of enigma, unspoken feeling and tensions. I hope that a thin but strong thread of real art connects us to the great past and the unknown future."

Sayda Afonina has been kind enough to correspond with me via Instagram, and we've had a long interview, relying on Google, unfortunately, to translate. The following below is my best approximation at Sayda's answers to my questions.

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Can you tell me more about your life? Who were your parents and what did they do? Did you have brothers and sisters? Was anyone in your family artistic? When did you get married and how many children do you have? Are they artistic too?

“I am from a working class family. My mother, Alimya Abubekirova, was born in 1929. She is from the village of Verkhnyaya Tereshka, in Ulyanovsk. Her family had seven children. She only received a 3rd grade education before the war began in 1941. Not being able to study, she helped with the housework. Her parents died when she was 11 years old.

“At the age of 29, my mother came to Syzran, in the Samara Region. There she met my father. My dad, Munir Ismailovich Akhmetov, was also born in 1929, in Srednyaya Tereshka, Ulyanovsk. He had a 7th grade education.

“When my parents met he already had two sons, aged 2 and 4 years. His wife had left them all, going to Tashkent. I found out about it when I finished school. I was born six years later, in 1965. There were five of us - my parents and my two half-brothers. There were no books in the house, no pictures either, we lived very poorly, Dad liked to drink, perhaps starting because his first wife had left him? I don’t know. My parents died long ago, 25 years ago.

“All their lives they worked at the Syzran Flour Mill. They spoke their native Tatar language. It was difficult for me to study at school, I did not understand a lot of Russian words. Teachers for me were like gods! I still have a great admiration for people who speak well.

 “As a child, I constantly drew princesses, Pinocchio, a wolf from the cartoon. Adults and children noted that it was very good. My mother always praised me for any drawing.

“One of my brothers, Myassar, died eight years ago. The elder brother, Nail, lives in another city. He is an engineer by profession. In childhood he loved to draw. It was he who taught me to draw a wolf. He said it was easy to copy, but hard to invent. I remembered these words for the rest of my life.”

'The New Dress'

Have you been an artist all your life or have you ever done any other work?

“Our house stood on the Volga River. There was a yacht club nearby. I studied there until I was 19. They wanted to leave me there as a coach, to work with children. In the summer (during my school years) I worked at a garment factory. After school I went to work for the Road Administration, painting road signs and benches. And, in the evenings, I went to an art studio for adults. Drawing did not let me go.”

How often did you draw from when you were a child to young adult?

“Only when I wanted to. It was intermittent every 2-3 months.  At recess I drew the faces of classmates. Once I decided to treat the teachers, so I drew their portraits with pencil.”

When did you first fall in love with art? When did you realize you have a talent for art and that you wanted to make a career as a painter?

“At school, everyone told me that I would be an artist, but I did not believe in myself, I knew that I lived in a small town. But, in my heart, there was a feeling that it would be so. In our lives, there are always people who lead to the very Path in the heart!”

So, you applied to art university from secondary school?

“So I decided, why not try to go to study [at university]? It was not right away… I applied there for 3 years, every summer. And, only the third time I was accepted to study. I thought that I drew better, but they wouldn't take me ... it was a shame. Here my character and stubbornness were tempered. I was sure this is my profession!

“Then I got in and I realized that this is Mine! In the second year I married a classmate, Igor Butusov and had a daughter, Naila. I was pregnant and continued to study right up until the day I gave birth. The teacher came up to me and asked when I would give birth? I answered with a pencil in my hand, ‘Today.’”

'Portrait of Volodya Dvornik', 1993

What did you learn at university?

“My professors were B.D. Borisov for painting, V.V. Filatov for drawing, and G.V. Zhakov for composition. These are wonderful teachers who instilled in me a love of art! Yes, I took their knowledge and forgot to thank them for it (and, it seems that this is your forte). The teachers were, first of all, artists themselves. They carried away stories about the old masters, and pointed out the artists I needed to be guided by: V. Serov, M Vrubel, K. Korovin, N. Fechin.

“I gave away all my clothes (as a sign that I was giving up the philistine life) and sew a black dress with a white collar. Black does not reflect light on the canvas when you paint. And the white collar was the only embellishment.”

'Self Portrait, while at the Academy'

What was it like growing up as an artist in Soviet Russia? Were there any fears or limitations?

“I was born in the Soviet Union, I did not know any other life, and I was then just a student in school. I can only compare it to now. Then it was impossible to paint the leaders, only those artists who were approved and appointed painted them.”

'Girl with a Boat', 1996

What is the main purpose or purpose of your work?

“This is the hardest question to answer right away. The question of a lifetime. I want to influence the world by showing what beautiful people live among us. I love the historical portrait. It's like retelling history in portraits. Portraits affect souls, this is how we communicate with the past. I aim to show the best side of a person. Looking at one’s portrait, the person begins to reach for his light."

'Mila is Growing Up', 2010

How do you paint a picture? How do you start? How do you make a good composition?

"I start by drawing ideas. My compositions mostly stick to the Golden section."

'Mysterious Garden', 2010

Who are your favorite artists and why?

"Valentin Serov. Holbein for his graphic quality, and Peter Rubens for his unsurpassed skill!"

What do you think makes a work of art great?

“It depends on what you want to say, compositional decisions, and skill level.”

But, how do you know when a work of art reaches that level of greatness?

“It must be unlike other artworks, and time must pass, I think. See if the work does not lose relevance. The piece should touch your heart. And, if there are a lot of people who like it, then this is a great work. This is just my opinion...”

Russia is famous in art history for its modernism: Kandinsky, Malevich, Gabo, Tatlin and Rodchenko are famous for their contributions. Does their work affect yours? If not, was it a problem at school?

“We were directed to other masters, V. Serov, Vrubel, Korovin, Repin, Malyavin, Arkhipov .... Realists. It is not an end in itself to paint a work. Are you young? With age, I have no such questions, I just do what I like. The main thing for me is to be on the move, to constantly make something.”

'Angel in Hand'. 2019?

What do you think about contemporary art?

"Contemporary art, for me, is the other pole. Once a year I go to such exhibitions of contemporary art. Looking at such pictures, the brains begin to move. I helps me in my direction."

'Snow Princess', 2010

What advice do you give to young art students?

"Work 12 hours a day. Copy paintings by artists you like very much. Find your genre, and do not fold until you become the best. Understand the responsibility you have for each painted picture you create."

What do you say to someone who thinks that art doesn't matter?

"Such people are still passionate about something, music, reading ... any Art elevates a person.

Through my art I'm discussing the future, sowing seeds in heads. I admire the pictures aloud, the ideas in the pictures! And the fact that they answer this way is their opinion. Let it be for now."

'Boy in the River', 1996

'Orchestra', 2015

'Anecka's Kingdom', 2004

'Favorite Toys' 2017?