Welcome to Poverty Town
Artist builds his own oasis within a sprawling Siberian city
An artist's battle for the landscape
Located about 1,700 miles from Moscow, Omsk, with a population of more than one million, resembles other Siberian cities in many ways. The city center features museums, architectural landmarks, coffee shops and theaters, but if you take a few steps away from the "heart" of the city, you will find gray outskirts, residential areas and industrial zones. However, the facade is deceptive. An average-looking 1st Industrial Street is lined with inconspicuous houses, but if you knock on one of the doors, you arrive at Bednotown, or Poverty Town. It is a multicolored and tangible world created by an artist as a manifesto against faceless urbanism.
We enter the house of Damir Muratov, an artist whose works are known not only in Siberia and other parts Russia, but abroad as well. Damir was born in Tobolsk, which was Siberia's capital prior to the revolution of 1917, and he obtained a degree as a graphic artist in Omsk. His most famous works – a belligerent Cheburashka, a Soviet cartoon hero, with a machine gun (CheBurashka, 2002); Mao Zedong as Mickey Mouse (MickeyMao, 2005); and the flag of "the United States of Siberia" (United States of Siberia, 2010–2011) – are seen as pop art or Sots Art (Soviet Pop Art), although the artist himself prefers to refrain from engaging in artistic categories.
"This might sound harsh, but I'm convinced that styles were invented by art dealers and gallery owners," Damir said in an interview with Ultramarin, an Internet magazine dedicated to street art.
Damir Muratov
Artist, a local resident of Omsk
"Gaudi for the poor," laughs Damir, pointing at one of Poverty Town's walls, which is a mosaic of motley splinters of ceramics and clay, weird masks, parts of jugs and other objects. It's a Siberian take on Arte Povera.
The artist gives us a tour of Poverty Town, leading us along the Jim Morrison Fence – a gallery of a dozen multicolored doors that Damir collected in the neighborhood with his son Arseny and his artist friend Victor Kulkin. It's a Siberian take on The Doors.
There's a red-painted sidewalk made of wooden planks beneath our feet. Damir says: "This is just like in Cannes." Nothing is random in Poverty Town: Bricks in the corner and garbage bags, garden dwarfs and water lilies in an improvised pond are parts of the story reflecting the artist's view of the world.

"Any man is a personal battle for landscape," said Damir in an interview with Siburbia, an Internet magazine dedicated to Siberia. "When you come out onto your balcony with a cup of coffee and see gloomy, gray modular apartment blocks – that's your landscape, that's what you've achieved. If you like it, you can go on living here. I wasn't lucky enough to be born in Italy or the North Caucasus, so I arrange my private scenery in accordance with my outlook. So I take a cup of coffee, go out to Poverty Town in the morning and see the wild vine grow there... The entire history of mankind is a battle for landscape."

Kitchen conversations about Siberia
After a walk around the streets of Poverty Town, Damir takes us to Kuchum Gallery, a room full of paintings and artifacts, which is a study, a living room and a kitchen for friendly visits. Art critic Leonid Lerner described it as an "Oriental room with sofas," where it's easy to make yourself at home, switch to a less formal conversation style, smoke a cigarette or drink some Altaian tea. At a certain point you realize that Poverty Town is not a district, a gallery or a house in a conventional understanding of these concepts; it is an extension of the artist Damir's inner universe.

There is a voluminous catalog of Damir's works on the chair, with one of his most celebrated works on the cover, the United States of Siberia flag. This work pays homage to Jasper Johns' Flag.
Damir has been accused of separatism because of this work more than once, but he retorts with his signature humor:
"If you see separatism in the United States of Siberia, relax, take a break and have some ice cream."
Damir Muratov
Artist, a local resident of Omsk
"There aren't any proper myths about Siberia, only cliches and stereotypes," muses the artist, sitting in his gallery living room with a cup of tea. "For my guests, including foreign visitors, Siberia is first and foremost about people, interaction and relations, about the Terra Incognita, but not about cliches. You need to find a way of perception. Siberia is quite a territory to perceive all at once. My Siberia is in my head. It starts there and ends there as well."
We close the gates of Poverty Town. Before our eyes, there is a shabby fence and a bus stop for Route 66 – "The Factory of Nonwoven Fabrics." Beneath our feet is cracked asphalt. An elderly woman with a string bag is waiting for the bus by our side as a surly-looking man walks past. The outskirts of Omsk jump up at you just after you leave the gates of Poverty Town behind. You can live here, but you can also build a house and surround it with a space that corresponds to your identity and make your neighbors on 1st Industrial Street the characters of your paintings.
Text by Anna Gruzdeva / Siberia: Joining the dots.
Edited by Joe Crescente.
Design and layout by Yulia Shandurenko.
Images credits: Lena Franz, Shadrapa livejournal.

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