Abington Art Appreciation club hosts renowned Russian artist and activist

Abington Russian activist

Nadya Tolokno spoke to Penn State Abington students about criminal justice reform.

Credit: Provided

ABINGTON, Pa. — A Penn State Abington student organization hosted a founder of the Russian feminist artist collective Pussy Riot recently via Zoom. Founder Nadya Tolokno spoke to about 70 faculty, staff, and students at the event, which was sponsored by Abington Art Appreciation (AAA).

AAA booked Tolokno as part of its efforts to elevate discussions on campus regarding criminal justice reform, feminism, LGBTQ issues, and race relations.

Tolokno’s activism against the Russian government led to a two-year prison term that included a hunger strike in a bid to improve conditions. Since her release in 2013, she has launched a prisoners’ rights organization that has been instrumental in bringing attention to the plight of Russian inmates. She spoke about activist-centered art including the group’s punk/electronic music.

Katie Mato, assistant teaching professor of art and adviser to AAA, said there were several key outcomes from the discussion.

“I think everyone came away with a better understanding of the blurring of boundaries between art and activism. Traditionally, people see them as quite different. Nadya was able to show us how this blurred,” Mato said. 

“From a criminal justice perspective, I think we found a greater understanding of criminal justice in Russia. Students also gained a better grasp of the oppression of LGBTQ and feminist and dissident voices,” she continued.

Ethan Jagielski, president of AAA and moderator of the event, said Tolokno’s story had a huge impact on him. “My takeaway was that creativity and suffering go hand in hand. You can’t create impactful work without suffering the consequences, good or bad,” the finance major said.

“Abington Art Appreciation shows how interdisciplinary art and an organization can be. There are so many different ways to approach art."

— Katie Mato, assistant teaching professor of art

The art appreciation club was founded last spring by students including Jagielski who hail from diverse disciplines and backgrounds. Their goals for AAA members are education, advancing new perspectives, analyzing art forms, and collectively sharing an appreciation for the arts.

“Abington Art Appreciation shows how interdisciplinary art and an organization can be. There are so many different ways to approach art,” Mato said. 

“We started this organization on campus to demonstrate how important art is in society. The COVID environment has been a great opportunity to bring in speakers from around the world over Zoom,” Jagielski said.

“We want to get as many people interested as possible in topics like criminal justice reform. There’s a lot going on in the world including COVID and Black Lives Matter. We bring in speakers that correlate to modern times and educate people. It’s a great way to expand your world beyond anything you can imagine,” he said.

The AAA executive board set up for the spring semester by approaching Mato with a list of key themes they wanted to address and asking for assistance in finding guest speakers to address these issues. 

“We were really excited to put something together, and Pussy Riot was the first group that came to mind. We made the initial contact, and the students took it from there,” Mato said.

"This was a high-profile event that was entirely student-led. It was exciting. Very rarely do undergraduates get to run an event like this that enhances the entire community at Abington. It was a complex process, and they worked quite hard to make it happen,” she said. “We received lots of fantastic feedback, and the event enhanced diversity on campus.”

A criminal justice student who sits on AAA’s executive board said it works out well that not all members are art majors.  

“We are looking at art from a different perspective, through a different lens. We bring in everyone’s interests and disciplines,” she said. “We want to put out events where we can dissect critical issues and topics like diversity and inclusion. People are listening and taking something away from what we are doing.”

About Penn State Abington
Penn State Abington provides an affordable, accessible and high-impact education resulting in the success of a diverse student body. It is committed to student success through innovative approaches to 21st-century public higher education within a world-class research university. With nearly 3,500 students, Penn State Abington is a residential campus that offers baccalaureate degrees in 22 majors, undergraduate research, the Schreyer Honors College, NCAA Division III athletics, and more.