First published: Winter 2022/23
Alex Xatkevich’s art is drawn from his previous life in the Soviet Union, a time before he had suffered prison, death row and hospitalisation
Many facts about the life of Alex Xatkevich are concealed by medical confidentiality. We know that he was born in 1950 in Riga, the capital of the Latvian SSR, annexed by the Soviet Union by force during World War II. Art historian and curator Alexandra Migunova-Tikhanyuk reports that at 18 he was sentenced to 15 years in prison following a string of events, the nature of which remains classified in archives.
Xatkevich in the hospital art room in 2018, photo: Alexandra Migunova-Tikhanyuk
After his release from prison in 1983, Xatkevich was at large for three years, working as a loader. In 1987, he was convicted for murder and this time was sentenced to death. After 44 days – which he says he spent on death row – a psychiatric examination concluded that he had severe mental health issues and he was committed instead to a secure psychiatric hospital in the Kaliningrad region. There he underwent involuntary treatment, including electro-convulsive therapy. Today, due to his mental state, he remains in an institution, this one in the west of Russia.
A Beautiful Lady with Black Skin and a Lot of all Kinds of Beautiful Items, 2015
all artworks: pencil and watercolour on paper, 16.5 x 12 in. / 42 x 30 cm; all images courtesy: Alexandra Migunova-Tikhanyuk
Xatkevich’s life has been limited to hospital walls and follows a very strict regime. He has attended group art therapy classes three times a week for almost 20 years. While drawing, he exists in an imaginative world separate to that of his classmates, not following the art therapist’s instructions. He has created hundreds of drawings.
Snow Woman, Bear and Spinning Top, 2015, Cavin-Morris Gallery
Xatkevich’s figurative world is tightly defined. His general aesthetic demonstrates a lack of even a basic art education. Visually and conceptually the world of his drawings is framed by a limited life experience and by pictures remembered from school books. His vision of reality seems to have been frozen at around the age of 18, when he was first incarcerated. The world of his artistic creations still references life in the Soviet Union and the relatively prosperous city of his birth, Riga, from a time before he was confined either to prison or hospital.
Young Woman with a Globe and Lots of Bundles of Money and Sixteen Birches Growing in Beautiful Pots, c. 2008
Xatkevich’s drawings endlessly reproduce desirable objects in past Soviet culture: reel tape recorders, TVs, tractors, aeroplanes, trains and buses, milk bottles, an abundance of fruit and vegetables, and ornate bottles of liquor. All of these would have been in short supply when he was free, and of course are even less attainable in prison or a secure hospital. Other, more symbolic objects also appear in his pictorial spaces: gold, platinum, silver, diamonds and neat packs of money.
By ANNA SUVOROVA and COLIN RHODES
This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #113