Born in 1990 in Perm, Russia and now based in Toronto, Katya Ilina has worked in portrait, fashion and documentary photography while living in the UK, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, America and Canada. She attributes the unique perspective of her work to her experience of different cultures.
Ilina has exhibited in Canada, South Korea and the UK – including the 162nd edition of the RPS International Photography Exhibition – and is now studying for a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) in Image Arts: Photography Studies at Ryerson University, Toronto.
Her latest project, Rosemary and Thyme, examines body positivity in masculinity and questions society’s constructs of gender. ‘David’, one of her portraits from this series, has been shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Portrait Prize 2021.
The prize-winning photographs, and those selected for inclusion in the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2021 exhibition, were chosen from 5,392 submissions entered by 2,215 photographers from 62 countries. A total of 55 portraits from 26 artists have been selected.
Here, Ilina outlines her motivations behind Rosemary and Thyme.
"It’s a huge honour to have my portrait, ‘David’, shortlisted for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2021. My first encounter with the competition was when I was living in London in 2013, which is the year Spencer Murphy’s picture of jockey Katie Walsh at Kempton Park clinched the top prize. I remember standing mesmerised in front of that photograph for a long time. The image seemed simultaneously so alive and timeless.
"‘David’ is from my latest project, Rosemary and Thyme, which explores body positivity in masculinity and questions society’s constructs of gender by highlighting their fluidity.
Above: ‘Kyla Milette’
"Since starting my BFA in 2019 I’ve been captivated by feminist art history and the history of depicting male and female characters in different media – it’s helped me understand the origins of the current position of gender in societies.
"Traditionally, many male portraits depict men in positions of power, often in action. It can be expressed through their assertive body language, uniform, or other set design elements. In particular, clothes communicate the sort of attention one desires to receive. In many portraits, uniforms imply a public role rather than individual private identity, like a kind of shield. Most nude male paintings are of muscular heroes, possibly fighting someone. In contrast, women are often depicted as being docile or passive – their nudity communicating vulnerability, weakness and openness to gaze.
"My work mainly explores identity expression, gender and the human condition in the context of social and cultural change. Through Rosemary and Thyme I’ve focused on body image as a signifier of masculinity. I borrowed so-called feminine body language from classic female nude paintings and juxtaposed it with the bodies of male sitters. My aim is to transfer ideas and qualities associated with these poses – such as vulnerability, weakness, softness and gentleness – to show that contemporary men have the right to unashamedly be and express these traits too. In ‘David’, David’s body language is appropriated from Titian’s ‘Venus of Urbino’.
"Growing up in a traditional society like Russia, where pre-defined gender roles, sexism and the gender pay gap are the norm, I’ve always been hyper-aware of the limitations imposed on me as a woman. Since leaving Russia in 2011 and experiencing other cultures, I’ve become interested in the role of women in those societies."
All images by Katya Ilina
The Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2021 exhibition is at Cromwell Place arts hub, London, 6 November 2021-2 January 2022.
Rosemary and Thyme is exhibited online, 10 November 2021-28 February 2022.
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