Dasha Zhukova, the Russian oil heiress who has become one of the art world’s most visible financiers, has been quiet these past few weeks. She hasn’t posted on Instagram since December. In February, she halted all exhibits at the Garage Museum in Moscow, until “the human and political tragedy that is unfolding in Ukraine has ceased.” And perhaps most notably: She has not made any public comments about her ex-husband and Garage co-founder Roman Abramovich, the Russian oligarch and beleaguered FC Chelsea owner whose close ties to the Kremlin have made him the target of several international sanctions and one conveniently timed poisoning attempt.
If you’re unfamiliar with Zhukova, a quick primer: She’s the daughter of Russian oil tycoon Alexander Zhukov (whose oil business, notably, includes one of the largest non-state oil producers in Ukraine), who later married Abramovich, another oil tycoon. The latter came into his oil money under suspicious circumstances — buying the state-owned company Sibneft for $100 million in the 1990s (in an auction now known to be rigged), and selling it back to the state seven years later for $13 billion. That, interestingly, was also his net worth when Zhukova met him that same year. Over the next few years, Zhukova would spend Abramovich’s “self-made” billions on a range of projects, including but not limited to: the Garage Museum in Moscow, Garage magazine, the online art sales platform Art.sy, the real estate development firm Ray, and annual New Year’s Eve parties on St. Barts that cost up to $5 million. In 2019, they divorced. The following year, she married Lindsay Lohan’s ex-boyfriend, Greek shipping heir Stavros Niarchos III, at a St. Moritz wedding that reportedly cost $6.5 million.
But money, stars, and superyachts aside, Zhukova’s true calling is art. We know this because in 2015, she told The Wall Street Journal: “I actually love physics, but art is where I thought I could make a difference for my country.” So in this trying time, perhaps we shouldn’t concern ourselves with her financial ties (gauche), so much as her self-expression (noble). That brings us to her most notorious celebration of the fine arts: The time in 2014, when she posed on a sculpture of a half-naked Black mannequin, restrained with leather straps and molded into the shape of a chair.
The photo appeared on the Russian art blog, Buro 24/7, in an interview about the debut of Garage magazine. The chair in question, called Chair, was a work from Norwegian artist Bjarne Melgaard. Some have called him “the most famous Norwegian artist since Edvard Munch,” though perhaps that says more about Norway’s presence in the international art scene than anything Melgaard has accomplished. The piece was intended as a “commentary on gender and racial politics,” a spokesperson later noted — indeed, it was a reimagination of British pop artist Allen Jones’s 1969 works, Hatstand, Table, and Chair. The series of fiberglass sculptures depicted white women, wearing S&M garb, staged as furniture.
Clearly, anyone angry about the implications of this white billionaire socialite sitting on a literally subjugated Black woman had missed the point. As one Guardian columnist wrote at the time:
The chair is shaped like a woman tied up, lying on her back with her boots as a backrest. Oh, and she's black. Cue accusations of racism, attempts to apologise/explain and articles about the whole sorry saga. But in reality, it is not about racism as such…The New York Times has described Melgaard as a "projectile vomiter" of an artist. Excess is his thing. One of his other sculptures shows the Pink Panther smoking crystal meth. His art may be in bad taste, but I am fairly sure that in making this chair he was not intending to denigrate black women. Rather it is a comment on the controversial works of the 1960s British artist Allen Jones.
But even Jones’s sculptures were not always warmly received. In 1986, when Chair appeared at the Tate Modern, two women entered the museum and doused it in paint stripper. The paint stripper incident took place, appropriately, on International Women’s Day. Less appropriately, Zhukova’s photo, in which she sat on Melgaard’s version, ran on Martin Luther King Day. When the group Organizing for Women’s Liberation, among others, noted that the image was “incredibly racist,” Zhukova’s spokeswoman released a statement:
Its use in this photo shoot is regrettable as it took the artwork totally out of its intended context, particularly given that Buro 24/7’s release of the article coincided with the important celebration of the life and legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I regret allowing an artwork with such charged meaning to be used in this context. I utterly abhor racism and would like to apologize to those offended by my participation in this shoot.
So did Buro 24/7: “Buro 24/7 is against racism and everything that may humiliate people,” a spokesman said in a statement. “The chair presented on a photo should be seen like nothing but a piece of contemporary art. We sincerely apologize if the posted photos insulted our readers.”
Perhaps it is ultimately for the best that Zhukova is keeping her head down these days. Melgaard, on the other hand, is still at it. Just last fall, his sculptures appeared as the centerpiece of New York’s new anti-woke gallery, O’Flaherty’s.