In Conversation with Nadya Tolokonnikova

Pussy Riot’s founder takes us behind the scenes of MATRIARCHY NOW, her latest NFT collection which launched at The Canvas 3.0

On February 12, 2012, members of feminist protest art collective Pussy Riot performed an anti-Putin protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow - and stirred the world in unexpected ways. 

 They sang the lyrics: 

 “Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin away! 

Chase Putin away, chase Putin away!

A black cassock, golden epaulettes

Entire congregations crawl to bow

The spectre of liberty is in heaven

Gay Pride has been sent to Siberia in shackles"

Pussy Riot creator, Nadya Tolokonnikova utilized neon balaclavas and socio-political messages to resonate with oppressed populations in Russia. She quickly became a leading voice of LGBTQ+ and women-identified people around the globe by actively fighting for equality and reproductive justice - a fight that landed her in jail. For their defiant message and 90 second performance inside the cathedral, Nadya and two of her comrades were sentenced to two years in prison.  “You have your brain, your conscience and your soul. They cannot take that away from you,” 23 year old Nadya told the press from behind bars. And they didn’t. Nadya kept her spirited mission alive, even after being sent to a Siberian penal colony following a hunger strike to protest inhumane prison conditions. This fearless mentality continued to propel her creativity even after her release - and nearly a decade later as she made her way to showcase her art at the World Trade Center in Manhattan.

When she walked through the doors of The Canvas on the morning of January 11, 2023, we came to understand her strength on a new level, and knew a very special partnership was about to be born. After discovering she could use the Web3 space to advance her activism and fundraising efforts in early 2021, Nadya launched the MATRIARCHY NOW project last year to raise money for reproductive rights. This special collection consists of eleven unique NFTs created from a photoshoot with world renowned photographer Ellen von Unwerth. Soon after learning of her new venture, The Canvas 3.0 raised a hand to exhibit the MATRIARCHY NOW collection, including a celebratory launch in the gallery.

The Canvas’ team spent the day with Nadya and UnicornDAO’s John Caldwell, beginning with coffee and a private styling session for the launch that evening. “I think I'm a minimalist with my style… but sometimes I go crazy,” Nadya told us. “I feel that fashion is incredibly important because this is how people get the first impression of you. Some people might criticize it for being superficial, but I don't think so. It's just one of the languages you can use, and you can either reject it or use it consciously. And instead of letting fast fashion brands decide what you will wear, you can dig a little bit deeper and make your own look and create your own persona."

And we couldn’t agree more. Isabelle Damle, The Canvas’ Director of Brand Relations, styled Nadya in an assortment of The Canvas’ Ukrainian brands under The House of Ukraine. Nadya wore pieces from the collections of GUDU, Nesamovyto, and Rybalko; accented with a rosary necklace by Good Tidings Style.  The House of Ukraine, a special curation of six Ukrainian designers by Daria Shevchenko, was established shortly after the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine to represent design talents around the country. Nadya’s selected outfit spoke for more than just aesthetic, as the war in Ukraine is a topic very close to her heart.

“I am heartbroken by what is happening in Ukraine - I wish there was more I could’ve done to drive people to stand up to Putin and his poisonous ideology,” she told us. “I had a friend who lost her life in the war. She was a journalist originally from Russia and she’s been against Putin since the beginning. She went over to cover the war and she died. Ukraine is a really beautiful place that’s inspired a lot of Russian people to maintain their activism and not give up. These are people who refuse to be tamed and show the whole world how to be courageous and stand up for their rights, their lives and their culture. Crimea, Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia are Ukraine and will remain free. Ukraine, because of the spirit of her courageous people, will be victorious.” Fueled by grief and inspired by the Ukrainian people, Nadya turned to Web3 and helped raise $7 million in two days by auctioning off an NFT for the country’s defense. She quickly saw Web3 as a space for impact, yet knew something had to change.


“I couldn't help but notice that it was a really male dominated space, and that’s not something I’m used to seeing as I surround myself with really, really diverse groups of people. And I recognized the big fundraising potential of Web3, but I didn't love that aspect of it. It wasn't inclusive enough, and it's kind of a cycle - people who look and behave like us did not want to join this group because it was already dominated. So we decided to create our own hub for like-minded people who have the same ideals. UnicornDAO was created in 2022 and collects art created by female and LGBTQ+ creators. And we don’t pay ourselves salaries, so it all goes directly to the hands of creators.” 

Less than six months after the Ukraine initiative, UnicornDAO raised half a million dollars for reproductive rights following the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe V. Wade. “It drove one of the largest countries in the world so far backwards,” Nadya remarked, “and it hurts me to see because I spent two years in jail fighting for reproductive justice and freedom to do whatever you want with your body, because it's your body.”

And the fight continued with the creation of MATRIARCHY NOW, in partnership with Rolling Stone and Ellen von Unwerth. “The opportunity to work with Ellen was amazing,” Nadya told us. “That’s one of the things this space has brought me aside from fundraising initiatives - the exposure to amazing artists who see me and Unicorn as their ally in the crypto world.”   On the night of the launch, attendees filed into The Canvas 3.0 to view the MATRIARCHY NOW exhibit, and celebrate equality in the heart of The World Trade Center. As Nadya floated through the crowd and engaged with guests, it became clear just how impactful her mission has been.

“You have two choices,” she explained just before heading into the gallery, when asked what advice she would give to people wanting to make a difference. “You can beat yourself down to death for not being as good as you want to be, or you can pick something else. And if you want to express this through passion or art or music, I promise you it will have some sort of impact. I think the pure understanding that you have the chance to make the world a little bit better should be a good enough motive to keep going.”

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