In Elektra KB’s Theocratic Republic of Gaia, a brainwashed army of genderless humanoids struggles to quash a guerrilla uprising led by a troupe of seditious dancing warriors. Bare breasted and tutu clad, their lips and eyes hidden by veils or obscured by black bars, these Cathara Insurgent Women recur as prominent characters in the artist’s photographs, videos, artist books, and collage works on fabric, usually operating as allegories for resistance. “The veil has been used in every culture in the world, and it always suggests a hiding,” KB says. “So I started using that motif, as well as silhouettes or shadows, as a signifier of repression that functions basically like redacted text.”
Anchored by extensive research into what the artist describes as “the demonization of women and revolutionary culture since the heretics in the Middle Ages,” KB’s work features layers of allusion to various civilizations, periods, and power structures. Such disparate motifs and symbols as the balaclava worn by armed Russian police, elements of Aztec architecture, indigenous Latin American fabrics, and the traditional garb of medieval nuns are integrated into the imagined totalitarian narrative of Gaia, which is placed in conversation with contemporary crises and events.
In a recent series of hand-sewn fabric works that debuted at the Untitled art fair in Miami in December, felt silhouettes inspired by photographs of police violence during the 2012 national agrarian strike in Colombia mingle with images of the Cathara women, similarly brought to their knees. Stitched onto garish, floral backdrops, these haunting landscapes of bound, tortured, or silenced forms—titled after the actual locations of related brutalities, contemporary and historical—evoke the turmoil of a postcolonial society at war. “There is this constant tension between utopia and dystopia that happens in the world,” the artist says, “and my intention is to talk about this world, but from a place of resistance.”
The need for a “safe space” in which to speak critically led KB to invent Gaia when she was a young girl. Born in Soviet-era Odessa, she moved at the age of two to the war-torn Colombian town of Saravena, when her father, a doctor, was relocated there, and then to a large, colonial-style hospital in the Boyacá province. Despite the violence she witnessed daily—she was regularly awoken in the night by the screams of women in labor or wounded men, as armed conflict raged on—she remembers her childhood as blissful, if unconventional. “My father explained everything to me, so it was normal,” KB says. “The hospital was my playground.”
When she was seven, however, her mother took her to Bogotá, and she struggled to assimilate into the country’s “flamboyant capitalist and Catholic society,” ultimately heading to the School of Visual Arts in New York for her B.F.A. She is currently pursuing an M.F.A. from Hunter College, and her works range in price from $1,200–$10,000 at BravinLee programs.
“By imagining this world where I could say or be anything, I could be free from the chains of censorship. But I don’t think we can create something in our minds that doesn’t already exist,” she says. “Gaia exists in reality. I didn’t create it, I discovered it.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the April 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 112 under the title “Elektra KB.”