Oksana Shachko.

Oksana Shachko (1987–2018)

Oksana Shachko, an artist and cofounder of the Ukrainian radical-feminist activist group Femen, was found dead earlier this week at her home in a Paris suburb. She was thirty-one. The police are considering the death a suicide pending the results from an autopsy. Shachko was a key member of Femen, a guerilla-style protest collective that, along with Russia’s Pussy Riot, exemplified a provocative post-Soviet phenomenon that was often met with violence from the government and counterprotesters.

Soon after cofounding Femen in 2008 and participating in a few conventional protests, the “sextremist” group began demonstrating topless, sometimes with slogans painted on their bodies (“FUCK CHURCH,” “GAY IS OK,” “FUCK RELIGION”). The group swiftly drew attention from around the world, and footage of their protests often went viral. “Nudity as a tool of activism is hardly new,” wrote one journalist in a New York Times profile of Femen. “But the women of Femen have elevated it to an internet-age art form.”

“Oksana fought for justice, she fought for equality, she fought for herself and all women as a hero,” said Femen in a statement. In 2011, Femen said that Shachko was one of three members to have been abducted by security agents and forced to strip naked in a forest, covered in oil, after protesting topless and taunting Belarussian president Alexander Lukashenko. Shachko was again kidnapped and badly beaten during a visit by Russian president Vladimir Putin to Ukraine, the group claims.

Born in 1987 in Khmelnytsky, a town 160 miles from Kiev, Shachko began studying religious iconography as a child at the behest of her parents and soon started painting frescoes in monasteries in churches. When she was thirteen, her parents convinced her not to become a nun, and Shachko began questioning her faith, eventually becoming an atheist. She would later return to painting religious iconography, but this time for art galleries—female angels holding cigarettes, a woman in a burka cradling a cherub (Femen has faced criticism for their style of advocacy for Muslim women). After entering Khmelnytsky Free University in 2000, Shachko made art as part of the New Ethics Organization until 2008, when she helped launch Femen, which would eventually have chapters across the globe. A solo exhibition of her work was held at Galerie Mansart in Paris in 2016.

“In my icons, I replace men; I put women in the center,” Shachko said in an interview with Crash magazine in December 2017. “My work is still very feminist.”