Madonna Kalashnikov painting by Chris Shaw, 2012

When I completed my painting “Madonna Kalashnikov” in 2012, I immediately loved her.  From the very first sketch she also seemed to have a life of her own.

The initial idea for the image was conceived during the post 9/11 era.  I have always juxtaposed and mixed concepts about culture and religion into my icons, and had long been intrigued at how weapons can be perceived as both evil and good – especially if they are doing God’s work.  The concept was brought a bit further in another painting I made around the same time, “Madonna of the Suicide Vest”.

Weapons have been a part of religious art forever of course, but instead of swords and spears I thought, why not something modern?  There’s probably no more iconic weapon than the AK-47 Kalashnikov, both visually, and in its history.  At the time AK-47’s seemed to be everywhere, the AK was both the official weapon of conservative Islamic terrorists, and a symbol of freedom and democracy during the Arab Spring.  This is exactly the type of intertwining of opposing ideas that I love to explore.  Because the Kalashnikov is a Russian rifle, I chose an Eastern Orthodox theme for the icon and painted it.  

The painting itself is acrylic on canvas, 30” x 40”.  The figure is painted smooth with high gloss line-work, the Kalashnikov is made of gold leaf.  Contrasting the smooth figure, the background is a matte black textured impasto created with a palette knife. The color of her robes is a saturated “Spring Green” shaded with blue.   Like all my icons, I constructed her root design using golden proportions and sacred geometry.  I first exhibited Madonna Kalashnikov at Varnish Gallery (2012), then at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2013).  She received plenty of attention but also came back unsold after both exhibits, I think she was a bit too subversive for the times. I eventually sold her directly out of the studio. 

The Madonna Kalashnikov exists as a painting that hangs on a wall, but because of the internet her digital alter-ego has led a very different life. 

I can’t say she was ever a meme or went viral after her debut, but the image of Madonna Kalashnikov from my website got shared around.  I’d look it up occasionally and typically got a kick out of where she ended up, eventually she was getting all over the place.  Unfortunately that also meant unauthorized prints and merchandise started showing up too, ever since it’s been extremely labor intensive trying to keep people from printing her on shirts or other items to sell.  Bootleg Madonna Kalashnikov merchandise has been popular in East Europe, which isn’t surprising.  Less frustrating are the tattoos, there’s a lot of great Madonna Kalashnikov tattoos, I always enjoy seeing them.

In 2015, apparently Madonna Kalashnikov was conscripted by the Ukrainian Army and became a morale patch.  Her image began to show up on other military patches in Ukraine and East Europe too.  As an art image made as a comment on the AK-47’s iconic symbology, it was bewildering that Madonna Kalashnikov was co-opted to become a symbol itself.  

The story continues, in 2018 someone in Ukraine altered an image of the Madonna Kalashnikov painting.  She now held a Javelin missile launcher and was posted on twitter, shortly after she was named, “Saint Javelin”.  Not many people saw it then, I didn’t.  However, in 2022 amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the St.Javelin version of Madonna Kalashnikov went hyper-viral, eventually becoming the face of the conflict and a symbol of Ukraine’s resistance against Russia.  (See post: Saint Javelin)

As the artist who made the root image and the icon’s character, it’s truly amazing.  As a longtime supporter of Ukraine it’s an unbelievable honor to have an image organically adopted this way.  That said, there’s mixed feelings about losing all control of one’s art, and that art becoming a symbol of a conflict. Ironically, to make peace with it, I feel better knowing that she’s become an icon of hope, freedom, and good.  

LINKS:

History of the St. Javelin meme at KnowYourMeme

Madonna Kalashnikov (2012)

Madonna Kalashnikov (2013)

Saint Javelin Post

Please inquire to commission your own custom Madonna Kalashnikov!

Any printed reproductions of Madonna Kalashnikov for sale are unauthorized.

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