Oksana Shachko, a Ukrainian artist and a founder of Femen, a women’s rights group famous for its bare-breasted political protests, was found dead on Monday at her home in Montrouge, a suburb south of Paris. She was 31.
Emmanuelle Lepissier, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor’s office in nearby Nanterre, said the police were treating the death as a suicide pending the results of an autopsy.
“Her friends said that they saw her last on Friday," Anna Hutsol, another founder of Femen, told Ukrainska Pravda, a news website. "They decided to break the door, and then they found her.”
In a statement, Femen said, “Oksana fought for justice, she fought for equality, she fought for herself and all women as a hero.”
Together with the Pussy Riot punk group in Russia, Femen became part of a post-Soviet protest phenomenon that sometimes drew a violent reaction. In 2011, Femen said that Ms. Shachko and other activists had been abducted in Minsk, the capital of Belarus, after campaigning in front of the KGB headquarters there. Several members were beaten up in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, in 2013 ahead of a visit by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin.
Ms. Shachko and several other activists founded Femen in 2008. After a few conventional protests, they decided to demonstrate topless, often with political slogans written on their bodies.
At times braving icy temperatures, Femen members protested in Ukraine against sexual exploitation; in Davos, Switzerland – the scene of an annual conference of world political and business leaders – against income inequality; and, in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican, against policies of the Roman Catholic Church, among other targets.
In 2013, members of Femen ran topless in front of Putin in Germany, drawing a grin and two thumbs up from him before guards wrestled them to the ground.
Ms. Shachko, along with several other Femen members, moved to Paris that same year and was granted political asylum by the French authorities. She maintained that the group’s members had been pursued by Russian special services and that the agents had planted a grenade in Femen’s office in Kiev, along with a photograph of Putin.
Ms. Shachko left Femen in 2014, saying the group had lost its purpose.
Oksana Shachko was born in Khmelnytskyi, a sleepy regional capital 320 kilometres west of Kiev. Her parents had her studying religious iconography when she was 8 years old. Two years later, she was painting murals in churches.
At 13, she decided to become a nun, but her parents talked her out of it.
“From this moment on, I began to reflect on what religion and faith mean to a human being,” she told the culture magazine 032c in 2016. “I found an answer, and it was atheism.”
Ms. Shachko leaves her mother, Olga Shachko, and a brother, Aleksei.
In Paris, Ms. Shachko worked with director Alain Margot on a documentary about Femen. She also returned to creating icons, but this time they were intended for art galleries, not churches.
One depicted the Orthodox trinity with angels wearing flower crowns and smoking cigarettes in front of empty bottles. In 2016, Ms. Shachko had a solo exhibition in Paris.
“In my icons, I replace men; I put women in the centre,” she said in an interview with the British magazine Crash in December. “My work is still very feminist.”