Julia Soboleva was born in 1990 in Latvia to a Russian minority family. Soboleva experienced a unique upbringing, growing up during the Russification of Latvia, which significantly impacted her life and identity. Her early life was immersed in Russian culture, language, and media within a context where Soviet influence was strongly prevalent.
According to Soboleva’s interview with Apollo Magazine, this upbringing in a "Russian bubble" was marked by a strong connection to Russian heritage and a struggle with the Latvian language. The shift in national identity following Latvia's independence in 1991 deeply affected her, as she and others who arrived post-1940 were initially considered non-citizens. Soboleva moved to the United Kingdom in 2008, yet again facing new cultural barriers such as language. This experience of cultural and political transition, feeling like an outsider, and navigating through changes in national identity greatly influenced Soboleva's perspective and is reflected in her artistic expressions.
Reflecting on the challenges of being an immigrant, Soboleva’s work highlights the complexities of cultural and national identity and the impact of significant geopolitical shifts on individuals and minority groups while also promoting the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals for Reduced Inequalities.
Her work, Blink, uses eerie in-your-face symbolism to articulate the intricate emotions tied to immigration and the identity transition. The UFO beaming down onto the upside-down person can represent the experience of being uprooted from one's native culture and transported into an unknown environment. It encapsulates the feeling of alienation that can happen in the “blink” of an eye and reflects how surreal it felt for Latvians to go to sleep one day in the USSR and wake up in an entirely new country —how one might feel if aliens abducted them.
Soboleva uses a unique method for her art where she utilizes old-found photographs she purchased from flea markets and paints over them. This method illustrates the fragmented, layered nature of immigrant identities and experiences of socio-political change.
The surreal elements juxtaposed with a seemingly ordinary historical photo reflect the dissonance immigrants feel in the face of socio-political change — a sense of being out of place in a world that continues around them, unchanged. Soboleva’s technique of using found photographs gives a sense of a past era, hinting at the histories and memories of those captured in the original scene. For example, her piece, Fam, displays surreal, mask-like faces on human figures and animals, creating a familiar and deeply unsettling tableau. It speaks to the immigrant experience of carrying one's history while moving into a new context.
The alterations with the mask-like faces can be seen as Soboleva's way of layering new meanings onto old images, illustrating how immigrants must adapt or mask their identities to fit into a new society while retaining their original selves.
Transformation Starts From Within has a more positive outlook than the previous works. It depicts figures with glowing eyes marching through a landscape with an ethereal, otherworldly quality. The figures march through the unfamiliar environment together as one, showcasing the persistence of cultural identity through the experience of migration. It takes courage to face immigration challenges and stay true to yourself. That courage must come from within. When a person has a community behind them, connected by cultural identity and friendship, that courage becomes much easier to muster.
Soboleva often says, “I have found light in the darkness,” words which she prominently displays on her social media. These words are echoed throughout all of her work.
Soboleva’s art embodies the journey of cultural identity and the immigrant experience. Her visual metaphors and imagery translate the disorienting shifts in identity and the fortitude required to navigate new realities. She captures the personal dissonance felt by immigrants and illustrates the broader collective quest for inclusion and equality. Her art is a powerful testament to the resilience and adaptability of the human spirit, urging a deeper understanding and action towards bridging the divides that separate us.