Contesting power and expectation | The artists of Belarus
Since February, a series of significant protests in Belarus have lead to a violent, heavy-handed response by authorities, leading to numerous arrests.
The protesters’ objection is to legislation proposed by president Alexandre Loukachenko, who has been in power since 1994. According to the Russian magazine Profil, the protests arose in reaction to Decree N°3, nicknamed the Decree against Social Parasitism. In an already complex economic climate, the decree targets people who have been out of work for over six months, ordering them to pay an annual tax of around 450 Belarusian Roubles (around $250) to cover state expenses. In the event that the tax is unpaid, fines and interest could be issued.
Without a fixed or stable income, such a decree is of particular concern to artists. The government later added artists part of creative unions to the list of exempted persons, however there are many artists (for political reasons, among others) who have no wish to affiliate themselves with such unions.
During protests in Minsk, when street artists began tagging walls with parodying portraits of government officers and police violence, the authorities cracked down by removing the work within hours. The oppression suffered by street artists such as Oleg Larichev is due to the fact that they “defy the police” says curator Pavel Niakhayeu. Their resistance is visible in this context, but what about other artists working locally? How are they affected? And how are they reacting?
Maxim Sarychau, Voices of Generation L, Alexandra, 18, Soligorsk, Student (Architecture, 2nd year)
According to the journalist Max Zhabankov, during the 80s and 90s painters such as Ales Marachkin and Ales Pushkin held sway in the democratic movement, today “it is difficult to consider the artistic community visible or influential.”
Over recent years the state has become more uncompromising towards artists, pushing those who have a critical political message into the shadows. When artist Siarhei Hudzilin exhibited at the National Arts Museum in Minsk in 2014, museum workers painted over the top of one of his photographs depicting a white-red-white Belarusian flag — a sign of political dissidence. In 1999 one of the most markedly political artworks was realized by artist Ales Pushkin, Present for the president saw Pushkin bring a wheelbarrow of manure to the president’s residence with a picture of Loukachenko on a pitchfork. The artist was immediately arrested.
Yet when asking local members of the artistic community to give the names of politically engaged artists today, the only recurring name is Marina Naprushkina, who is currently based in Germany.
Artist Olia Sosnovskaya, however, cites a few emerging artists engaged with their political context: Maxim Sarychau, who works with topics of state and police violence, fear; Andrei Liankevich, working on memory politics and ideology; Aliaxey Talstou, looking at ideology and migration; Sergey Shabohin, on power and violence; Alesia Zhitkevich, on gender, sexuality and violence; Anton Sarokin, on the political dimension of sound and silence, public space and memory politics; Zhanna Gladko, on gender and identity; Uladzimir Hramovich, on memory politics; Lipovyi Tsvet and Jauhien Shadko.
Olia Sosnovskaya, burn, on fire, alight, inflamed, glow, ablaze, fervent, go up in smoke, lecture-performance (2016)
But why is there no communal voice emerging in opposition to state oppression? “I would say that there is actually no artistic community in Belarus,” says Sosnovskaya. Whilst government pressure may also be the reason why certain initiatives are frequently blocked. “If you become an activist you should be ready for possible prosecution,” she adds. “And there is a certain degree of exhaustion and feeling of helplessness. After so many years, many people, including artists, do not believe in a possibility of political change.”
However notions of artistic engagement are vague and curator Tania Arcimovič argues that “Belarusian artists have always been engaged in politics, because they have always had to fight for the right to be an artist.” Ever since the soviet period all cultural institutions have been controlled by the state, therefore allowing little artistic freedom. However artists tread a fine line, and they never know whether the might be identified and penalised by the government. The arrest of Mikhail Gulin in 2012 is a good example. According to an article by Arcimovič the work Personal Monument, created as part of the international project “Going public” organised by the Goethe Institute that was exhibited in a public square Minsk was devoid of political content, yet the authorities managed to politicize the work themselves and Gulin was arrested.
Michaił Hulin, Personal Monument action / Minsk 2012
What’s more, for art to have an impact, it must have a receptive audience. “In general, the Belarusian public is quite “innocent”,” explains Almira Ousmanova, Professor of the Department of Media European Humanities University. “This means they are largely indifferent in relation to the role of contemporary art in political field.” Whilst Sosnovskaya agrees that “contemporary art is still quite a closed realm in Belarus, and broader audiences seldom openly engage with it, or if they do, they normally veer towards the official institutions which depoliticise art practices.”
“In my practice, I try to stay critical and reflexive, problematising (self)exoticism and victimization without simply depicting our current context as ‘the last dictatorship in Europe’,” says Sosnovskaya. “Most artists in Belarus are fed up with this label, which is surprisingly still commonly used by western media. What’s more I would say art can’t change anything radically, unless an artist is a powerful public person who has access to policy making or has a large influence over public opinion,” she adds.
But this does not mean all hope has been abandoned, Sosnovskaya admits that “it can help to resist the silencing of problems, by making them visible and present in the public domain, also it gives food for thought, trains one’s reflexivity and engagement, critical thinking.”
But Sosnovskaya raises an important point with regards to her critical engagement in her practice. There is an overriding discourse, coming predominantly from the West, to which this article admittedly contributes to — that there is a necessity for Belarusian artists, or any other artists from complex political contexts for that matter, to be politically militant. “I sense some touch of the colonial discourse here,” she says “where ‘the east’ is always conditioned by its traditions, whereas ‘the west’ seems a-historical, neutral.”