In early August 2020, the whole world watched thousands of Belarusians march the streets of Minsk to protest against the forged presidency of Alexander Lukashenko. The mass movement started in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election held on Sunday, 9th August.
Belarus, a country ruled by one man for the past 26 years, has finally spoken. The hope for a fair, just, and democratic society has motivated Belarusian people to break the long-term silence and fight for freedom. During the first days of the protests, state police used light grenades and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters. After the violent crackdown, thousands of citizens were detained and hundreds brutally tortured. Yet on 12th August, Belarusian women took over the streets. Carrying white flowers – a symbol of peace – they urged to stop the bloodshed. In the following days, women all over Belarus joined the peaceful protests, creating chains of solidarity.
Today, more than three months after the forged election, the demonstrations against Lukashenko’s regime continue. Every Sunday, groupings of women march the streets of Belarus. Moreover, self-organised groups of Belarusians of all ages gather on the main squares and streets across the country, underlining their position that stands in opposition to Lukashenko’s dictatorship.
After the brutal crackdown, which happened at the beginning of the revolution, people had to find new creative ways of resistance in order to avoid a direct confrontation with the police.
The exhibition Belarus // Art of Resistance created by Lena Davidovich, Tasha Arlova, and Hanna Adzinets, features posters, murals, street installations, prison drawings, and performances of more than 60 Belarusian artists documented the formation of a new Belarusian society. As told by the initiators, the collection of works is not a usual art exhibition. It is a manifesto, a wakeup call. It attempts to break the ignorance, raise awareness and build solidarity with the rest of the world.
In a conversation conducted by Patrycja Rozwora for Contemporary Lynx, Tasha Arlova, one of the three initiators and curators, spoke about the urgency to share the stories of the brave Belarusian people with an international audience.
Patrycja Rozwora: Tasha, from what I know you are living and working in the Netherlands. Yet at the beginning of August, you travelled back to Minsk. Can you tell a little more about your decision to go back home at that moment?
Tasha Arlova: Past summer was an exhausting time for me. I constantly followed the news about Belarus, observed the growing tension and predictions as the election approached. Before that summer, Belarusian people did not protest much. Now they are so creative and brave – it is clearly a big change for the society. I had doubts about going. Many of us had a gut feeling that after the election, government will exercise violence and suppression. But still, it was an exciting moment, a historical moment. I stayed in Minsk with my friends where the protests were most active.
PR: How did the idea to create the exhibition Belarus // Art of Resistance come through?
TA: I think the idea to make an exhibition was in the air for a long time. From the beginning of the unrest, the artistic side of the protests and actions were very convincing. However, being here in the Netherlands, I felt a lack of understanding and involvement from the Dutch public, it felt so far away.
I met the artist Lena Davidovich at a solidarity protest in the Netherlands. We had a similar vision on art, and how it can involve more people and show a more personal side of the Belarusian story. We started looking for places, and in a very short time, we found the perfect venue to show the protest art.
In the recent months, the Belarusians in the Netherlands have united. Short after I met Lena, the activist Hanna Adzinets joined our team, and the artist Daria Akhrameika helped us with the exhibition design. Thanks to a big group of volunteers, the show was conceived in a very short period of time.
PR: All of the artists featured in the exhibition are Belarusians. Some of them work in the Netherlands but most of them create from Belarus. Why was it important to you to show the art of resistance in the Western context?
TA: We do live here, in the Netherlands, therefore we need to act from here. We want to bring attention to the ongoing unrest and crisis in Belarus. Since the beginning of the protests, the reactions of the EU were quite slow. Additionally, the Dutch were rather distant to what was going on, as if it was happening far away.
Together with Lena and Hanna, we wanted to create a space where we could talk about the situation, where the audience could engage, spend time with the new knowledge, hear personal stories and the real voices of Belarusians. The idea was that after seeing the show, people would not be distant or ignorant anymore.
International, as well as Dutch, media mostly focused on the crackdown and the suppression in Belarus. We wanted to give stage for people, to hear their voices and to show their strength. Belarusian people have fought heroically against the regime in many beautiful and peaceful ways. I think the world can learn a lot from us.
PR: Most of the showcased works were created to actively protest and demonstrate. How did the artists feel about showing that type of work in a gallery space?
TA: The protest art, especially the posters, definitely belong to the streets. But still, they do resonate a certain energy and spirit, carrying an important message. That being said, we did not structure the exposition in a normal sense. For us, the show was a way to bring urgency and communicate the message to the public. Most artists were very supportive. Some of the works were meant to be shown online or through social media channels. Exhibiting them in a big physical space felt different, nevertheless, valuable.
Apart from showing the works we also tried to create the atmosphere of the protests. You could see that for example with Yauhen Attsetski’s photo project “Square of Change” we brought a lot of white-red-white ribbons, allowing the visitors to knot them on the wooden construction, the same way as the people in Minsk did. Some of the visiting kids took chalk and started to draw on the walls of the construction. The work got activated, resonating with the actual street protests.
PR: Considering the subject of the exhibition, the projects talk about violence. How did you manage to approach the topic so that it stays respectful to those aggravated and at the same time is approachable by an outside observer?
TA: Our main idea was to focus on people’s strength, in spite of the terrible violence. Anyway, no footage or documentation of the actual crackdown and intimidation could resemble what the people went through.
In one small dark room, we exhibited intimate drawings from the detention centres created by artists Nadya Sayapina and Vika Bogdanovich. In another performance titled “Your Prison Cell” by a group of anonymous artists, you could hear voices of people experiencing humiliation and assault, sounding like a choir, a cry for help. However, the video footage was staged, there was no direct documentation of violence. All in all, we tried to show different works, so that the viewer could experience both, moments of inspiration and those of silence.
PR: In addition to organising and curating the show you also presented one of your own video works titled “Rituals”. Can you tell more about this project?
TA: I created those collages a few years ago. Wide squares and big soviet buildings in Minsk always made me feel uncomfortable. I was thinking of ways to make them more familiar. I created couple of moving collages where a “housewife” cleans the governmental buildings and squares in Minsk. It is interesting that years later, in 2020 this project got a new meaning. Svetlana Tikhkanovskaya – the supposed housewife, without any political ambitions, pushed and challenged the dictator as no one has done before.
PR: The show at Arti et Amicitiae in Amsterdam is now over. Since then, you have given ‘Freedom Lecture: Belarus’ at the culture centre de Balie in Amsterdam. Are you planning on organising more of those type of events?
TA: The story of the resistance in Belarus is not over yet, and so our work on bringing attention to it continues. The exhibition received a lot of positive responses and significant attention from the public. We want to continue developing it after the second lockdown. Arti et Amicitiae suggested to exhibit Belarus // Art of Resistance again in January, so more people will have the possibility to visit. Along the exhibition, we may develop a broader public program, possibly online. Currently, I am also working on a new video work about the events in Belarus.
Bergamot (Volga Maslowskaya, Roman Tratsiuk), Belarus Free Theater, Tasha Arlova, Nadya Sayapina, Ulyana Nevzorova, Yulia Shevchuk, Paul Dorokhin, Nikolai Khalezin, Nadya Sayapina, Vika Bogdanovich, Lena Davidovich, Yauhen Attetski, Rufina Bazlova, Dmitry Brushko.
With works of artists and designers from the online platform cultprotest.me curated by Maxim Tyminko and Sergei Shabohin: Rufina Bazlova, Vika Biran & Olga Łaniewska, Alina Bliumis, Lena Davidovich, Andrei Dureika, Dzmitry Dzmitryjeu, Zhanna Gladko, Group Hutkasmachnaa, Marat Kim, Aleksander Komarov, Anna Kovshar, Yuriy Ledyan, Victor Melamed, Vika Mitrichenko, Marina Naprushkina, Nikolay Oleynikov & Anna Kurbatova, Vasilisa Palianina, Ania Redko, Konstantsin Selikhanov, Sergey Shabohin, Yulia Shevchuk, Antonina Slobodchikova, Anton Snt, Olia Sosnovskaya, Masha Svyatogor, Alexey Terexov, Jouri Toreev, Vladimir Tsesler, Maxim Tyminko, Irina Varkulevich, Group Work Hard! Play Hard!, Ilya Yerashevich, Oleg Yushko