Despite the dozens of people who have been reported as missing, the many journalists injured or detained and the scores of students arrested, Belarusians continue to take the streets of Minsk to demonstrate against the alleged electoral fraud perpetrated by President Lukashenko to retain power. To date, Belarus remains a country in turmoil and the picture does not seem to improve as the days go by.
The magazine and contemporary art collective Chrysalis Magazine tells us about the direct experiences of various artists, including photographers, video-makers and illustrators, involved in the current upheaval.
Beyond the obvious social changes, the artistic landscape of Belarus has been radically altered in the last two weeks. Belarusian visual artists have not shied away from the struggle for democracy. On the contrary, they seem to be more politically active than ever.
“There has never been political art in Belarus”, Nadzeya Makeyeva, an editor of Chrysalis Magazine, told 31mag. “After the results of the elections, Belarusian society – including the artistic community – shuddered and literally ‘exploded’”.
In the weeks since August 9th, one has seen little trace of the utter lack of artists’ political engagement which has long characterised Belarus compared to its European neighbours.
Censorship makes art different in the Republic of Belarus. Art is accepted as long as it does not raise social, political and economic issues that conflict with the narrative of Lukashenko’s ‘regime’ – dubbed “the last dictatorship of Europe”.
“Just like EU countries, we also have great artists and good academies”, says Nadzaya. “But works that cover sensitive issues about the state structures and organisations simply do not reach the public: they are removed from exhibitions and are never nominated for awards”.
“Over the years I have repeatedly observed how an artist’s freedom of expression is limited. State galleries and museums, as well as the media, are in some way compromised”, says Valeria Lemeshevskaya, a Belarusian artist, videographer and editor of Chrysalis magazine.
In the country there are few subsidies for artists and most art spaces belong to the state. The Belarusian Union of Artists has access to some government funding, but admission is restricted. “This organisation is somewhat partial, similar to its predecessor from the Soviet Union”, Nadzeya told 31mag.
According to activist-artist Serge Shabohin, “contemporary Belarusian art leads a partisan life, but imperceptibly in parallel with official culture”. Indeed, “those few authors who dared to talk about political issues did so cautiously and using metaphors”, says Nadzeya.
“And no one is surprised in the event of a boycott or an aggressive reaction to a political work”, she continued.
A new generation of artists
Nonetheless, private galleries which are emerging in the capital. These galleries dare to go further, to experiment, to exhibit provocative works and to promote emerging and alternative artists.
These galleries, known as underground places, are becoming the meeting points where a new generation of Belarusian artists gathers. “A young and mainly Central-European generation, which, thanks to the internet and the new media, is not afraid of the political climate like previous generations”, says Nadzeya.
This artistic change however has accelerated rapidly since August 9th. “More images have appeared; more visual works”, say both Valeria and Nadzeya.
Political works and radical images with clear anti-government intent have spread through social media.
Chrysalis Magazine has started publishing artistic works with political meanings mainly on their website and on social media to show solidarity with the Belarusian people.
“This tragedy has left no one indifferent. We, as artists who are very sensitive, were deeply shocked by the events that have shaken our country”, says Valeria. “Many people have begun to consider their civic positions and to reflect on issues they previously preferred to avoid.”
“In these works there is so much pain, so much anger and resentment that it is not possible to express it in words. You have to see them”, adds Nadzeya.
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Like many of her fellow citizens, including other Belarusian artists with whom 31mag spoke, Valeria was not expecting last month’s elections to be fair. Although the population did everything possible, Lukashenko’s victory was predictable.
Yet the response has surprised many. “No one expected that peaceful protesters would be killed, that people in prisons would be subjects to physical and psychological abuse, or that there would be so many victims even among people who are not political activists”, says Valeria.
“This year before the elections I posted flyers to encourage people to go and vote. I did not encourage the vote of any specific candidate, but only to vote at the polling station on election day”, told Valeria to 31mag. “Now the police is unofficially looking for me, even if I have not violated any law.”
Although Valeria managed to avoid falling in the hands of the OMON (Belarusian riot police) or being injured, she reports that for days she has seen her friends and acquaintances suffer.
“I had to escape from explosive grenades”, says the artist. “Today I fear for myself, my family and my friends.”
“Previously I knew that the current government in Belarus is terrible, but until 9 August I’ve never realised how bad it really is”, Valeria laments.
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Автор маски нам неизвестен — «Не стреляйте, я за хлебом» / 26 августа 2020 / Unknown author — ‘Don’t shoot, I’m going to buy bread’ / 26 August 2020 ⠀ #highlightbelarus #belarus #chrysalismag #contemporaryart #newcontemporary #chrysalismagartists #woman_in_white #freebelarus #freebelarus #belarus2020 #supportbelarus #print #longlivebelarus #fashiondesign #slogan #design #mask
The future of Belarus?
It is difficult to predict what changes, if any, are in store for the political situation in the country. But change, even if it be only psychological, now seems inevitable. “It is impossible to ignore and forget the obvious crimes that are perpetrated every day against defenseless people”, says Valeria.
The artist concludes by saying that “many Belarusian artists still do not have the strength to denounce what is happening. But I think they will step forward and the world will see even more intense art works”.
Meanwhile, on Monday evening, police raided the Minks Contemporary Art Gallery – the most famous and largest art galley in Belarus.