Curatorial concerns, Issue 4.

A conversation between writer Tatsiana Zamirovskaya and curator Aleksandr Zimenko

Image: artist Ales Pushkin, action “Artists against destruction of Grodno”

Русский текст, здесь.

Nacre: To cheer myself up during the Nth weekend of protests in Belarus, I am scrolling through the site dedicated to Belarusian protest posters and ‘folk’ art, and notice a recurring image of a painting. Undoubtedly influenced by Modigliani, I initially take it for one of the many trending contemporary revivals of -isms of the late 19th, early 20th centuries, but the connection to protest context remains opaque to me. If you, like me, don’t regularly read Bloomberg news (who does??), who have been, I have to say, ahead of the curve of many western publications to provide an in-depth coverage on the subject of Belarus, you may have missed the exposé detailing the story of an unlikely revolutionary icon: “Eve” by Paris School painter Chaim Soutine. 

The painting, acquired 6 years ago by Belgazprombank Corporate Collection, formerly headed by now-imprisoned presidential hopeful Viktor Babariko, has been promoted by the corporate owners as a new symbol of Renaissance in Belarusian culture long before the uprisal. From 2011 onwards, the Bank, under the initiative of Viktor Babarkio, has been working on returning key historical works of art to the territory of Belarus. It is important to point out that the layers of entities involved in the organization are somewhat slippery: it is never clear, at least to me, who is genuinely interested in art and culture, and who is merely strategizing. After all, Belgazprombank, is a commercial bank based in Belarus, that’s a direct affiliate of Russian Gazprom, the shady oligarch natural gas monopoly with a tangled and complicated history. My trust, in financial and in Russian organizations is, quite predictably, very low.

Highlighting the conjunction of art-history, geopolitics, revolutionary fervor and neoliberal corporatization of culture, below is a conversation between writer Tatsiana Zamirovskaya, based in New York, and Aleksandr Zimenko, the curator of above mentioned Belgazprombank collection, based in Minsk. Aleksandr has spent twelve hours and then four more in “conversation” with authorities, who accuse him and other associates, including arrested Babariko, of a mysterious crime (of allegedly planning to smuggle the purchased and returned paintings from the collection out of the country). Aleksandr had signed a non-disclosure agreement (which he’d not been given to read, as customary with all arrested during this and in the previous years of the regime). Considering the current climate we are respectfully by-passing anything directly related to the accusations. The omission, nevertheless, does not obfuscate but counterintuitively, helps, to get a fuller picture of the current events in Belarus.

Tatsiana Zamirovskaya: That moment, when the paintings were arrested (that’s how I described it to myself, as ‘arrest of the art’), for me was the moment when I felt something breakdown. At that moment, I determined for myself that perhaps in current Belarusian reality the protests had to be implemented and formed, as art. Due to repressions, and due to stifled communication channels and restricted circumstances. But it so happened that shortly thereafter, art itself became a symbol of protest, too. How did the transformation of Chaim Soutine’s painting “Eve” unfold?

Aleksandr Zimenko: Currently on show, as part of a jubilee exhibition at the Palace of Art (ed: Palatz, Minsk), are several paintings by Ales Marochkin, that were previously banned because they show bchb* flag. The paintings were made back in the 80s. That is to say, that Belarus did historically have these attempts to find point of contact with the viewer, who could not connect to these political topics openly through other spheres of public activity at the time. So today, art continues to do what’s already been started during the post-perestroika period, when artists were among the first to raise questions of that new society’s self-identification. And no matter how trivial it may sound when I say that “tragedies and catastrophes pass through the heart of an artist or a poet”, it feels, in this case, to be true. And, to clarify, I mean to say that we are talking here about a specific creative person, not just someone with a diploma from an institution, who has technical or academic knowledge and skills. I mean a person who reacts — and reacts acutely. And again, no matter how hackneyed the statement may ring, to a large extent this kind of person, I think, feels strongly precisely because they don’t live in a world of 9 to 5, of taking care of their mortgage or credit, but rather they live in a world of their own, devised according to their own rules. And when this personal world encounters tragic and cruel events of the larger world around them, it inevitably reverberates strongly, with a vivid response. 

Image: Ales Pushkin, performance “Independance”, 2009

More so, I want to stress here, that all crisis situations tend to turn complex rhetoric into a set of binaries. When the images of “Eve” painting or, let’s say, portraits of Che Guevera, or Maria Kolesnikova appear on T-shirts, it’s not about that specific painting, or a person’s history. It is about the symbolic power of a sign during the crisis. As we can hear in the now popular in Belarus phrase: “Louder than the voices of our friends, we will hear the silence”, the crisis turns everything into a choice. Yes or no. With us or against us. This has to do with a desire to idealize certain figures, because an everyday observer as such, doesn’t think about the strengths or weaknesses, context, history or nuances of the image, whether that’s Eve, Che Guevara or Maria Kolesnikova. These images carry a symbol of hope. 

And, summarizing this long answer: at the moment, through these images, we continue to develop that very question, of Belarusian self-identification, which has not yet found an unequivocal answer. 

TZ: There is also another side of this binary oversimplification, where the history of protest and self-identification is viewed on the outside, in this case, outside of the country. As a person who for the past 5 years has lived in New York, I feel that as Belarusians, we have a complicated narrative to our revolution that doesn’t fit a module, does not sell as if a script by Joseph Campbell, in the vein of “The Thousand Hero”. Much of the context is simply not clear to the outside eye. But something like — “the dictator arrested the paintings” — that kind of thing is clear to my American friends, can resonate. There is an element of Kafka to it.

AZ: It’s like whipping the sea, because a raft sank. 

TZ: Exactly. But it’s difficult to tell the story of the three women who have been at the forefront of the recent protests, because their story falls out of the patriarchal archetypes of ‘evil dictator vs. the liberator’. How can I explain that one of the three leaders is the wife of someone who didn’t even become a presidential candidate (ed: Tsepkalo, whose signatures were rejected by the Central Election Commission), the second person was on staff of the arrested candidate hopeful, who never had a chance to register (Kolesnikova worked as Babariko’s staff), and the third is wife of the popular blogger-candidate (Tikhanovsky), who was also arrested before he could register. This story begins to fall apart because these are women who were nearly accidentally, or due to circumstance, pushed onto the center stage and were not meant to be the title characters themselves… 

AZ: …because the image you are describing is not about the confrontation between heroes as individuals, in this case, the image represents, accurately, the confrontation between the masses and one individual.

TZ: Right, and that’s another important point to discuss, but before we turn to that, I’d like to stay for a moment longer with the role of women in Belarusian protests, rewinding to the time when Chaim Sutin’s painting “Eve” becomes a protest symbol. That moment, I think, can be described as almost prescient to the women’s central role in the current uprising, even before the arrival of the trio we just discussed. How did the process that brought “Eve” to her current place in history unfold?

Image: Artist Sergei Shabohin’s Instagram

AZ: I think of it as more of an objective process, than a mysterious flow from one event to another. Why “Eve”? — there’s been a lot of discussion where we’ve been trying to analyze its transition to a symbolic level. And in the end I think it’s a shining examples that we live in, not merely post-industrial, but already in what can be described as, the information society. The initial notoriety of the painting is the result of a sincere attempt to promote our collection under the image of this, possibly incomprehensible, but elegant work. It was not the main concern, for my colleagues and I, that the public must love this work of art. Rather, we wanted to draw attention to its place in our, and in the world, history, and to the fact that this painting was now in the collection of Belgazprombank (Art-Belarus), and that this painting is an important historical work of art in general. By now it’s been six years from the moment of its purchase, and since the time when we began to intentionally distribute its image.

Stamps from Art-Belarus collection, Paris School, “Eve” by Chaim Soutine

On the other hand, I think the reason for “Eve’s” rise to fame in this other context, is also related to the work itself, the very posture of Eve. The collection that has been ‘arrested’ has many other works that could have potentially carried revolutionary symbolism. There’s, for example, “Portrait of Tomas Zan”, by Valentin Vankovich, who painted a portrait of his friend and fellow student at Vilnius University. At the time they were both members of the Filaret and Filomat secret societies. These secret societies appeared as a response to the policy of Russification on the territory of former Rzeczpospolita, after its partition. These secret societies fought for preservation of national language and culture. Another example of revolutionary potency could have been “In the prison cell” by Nikodim Silvanovich. Although this work was still painted in the style of classicism, one can already notice the beginning of a paradigm shift that was about to take place in Fine Arts of the Russian Empire. The prisoner shown here is no longer a Christian, or antique hero, but a modern artist. And by the way in which this person is depicted in the painting, one can understand how the author relates to the fact of his captivity. The depicted artist has an open face, his head is raised high — suggesting that this person, while imprisoned, is not broken. And equally legible is the author’s condemnation of his captivity. 

But in the end, it is this female image in Soutine’s painting “Eve” that resonated with the contemporary discourse, interpreted by many as a pose of resistance despite the fact that the pose is what we would call, closed, and her hands are crossed at her chest. This is the power of Soutin as an artist: it’s not just a beautiful female figure or a pleasant image, but the image of a person with a strong character. And although it’s an anonymous portrait, there is a very distinct presence of a powerful persona, in it. The first memes about the painting were: she’s led by the riot police, or she is behind bars, but invariably because of her posture, she appears in all, disobedient. This, again speaks to the archetypes and falls in line with the myth of Belarus as a country of well-documented guerrilla ethos, a (partizan) republic that’s been occupied many times in its history, but each time liberated itself from the occupant forces. And of course, only people wearing tin hats can believe that there is an influence from the West, or from anywhere else. There are no puppeteers here. I would like to emphasize: you’d have to be an incredibly adept political operator, to plan this whole sequence of events to the extent that it has happened — first, this painting, then the trio, then, the women’s march… It’s really obvious that the painting is just a strong image, and the rest is clearly a self-developing situation too. And the same can be said about the three individuals who chose to lead the country to the elections and after: now they too, have turned into images that are no longer even related to the specific people that they depict, but are symbols in their own right, of a general societal mood.

Image: protester at Glitter March, September 19, 2020

TZ: I agree, it would have been impossible for anyone to have planned the current protest phenomena in such detail. Instead, I tend to call it the Belarusian singularity, the black swan: the fact that it all bubbled up across dispersed locations at the same time, and that it happened now**. To close the subject of “Eve” as an archetype: to me, the painting seems to symbolize a kind of a return. The painting is from the collection of recently returned to Belarus, many of which were in turn painted by artists who left for various reasons, but, let’s say, united by a certain impossibility of self-realization in this country. And, the artists continue to leave Belarus because of that same persisting impossibility of self-expression and self-actualization.

AZ: Again, here I would not draw a direct parallel between the last century and what is happening now. Let’s not forget: none of those who painted these paintings could have predicted that there would be the First and, let alone, the Second World War. The territory of Belarus during that period was always in the center of military operations, and that’s the reason why many people ended up elsewhere. Besides that, art centers always existed — such megapolises as Paris-Berlin-New York, are just most recent centers where art is valued, exchanged and supported. Or as another example: historically, painters often went to Italy just to see the production of paints themselves, and the colors up close, which were produced in that location only because of the presence of natural materials necessary for the paint production. As to the artists who left in the last 30 years, or are leaving at the moment, it’s a different situation. At this point, I think, it doesn’t matter where they go, geography can no longer fundamentally change the already established personality of a person, nor their roots. And, giving that we live in a post-industrial information society, I think we have already moved to another level, where the origin doesn’t define the artist as much as it used to, where the subtleties of their spiritual reflection may have not been lost to a specific locale, because of cultural differences. I am skeptical about this narrative. I believe that today an artist of a significant talent can be legible in any society. We are no longer existing in isolated vessels of distinct cultures, where we are simply exchanging goods, or trade books, and so on. Yes, fashion comes and goes, sometimes Iranian artists are popular, sometimes Chinese, but that’s market: that’s a different set of concerns.

TZ: Thinking about the commercial side of the intersection of protest and art: one of my friends told me, after the protests began, that she’d written to Nike to suggest customized sneakers with symbols of independent Belarus, in support of the protestors. She basically proposed to this corporation to design sneakers “good for running away from OMON***”. Here, the protest becomes both an aesthetic and a commercial, marketing, sphere.

AZ: This is related to a strange specificity of the Belarusian protest, which reminds me of the collapse of Czechoslovakia. It’s not an image of a burning tire or a hammer cocktail like in Ukraine during Maidan, it’s not the Swan Lake and tanks like during the collapse of the Soviet Union in Moscow, it’s not the wall in Berlin: it’s people carefully taking off their shoes during the protest to stand on a bench during the solidarity action in the square. What’s more, atrocities and flash-grenades are, sadly, no longer distinct, as images, across the many countries where they are used, in terms of tactics. This could be an image taken anywhere, from Seattle to Hong Kong. But when white boxes of Adidas shoes are made to deliberately alternate with the red boxes of some other brand in the windows of a shoe store to mimic a flag, it looks impressive. Similarly, at this point in history, the riot police uniform seen in a contemporary documentary image or on a film-set, can’t be distinguished from one another, their uniform looks more or less the same all over the world. But the image of the protester — that looks quite different. In this case, I think, it presents a positive image, both to the Belarusians themself, and to the outside. This image doesn’t show people who’d set something on fire, or who vandalize property. Here, we see people who clean up garbage after a day of demonstrations, and who take off their shoes to get up on a bench. 

TZ: But there is still this observable archetype battle between two aesthetics: an armed policeman, or a riot police officer, up against the aesthetics of the protesters…

AZ: …You can consider this example as a kind of imitation of antiquity. The OMON, uses the tactics of the Roman Empire legions: the formations, the shields and so on. And who was the Roman legion fighting against? Against the barbarians! The barbarians throw stones, shout, and against that backdrop, the legion appears to be a symbol of order. Of course, this is the same symbol that kills, but it also develops. It invades and captures, but also brings with it roads, aqueducts, money, medicine. Following that same narrative, the Belarusian propaganda tries to continue to present itself as order against the chaos of protests. Because, historically, precisely by behaving violently, many protesters do often fall under this archetype. The Romans, too, were certain that they represented civilization, and that they were bringing order. Today, the spear becomes a police truncheon, and the shield has not even changed. But in Belarus this narrative falls apart when “barbarians”, that come out against the so-called ‘legion’ of order, are completely peaceful, and present absolutely no violent behavior to the police.

Ales Pushkin, Njamiga ’99, 2001

TZ: I think, it’s a good moment to talk about the evolution of performance in Belarus, since the start of activity of someone like Ales Pushkin, who brought a cart of manure to the president’s residence entrance, piercing the president’s portrait atop it, with a pitchfork… In terms of performance, I always think of Belarus as quite advanced in that art-form.We’ve held the international festival ‘Novinki’ here since the late 90s, so it seems to me that the Belarusian spectator is very welcoming to this form of art, and performance has been historically, and continues to be today, very active. In a sense, even someone like Nina Baginskaya, with her “I’m just going for a walk”, is in some sense performing, a kind of life-long performance of endurance, of both body and spirit. And, at the same time, she’s also testing the endurance of the law enforcement. 

AZ: This is a moment of a metamorphosis, where instead of the actions of individual performers, all of us, here in Belarus, live inside — a one single big ‘happening’. What’s taking place now, is no longer a performance, because performance would imply a presence of an onlooker. Even in the case of Ales Pushkin — everyone was looking at him. Someone arrested him, someone else said “bravo”, someone else thought to themselves “bravo”, but said nothing out loud… And now, when so many people actively go out daily, weekly, and participate, it’s already a ‘happening’. One can draw parallels with the main characteristic of this revolution and its decentralized horizontal organization. We don’t have a certain single center, or a leader, and everyone decides for themselves whether to go to the protest or not, and when to do it. And we can say that the law enforcement agencies, in a way, are also participating in this, when, for example, they use water cannons to disperse spontaneous circle dancing in Brest. This is a typical sign of a ‘happening’ that operates not as an observed performance, but as a collective activity with a single purpose, where there are even certain rules, there is timing for everything, and at the same time, it’s a kind of performance that happens en masse.

*Abbreviation.: бчб — white-red-white flag, in Belarusian.

**For a deeper background on (not at all) sudden uprisal in Belarus, please read Nacre’s last year essay, contributed by the curator Ilona Dergach. 

***Belarusian special forces.

Video: Nacre Journal correspondent in Minsk