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Art & Female Voices in Belarusian Politics [ENGLISH]

Updated: Oct 7, 2020

Russian translation here.

EH*V summer volunteer Darya Nadina chats to Dasha Brian, a Belarusian creator, about her artwork and recent sources of inspiration by way of the Belarusian presidential election this year.

Content Note / Trigger Warning: Anorexia, political detention

Dasha Brian refuses to pigeonhole herself. That’s why she prefers to call herself “a creator” as opposed to “an artist” or “a director” thus rejecting any semantic limitations of either. Mostly working with film and moving image, Dasha makes video collages and video sketches as well as short films. One of her latest projects, “Paint(Mein)”, was what attracted widespread attention to her work and helped her secure a debut solo exhibition in Minsk in October this year.

“I take a famous painting and invite or scout online a person whom I think would “fit” the painting the most and combine the two worlds in one. I change the painting’s context by inputting a person in different circumstances. So the viewer can see a familiar scene from a different angle.”

“That’s the way it happens in real life as well, you see a situation which seems familiar and easy to understand, but if you step aside a little and look from another angle you might see that not everything is so unequivocal.”

“Body as Art, Body as Canvas"

Often Brian’s art is an exploration of the discourse of corporeality, sexuality and objectification of female bodies. The root of this interest goes to the very beginning of Dasha’s career. An actor since her early teenage years with credits spanning from theatrical productions to short films, at first she filmed herself as the subject of her video collages. This wasn’t easy due to a long history of strained relationship with her own body resulting in anorexia. Once she finally came to accept her body she also found strength in showing her body and the right to use it in her art.

“I am not an artist in the common sense of the word, I don’t have paint or a canvas to express my emotions. All I have is me and my body. That’s the only instrument I can control.”

However, social media as an indicator of public opinion had another idea on the artist’s creations. Dozens of inappropriate comments flooded in from men who took her sensual aesthetic for gratification of their desires or, worse, an invitation.

“It’s very annoying and immobilising” – Brian shares her experience. “My freedom was once again being taken away from me. First they were taking away the freedom to love myself and my body, and now they are taking my freedom to show it.”

Brian notes that women are being forced to feel ashamed of their bodies whether they are comfortable within them or not, regardless of what size or shape their bodies are. That’s why the theme of corporeality felt particularly close to her.

“I look at a body as I look at art, and as I look at a canvas. A body should not be subject to any taboos and become endowed with additional meanings – this is important for a female body in particular.”

An apolitical person became political

Themes of corporeality and objectification of female bodies is undoubtedly a political one; indeed, Brian recently gained inspiration from another political event. On the 9th August 2020 Belarus will hold the sixth presidential elections since its independence. For 26 years in a row, one person has held the presidential position and any opposition has been persecuted. Having grown up in such a climate, Brian, just like many other young people in Belarus, did not expect to find hope in this year's elections. Brian confesses to have been a largely apolitical person, always with a thought of emigration in mind. She knew she wanted to pursue art, yet all success stories she heard weren’t Belarus-based, even if the artist was Belarus-born. That’s how this attitude began – “if I need to achieve something, I need to leave.”

Two years ago Brian left for Berlin where she discovered the creative medium of moving image. In contrast to Minsk, Berlin offered her intoxicating freedom. Brian stopped being afraid of public opinion and censorship that affect the Belarusian art scene.

“What’s most important to me is the ability to reflect and create, and not having to censor my fantasies and emotions. Sadly, in Belarus you might not do anything wrong but get treated as if you are breaking a law. You can feel that you can’t always freely speak about the things that happen around you right here, right now. Freedom of speech exists as the ‘right’ and the ‘wrong’ kind.”

For the ‘wrong’ kind of freedom of speech you can get a fine, or even be detained. As independent media like the BBC show, peaceful protests result in dozens being arrested; activists and journalists alike.

Away from these restrictions and propelled by her newly found artistic courage, Brian began to create. However, as the coronavirus pandemic hit, Brian was forced to stay in Belarus indefinitely.

There was no official lockdown in Belarus. Moreover, the president dismissed concern about the virus as a “psychosis”. This greatly angered masses of people who had to take the matter into their own hands and start fundraising and organising the deliveries of PPE for the doctors across the country. Many people lost their loved ones to “pneumonia” or “chronic diseases”, with no official coronavirus diagnoses. At the same time, an election campaign was taking full swing.

“Especially in the pandemic you can feel how decisions of the government affect you” – reflects Brian. “People had to save themselves. I saw the ‘new’ Belarusians. My eyes were opening up to the solidarity of people, the way strangers were extending a helping hand to each other. The state puts barriers and obstacles yet people still help each other”.

Meanwhile, prospective candidates for presidency were presenting alternative programmes that were picked up by hundreds of thousands of people, including Brian. People were ready for change. It was almost like something was holding them back before, but not anymore. “An apolitical person became political” – comments Brian. “There was a glimpse of hope.”

People attended peaceful protests that resulted in brutal detainments. Many public figures, even from the state media, spoke out against the detainments. They were fired. The two most popular alternative candidates, Viktor Babariko and Sergei Tikhanovsky, were arrested and another, Valery Tsepkalo, was refused registration as an official candidate.

The movement started with a woman

Right at this time, a political movement for fair elections, freedom for political prisoners and the right for peaceful protests gained its unlikely symbol.

Chaim Soutine’s “Eva” (1928)

Chaim Soutine’s painting “Eva” (1928), by a Jewish Belarusian expressionist who worked primarily in Paris, was brought to Belarus in 2013 thanks to one of the now-detained potential candidates for presidency – Viktor Babariko. Since 2011, the bank that Babariko managed bought over 100 pieces by Belarusian artists from abroad and formed a unique collection that was available for all to see. After Babariko’s arrest on a charge of money laundering and tax evasion, the collection was confiscated and the paintings, removed from public view. Babariko and other detained opponents of the current president were since recognised as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International. Meanwhile, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, the wife of the detained Sergei Tikhanovsky, applied to register for presidential candidacy in her husband’s place, and was successful.

The confiscation of “Eva” created a colossal resonance amongst the supporters of alternative candidates. Belarusian internet spheres were filled with images of “Eva” – both original and reimagined. There were images of Eva in a prison robe, Eva flipping up her middle finger and young women took photographs of themselves posing as Evas. Brian knew that she couldn’t ignore this.

“As a person, feminist, and a woman in art I am extremely happy that Eva, a woman, became the symbol of a protest. In Belarus, ‘feminism’ is almost a swear word. So to see a whole movement starting with a woman, first Eva, then Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, is making me very happy.”

Brian’s interpretation of “Eva” came to life thanks to the involvement of Belarusian art activist Olga Mzhelskaya. Olga was writing a lot about “Eva” and had a resemblance to the woman on Soutine’s portrait. The stars aligned – Brian and Olga started working on their video collage.

Meanwhile, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya announced the merging of her headquarters with headquarters of unregistered popular candidates Viktor Babariko and Valery Tsepkalo. Maria Kolesnikova, head of Babariko’s headquarters, and Veronika Tsepkalo, wife of Valery, together with Tikhanovskaya came on the forefront of oppositional movement and posted a photograph that became huge. Maria, making a heart gesture to the camera; Svetlana, triumphantly raising her fist; and Veronika showing a peace sign. These visual symbols also coincide with one of the slogans of the oppositional movement: “We believe, we can, we will win.”

Photo credit: Pavel Kritchko

“That’s how the idea of a triptych came to be. Three strong women are leading the united headquarters and are doing what men couldn’t do before them… At the same time, the current president is constantly saying sexist things such as ‘in Belarus the Constitution is not suitable for a woman’. Rather ironic that after this statement the three women became the symbol of alternative candidates.”

Almost immediately, the state media have tried to undermine and discredit the movement. They turned the symbols of opposition upside down: one channel reported that the gestured made by the three women meant “love, hit, cut”. They routinely mocked the “housewives” in politics. Brian’s triptych could not be more relevant.

“This movement is truly unique. Everything in it is done for love. This is not about the war or violence, this is not about ‘hitting’ or ‘cutting’, this is always about loving, always! This triptych is about the fact that Svetlana with Maria and Veronika as well as all Belarusians, all of us are screaming so loud – everything we do is done for love.”

The theme of love is indeed a recurring one. Tikhanovskaya constantly repeats that she registered as a candidate for president only out of love for her husband, her children and her country.

“We all want to live peacefully but we also want out voices to be heard” – says Brian.

“Those three women, who initially didn’t have a voice, gave hope to all people regardless of their gender. We have a voice, and this voice can be heard.”

Coming back to her work, Brian notes that since Soutin's painting of Eva depicts an unknown woman, every woman can become a symbol. “All of us are Eva. The painting was confiscated, Eva is a prisoner of circumstance, so are all Belarusians. This is what many women in Belarus feel like.” So Brian hopes that Eva and her many faces is a sign that women were given a chance, that people believe in women and will eventually shed any prejudices against them.

"You were already given legs, you need voices now, too?"

However, Brian admits, society can’t fundamentally change such deeply rooted views, especially just in a couple of months. Even Svetlana Tikhanovskaya herself doesn’t position herself as a politician but rather as an ordinary woman who has to take on a leadership role that she did not ask for due to unforeseen circumstances.

“But a politician isn’t measured by their gender. It is all about the ideas and the desire to change something for the benefit of the country”, suggests Brian.

Nevertheless, their female gender is often the reason for belittling the efforts of the three women during this election campaign. During his speech at a Parliament earlier this week, the current president emotionally reacted to Tikhanovskaya’s promise to hold a new, fair election with all the independent candidates. He said that “the poor girlies” don’t know what they are talking about, what they are reading. “What are you writing for them?” he kept asking, talking to an abstract speechwriter, as if these women were incapable of expressing their own views.

Brian takes this disregard and underestimation of women as worthy candidates to heart. She understands that Belarusian society needs to go through a huge amount to take women in politics seriously, as well-rounded political figures and not just prisoners of circumstance. There is still a system in place in which female voices are left largely unheard or ignored.

“Sometimes it’s not even assumed that Belarusian women have voices. Like, what do you mean, three little mermaids came to the shore, what do you mean they want to speak? You were already given legs, you need voices now, too? That’s not how the fairy-tale goes!” – laughs Brian.

I see kindness, I see love

Towards the end of our conversation, Brian muses on the main lessons of this summer. Her thoughts, uninterrupted, are here:

“For me this is a story about courage, reason and honesty. The most important thing I’ve taken out of this situation, however it might end on the 9th August – I finally saw my country from a new perspective. My own art taught me how to look at the familiar but changing the context, and this is what I am trying to communicate to people as well. And after looking at my country differently I saw wonderful things. I saw amazing people who gradually change their views and move from stereotypical to critical thoughts."

As a person and as a Belarusian citizen I am very happy with this dynamic. Some say this divides the society – I disagree; I see how it unites. I see kindness, I see love, I see support – and I haven’t seen it in a long time. I want it to continue this way. I want Belarus to show itself on the international arena, show how many talented people we have, how many talented women, who have something to say and who are not afraid to do so. So that when you have something to say, you don’t have to leave.”

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