Anna Karpenko and Sophia Sadovskaya
Present that Has Not Yet Come
… I see myself as a bridge over the stolen contemporaneity rooted both in past and future.
From Маsha Maroz’s statement for Secondary Archive project
The geographical and historical framework of this text best refers to the situation of discontinuity, disruption, liminality, and fragmentation characteristic not only of the current state of Belarusian art, but the society as a whole.
Secondary Archive brings together Belarusian female artists who conditionally can be divided into three generations, each having experienced their own twists and turns of the historical time: from the late 1980s through the liberal upsurge and a short thaw in the 1990s to the cyclical timelessness of the era of the regime ongoing since 1996.
Some artists represented in this project have not lived in Belarus for more than 20 years, others left in 2020-2021 after the peaceful protest or stayed, continuing to live and work in the country where contemporary art has the status of the marginalized exception rather than a national element recognized at the state level. At the time of our work on this project, out of 22 artists, only 8 are in Belarus.
The socio-political context is important for identifying patterns in the development of the contemporary art field in Belarus, in comparison with the neighboring countries, which went through the transformational processes of the socialist systems breakdown and transition either to integral systems or to the directly opposite ones. Belarus has not experienced such a transformational transition yet. The peaceful protest against state violence that took place in 2020-2021 and has been ongoing to this day can be considered as unique in its mass character, however it is not the only example of social resistance that has affected both art field in general and particular artists’ lives.
The time after the 1996 referendum, which actually legitimized the unlimited power of the president and changed the national symbols of Belarus to the former Soviet ones (the red-green flag and the coat of arms with a hammer and a sickle elements), became a symbolic start of the first mass wave of artists’ emigration. Back then the students of the Minsk Academy of Arts, as well as their followers who would take to streets to protest in 2020, were expelled from the academy and left the country, continuing their studies in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and other European countries.
Here is how one of the project participants, the artist Vika Mitrichenko, recalls that time, “When I graduated from the Academy of Arts in Minsk, around the mid-1990s, a sickle and a hammer were put back on the main square making it clear – it was not a place where I could live. I knew I had to leave the country.”
The institutional crisis as a crisis not only of the institutions of art education (Belarus has the only Academy of Arts in Minsk where educational processes follow the Soviet system canons), but also of the institutions of art archive and exhibition, determines the form of interaction between the subjects of the national art field. State museum institutions remain heavily censored and avoid collaborating and acquiring works from the artists who critically approach topical issues. The Soviet system of membership in the official Artists’ Union and political neutrality implying loyalty, nepotism and protectorate are, perhaps, the only ways to enter the world of large museum institutions. Thus, young artists are almost deprived of a chance to get there. “As an artist in Belarus, I feel invisible,” the artist Varvara Sudnik states.
Over the last 30 years, contemporary art in Belarus has been pushed out of the official discourse and has existed rather “on the margins”, as a reality parallel to the state system, often being the lot of individual initiatives.
In 2009, the Minsk gallery “Podzemka” was transformed into the Gallery of Contemporary Art “Ў”, turning into an informal center of artistic life. In 2020, the Ў Gallery ceased to exist and its co-founder served more than a year and a half in prison, while the gallery directors left the country for safety reasons.
The spatial and temporal context of contemporary art in Belarus today can be defined as living in constant expectation of changes that have not occurred for almost a century, it is characterized by disruption, discontinuity of connections within the artistic field, inability to stay afloat and develop due to the lack of systemic institutional support. Now this is the history of our art – the history of voices that sound mostly outside the geographical borders of Belarus.
The disruption of this history is also evident in the fact that the younger generation is often not familiar with the works of the older one since their art is not present in the collections of museums or the National Center for Contemporary Arts. The only independent platform systematically involved in the process of archiving the history of Belarusian art is ZBOR/Kalektar, initiated by the artists Sergey Kiryushchenko and Sergey Shabokhin. Moreover, there is no academically fixed narrative of the history of contemporary art in Belarus in the form of transmitted knowledge.
In such socio-political conditions, the professional experience of female artists is subject to rigid systems and institutions that regulate not only the way the local art field functions, but often the personal life of its participants. One’s exit from the system, departure, and professional self-realization in other countries, as well as internal emigration become the ways to resist the suffocating repressiveness of this field.
The artists often described the art field as “a cultural ghetto”, emphasizing the isolation and invisibility of the representatives of this occupation for a wider society. However, on the eve of the 2020 elections, it became obvious that the artistic and cultural initiatives created not thanks to, but despite the existing system, gained significance and visibility.
Another aspect that characterizes the Belarusian artistic context, represented through the statements of the female artists who participate in the project, is related to the status of feminism and the peculiarities of self-determination of female artists who work with certain aspects of feminist optics.
The older generation, which does not define itself as belonging to feminism, nevertheless addresses topics, methodology, and strategy for understanding social and political reality, based on the position women take in Belarus.
This is how the artist Xisha Angelova describes her experience of motherhood, “I failed to live with my partner, but I find it very easy to combine motherhood and art: if I were to choose between cooking and painting, I’d choose the former.”
“The creative work and personal life of a female artist do not always work out well. More often than not, I observe how women, due to their “caring” nature, lose out in these relationships. You have to be very strong and do not depend on circumstances not to lose yourself in partnership,” Olga Sazykina states.
Artists from the succeeding generations are increasingly turning to feminism as a consciously chosen paradigm, for example: “My first political discovery was feminism, which resulted in rediscovery of many things previously familiar and unfamiliar to me. Now I am deeply involved in the issues of class inequality because I personally felt immensely vulnerable.” (Varvara Sudnik)
“As a feminist, I find collective practices and collaboration (with queer initiatives, in particular), working conditions and relationships to be especially important.” (Olia Sosnovskaya)
“I would like to believe that art made by women will never be called “female art”, because we simply have art, just like we simply have human beings.” (Alesiya Zhitkevich)
Secondary Archive project participants represent three generations of Belarusian artists and an infinite number of strategies, methods, tricks, and secrets of survival in the space which can hardly be described as friendly for contemporary art. This is an open-ended list that does not claim to be complete, because the history of Belarusian contemporary art, like that of the new Belarus, still expects to be written.
February 14, 2022
Аnna Каrpenko. Berlin, Germany
Sophia Sadovskaya. Minsk, Belarus
Anna Karpenko – curator. Born in Minsk (Belarus), lives and works in Leipzig/Berlin (Germany). Graduated from the Philosophy Department (Belarusian State University, Minsk). Has MA in Sociology in Art (European Humanities University, Vilnius). MA student of the Program “Cultures of The Curatorial” (Academy of Fine Arts, Leipzig). Focuses on curatorial theory and practice.
Sophia Sadovskaya – educator, curator based in Minsk, Belarus. She studied at the Department of Art History at Moscow State University, worked at the gallery of contemporary Art “Ў” and at the National Art Museum of Belarus. She works with education and mediation in the field of arts, as well as with interdisciplinary projects for environmental activists and artists.