‘We Can’t Be Afraid Anymore’ – artists behind the frontline in Belarus5 min read

 In Civil Society, Eastern Europe, Interview
Whilst the world watches the Capitol with relief, the battle to assert democracy in Belarus wages on. Efforts to depose ‘Europe’s last dictator’ Alexander Lukashenko began last May, and are now entering their eighth month. It’s been a brutal winter. Every day, people take to the streets, despite the pandemic, the heavy snowfall, and the OMON – Belarus’ paramilitary riot police. More than 30,000 have now been arrested, 1373 injured, 50 are missing, and four confirmed dead – although the true figures may be higher. Dissidents hang decorations from their windows in red and white, the colours of the ancestral Belarusian flag. 

Online too, the red-and-white flag is widely shared – perhaps more so, as the public display of separatist symbols has been criminalised. On the Instagram page @artistswithbelarus – the virtual front line, if you will – recurring motifs abound: angels, women in white, masked thugs, injury detail, cranes in flight, cockroaches, a vicious bear trap in the shape of a jewelled crown. Some of the images are finished pieces, some are rough sketches, others are too explicit to be printed here. This is folk art in its raw form – bloody, earnest, and uncompromising. 

For this piece, I spoke to three young artists about how Belarusians are using art to respond to the chaos. Meet Darya, Ekaterina, and Yana. 

Without protection / Daria Trublina

Darya Trublina is a graphic designer, illustrator and filmmaker from Minsk. Her style is witty, bordering on the surreal – one animation depicts Lukashenko as an elderly babushka, cradling security men shaped like purring, black cats. Her series of illustrations ‘Without Protection,’ is shown here, the bold colours and angular figures reminding me of Keith Haring at the top of his game. There is a binary quality to the symbols – angels, demon-like police, which Darya defends fiercely: 

“It’s become so clear and unambiguous for everyone that we can compare [the political situation in Belarus] with the struggle between good and evil. Violence and injustice in my country cause people to go to the protests. They can’t be afraid anymore. For me, the Belarusian people have become real heroes and angels who fight for our freedom and a better future.”

Let’s survive this year so that everybody can go home, Svеtlana Tikhanovskaya / Ekaterina Z 

Maria Kalesnikava / Ekaterina Z

Every revolution needs its heroes. Whilst these protests have been defined by heavy sacrifices on the parts of many formerly apolitical Belarusians, a few women have emerged as leaders. Despite her lack of political experience, Svеtlana Tikhanovskaya became Lukashenko’s main rival, following the arrest of her husband, the activist Sergei Tikhanovsky. Maria Kalesnikava, an influential musician and campaigner, was kidnapped and jailed in September 2020 and has since been recognised by Amnesty International as a prisoner of conscience. Ekaterina Z, an illustrator from Minsk, is one of many artists to depict Tikhanovskaya and Kalesnikava in her work. 

I am struck by the timeless quality of her illustrations. The stylised figures, looking straight ahead or in profile, recall Orthodox saints – fittingly, given the icon role they fulfil for Belarusian protestors. There are echoes too, of early Soviet revolutionary posters, which themselves drew on Orthodox imagery. For Ekaterina, creativity is very much an instinctive response. 

I’ve been drawing since I was a kid,” she tells me, “It’s a big part of my life. By drawing, I experience all events that occur. And since August, my main theme has been the events happening right here, in Belarus.”

The full scale of the horror in Belarus is unknown, even within the country itself. There have been brutal and often sexual violence against male and female protesters, with the UN Human Rights Office registering 450 instances of torture. Artists have not shied away from depicting the darkest aspects of the conflict. Yana Chernova, 24, a painter from Minsk now studying in Moscow, approaches this subject with unflinching realism in her portrait ‘Belarusian Venus.’ Enlarging the bruises beyond the point of abstraction, Yana’s brush finds beauty. This is a provocative composition, but there is a stillness to it, through which some of the dignity taken from the subject is restored. Wherever there is detail – uncomfortable though the detail may be – we look more closely. 

Belarusian Venus / Yana Chernova 

Yana reminds me of Lukashenko’s infamous remarks, following the peaceful protests of August 10th-13th 2020. Denying the official sanctioning of force, the president claimed: “Some girls had their booties painted with blue paint. We can show you these shots […] Well, yes, someone had a blue back. But there are no bruises today.’’ Regarding her own painting, she tells me: “This violence was not only directed at women. This painting symbolises all of Belarus. The red cloth the woman lies on is in the shape of Belarus. Her face is hidden because it doesn’t belong to a specific person, but the whole country. This painting is about how people all over Belarus felt, and sometimes still feel now.”

When it comes to publicising footage of real victims of police brutality, there’s already a lot of discourse – is it ethical to respect the privacy of the individuals shown – and avoid reopening wounds for their family and friends – or to share such images as widely as possible, perhaps preventing future casualties? Furthermore, even if one argues in favour of publishing such graphic footage, state censorship remains a huge problem in Belarus – over the last year alone, 470 independent journalists were detained, and 50 media websites shut down. Sharing paintings and other abstract images in place of footage partially addresses both these issues, yet still retains the same power to shock, and to move us on a human level. This is just one of the ways in which protest art has gained real weight in the struggle against totalitarianism in Belarus.

Whether by documenting the graphic violence, celebrating their heroes, or depicting the excesses of Lukashenko’s regime through symbolism and satire, dissident artists offer us a glimpse into what a democratic Belarus could look like. Darya, Ekaterina and Yana are three artists amongst thousands – scroll through the @artistswithbelarus page, and you will see as many responses to the crisis as there are individuals. Some echo each other in style, others clash, but the same slogans are repeated over and over – freedom, democracy and an end to violence. Unanimously, the young artists of Belarus reject the methods of those who would silence them. 

All original artwork reproduced with the artists’ permission. Any translations used my own.

Featured image: Maria Kalesnikava / Ekaterina Z
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