Where there is something | Art in Belarus
MIKHAIL GULIN is fretting over a provocative drawing of his that features prominently in a Polish catalogue: \"I hope it doesn’t get me in trouble!\" he half-jokes.
The picture, of Belarus’s president, Alyaksandr Lukashenka, has little in common with the personal, often humourous paintings, collages and installations that have made Mr Gulin and his wife, Antonina Slobodchikova, leading lights of Belarus’s contemporary-art scene. \"That picture was just a gut reaction after December 19th,\" Mr Gulin explains. \"It is not very representative of my work.\"
To Belarusians opposed to Mr Lukashenka’s regime, that date has become shorthand for the events of the night of December 19th 2010, when the authorities crushed protests against a fraudulent presidential election and a period of relative openness in Belarus came to an abrupt end.
The regime has stepped up its repression since then. Two of the opposition candidates in that election, along with several other dissidents, are serving long-term prison sentences. Laws against public protest have reached absurd levels.
Targeted sanctions by the European Union, expanded last week, seem to be prompting the regime to tighten the screws even further. A list has been drawn up (but not published) of dissidents who are banned from leaving the country. Yesterday another three of these virtual hostages were taken off a train to Russia and charged with hooliganism.
However, the works produced by Mr Gulin and Ms Slobodchikova are far from overtly political. Ms Slobodchikova’s current exhibition, at Minsk’s Galeria ў, is better described as psychological. Entitled \"It is here\", the show deals with fear and foreboding and how to overcome them. The paranoia of life under a dictator may come to some observers’ minds, but is not something the works seek to address directly.
Yet it is unsurprising that Mr Gulin’s Lukashenka piece attracted attention. Foreign observers of Belarusian art home in on a spirit of rebellion when they see it. The most (only?) famous contemporary Belarusian cultural export is the explicitly dissident Belarus Free Theatre. \"Abroad, they only want to buy political stuff. Here, they won’t take anything that’s political. But we’re somewhere in between,\" complains Ms Slobodchikava.
Galeria ў is Belarus’s only permanent contemporary-art centre. It also hosts a bookshop, café (the Moloko bar described here has been replaced by something more in tune with the rest of the space) and regular cultural talks.
State galleries, says Hanna Chistoserdova, the centre’s artistic director, offer little opportunity for innovative artists. She readily dismisses the staid, dry culture served up by state-run institutions, but emphatically does not see Galeria ў as a place of political opposition.
Does that mean that artists with a political message can show their work there? \"Why not? But if it is a purely political work it may not be interesting for us... and in fact I don’t think that in Belarus we have such strong political art\".
Her wariness reflects a growing mentality in Belarus: that it is pointless to let one’s private opinion of Mr Lukashenka get in the way of doing what one wants to do. It is possible to get around the authorities, and even, sometimes, to get them on your side: the culture minister has attended events at Galeria ў.
Another example: Mr Gulin is preparing an exhibition in the southeastern city of Gomel. Despite its name—\"Palace Revolution\"—this show is being put together in co-operation with the local authorities. Mr Gulin complains of the restrictions he faces, but is confident that the show will go ahead. There is a real appetite for such events across the country, he says.
He and his wife speak with great enthusiasm about one work, by Aleksej Lunev: \"Nichoga Nyama\", which means \"There is nothing,\" or \"Total Zero\". It is a phrase that always comes up, they say. Belarus has no art market, no film industry, barely any publishing. In the cultural world, there is a strong sense that there is simply nothing going on.
March 25th did see a rare authorised opposition rally in Minsk: a few thousand demonstrators showed up to celebrate Freedom Day, the anniversary of Belarus’s short period of independence in 1918. But with the EU floundering and the regime squashing any resistance, few hold out much hope for political change in the near future. Belarus’s artists, at least, have decided that does not mean they have to stay at total zero.