A Wooden Kalashnikov: Belarusian Artists in Poland
#photography & visual arts
default, ‘Smuggling of Biomaterials’ (Car Door / BMW E6-43R-00048) by Sergey Shabohin and Paweł Matyszewski, 2019, work from the exhibition ‘Z Peryferii’ (From, center, #000000, car_sergey_shabohin_.jpg
‘If you deny the influence of another culture, your own culture and vocabulary become impoverished’, said Leon Tarasewicz, a Polish painter of Belarusian heritage, in an interview. ‘After all, Poland has benefitted from Belarusian culture’.
The artist offered some examples: ‘Sokrat Yanovich and Ignacy Karpowicz, for example, have made important contributions to Polish literature’. But the list of Belarusian artists who are active in Poland certainly doesn’t end there.
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Sergey Shabohin, one of the most important Belarusian artists of the younger generation, has been living in Poland for four years and is a true representative of what is known as the ‘archival turn’. His works often take the form of a constellation of objects and images. After he arranges them in a collection and connects them by an intricate network of threads, they gain meaning – like clues gathered by a detective. For inspiration, he eagerly reaches into the past, to both the iconic Russian constructivist avant-garde and as Soviet pop art.
In Shabohin’s 2009 art installation titled Grey Cabinet: Pop Art in the USSR, the artist made reference to the 1960s, reconstructing a sparse Soviet interior in which everything – from the table to the massive sideboard and the pendulum clock – is painted grey. Evidence of a longing for Western hedonistic consumerism creeps in amongst the basic household appliances. Glass swans arch their necks inside a display case, a plastic fawn sits on the sideboard, and a picture of Chairman Mao hangs next to a cut-out black-and-white reproduction of Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Although there was artistic exchange from one side of the Iron Curtain to the other, pop art deeply rooted in capitalism could not easily be transplanted onto Eastern soil.
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An archive containing a series titled Praktyki Podporządkowania (Subordination Practices) – an essential part of Shabohin’s artistic output, which he has been working on since 2011 – is also dominated by shades of grey. It was exhibited at Galeria Arsenał in Białystok in 2016. Collecting evidence of the repressiveness of the system which is crumbling today, Shabohin’s project absorbs like a sponge images, recordings, slogans, stories and objects, going beyond genre conventions and creating a rich artistic and sociological archive.
Shabohin has also become a key figure on the Belarusian art scene as a result of his curatorial projects. He is, amongst other things, the editor-in-chief of an Internet platform on Belarusian contemporary art called KALEKTAR – created in response to the lamentable state of public cultural institutions, which are subordinate to the regime and present an incomplete and distorted picture of local art.
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‘Ściana' (Wall)’ by Celina Kanunnikava, 2015, acrylic on canvas, work from the exhibition ‘Celina Kanunnikava – Mass and Power’, 2016, photo: Wozownia Art Gallery in Toruń
While Shabohin disassembles authoritarian reality and puts the pieces under a magnifying glass, Celina Kanunnikava specialises in creating a visual synthesis. Like Shabohin, this artist, who splits her time between Minsk and Poznań, creates art dominated by various shades of grey, sometimes broken by intense blood-red and icy blue.
There is rarely room for human figures in Kanunnikava’s paintings. The works are dominated, above all, by architecture – monumental, heavy buildings associated with government, bureaucratic offices, archives and the media. With no people in sight, the almost surrealistic scenery may bring to mind the metaphysical landscapes of Giorgio de Chirico – only that instead of intimate piazzas bathed in the Mediterranean sun, they present large, concrete-covered squares dotted with industrial cameras and surrounded by edifices of power and authority. These are, of course, characteristic of the architecture of authoritarian regimes.
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‘The Medium is the Message’ by Celina Kanunnikava, 2014, acrylic on canvas, work from the exhibition ‘Celina Kanunnikava – Mass and Power’, 2016, photo: Wozownia Art Gallery in Toruń
In Kanunnikava’s paintings, smooth façades resembling terrazzo tombstones rise up from an empty, gloomy landscape like icebergs from the surface of a smooth sea. They emerge from a background painted with single brushstrokes, similar to works by 19th-century Neo-Impressionists – except that in this colourless imaginarium, the pointillist technique results in a picture resembling the ‘snowy’ static on a TV screen after it has lost its signal. Sometimes their sharply outlined shapes are flooded with a mysterious black, tarry substance. Other times a chequerboard of black windows covers the whole surface of the canvas, creating an almost abstract effect and revealing references to the classic works of the contemporary Belarusian artist Sergey Kiryuschenko.
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Uladzimir Pazniak began his education in Belarus, at Yanka Kupala State University of Grodno, and continued it at the Academy of Art in Szczecin, where he currently teaches. Like Shabohin, Pazniak draws on the history of the constructivist avant-garde. In his work titled Inochód, he carved a wardrobe and architectural models out of wood, based on designs by students of Vkhutemas (the state art and technical school in Moscow, founded by Vladimir Lenin in 1920), where such artists as Malevich, Tatlin and El Lissitzky taught.
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The icing on the cake is a model of a pyramid-shaped building which looks as if it were suspended halfway between Malevich’s sculptural, unconstrained and subtly asymmetrical architectural designs and the bulky shapes of the buildings in paintings by Kanunnikava. In his wooden objects, Pazniak illustrates the process described in Boris Groys’s theory, proving that socialist realism was not so much a denial of the constructivist avant-garde as its fulfilled dream – even if this was not indicated at all by its coarse forms.
Pazniak, who also makes reference to contemporary politics of fear and the panic-stricken securing of borders against foreigners both in Eastern and Western Europe, also has some prophetic works of art to his credit. Models of Kalashnikovs, one carved out of wood and another glued together from paper during a workshop with children, recreate weapons developed back in the 1940s which are still commonly used today by state armies, guerrillas, drug barons and dictators. These include Alexander Lukashenko – who, after landing at his Minsk residence in a helicopter, let photographs be taken of himself leaving it with an AK-47 in his hand (missing its magazine). This triggered only an avalanche of memes instead of a wave of fear.
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Ala Savashevich, as part of the #BWAWroclawOnline and Tamka campaign, photo: courtesy of the artist
The political change hanging in the air also seems to be sensed and illustrated in one of the latest works by Ala Savashevich, an artist born in Stolin, Belarus, and currently based in Wrocław, where she graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts. Her video titled Oddam Ramkę na Zdjęcie (I’ll Give Back the Picture Frame) was made on 1st April this year, four months before the rigged elections in Belarus. In this two-minute video, we can see the artist, wearing a black suit and high-heeled shoes, struggling to climb onto a plastic stool. When she finally manages to do it, we see the goal of her efforts – she takes a portrait of Alexander Lukashenko down from the wall, which previously hadn’t been visible to the viewer.
Savashevich often uses a similar kind of sarcasm and a distinctive sense of decay. The Rite of Spring, a choreographed performance, referred to a military parade on Victory Day in early May, which was stubbornly organised despite the pandemic. In an installation titled Jak Prać Zamszowe Rękawiczki (How to Wash Suede Gloves) set up in a shop window on Nowy Targ Square in Wrocław, an empty laurel wreath, white blinds, a red semi-circle and sadly drooping orange sashes formed a composition which did not look like the window display of a run-down shop, but rather the decorations of a patriotic parade.
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Still from the movie ‘Sztuki Piękne’ (Fine Arts), directed by Jan Shostak & Jakub Jasiukiewicz
One of them is to replace the word ‘refugee’ with a term that carries more positive associations in Poland. Shostak’s graduation project at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw titled nowak/nowaczka/nowacy was presented not in an art gallery but on the Internet, in the form of news articles published on websites and in the heated commentary sections beneath them – as well as in interviews with the artist on morning talk shows. The ubiquity of Shostak in the media was meant to serve as a means of popularising the term ‘nowak’ which, according to the artist, would be an appropriate alternative to the word ‘refugees’, which is burdened with negative associations and fear fuelled by politicians.
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Although a number of artists from Belarus currently live and work in Poland, it’s not very easy to gain direct contact with their work. Polish institutions seem to overlook foreign artists who are creating work here – as if they have slept through the past few years, a time when the number of migrants in Poland has significantly increased, with artists among them. There are a few exceptions, such as the Villa Sokrates Foundation’s gallery in the town of Krynki in the Podlasie region, Galeria Arsenał in Białystok and Galeria Labirynt in Lublin. Taking advantage of being located near the eastern border of Poland, they regularly present art from Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania.
However, this is gradually beginning to change. The latest initiative with the ambition of analysing the situation is ZA*zin, created by Vera Zalutskaya, a curator and critic from Belarus, and two Ukrainian artists: photographer Yulia Krivich and Yuriy Biley, a co-founder of Open Group. This trio has announced an open call that will serve as a basis for publications about art being produced by foreigners living in Poland. As the first of its planned activities, it will serve as a contribution to the still practically non-existent discussion of the position of migrants in the sphere of Polish visual art.
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Originally written in Polish by Piotr Policht, Aug 2020, translated by Scotia Gilroy, 7 Sep 2020