ZOiS Spotlight 14/2023

Reimagining Care in Belarusian Protest Art

by Antonina Stebur 12/07/2023

Protest artists in Belarus have used their imagination to create alternative structures of support and solidarity. By foregrounding a sense of fragility, their initiatives go beyond traditional notions of care, emphasising the political dimension, interdependence, and resistance against oppression.

The initiative 'The Museum of the Future' aims to bring neighbours in Belarus into dialogue with each other in order to create new forms of care and solidarity in resistance to oppression.

Since Belarus’s rigged 2020 presidential election and the largest mass protests in the country’s history, 1 per cent of the total adult population of Belarus has been detained for political reasons. According to the Washington Post, Belarus ranks among the top seven countries worldwide in terms of the number of political prisoners per 100,000 people.

In this context, a sense of fragility emerges as a central theme in Belarusian protest art. This foregrounding of fragility highlights the urgent need for care, both physical and emotional, among those engaged in the resistance. Artists in Belarus are exploring this theme in their work, shedding light on the vulnerabilities of those who put their lives on the line for their cause. By doing so, the artists are challenging societal norms that stigmatise fragility and promoting a culture of care that embraces those most affected by state violence.

This fragility promotes the idea of building infrastructures of care that aim to provide support networks, resources, spaces for healing, and solidarity among those at the forefront of the resistance. These infrastructures of care in Belarusian protest art transcend conventional acts of charity, service, or resource distribution. Instead, they embrace care as a collective and structural practice, not only for others but also in collaboration with others.

The politicisation of care

Amid the protests, Belarusian art group eeefff orchestrated a project called ‘The Museum of the Future’. The primary objective was to create a distance for reflection and a dialogue between neighbours in the political sense. Dzina Zhuk and Nikolai Spesivtsev, the artists behind the project, lived in one of the protest neighbourhoods, where they organised their workshop. This initiative co-existed alongside other activities initiated by local residents, including concerts and gatherings. By inviting their neighbours to envisage a future protest museum, the artists aimed to spark contemplation on new, alternative infrastructures.

Notably, eeefff consciously assumed the role of mediator rather than creator of the museum. The group’s intention was to provide a platform for diverse voices and foster interaction among a wide range of individuals. This approach reflects a political practice of caring and encourages the exploration of new forms of care infrastructure.

The politicisation of care has become a global phenomenon and is not limited to the Belarusian protests. Across the world, there is a resurgence of the importance of care. Artist Marina Naprushkina highlights the dire situation faced by Belarusian protesters: ‘People have nothing [with which] to oppose state violence except their defenceless bodies. And so they come out in hope as a sign of support and solidarity, but they find themselves torn to pieces, beaten and even killed by state terror.’

Alternative support structures

Belarusian protest art plays a crucial role in creating infrastructures of care, as it harnesses the tools of political imagination to contribute to the formation of alternative support structures. One notable example is ‘The Museum of Stones’, which emerged as an extension of the self-publishing practices that originated during the 2020 protests and continue to this day. These grassroots initiatives, often referred to as neighbourhood newspapers, are hybrid infrastructures that distribute essential political information through digital platforms and physical spaces.

The Museum of Stones exemplifies this alternative infrastructure of care by amplifying diverse voices and expanding the existing network of neighbourhood newspapers through interviews with anarchists, LGBTQ+ community representatives, militants, and others. The publication is dedicated to exploring the possibilities of organising infrastructures of care within specific neighbourhoods.

With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the urgency of infrastructures of care has only intensified. While art projects like The Museum of Stones have continued to operate, others have expanded their understanding of the politicisation of care by embracing the concept of interdependence. An exemplar of such infrastructure building is the International Coalition of Cultural Workers in Solidarity with Ukraine (antiwarcoalition.art). This online platform, created by artists from around the world, serves as a repository for statements against aggressors. Having originated as a response to Russia’s aggression and the war against Ukraine, the platform allows artists to protest against war, dictatorship, and authoritarianism while expressing solidarity with those affected by the conflict and those who resist various forms of repression and terror worldwide.

The initiative antiwarcoalition.art exists in two dimensions. On the one hand, it operates as an online platform where artists can showcase their work, while on the other hand, it manifests itself in offline formats through exhibitions, screenings, discussions, and workshops that encourage dialogue and the development of reflective language. The aim is to foster an understanding that people are not isolated individuals but interconnected beings. The war against Ukraine transcends borders and is embedded in complex economic, colonial, and political contexts. It affects the entire planet through implications such as the distribution of grain, environmental disasters, the threat of nuclear catastrophe, and water pollution.

Going beyond artistic expression

The distinctiveness of Belarusian protest art lies in its active participation in the formation of infrastructures of care that are inherently political in nature. This engagement with care goes beyond traditional notions of support and solidarity, as it encompasses a broader understanding of interdependence and resistance against oppressive systems. Through projects like The Museum of Stones and antiwarcoalition.art, Belarusian artists have harnessed their political imagination to create alternative structures of care. Ultimately, the inclusion of infrastructures of care in Belarusian protest art goes beyond artistic expression: it signifies a commitment to dismantling oppressive structures, supporting those affected by state violence, and fostering global solidarity.

Antonina Stebur is a curator, art historian, and art critic. Her research interests include feminism, post-Soviet studies, political art, tactics of resistance and solidarity, and developing infrastructure.