Psychology of Belarusan Protest Art: Interview with an Art Therapist

Interview  |  BELARUS  |  CONTEMPORARY ART  |  12.10.2020

Currently, there has been an unprecedented creative boom in the Belarusian art field. Both professionals and amateurs are speaking out and expressing their views and concerns, many artists have made their creative debut. In a talk with medical psychologist and art therapist Kasia Ioffe, we discussed how it can be explained from a psychological point of view.

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– What are the reasons that encourage people to engage in creativity at such a challenging time – perhaps we should look for more profound factors than their desire for self-expression?

– Sociologists sometimes define protest as politics implemented by non-political means. And art, in fact, is a protest, an expression of peoples' disagreement with the current way of life, their thirst for change. This is consistent with our understanding of creativity as a creative adaptation when we adjust the environment to fit ourselves and our requirements. By the 'requirements' I mean our needs, values, and moral and ethical views of the world order.

 A work of art is a statement, an action, an articulation of one's own position and view of the world. This statement is made indirectly rather than directly because an artist uses visual means as a bridge between their own view of the world and the consciousness of the 'other' — their viewer, listener, witness and interlocutor. This is an attempt to explain an idea so that this 'other' could understand it.

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Banksy — 'The Flower Thrower'

The creator and their art reflect the reality and try to convey it to the consciousness of another person, to make it clear that people do not just hear something, but listen to it carefully and as a result, comprehend it. That's why during the protest near the Academy of Arts the artist held a poster 'Painting can't stop a bullet, but it can stop the shooter'.

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On September 1, art students held a protest action near the Academy of Arts building at Nezavisimosti Avenue, 81 in Minsk — they stood there in a chain wearing black, their mouths taped with black duct tape / photo: Onliner

The desire to express oneself is a much deeper phenomenon than it may seem at first sight. After all, the political phenomenon of voting is exactly a chance to express one's own opinion, one's own wishes about the future of the country, the structure of government, and the working principles of the system. Another political phenomenon is election fraud. In the psychological field, this equals the deprivation of one's right to express themselves. In this case, 'stealing votes' is itself extremely metaphorical. Electoral fraud means depriving each individual of their choice, depriving them of their voice, and teaching them helplessness.

 To forbid, to take away, to punish – in general, to behave as a helpless, aggressive and unskilled parent for whom the penitentiary (prison) system is closer than the educational one – such strategies are typical for a dictatorship. This leads to increasingly harsh and absurd censorship, which we vividly remember from the USSR times. And how can one resist censorship? Through a covert statement, a metaphor, or an allegory. It reminds of a game where one has to explain a word, but can't use words with the same root.

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Interpretation of the cover of Orwell's '1984'

The creative adaptation of the psyche manifests itself in the search for a way to meet the needs that have been frustrated. If ethical needs that have become basic in the society of developing humanism are frustrated, the psyche will look for ways to fulfill them. For example, for an artist, the basic need may lie not in material comfort, but rather in self-actualization and self-disclosure, which belong to higher, spiritual values. Therefore, such a person will be ready to live poorly, but honestly, investing primarily in their creativity. For example, they would buy paints instead of bread.

 What needs do we see in Belarusians at this stage? Of course, these are the feel one's dignity: to be perceived as an individual, to be responsible for making choices within the limits of one's own freedoms, to have human rights.

 The protests in Belarus are distinguished not so much by the presence of art as by their peaceful nature. This is directly related to the fact that the whole world is constantly evolving towards ethical and moral norms and mutual respect as the basis of existence. Protesters in Belarus do not want war, do not want violence, they want peace, order and decency, they want honesty and respect for their own human dignity – that is why there is so much art and so little physical violence on their part.

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Andrey Dubinin — 'Belarusians'

– Until recently, Belarusian fine art was rather conservative. Now its framework has expanded considerably, and the demand for art (not only the protest art) has grown — why it happened?

– I would like to draw your attention to the fact that even a hundred years ago education and qualified medical care were a privilege in Belarus. The situation was similar in Cuba, where there are still some people who used to sleep on the streets in their childhood and could not get a doctor or learn to read at school because there was no free education or medicine before the revolution there.

 The more educated people become, the more they are able to analyze and perceive art. In addition, art itself is becoming more and more open to innovation, experiments and expression. In my opinion, both in society and in art, which is inseparable from people, we experience increasing inclusiveness and ability to perceive diversity with tolerance and respect. This, in turn, allows more people to find their own niche and the kind of art, the style that is close to them, or the artist that captivates them.

– When analyzing the works of different artists, is it possible to identify some common features or deep-laid messages? Is it possible that over time the protest art has undergone some changes in this respect — if so, in what way?

– I think that the distinctive feature of the Belarusian protest art is that it represents all possible types of creative activism: poetic, theatrical and digital protest, as well as street art.

 

Street art

Take at least the DJs of Change mural and its post-ironic flirtation with Malevich's Black Square after the mural was covered in tar. But we can also consider as street art all the posters, flags, projections of protest images on the walls, displays of pseudo flags from clothing (white and red socks and underwear) or flags made of ribbons on bridges, trees and balconies.

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Street art with Nina Baginskaya in Minsk-Mir neighborhood. Inspired by @rozan_art illustrations  / source: @thevillagebelarus

Poetic protest

Poetic protest is a phenomenon in which 'for ethical reasons, poetical becomes political'. These are 'Kultprotest', 'Vershy Svabody' (Poems of Freedom), 'Halasy Belarusi' (Voices of Belarus), a selection of poems on the Wir.by web portal, as well as the active help of translators from neighboring countries, who search for the works written during the months of protests and help them reach an audience that speaks neither Belarusian nor Russian languages.

 

Theatrical forms of protest

These include flash mob protests — for example, women's démarches; singing a lullaby; 'protesTANTSY' (protestDANCE), when people dance during walking; choir singing a prayer-hymn 'Mahutny Bozha' (Oh Mighty Lord) or folk song 'Kupalinka' in public places; political performances as the performance 'For Five Years of Fruitful Work' that took place back in 1999 or 'A Birthday Gift'. We can say that the latter goes back to the tradition of medieval carnivals, which became an arena for political and religious criticism, which was essentially provocative, prompting certain changes in response.

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Ales Pushkin — 'A Birthday Gift to the President' / performance / 1999

Digital protest

Digital protest (comic stips on burning social issues and political net-art) includes stickers, memes, online festivals, projections on the walls, that partially belong to street art, etc. As well as the majority of other products of intellectual creativity, protest art is mainly transmitted through the Internet. But here I would like to note that even when the Internet is shut down, art does not disappear, because there are other ways of its preservation and transmission, and most of the materials are able to change their shape and get embodied differently: no matter what, there will still be flags, paintings, stories, comics, stickers, poems, songs and sculptures.

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'OMON is a weapon of mass cruelty'. Literally half an hour after Lukashenko's press service released a propaganda sticker pack for Telegram,  an alternative one appeared in the messenger in response.

– Is it possible in this case to classify the topics of the protest art?

– Among the topics that repeatedly arise in Belarusian protest art, I would highlight the following:

1. Expression of respect, gratitude, and admiration for particular individuals — for example, Yury Korzun, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, Maria Kolesnikova and Nina Baginskaya;

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Olga Novitskaya — 'Nina Baginskaya and her flag. The courage of this fragile woman amazes me'

2. Glorification of certain actions: Kolesnikova's torn passport; Baginskaya's 'I'm walking' in the face of a policeman; actions of the lifeguards who transported protesters to the other shore from the riot police; shoes that protesters took off to stand on a bench; a white and red flag that a utility worker straightened out instead of taking it off; public resignations of Ministry of Internal Affairs employees, judges and prosecutors; strikes at factories, etc;

3. Glorifying and emphasizing the peaceful nature of protests;

4. Reflection on the humanity of those who make arrests and 'just follow orders': 'Mom, she does not love me', 'Man of the System', 'Oneiric Belarus: Leviathan' and others;

5. Reflection on the topic of violence and lies, reaction and simultaneous demonstration of fear and pain. A striking example here is Yana Chernova's 'Belarusian Venus';

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Yana Chernova — 'Belarusian Venus'

6. Emphasizing honesty, dignity, and decency as the main values of protesters;

7. The absurd distorting of reality. For example, protest posters 'Alcoholics from the Teachers' Room', 'Stop 'yabatka' Belarus', (in Russian, 'yabatka' sounds the same as a vulgar version of 'having sex with someone'), rallying calls implying ironic 'playing along' or 'flirting' with the offender.  However, when it comes to absurdity, Lukashenko's representatives are unbeatable — they create a slogan 'yabatka', hang the flag 'for Belarus' on the circus building, send out combat helicopters to shoot down balloons, fly with a rifle over the city, intercept 'conversations between Nick and Mike', and accuse the 'Polish Psychological Troops' and 'elite unit Black Spiders' from Bydgoszcz; 

8. Direct requests addressed to the opponents of the protesters. For example, a performance with pumpkins (a symbolic marriage proposal rejection) or an exorcism sign drawn as a protest poster, the expulsion of evil spirits and demons with the word 'Begone'.

Minsk women 'rolled out a pumpkin' to Alexander Lukashenko / performance / photo: Onliner

– What works impressed you the most? Which ones would you like to use for psychological or art therapy analysis?

– I would like to note that analysis of a work is only possible in a session with a client, because it depends on one's request and experiences that arise while creating the work and/or in the process of its perception. This is not an art therapy per se, but rather a therapy through art, where the client does not have to be the creator of the work, because the viewer becomes a co-author and contributor to the work due to subjectivism of everyone’s perception and interpretation. From the point of view of psychological, and even culturological analysis, I am especially interested in:

1. Theatrical protests. Such actions as the performance with pumpkins, single-person protest 'I knit/OMON beat — be like me, knit white and red scarves' or lullaby singing, where instead of the last words 'close your eyes' women sang 'open your eyes', completely changing the meaning of the song in political and ethical context;

 2. Flags by Vladimir Tsesler;

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Vladimir Tsesler — 'On September 4, the Belarusian diaspora in New York held a rally in support of the protesters in Belarus'

3. 'Person of the System' by Andrey Anro;

4. Flyers with 'tickets to the paddy wagon', which appeared before the protest;

5. A series of texts by Pasha Lyubetsky with illustrations by Yana Zaychenko 'Oneiric Belarus: Leviathan' — amazing sensitivity;

6. 'A citizen is born In the womb of a paddy wagon' by Anya Redko;

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Anna Redko — 'A citizen is born In the womb of a paddy wagon'

7. Graffiti with DJs of Changes with the whole history of its destructions and restorations;

8. Protest action on August 13, when artists came out to the street with printed photos of victims of police violence;

9. 'Painting with a baton' by Artem Loskutov, the creator of the annual carnival of absurdity 'Monstration' in Novosibirsk;

10. Nearly all the poetic and song protests that bring back the voices of Belarusian voters both metaphorically and literally.

Artem Loskutov — 'Belarus' / baton / acrylic on canvas / 60x40 cm / 2020

– At the moment, there are people in the art community who are experiencing creative frustration — they can not create, or simply can not translate what they want in their work. What are the reasons for this, and how can an artist get help from a psychologist or an art therapist in particular?

– In such cases, we try to find out what constitutes this blocking. It can be an excessive tension that paralyzes the person, and before creating an art object, it might be necessary for an artist to respond to their emotions because creativity can not always be a way to express them.

Those who work with formal art, for whom art is not only a way of self-expression but also a skill, a more professional way of doing things, approach the process in a different way  being more biased and judgmental. And during art therapy session, we focus on the action, on creativity itself, and then analyze the result. I would like to emphasize: we carry out the analysis without evaluating the artwork itself.

The causes of the blocking may be of a different type — it may be a manifestation of 'negative perfectionism', the result of ruminations, that appeared or intensified against the background of general prolonged stress and uncertainty. These are repetitive automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions. Because of them, a person represents the world and themselves 'in darker colors'. For example, people who are inclined to be self-conscious and ashamed of themselves might think that they have 'no words' or 'I have nothing to say/create/show to others because I am not worthy/ my creativity is not good enough to even start with such a scary/important/big topic'.

The paralyzing sense of fear in conditions of uncertainty, when it is difficult to assume what will happen tomorrow, is also one of the common experiences. This is an expected reaction from a living and thinking being.

– How can an art therapist help people in these difficult situations? How and around what will they build up an art therapy session?

– An art therapist can help as any other psychologist. The session will be built around the client's request. Art therapy is a psychotherapy that uses creativity and its results in the process.

Psychologist and art therapist may offer the client to try other, unfamiliar creative activities: drawing or singing for a dancer, dancing or writing a fairy tale, or a poem for a painter, etc. These are just examples, not a universal algorithm. The main thing in selecting the right technique is to gently lead the client out of their skill zone, where, on the one hand, they act automatically and, on the other, it is more difficult for them to give up the traditional evaluation system and stop 'monitoring quality and skill'. However, everything always depends on the individual characteristics of the client, on their personal profile and on what exactly causes their creative frustration.

– As far as I know, many psychologists now provide free psychological assistance for those in need. To what extent is art therapy represented in the psychological community? What would you recommend as an art therapist?

– Art therapy is a specialization of psychologists and psychotherapists. If a specialist is trained to work with such techniques and the client is inclined to this activity, it can be used in the session. Art therapy is useful when, for example, creativity helps the client to get closer to some intolerable experiences, to express something that can be either too painful or impossible to express in words, or to get closer to the topics their mind has 'learned' to avoid.

In my opinion, creativity is a basic quality of any person. Even the fact that the very process of adaptation to new conditions in psychology is called 'creative adaptation' may indicate this. Therefore, developing creative potential and using it as a resource is the basis for the work on expressing emotions, exploring non-verbalized material and restoring the client's strength, developing their stress tolerance. But all this will only work if, first of all, the client has not been initially traumatized, and does not feel paralyzed when it comes to creativity.  Secondly, a therapist realizes that creativity is not limited to art, it is not just drawing / singing / dancing / poetry / music, but also any creative act. House renovation, cooking, writing a scientific work on an exciting topic will have the same function. All this can also be a creative act and bring a therapeutic effect.

On cover: Banksy

English translation: Tania Yermashkevich

Reprinting of material is allowed only with the permission of the publisher.

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