Rufina Bazlova: 'The History of Belarusian Vyzhyvanka'
Interview | BELARUS | CONTEMPORARY ART | 17.02.2021
Rufina Bazlova: 'The History of Belarusian Vyzhyvanka'
The most renown Belarusian political embroidery project appeared outside the country. Rufina Bazlova is an artist from Grodno who lives and works in Prague. In the early days of the protests, her vector news comics made the rounds on the internet. In March 2021, her series entitled 'The Story of a Belarusian Vyzhyvanka', based on the events of August–November 2020, will be presented at the University of California at Los Angeles. This conversation between curator Sasha Razor and artist Rufina Bazlova was recorded during an online meeting with UCLA students on January 25, 2021, and is published with minor additions.
Embroidery, along with other types of textile arts, entered the realm of modern art in the 70s, when second-wave feminists began actively using traditional women’s crafts in their work.
One of the most famous examples of such embroidery series, Birth Project (1980–1985), belongs to American artist Judy Chicago. More recently, craftivism (a portmanteau word for crafts and activism) or feminist political embroidery has received further development. In 2016, the US embroiderers reacted to the election of Donald Trump with a series of works that are currently popular in the English-speaking segment of Instagram. For example, the accounts badasscrossstitch, kingsophiesworld, or tinyprickproject. The latest work by tinyprickproject, entitled 'The Poisoner and the Prisoner. Navalny Today' (2021), is dedicated to a Russian dissident figure Alexei Navalny.
Another example of craftivism is an embroidered American flag by artist Nneka Jones who takes active part in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and calls on Americans for a new revolution. It was published in August 2020 by Time magazine.
In Belarusian contemporary art, the embroidery medium was previously used but was not a wide-spread phenomenon. For example, one can mention Alexei Lunev’s project 'Shit-Clouds' (2009-2010), elements of embroidery in Zhanna Gladko’s exhibition 'Inciting Force' (2012), Olia Sosnovskaya’s project 'Of Our Women, a Two-channel video installation' (2015), Vasilisa Palianina and Anna Bundeleva’s embroideries.
However, since August 2020, the idea of political embroidery has been actively implemented on several art platforms simultaneously. From August 20 to 26, Ў Gallery (the contemporary art exhibition space in Minsk that closed its doors in October 2020), launched the #zautrakozhnydzen project [tomorrow is every day] within which more than ten artists offered their sketches to create a joint canvas-embroidery about the August events in the capital. On November 5, another event titled Embroidery Practices, an online workshop on craftivism by the Minsk artist Lesia Pchеlka, took place. Published on Facebook, the collages by the German-based Belarusian artist Marina Naprushkina, which started as a part of #zautrakozhnydzen project, stands somewhat apart.
Захар с женой Таней
Rufina Bazlova is a Prague-based Belarusian artist who works in illustration, comics, art books, puppet making, scenography, performance, and costume design.
Bazlova holds an undergraduate degree in stage design from the theater department of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (DAMU) and an MFA in illustration and graphic design from the Ladislav Sutnar Faculty of Design and Art at the University of West Bohemia.
The artist gained an international profile for her series 'The History of Belarusian Vyzhyvanka', which uses the traditional folk embroidery medium to depict the ongoing peaceful protests in Belarus, her home country.
Sasha Razor is a Belarusian-American scholar, an expert on literature and cinema of the avant-garde, Belarusian and Ukrainian culture, and diasporic studies.
In 2020, she graduated from the UCLA Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies where she completed her PhD titled 'We Were the River: Screenwriters of the Left Front of the Arts, 1923–1931'.
In Fall 2020, she worked at the Museum of Russian Culture, San Francisco.
Razor is the curator of the following exhibitions: Dream of the Revolution (UCLA, 2017), Exiles, Protesters, Envoys: Russian History in Photographs (City of West Hollywood, 2019), and 'The History of Belarusian Vyzhyvanka: the Protest Art of Rufina Bazlova' (UCLA, 2021).
This conversation between curator Sasha Razor and artist Rufina Bazlova was recorded during an online meeting with UCLA students on January 25, 2021, and is published with minor additions.
All materials are taken from the personal sources of the artist.
Reprinting of material is allowed only with the permission of the publisher.
If you found a mistake or would like to offer an addition to the published materials, please inform us.
– Good afternoon, Rufina. Tell us a little about yourself. Where were you born? How did you get to the Czech Republic?
– Good afternoon! I was born in Grodno, a city located in Belarus’s westernmost corner, on the border with Lithuania and Poland. For some time, we were part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Therefore, we share a particular connection to these countries to the West. The protests in Grodno are among the most active in the country. 13 years ago, I entered West Bohemian University in Plzeň, where I studied graphics, illustration, and sculpture. Then I received a second degree in stage designer and puppeteering at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts.
– So, you’re essentially a Czech puppeteer?
– Yeah, you could say that. Several years ago, my classmates and I founded a theater troupe Sleď Pod Kožichem, whose name roughly translates as 'herring under a fur coat' [a Soviet-era beet, herring, and mayonnaise dish served at celebrations], and these are our dolls.
Rufina Bazlova — puppets for the play 'Mishenskaya 3, Mala Strana, Prague'
– Why did you decide to become an artist?
– As a child, I attended several art classes. I was even enrolled in art school, which I left, deciding to pursue philology. But when I went to do my paperwork to quit the school, the director said: 'Right now you think you don’t want to be an artist, but you’ll see: you’ll be back in the business'. And he was right! (Laughs).
I probably became an artist because I like to work with my hands and come up with different concepts. Or maybe because of my sensitivity... well, and most importantly, because of the feeling of freedom that it gives because the artist is free to create anything.
– After living for thirteen years in the Czech Republic, how do you feel connected to home?
– To be completely honest, for a long time, I’ve been trying to assimilate as much as possible to Czech life and not 'show off' my origins. Further, as I began to travel home less often, I lost my contacts there. Sometimes I’ve even asked myself the question, 'Who am I more: Belarusian or Czech?' However, with the beginning of the protests in Belarus, a clear understanding of my roots came to me, that emotionally I am from there.
– How has your creative process changed since the start of the protests?
– This summer I graduated from the Theater Academy and decided to return to the technique of embroidery, which I had already worked in before. At that moment, I was thinking about the topic of the female agency and my personal experience, about accepting or rejecting myself. And, of course, I followed the news in Belarus in parallel to this. Apparently, at that moment, something in me resonated with the resentment at the unfairness of what was happening. In the end, everything turned into a series, The History of a Belarusian Vyzhyvanka. The popularity of this series has brought many new contacts and wonderful people to me! And I had to learn new skills very quickly.
– Haven’t you chosen a rather unusual medium for artistic protest? Why embroidery?
– This is a family tradition. My grandmother was a jack, or jill (!), of all trades: she sewed, knitted, weaved, and did macramé. My mother could do a little less, and the only thing that I was left with is embroidery. This is a shirt that my mother made with elements of my grandmother’s embroidery.
Photo: Jakub Laichter for Amnesti International
But of course, embroidery is an important part of Belarusian culture, its tradition, and its code. For a long time, women were taught to neither read nor write. I learned that embroidery could be read as a kind of text. Everything they saw was reflected in their embroideries, which became their form of expression. My white and red motifs come from our folk culture. The events that are taking place now are, after all, can be seen as the formation of the nation. And when such a powerful historical and cultural code depicts modern events, it makes an impression on people.
These works are new, but in fact, I’ve been fond of the embroidery medium for a long time now. Even while studying at West Bohemian University, I became interested in the symbols that embroidery uses. One of the first projects in which I used this theme was 'The Book of the Bird Gamayun Song', which I made in 2010. It was a story presented in three languages: Russian, Czech, and the language of symbolic ornament. At the end, there was a dictionary where you could see the symbols that I used and read them without text.
Rufina Bazlova — fragment from 'The Book of the Bird Gamayun Song' / 2010
– But your next work, 'Zhenokol', introduces some figurative elements. Is a dictionary needed here?
– Yes, exactly. While the first work used symbols but wasn’t embroidered, 'Zhenokol' was an embroidered figurative comic strip on a dress, where the first and last pictures are the same. Therefore, it’s called 'Zhenokol' — a woman in a circle. This is a cycle about how a woman is born. Pictograms depict a woman trying to climb a man’s hill. She tricks him by preparing him a magic potion. He falls in love, and together they ascend the man’s hill. A frozen lake is discovered there, and the woman dances and awakens the dormant energy. After the blessing, she runs to the hill, completes it with the shape of her own body, takes the sun, and places it in her bosom. After some time, a new girl is born, and the whole story repeats itself.
Rufina Bazlova — 'Zhenokol'
– This cycle about fertility presupposes women’s traditional role, yet images of the female triumvirate and Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya appear in your protest works. Considering that many people say and write about the events in Belarus as a women’s movement, how do you feel about feminism?
– A friend of mine once said that even if I deny being a feminist, I still behave like a feminist, so it’s useless to deny the obvious. (Laughs).
– This weekend, mass protests supporting Alexei Navalny erupted throughout Russia, and many people talked and wrote about this. Contrary to the popular agenda, I’d like to ask you about the Czech Republic. How have your life in this country and your knowledge of its history and culture influenced the way you see Belarus’s events today?
– There is a relatively sizeable Belarusian diaspora in the Czech Republic, and we’ve become quite united given recent events, and I try to attend the rallies. For example, here’s one of them at St. Wenceslaus Square, so I gave their St. Wenceslaus our white-red-white Belarusian flag.
Rufina Bazlova — 'St. Wenceslaus Raises the White-Red-White Flag' / 2020
Last year, I did a series of illustrations for the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution, and I get a similar feeling from our events. Because both here and there, the people are not aggressive, the nature of the protest is peaceful. We also had our own people’s leader, or people are building similar national memorials.
Rufina Bazlova — 'Velvet Plzen' illustration series was created in cooperation with the Plzeň magistrate / 2020
– Today, you almost have a complete cycle about the events of the summer and fall of 2020 ready. How do you choose your stories?
– As I said before, in fact, I just react to what I see on the news. If something touches me emotionally, it’s essential to depict and immortalize this moment in the Belarusian ornament code. All these are my reactions to the situation. Some of the videos I depict are viral: for example, “I’m walking” or the Yandex taxi. Or when the security forces went over to the side of the protesters. But I did not manage to depict everything. For example, there are no depictions of Maryia Kalesnikava, Viktar Babaryka, Siarhei Tsikhanousky, or Ihar Losik. I do not have student or senior citizen marches, etc.
– Let’s talk about your key works. Please tell our students about perhaps your most famous work, the portrait of the 'DJs of "Changes!"'
– Yes, this is one of the very first works. It shows a specific situation on August 7, when Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya was banned from holding a rally. A pro-government event was scheduled in Kyiv Park in Minsk. Then the sound technicians, Kiryl Galanau and Vlad Sakalou, played the song 'Changes!' by Viktor Tsoi and disrupted the event. Then the Square of Changes appeared nearby, where these DJs were depicted on the side of a transformer box. This mural was painted over many times, but it reappeared again and again. Then Roman Bondarenko, the artist of the Square of Changes, tragically died on November 11, simply because he went out to find out why the strangers were taking the protest ribbons down. This was a terrible blow for the Belarusians. When Roman died, then the Square of Changes itself changed forever.
Rufina Bazlova — 'DJs of "Changes!"' / 2020, 'Self-care' / 2020
– How do you display your work?
– Since the beginning of the protests, I've been posting my work on Instagram, where I can be easily found under my name: Rufina Bazlova. What you see there are vector graphics, a kind of sketch for embroidery. I then embroider some of the works, but this is a rather laborious process, and there’s simply not enough time for everything. Sometimes, I also exhibit the prints or the silkscreens. Additionally, I’m developing an animation cycle that my colleague Olga Teslyuk is helping with. In the future, I hope to create an author’s book, a saga about these events in the country. I also have some ideas for 3D objects. But while my people and my country are still surviving, it’s challenging to step back and look at the whole situation and develop a complete concept because everything is always in motion. But I try to respond to current events as much as possible to support my people.
Rufina Bazlova — 'Police are with people' / 2020
– What, in your opinion, is the role of art in the Belarusian protests?
– I’d like to point out that both of these phenomena are interconnected. First, the protests helped activate an alternative culture, its emergence from the underground to the surface. During the protests, many were pushed to express themselves through creativity. It became clear that Belarusians are talented and creative, and one might even say that a new 'people’s art' has emerged. Culture plays a vital role in social unification. For example, before the escalation of violence in Minsk, there used to be concerts in the courtyards, street performances, impromptu exhibitions, etc. Art has no boundaries and can attract the attention of people who live and take an active part in today’s events and those who did not care about this before.