The History of Belarusian Vyzhyvanka: The Protest Art of Rufina Bazlova [Review]

A.M. LaVey
Librarian for visual culture, The Ukrainian Museum, New York
Associate, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University
Originally published in Library Exhibitions Review 1, March 2023. doi:10.17613/bm7f-ed55

The University of California Los Angeles Library opened the online exhibit, The History of Belarusian vyshyvanka, on March 3, 2021 with a discussion panel attracting more than 100 people from more than 30 universities and 10 countries. The exhibit and accompanying digital audiovisual archive showcase the work of Prague-based Belarusian artist Rufina Bazlova, who has become well-known for her digital textile collages based on the political and social upheaval surrounding the August 2020 presidential election in Belarus.

Belarusian-American scholar, activist and the exhibition’s curator Sasha Razor noted that many Belarusian artists turned to the medium of embroidery during the 2020 unrest. While textiles have been used politically in the west for ages, textiles as a mode of protest is a more recent development in Belarus and has become popular in the last ten years.

Bazlova introduced her work stating that she had felt the emotional tug of her Belarusian roots watching the protest action and police violence in the streets of Belarus via the internet from her current home in Prague, and had been inspired to start embroidering what she was seeing. Originally working with needle and thread, and then scanning her work, she created digital collages using the language of Belarusian-inspired cross-stitch as colleges were easier and faster to produce given the daily incidents in Belarus that provoked her.

While many of Bazlova’s pieces are uplifting portraits, such as Women in White displaying the power of women in their protest against a corrupt state, other pieces showcase this corruption. Brutality in Prison depicts two prison guards with truncheons beating a detained protester who has blood leaking out from between her legs, an image which echoes the many media reports of actual and threatened sexual violence used against the protesting citizens of Belarus, most of whom are women. Most pieces are single frame, but others are triptychs or multi-frame. The artist said she was inspired by comic books and graphic novels, and this is how she produced some of her pieces including her early work Ženokol, a comic she embroidered in two parts as a border on a dress.

Brutality in Prison / Rufina Bazlova (2020) Image used with permission of the artist

Working in embroidery, Bazlova noted that Belarusian embroidery has a language of its own and that to understand it, viewers must know the language of ornament. She was inspired to work in pictograms, rather than within the Belarusian ornamental canon, so that her work could be more accessible to people. While her pictograms are not strictly Belarusian per se, the artist’s use of color and digital material are more so. The canvases are scans of undyed linen cloth on which Bazalova digitally embroiders with red threads. The red and white dichotomy translates the history and ideas of the Belarusian people– a sign of Belarusian national culture. Within Belarusian embroidery, red is canonically the dominant color, always complementing and never overwhelming its white base.

Razor, who previously curated the UCLA library exhibition The Dream of Revolution, dedicated to the work of Belarusian contemporary artist Artur Klinau, worked with the library, UCLA’s Department of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and the university’s center for digital humanities, Humanities Technology, to create, build and host the program online using Zoom, Adobe Spark Page, UCLA’s HumSpace and Omeka platforms.

The website serves primarily as a public archive for Bazlova’s work, and Razor said that she specifically chose Omeka for its visual archiving capabilities. Each of the digital archival images is labeled using Dublin Core with accessible metadata. Each image is clear to view and can be enlarged for a closer view. There is a section titled “Researchers and educators” that provides additional resources and acts as a very valuable digital reading list for Belarusian contemporary art, though some links in this section and throughout the site have fallen to link rot, a common occurrence that befalls those who challenge the current Belarusian regime.

There is an easy-to-navigate multimodal “Curator’s tour” that can be accessed via the main page. The tour was built with Adobe Spark Page and the viewer moves through the exhibition by scrolling scrolling down. The exhibit opens with an interview of the artist by the curator, as well as the seminal article by sociologist Elena Gapova, “Things to have for a Belarusian: Rebranding the nation via online participation,” the exhibition’s introduction, and biographies of Bazlova and Razor. Scrolling down further, the viewer starts the exhibition, which includes about 30 pieces of the artist’s work, grouped together thematically with supporting information supplied by the curator and complemented with media reports. The tour is seamlessly tied together with multimedia files in English, Belarusian and Russian to provide background information on the events that happened–and are still happening–in Belarus.

This is a well done and important exhibition. Through the creation of this digital archive, Bazlova’s work and its associated curated information has become part of Belarusian and global digital culture, preserving cultural memory and functioning as a generator of meaning–allowing for the creation of new information, transmitting Belarusian culture, and allowing for new cultural and artistic links.

Header image: Women in White / Rufina Bazlova (2020) Image used with permission of the artist.

Encounters with FTC library students: Hailey Byrd

Hailey Byrd is a double-degree postgraduate student at LIU Post and New York University studying library and information science, and costume studies. I sat down with her on a drizzly New York morning over zoom to talk about books, skate shoes and her future as a fashion information specialist.

Byrd studied fashion merchandising at LIM College and worked in the fashion business before applying to grad school. “I’ve always been a creative and analytical person and I thought I could get practical skills –and learn a vocation–in the library science program. And then focus on fashion–something I’ve always been interested in–as my subject speciality, and this would allow me to go work in a museum or a fashion archive–it just makes sense to me.”

When asked about professional goals and aspirations, Byrd told me, “I don’t really have a dream job, I just aspire to do things that make me feel fulfilled and happy.” However, she’s really interested in archival or museum work, while also focusing on instruction. “I really enjoy teaching people, it’s something that I’d like to pursue within my subject specialty,” she said.”

“Actually, now that I’ve been thinking about it, maybe I do have a dream job,” she later admitted to wanting to wanting to work for The Jim Henson Company, “that’s my dream job–to be a muppet archivist.”

I just aspire to do things that make me feel fulfilled and happy.

AML: What are you currently reading professionally?

HB: I just got Fashion victims: the dangers of dress past and present
by Alison Matthews David, a book about the dangers of wearing clothing throughout history and it tells the stories like about how toxic arsenic was used to dye dresses green and how clothing lice have been found alive in Napoleonic graves. We read parts of it in class, and it was so interesting.

AML: What are your research interests?

HB: I’m really interested in contemporary fashion and its social impacts, especially in film and various subcultures. I recently did an object analysis on a pair of Vans Tumble Old Skools, on the topic of narrative and style in female and queer skateboarding communities.

AML: What are some of the interesting resources you found on this topic?

HB: It was a little hard to do this research, as most academic research on skate culture doesn’t focus on women and how they’ve been left out that narrative–a gap in the field exists for sure. A lot of my research has been on film, I watched so many movies, especially skate documentaries–they’re really rich visual storytelling sources, where you can see how others interpret costumes. Films like Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Lords of Dogtown really put skater culture on the map worldwide.

Others from the paper’s bibliography include:

Byrd is her first year of her LIU Post MLIS/NYU double-degree program, a program designed to meet the need for subject specialist and scholar librarians in academic, research and cultural institutions. More info on the program can be found here and here. She is one of three costume studies students in the 2022-2023 cohort of the NYU Libraries’ mentorship program for MLIS double degree students and I look forward to speaking with the other two in the future!

Header photo courtesy Hailey Byrd

Costume life: A conversation with costume designer Donna Zakowska

The Media, Art, and Text (MATX) program at Virginia Commonwealth University is hosting a zoom presentation and conversation with New York costume designer Donna Zakowska on January 25 @ 12 p.m. EST. She is perhaps most well known for her Emmy-winning designs for Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.

Learn more about this event and register to attend here:

Zakowska talk

Costumes as primary sources for design and performance

Costume and dance historian Caroline Hamilton in her review of the 2018 Los Angeles Museum of Art exhibit Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage writes about how important costumes are as primary sources for the study of dance.

Dance is essentially an ephemeral art form; the one place, however, where information can be gleaned is from the surviving costumes, which remain the only tangible link to these productions. Dance costumes provide unique capsules of information–they are working garments and are as integral to the performance as the dancers themselves. Hand-written names, hasty alterations and detailed repairs, sweat stains and the residue of makeup can give the viewer a unique insight into the backstage running of dance companies, individual performances and performers and even choreography. Many of these details are no longer available from any other source, making these costumes an extremely important resource and legacy.

In the 2018 Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy, the Association of College and Research Libraries and the Society of American Archivists define primary sources as “materials in a variety of formats, created at the time under study, that serve as original evidence documenting a time period, event, people, idea, or work. Primary sources can be printed materials (such as books and ephemera), manuscript/archival materials (such as diaries or ledgers), audio/visual materials (such as recordings or films), artifacts (such as clothes or personal belongings), or born-digital materials (such as emails or digital photographs).”

The above list lists archival materials and artifacts, yet many researchers or even information professionals might not see costumes as primary sources, even though Art Libraries Society of North America’s 2017 Core Competencies for Art Information Professionals suggests that information professionals need to have an a working knowledge of the different types of information in order “to teach users to locate, evaluate, access, acquire, and critically assess the information they need,” including archival materials and other primary sources–such as costumes.

Donatella Barbieri, principal lecturer of design and performance at the London College of Fashion, states in Encounters in the Archive: Reflections on costume that there is not a lot of mainstream focus on the study of costumes as sources of performance information, even though costumes are often used as signs to signify performance itself.

Hamilton remarked during a costume preservation workshop at the 2022 Dance/USA Connect in Denver, Colo., that costumes have immense value to the researcher as they add to our material knowledge and can often be the only tangible link to a dance performance. “Costumes tell a story and continue to hold that information even after the performance is over,” she said, continuing that “dance costumes are an untapped source of information and contain information that is not available for other sources.”

Costume study is also important for students. After surveying 10 publically available libguides for costume design and history, I was surprised and dismayed to find that only one mentioned actual costumes as primary source materials, highlighting Hamilton’s thesis that costumes themselves are not commonly seen as informational resources in design and performance research.

ARLIS/NA’s 2018 report Art, Architecture, and Design Information Competencies highlights students needs “to see items in person [as they] provides the learner with valuable visual and experiential information that cannot be gained from an image.” Student information competencies include the abilities to browse and interact with physical fashion objects and constructed garments

While a Jacob’s Pillow archives and preservation fellow, Hamilton rehoused and catalogued costumes from the Denishawn, and Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers companies, which make up part of the costume collection at the Pillow. In an episode of the podcast PillowVoices: Dance through Time Hamilton spoke about her work with those costumes, noting that “so much history is embedded, quite literally in some cases, in them, and there’s so much we can learn through looking at how they were made, as well as how they were worn.”

Header photo courtesy LACMA: Installation Photograph, Chagall: Fantasies for the Stage, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, July 31, 2017—January 7, 2018, © 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris, photo © Fredrik Nilsen
Special thanks to Ailina Fisk, an archivist for the New York City Ballet for the costume label photos.

Top 2022 photo: Wartime weaving in Ukrainian library

Photographer Natalie Keyssar‘s photo of Ukrainians weaving camouflage netting in Lviv Regional Roman Ivanychuk Youth Library has been named one of the top 100 photos of 2022 by Time magazine.

According to the library’s facebook page, more than 1,500 pounds of fishing nets were donated from across the Baltic states and Poland. Upon receipt of the nets volunteers from around the city volunteered to collect dark, non-reflective clothing and cut them to strips, before weaving those strips into the netting. In the end, more than 1,000 library volunteers wove nearly 50,000 square feet of camouflage nets and more than 1,000 Ukrainian flags and other sewn items destined for the front lines of the Russia-Ukraine war.

In another Time feature, Ukrainian Women Are Mobilizing Beyond the Battlefield to Defend Their Country, Keyssar photographed Ukrainian women volunteers who took over a baby sling factory in order to sew flak jackets for Ukrainian troops.

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