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.
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.