The History of Belarusian Vyzhyvanka: the Protest Art of Rufina Bazlova

Women in white / Rufina Bazlova

The University of California Los Angeles Library opened a new online exhibit, The history of Belarusian vyzhyvanka March 3, 2021, with a discussion panel attracting more than 100 people from more than 30 universities and ten 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 election in Belarus.

The program opened with an introduction from UCLA librarian for Slavic, Eastern European, and Central Asian Studies Alena Aissing who noted that the program itself is a means of protest in solidarity with the voices of those oppressed in Belarus and that the works seen in the program were emblems of artistic resistance. 

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, and 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 started to create digital collages using the language of Belarusian-inspired cross-stitch, a type of counted thread embroidery, as it was 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 like Brutality in Prison showcase this corruption depicting two prison guards with truncheons beating a detained protester who has blood leaking out from between her legs, echoing the many media reports of actual and threatened sexual violence used against the protesting citizens of Belarus, most of whom are women.

Brutality in prison / Rufina Bazlova

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, and thus she was inspired to work in pictograms, rather than within the Belarusian ornamental canon, so that her work could be easier accessible to more 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 the dominant color, always complementing and never overwhelming its white base. 

Since the start of the coronavirus outbreak in 2020, libraries have reported greatly increased usage of digital content and virtual programming. University libraries, like UCLA, have had to find new ways to deliver programming, collaborate, and connect with users and their communities. At the time of the programming the library was still closed due to coronavirus restrictions. 

UCLA alum Razor, who had curated in-person Belarusian art exhibits at the library in pre-pandemic times, 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, UCLA’s HumSpace and Omeka platforms. The program’s website serves primarily as a public archive for Bazlova’s work and Razor said that she specifically chose Omeka for its visual archiving capabilities. This collection through the creation of this digital archive has become part of Belarusian and global digital semiospheres where it functions as a generator of meaning–creating new information, transmitting Belarusian culture and allowing for new cultural and artistic links.

There is also an easy-to-navigate multimodal curator’s tour of the exhibition seamlessly tied together with contemporary multimedia clips in English, Belarusian and Russian to provide background information on the events still happening in Belarus. The tour includes about 30 of the artist’s work, grouped together thematically. While most pieces are one frame, others are triptychs or multi-framed. 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, including as a border on a dress.

Creating in the artistic language of her people and Bazlova’s use of instagram to highlight her art online works and many mass media outlets, specialty publications, art organisations and scholars picked up her creations. Since August, Bazlova has exhibited in Czechia, France, Germany, the Netherlands and is scheduled to show in Kyiv at the Mystetskyi Arsenal opening March 25th. This is her first solo exhibition in the United States.

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