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Volha Archipava: Belarus Avant-garde of the 1980s

Volha Archipava: Belarus Avant-garde of the 1980s

The decade between 1981–1991 is an outstanding and prophetic period for Belarus. Even without the social and political clashes that led to the changes in the country’s historical development, the transformation of cultural paradigm would not have been less radical.During this time, a generation of young, creative individuals were involved in the art movement. Their strength was in the freedom of choice and almost unbearable responsibility for it . They sought new ways to exist, developed new traditions, and were constantly in search of “real art.” What emerged was a culture that did not accept the norms and rules imposed by society. Cultural policy, in the former Soviet Union, was built on the perception of art as an ideological activity and demanded that it fully met state and political programs. Those who did not accept these demands were forced to remain part of the underground art scene; their activities were considered antisocial and anti-state. Art practitioners or those involved in art movements—from professional to amateur levels—were referred to as belonging to “the underground.”  In order to continue to work, they created various independent organizations and publishing agencies, and arranged informal exhibitions. The new movement was born in the state of contradiction and had to struggle to survive. Although the movement was not perfect or ideal, it satisfied a cultural need for an artistic revival following a period of stagnation in the arts . From the underground movement of the 1980s, an art form emerged, possessing all of the features necessary to further develop the culture. This is the real meaning of that decade.

Independent exhibitions taking place in the second half of the 1980s were very different from the official ones . Exhibitions such as “Fragment event 87” by Ihor and Todar Kashkurevich, or exhibitions by the art collective BLO (Artur Klinau, Valer Pesin, Vitaly Charnabrysau, Siarhej Pilat, etc.), “Perspective” and “Panorama ,” manifested as installation/exhibitions or actions /exhibitions. Each created an atmosphere, not only by means of art artifacts , but also by means of the object of surrounding reality , performances, and happenings that demonstrated a “symphonic structure” of the art process. The exhibitions titled “Studio of the Artist” and “Treasures of Belarusian Avant-garde” were organized by the amateurs and collectors of avant-garde cultureAndrej Plyasanau and Alexander Ivanov. Even now they continue to collect works of art and their collections offer an overview of what art from the 1980s and ’90s was like.

It is within this cultural climate that organizations were formed, bringing together like-minded people through various manifestos and programs. Collectives such as Forma, Halina, BLO, 4-63, Square, Pluralis, Komi Kon, and Bismark were established, with flexible frameworks and varying participants . In 1987, Forma, for example, included about thirty artists and described themselves as an association of creative intellectuals. But when the organization was registered in 1989, there were only eight members left.

During this time, and even within the official Artists Union of BSSR, drastic changes started to happen. Apart from the traditional republican forums with such eloquent titles as “The Heroic Deed of the People is Immortal” (1980), “We are Building Communism” (1981), “37th Spring of Victory” (1982), and “USSR is Our Motherland” (1982), there were more lively exhibitions devoted to the idols of the nation: “Mikola Gusouski and His Times” (1980); exhibitions in honor of the ninetieth anniversary since the birth of Maksim Bagdanovich (1981); “The Pyesnyars of Belarusian Land. Yanka Kupala and Yakub Kolas” (1982); an exhibition to celebrate the 150th anniversary since the birth if Kastus Kalinousky and the 125th anniversary of the uprisings between 1863–1864 (1988); an exhibition to honor the one-hundredth anniversary marking the birth of Yazep Drazdovich (1988). Some members of the Artists Union refused the socio-realistic aesthetics of Soviet times and turned to the traditions of the avant-garde. Societies within the framework of the Artists Union started to form, not on the basis of the material and style (i.e., painting, sculpture, graphics) as it had before, but instead in accordance with their unifying interests or ideas. Niamiha-17, an association of creative and form building sources of art , was established.[1] Also, the Belarusian Academy of Art, was a group of artists who called themselves “academics” and developed an independent tradition of national art.[2] Two major and longstanding groups  established within the framework of the Artists Union are Pagonya and Verasen. Founded on opposing principles, they still exist today.

In the 1980s the national identity for the Belarusian art society was established. In search of a new basis for creative work, a number of artists turned to the traditional folk art. It was also during this period that many Belarusian artists started to speak Belarusian, and arranged art and ethnographic expeditions in order to study the history of  Belarusian culture.

This was the most democratic decade in terms of expressing creative ideas. Moreover, this period was important for developing an art process in Belarus that comprised many factors. Art meetings in artists studios and apartments were held; dialogues, sessions, and trips took place. Belarusian artists also travelled to see underground exhibitions in Leningrad, Moscow (“Arefiev’s Circle,” “Mitsky,” “Pushkinskaya, 10,” and the Society of Experimental Visual Art),  and took part in art projects and symposiums in Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia (“Narva-88”) .

Nowadays, there are many legends and stories about the creative atmosphere that dominated the Belarusian State Art and Theatre Institute, Glebov’s Art College, Ahremchik’s Art S , and other artistic environments. Younger artists found new genres that allowed for interaction with the viewer (i.e., performances, installations, ‘meeting-art’—an art of public campaigns) appealing. Even now, the artistic activity happening at that time—in its intensity and scale—is impressive. The air seemed to have been filled with the electricity of creativity; every single word, every gesture, and every action aimed to transform people’s lives and their minds. Apartments, studios, cinemas, libraries, halls, streets, backyards, and buildings were platforms for art. Some of the auctions and commercial exhibitions set up by Adam Hlobus at that time may not have had an astonishing commercial success, but they demonstrated that art can be an independent “business.” The main thing was to decide for you: “I am an artist” —and a miracle happened: a feeling of experiencing a real life emerged.

Many people remember the inspiring “spirit of freedom” that filled that decade. Freedom of self-expression also spread into other artistic spheres such as music, cinema, and literature. Many artists tried to broaden the framework of their practice, by mastering new fields of art. Aleksej Zhdanov, for example, was a philosopher, poet, artist, and advocate for the unbearable existence of social “mutants .”Adam Hlobus—an artist, poet, writer, and one of the founders of the Tutejshyja Society of Young Writers (1986–1990).  Artur Klinau, Ihar Kashkurevich, Ludmila Rusava are artists who have always been guided by “an idea” or concept which is why there are no limits for the choice of the form of art . It could as well be painting, sculpture, performance, an art object, or literature. Andrey Pliasanau was educated as a film director, but he is also a painter, a musician, and a famous art collector whose collection now count to more than ten including the collection of paintings.

The breakdown and collapse of the Soviet system, and a desire for a new form of existence  has led to the creation of a very specific subjective and individualistic myth surrounding “post-Soviet” art. This myth was based on the principles of the absurd  and on establishing new conceptual systems. Uladzimir Lapo, Vitaly Razhkou (Bismark), and Gennadzy Hatskevich are artists who have created their own individual universesand who live in accordance to their inner laws. The lives of these artists have always been surrounded by myth— the form of their self-expression always goes beyond the borders of art. For such artists, their lives are art; their personalities are works of art. It was in this environment where a new type of artistic personality was shaped—a freelance philosopher, an artist, an individualist, a weirdo, a person with sophisticated life views . This influenced social consciousness, attracted people’s attention, and made them look at their own lives and views from a different angle. Some people might call this type of art a destructive one, but the most surprising thing is that while some of them ascribe this as negative, others see it in a more positive way. Construction through destruction—an ambivalent phenomenon—was an idea that was appealing and significant for a generation of artists in the 1980s.

During this period, attempts were made to extend the borders of art and the borders of “the human.” Artist manifestos, as conceptual platforms, touched upon issues that had not previously been at the center of attention in the art world. Art proved that it could serve, not only the ideals of beauty, but was capable of changing everything: life and deaths, the conscious and the subconscious. Borders between art and life, fantasy and reality, the professional and the amateur, the mature and the childish disappeared. While art helped change reality, it also created unlimited opportunities for self-expression and self-reflection. For instance, almost all the artwork of Vitaly Charnabrysau and Uladzimir Akulau could be considered self-portraits, containing the artists’ feelings and emotions.

The artistic styles that dominated this period of time could be described as: allegorical-realism; spontaneous-metaphysic ; grotesque-realism; Conceptualism; postmodernism, analytical , grotesque-epic. A number of painters, such as Valery Martynchik and Andrey Bialou were experimenting with form and philosophical findings . Their work is always recognizable because of their special , individual style.

From the great number of artists working in the 1980s, we have selected those who actively expressed themselves during that time. Their work can be viewed as a reflection of that time, revealing the significant and drastic changes that took place in Belarusian culture. Art historians have not yet come up with a single term that could define this artistic period in Belarus, but it has been described in a number of ways: “non-official,” “non-conformist,” “post-avant-garde,” “underground,” “Belarusian Underground of the 1980s.” However, whatever it is called, art from this period has become an image of independence and freedom.

[1] Members included: Victor Astashonak, Ilona Baradulina, Andrej Bohush, Andrej Bialou, Siarhej Voichanka, Kanstantsin Haretsky, Alena Zhdakenia, Aliaksej Zhdanau, Aliaksandr Zabauchyk, Ryhor Ivanou, Marek Kazhdan, Aliaksandr Karpau, Siarhej Katranlou, Ihar Kashkurevich, Yauhen Kirylau, Artur Klinau, Todar Kopsha (Ryhor Katsapau), Uladzimir Kudrytsky, Uladzimir Lapo, Siarhej Lapsha, Siarhej Malisheusky, Victar Piatrou, Vital Razhkou, Anatol Rzhevutsky, Ludmila Rusava, Iryna Razhkova, Ihar Savitsky, Dzmitry Surynovich, Arkadz Stsepim, Natalia Tatur, Henrych Tsikhanovich, Uladzimir Tsesler, Uladzimir Shchalkun, and Dzmitry Jarmilau. (Data from the archives of Andrej Pliasanau.)

[2] Over different years, members of the society included: Valery Buyval, Mikola Bushchyk, Halina Haravaya, Siarhej Kirushchanka, Anatol Kuzniatsou, Zoya Litvinava, Aleh Matsievich, Aliaksandr Miatlitsky, Iryna Stalnaya, Leanid Chobatau, Tamara Sakalova, Aliaksandr Tsyrkunou.


© Belarusian Avant-garde of the 1980s. “pARTisan’s Collection” series. Lohvinau, Minsk 2012.

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