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‘We could present our revolution at a design festival': a Belarusian artist reflects on protest imagery

Symbols of Belarus’  protest movement. On the left, a red heart on a white background reflects the colours of the historical flag of Belarus flown by opponents of Lukashenka. On the right, a fist holding a paintbrush symbolises artists’ role the protests. It is held by Uladzimir Hramovich, creator of the symbol. Photo (c): Violetta Savchits, used with permission.

When the results of the August 9 presidential election in Belarus were announced, the country erupted in protest. Demonstrators continue to take to the streets against Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who has ruled this eastern European country since 1994 and had attempted to secure a smooth transition into a sixth consecutive term. Things have not gone as he planned; the authorities have used extreme violence against peaceful protesters, drawing international attention and condemnation.

One of the many distinctive aspects of this movement, besides the prominent role played by women, is the richness and diversity of its visual messaging. Protesters largely fly Belarus’ former national flag, which was in official use from independence in 1991 until 1994. In recent years, it became an unofficial symbol of resistance to Lukashenka's government, and so did the colours white and red, which can be seen widely both on protesters’ placards and their social media posts.

I spoke to the Belarusian designer Darya Sazanovich, who is based in Germany and works under the artistic name sheeborshee, to understand the visual language of Belarus’ protest movement. Sazanovich has studied and worked in Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine; her work has gained international prominence in recent weeks. The artist shared her reflections with GlobalVoices after a recent trip to the Belarusian capital Minsk. The interview has been edited for brevity and style.

Filip Noubel (FN): While you have lived abroad for years, you return to your home country very often. You were in Minsk just a few days ago. How would you describe what is happening in Belarus? 

A bleeding hand representing the historical colours of Belarus, white-red-white. Illustration (c): Darya Sazanovich, used with permission.

Дарья Сазанович (ДС):  Как многие уже точно подметили ежедневное настроение беларуса это такая синусоида, где нижняя черта это отчаяние и бессилие от постоянного насилия и задержаний, а верхняя — слезы радости и гордости, когда видишь тысячи красивых и свободных людей вместе, когда не веришь что инициативы солидарности и помощи возникают за 5 минут в телеграм чатах и тут же решают проблемы. Днем это мирный спокойный протест, а вечером действительно страшно добираться домой. Все 2 недели я проходила с небольшим вещь-мешком, где были вещи, которые понадобились бы мне при задержании. Странная новая реальность. Меня конечно же очень радует то, как активны женщины всех возрастов. У протеста однозначно женское лицо, но это не только Тихановская. Происходит действительно много важных и сложных процессов. У власти через день меняется метод подавления протеста, но и люди тоже придумывают все новые способы сопротивления.  Любые точные прогнозы делать сложно и наверное невозможно. Но точно можно сказать, что Беларусь никогда не будет прежней и у этой власти нет шансов удержаться. Вопрос времени. 

Darya Sazanovich (DS): As many have already pointed out, the public mood in Belarus is a kind of wave. On the one hand, there are tears of joy and pride caused by the beautiful scenes of thousands of free people marching together, none of whom can quite believe how much solidarity and support can be created immediately with just a five minute Telegram post. On the other hand, there is the despair and weakness caused by constant violence and detentions [of protesters]. The public mood oscillates between the two. During the day, there are peaceful quiet protests, but it is really scary to return home in the evenings. During the two weeks of my stay in Minsk, I always walked with a small bag of essentials I would need if I were detained. It's a strange new reality. I'm particularly happy to see how active women of all ages have become. This protest has a female face, and I am not just talking about the opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. A lot of important and complex processes are underway. The government changes its approach to resisting the protests every day, so the protesters come up with new forms of resistance. It is difficult and probably impossible to make any detailed predictions about what might happen. But we can say with some certainty that Belarus will never be the same again, and that this government has no chance of staying in power. It is just a matter of time.

FN: Ever since August 9, we have seen the importance of a visual language and vivid colours grow in importance in the protests. Why is that element so central? 

ДС: Да даже до выборов! Художников очень сильно разозлила история с изъятием картины Ева Хаима Сутина и с тех пор никто не думает успокаиваться. Я тоже включилась примерно в тот момент, сперва делая какие-то инстраграм маски,  а потом подготавливала печатные макеты плакатов, для тех кто выходил на акции солидарности (в основном в Германии), в Беларуси с плакатом до недавнего времени вообще нельзя было появляться на улице без последствий.

А вообще радостно, что у нас есть бело-красно-белый флаг и не нужно ничего придумывать. Эстетически это очень сбалансированное сочетание и визуал всегда получается говорящий и не навязчивый. Что точно не выйдет с красно-зеленым сочетанием, что власть использует сейчас. Исторически флаг был создан как символ независимой Беларуси, а после так как флаг был смещен самим Лукашенко, то логично стал цветами оппозиции. Правда долго оппозиции с достаточно явной националистической повесткой. В 2020 это не так, бчб (бела-чырвона-белы) для всех, кто за перемены.

Как кто-то уже шутил, что беларусы страна копирайтеров и дизайнеров. Поэтому все красиво оформлено. Подадим потом нашу революцию на фестиваль дизайна (шутка).

DS: That was the case even before the elections! Artists were incensed by the confiscation of Chaim Sutin's painting “Eva”, and nobody plans to de-escalate that issue. I also joined the protest movement at that time, first by creating masks on Instagram and then I started to make printed stencils of poster designs for those participating in solidarity demonstrations (mostly in Germany). In Belarus, until recently, you couldn't really show up in public holding a poster without serious consequences.

In any case, it makes me happy that we already have this white-red-white flag; we don't have to invent any [more major symbols]. Aesthetically, it is a well balanced combination and the visual result speaks to us without being too intrusive. That cannot be said about the red-green combination used on the official flag [based on the flag of Soviet Belarus and restored by Lukashenka in 1995 – ed.]. Historically speaking, the white-red-white flag was created as a symbol of Belarusian independence, and after Lukashenka disposed of it, it logically became a symbol of the opposition. To be honest, for a long time this flag was the symbol of an opposition with a nationalist agenda. But that is no longer true; in 2020, the white-red-white flag is flown by everybody who wants change.

Somebody once joked that Belarus is a country of copywriters and designers, which is why everything is so well designed. Perhaps later we'll enter our revolution in a design festival (that's just a joke, by the way!)

Belarusian law enforcement conduct a search of an activist's house. Illustration (c): Darya Sazanovich, used with permission.

FN: What's your view of this imagery, as a designer yourself? Are you also developing your own visual language around the protests? 

ДС: Я вообще хотела бы выразить уважение всем кто делал какие-то работы в эти дни. Потому что меня  “контузило” событиями и первые 2 недели ни о каком художественном высказывании я думать не могла. То есть получилось, что я участвовала до выборов и вот только сейчас включаюсь снова. Работы, за которые я кусала локти, что придумала не я. А вот здесь собраны все отличнейшие, даже не буду выбирать лучшую.  

Еще мне очень понравилась акция “ Моя камера” где люди (родственники и друзья задержанных) разместились на квадрате размером с камеру, чтобы показать как и сколько людей в одной камере содержали на Окрестино. Может это и не было придумано художниками, но я бы без сомнения отнесла к акционизму.

DS: I would like to say how much I respect all those who were active in design work those days. Because during the first two weeks, I was completely stunned by the events, and I just couldn't express my feelings artistically. So I was involved before the elections of August 9, and then reconnected with the movement recently. There are several artworks by others which I really admire and envy; here is a collection of the best art work from the protests. [They're so good] I can't point out a specific one. One project I really liked is called “ Моя камера”, or “My cell” where the relatives and friends of detained protestors gathered within a space the size of a cell to show how many people were detained in one cell in the prison of Akrestina [in Minsk]. This concept may not have arisen from the artistic community, but it definitely qualifies as a form of artistic protest.

On Victory Square, people who had been detained at Akrestina organised the “My Cell” initiative; they draw the contours of a cell initially designed for six people on the ground and 50 people stand inside it to show what they really experienced. Photo: Darya Buryakina

FN: You studied in Vilnius and are now mostly based in Germany. How important is support from neighbouring countries? And why are so many young Belarusians leaving their country?

ДС: Верно, я училась в Вильнюсе, успела перед майданом в Киеве пожить, а сейчас базируюсь в Германии. Абсолютно уверена, что таким событиям нужна самая широкая международная огласка. Это очень поддерживает людей и пугает власть, под пристальным вниманием они не смогут жестить, как в первые дни после выборов (ну, мне хочется верить). Я сразу на этом и сконцентрировалась, дергая все личные контакты журналистов, помогая им искать/проверять информацию и героев для материалов. К сожалению, Беларусь никогда не была в фокусе международной прессы и когда все спохватились, журналистов перестали пускать в страну. Не говоря про то, что местных контактов у западных медиа тоже было мало. 

Внимания хочется от всех кроме России. Имея в виду их жуткие провластные каналы. Которые, к слову, уже в Беларуси и вещают от имени наших государственных каналов. Но люди, в том числе и художники, медиа, как например медуза, очень поддерживают и спасибо им.

Беларусская диаспора тоже показала себя этим летом, каждую неделю планируя новую акцию солидарности. До армян далеко конечно, но мы и не знали сколько нас много по миру. Поэтому меня особо трогают плакаты на многотысячных митингах в Минске: “я узнал что у меня есть огромная семья” и “мы не знали друг друга до этого лета”. Сейчас многие озвучивают мысль, что беларусы как нация окончательно сформировались именно в 2020.

Много молодых и умных беларусов уезжает именно по политическим причинам, включая меня.  С примерно одинаковыми словами “любим страну, но ненавидим государство.” Все в Беларуси хорошо, но если физически не переносишь подавление свободы и дисциплину, то жить там сложно. Поэтому я предвкушаю волну беларусов, которые сразу захотят вернуться, когда уйдет Лукашенко.

DS: That's true, I studied in Vilnius and had worked in Kyiv before the Euromaidan [protest movement in Ukraine that led to a transfer of power in 2014], and now I am based in Germany. I am utterly convinced that such events need extensive international media coverage. This supports the people and unnerves the government because if it is closely watched, it won't dare to be as violent as it was in the very first days after August 9 (at least that's what I would like to believe). I immediately focused on that task, reached out to all my journalist contacts, helping them find and verify information and people for their articles. Alas, Belarus was never at the centre of media attention, so when everybody joined the protests, the authorities banned the entry of foreign journalists. Furthermore, western media never had much contact with Belarusians. We need attention from everywhere with the exception of Russia, considering their gruesome state-controlled TV channels that broadcast inside Belarus with the blessing of our own state-owned channels. However, some Russian artists and media platforms such as Meduza, have been supportive to the people of Belarus and we are thankful for that.  

The Belarusian diaspora also showed its strength this summer, and planned new solidarity initiatives every week. Of course, we're not quite at the level of the Armenian diaspora, of course, but we also hadn't realised how many of us there are abroad. This is why I was extremely moved by some posters seen at large demonstrations in Minsk that read “I found out I have a huge family”, or “We didn't know each other before this summer”. Many people are now saying that 2020 was the year when Belarusians achieved a new civic national consciousness.

A lot of young and talented Belarusians leave their country for political reasons, as is my case. We use pretty much the same words: “we love our country, hate our government.” Things are fine in Belarus, but if you're unable to bear how freedom is crushed and discipline imposed, it is very difficult to live there. This is why I predict a wave of Belarusians who will immediately want to go home once Lukashenka is gone.

Find out more about the turmoil in Belarus here

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