#FramedinBelarus: An art group makes embroidery depicting the stories of political prisoners 

#FramedinBelarus_Maria Kalesnikava_stitched by Tiffany Chin_2022. Photo by Stitchit art group, published with permission by authors.

Stitchit is an art group created in 2021 by visual artist Rufina Bazlova (Belarus) and curator Sofia Tocar (Moldova). As the art group presentation states, the group work is dedicated to raising awareness of important troubling socio-political issues in Belarus, using the traditional technique of embroidery as a tool of resistance and dialogue. Stitchit involves different communities and individuals in the creation process and thus blurs the lines of authorship.

Rufina Bazlova is a Prague-based artist from Belarus who works in illustration, social artwork, scenography and performance. Sofia Tocar curates artists’ projects and exhibitions. She was born and raised in Moldova. Global Voices interviewed the art group over Zoom about their new project #FramedInBelarus. The project aims to create portraits of each illegally convicted citizen in Belarus (political prisoners) using the traditional Belarusian embroidery technique of red thread on a white background, thereby recording an important era of Belarusian history with a folk code — ornament. The work in the picture above, tells the story of Maryia Kallesnikava, opposition political activist and a musician who was sentenced to 11 years in jail and is currently serving her sentence in Belarus. 

Global Voices (GV): Please tell our global audience about your project

Rufina Bazlova (RB):  Starting in 2020, I created the series, the History of Belarusian Vyshyvanka about protests in Belarus. But time passed and everybody understood it was not possible anymore to go and protest on the streets. It had become dangerous. And the number of political prisoners  started growing very fast. I was thinking how to depict this era of Belarus. In  winter 2021, this idea came to create the story of each political prisoner. The idea was to create the picture, the pattern of each political prisoner. In the middle [of the embroidery], there is the figure of a political prisoner, the name, the surname, and the story of what happened,  why the person is in prison. Then we ask everyone from all over the world who wants to support  political prisoners or who wants to show their solidarity, just to participate and to stitch one or more stories of political prisoners. And then  we collect all the works and we want to put them together as a big quilt or mosaic and exhibit it in free Belarus. 

Sofia Tocar (ST): This is, of course, an idealistic idea, But for now, while the project is going on for the last almost two years, we also exhibit most of this work. The idea is to show it in the process. We had about ten exhibitions during the last year or during  this period, and it's very important to show them while the project is continued. It's not only to gather them all in one place and then make one big exhibition, but also to make these little steps and to speak about the problem, to show the stories through this visual language and artistic language. This is important for us. So far, we have had ten exhibitions and numerous workshops in Germany, Baltic States, Czech Republic, Poland, Norway and Italy.  

Rufina Bazlova and Sofia Tocar, art group Stitchit. Photo by Stitchit, published with permission.

GV:  What is the significance of the exhibitions and workshops you've been organizing?

ST: The exhibitions and workshops serve multiple purposes. First, the project is both artistic and activist in nature. We aim to create a collective art piece that acts as a memorial for the political prisoners. By exhibiting the works, we keep the issue visible and raise awareness about the situation in Belarus. The workshops allow us to engage with people, share the stories behind the project, and create a sense of community among participants. We believe in erasing boundaries between artists and viewers, making everyone part of the project. Additionally, the project serves as a form of art therapy for those directly affected by the situation, while also educating people from around the world about Belarus and its challenges.

We also encourage people to send  postcards to political prisoners and their families. We give people contacts and sources how to get more information and how to help them. 

GV: What about people's awareness of the situation in Belarus 

RB: Some people are already aware of the situation and come to the workshops or exhibitions to show their support and contribute to the project. Others may be less informed but are drawn to the artistic form and decide to participate. We encourage people to learn more about the situation and provide resources for further information and ways to help the political prisoners. The project has been accessible to people from different backgrounds and locations, creating a space for dialogue and understanding.

GV: Regarding the number of political prisoners, how many pieces of embroidery do you already have, and do you have a plan for the future?

RB: We currently have around 250 completed works and an additional 200 to 250 in progress. However, with over 1500 political prisoners and the number growing, it's a challenge to keep up. Our initial aim was to create portraits of all the political prisoners, but due to the rapid increase in their numbers, we had to adapt our strategy. We decided to prioritize those who have received longer sentences, with the assumption that others would be released earlier. However, it's difficult to predict the timeline and the exact number of embroideries needed. We will continue the project for as long as it takes and react to the evolving political situation in Belarus.

GV: Do you collaborate with other artists or civil society groups from Belarus or abroad for similar projects?

ST: We collaborate closely with Viasna, a human rights organization in Belarus. They provide us with the necessary information about the political prisoners, enabling us to create the stories and patterns. As for other collaborations, our project focuses on engaging individuals from all over the world rather than specific groups or organizations

RB: We spread information on social media, particularly on Instagram. We mention dissidents and political issues in Belarus in our posts. We collaborate with Viasna through reposts. But with artists, we don't have much collaboration at the moment; we are a separate artist group.

ST: But of course, other Belarusian artists create artworks dedicated to political prisoners in different formats, too. 

It is possible to join the embroidery art project in support of political prisoners in Belarus via the projects’ website.

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