Review: "Art as a meeting place. Inclusion in the history of Belarusian contemporary art"
This is the first text within the framework of the joint work of the organization and the platform . Together we aim to increase the visibility of inclusion, inclusive projects and practices in Belarusian contemporary art. It is important for us to make the contributions of artists who have been traditionally excluded or marginalized for various reasons more visible to a wider audience. Additionally, we strive to showcase various inclusive practices and approaches in Belarusian contemporary art that promote the inclusion not only of artists but also of viewers with diverse experiences, allowing them to engage more closely (or even for the first time) with contemporary art.
© Exhibition of blind artists Techno Color at the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, 2021
What do we mean when we say inclusion?
The term "inclusion" has unsteady and seemingly elusive boundaries; in order to include someone, you need to clearly see who is excluded from what, what types and levels of exclusion exist and, at the same time, any emphasized description of the phenomenon once again excludes it from the general context and ghettoizes it. Furthermore, the contemporary political context in Belarus excludes not only artists and audiences with disabilities but also artists with political positions that do not support the current regime, queer artists and any contemporary artists who choose to express their critical stance, including through their work. However, we consider it important to document a part of the history of Belarusian contemporary art that has created opportunities for the presentation of art by artists with disabilities and the accessibility of culture for different audiences.
"Inclusion is the practice or policy of ensuring equal access to opportunities and resources for individuals who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as people with physical or intellectual disabilities and members of other minority groups." .
In this review, the main trends and strategies for working with inclusion throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries in Belarus, the main initiatives and projects, as well as the names of the artists themselves, activists and curators who took steps towards integration of the field will be outlined in dotted lines. This text does not claim to be exhaustive due to the fragmentary nature of the available information, the lack of systematic archives and institutions prioritizing the documentation, preservation and analysis of this aspect of art history.
© Nikolay Tarasyuk: Mistress of the Wooden People Marusya, ~1994
The main groups excluded from the central narrative and context of contemporary art that we aim to highlight in this text are primitive artists (often referred to as naive artists, individuals without formal art education), artists with mental health issues, psychiatric backgrounds and artists with disabilities. Additionally, individuals with disabilities are often part of the excluded audience for museums, galleries and exhibitions.
Accessibility of cultural institutions
In 2018, as part of the project "" of the contemporary art gallery , a team of curators and people with disabilities examined the (in)accessibility of six cultural institutions in Minsk. Since then, some of them have seen significant changes: for example, stair and vertical lifts appeared in , and the new exhibition building is equipped with spacious elevators with audio navigation. However, environmental accessibility remains an open question in cultural sphere in Belarus.
In the 2010s, work on many large projects, including within state institutions, became possible thanks to international collaboration and grants .
A significant number of changes in institutions today are occurring as part of a large-scale national program. At the beginning of 2023, the Resolution of the Council of Ministers "On ensuring an accessible environment for people with disabilities" came into force, which includes specific provisions detailing the rules for ensuring accessibility in museums and exhibitions . This same program involves collaboration and periodic organization of exhibitions of works by artists with disabilities and/or psychiatric experience, participants of inclusive studios. The execution is controlled by the Ministry of Culture, which allows the use of government funding to purchase the necessary materials and the preparation of large projects, but at the same time it also results in haste and often formal actions — many of them take place just a few days before the inspection visits.
Gennady Khatskevich at his personal exhibition in the gallery Ў, 2013 / © photo: Valentina Kiseleva
Exhibitions of works by artists with disabilities, organized as part of the program, rather highlight their exclusion: the works are presented in separate niches, passages between galleries, which leaves them disconnected from the main exhibition and precludes a dialogue between the works and the narrative of the curatorial texts is built on repeated emphasizing the "peculiarities" of the artists. Also a common issue for most exhibitions in Minsk is the lack of subtitles for videos and the language of curatorial texts, which is far from the principles of clear language and often inaccessible for a complete understanding by individuals outside the professional art field. As a result, a large group of people remains excluded from the viewing audience. A significant role in this is played by the lack of systemic dialogue and willingness to consistently build institutional programs, connections and support. The reasons for this often include a lack of opportunities and/or motivation for education and knowledge exchange among institution staff and specialists from other fields, as well as a deficit of funding that is often irregular and unsystematic.
Inclusion in Belarusian art of the 20th century
Today, the central narrative of the history of Belarusian art of the 20th century is being built by major institutions (primarily state ones) through work with funds, permanent exposition and thematic exhibitions. The largest collection (and permanent exhibition) of works from this period is in the National Art Museum – more than 12.000 pieces. To date, there are no known examples of comprehensive research on museum collections from an inclusion perspective. Works created by individuals with disabilities and/or psychiatric experiences, as well as naive artists, remain largely outside the visible narrative. This review is, among other things, an attempt to trace some of the trends in their inclusion that have taken place throughout the 20th century.
Inclusive tendencies of the early 20th century
For the first time, we can identify a tendency toward opening up the boundaries of the art sphere, reevaluating practices and strategies and reimagining art in terms of socialist practices by the 1920s. At this time, (later – Free Art Workshops / Vitebsk Art and Practical Institute) began to work in Vitebsk. arrives there and group is being formed. One of the values emphasized by the artists was the accessibility of art to both viewers and creators, challenging the established model of elitist art. "Neither nature nor man should serve anyone and play, sing, or dance in front of anyone. we must create and our creativity will grow. but do not fear that you are uneducated, for you yourselves are a great experience of natural action.... all workshops must be equal, whether they are for painting, or tailoring, or pottery. in everything they must see a single wholeness, and mutual dependence, and unity of the organism," manifested Kazimir Malevich in his text in 1921.
© Alena Kish: Paradise. The work was created in the period 1930–1940
At the same time, naive artists worked – (1888–1954) and (1889–1949), inscribed in the history of art after their death. During her lifetime, Alena Kish created and sold carpets for homes as objects of decorative and applied art; her name was incorporated into the art history much later, in the 1970s, by the artist , who found the artist’s carpets in his ethnographic expeditions. In the 1920s, Yazep Drozdovich worked as an art teacher in gymnasiums and created local history sketches, which were intended for the Belarusian Scientific Association and were meant to serve as illustrative material for the Belarusian Encyclopedia and later became exhibits in .
An important trend of this decade was the interest of the professional community in folk art and, consequently, to artists without specialized education. coordinated creative and research processes, periodically organized ethnographic expeditions to Belarusian villages .
However, by the 1930s, all trends towards fostering a dialogue between different groups of artists and audiences were curtailed, socialist realism became the main and, in fact, the only artistic ideology. This was a period of conservative, ideological academicism. Professional artists who initiated and facilitated this dialogue were accused of nationalism and were forced to leave Belarus ().
© Yazep Drozdovich: Space, 1943
The "space" series created by Jazep Drozdovich during these years, as well as the manuscript Harmony of the Planets of the Solar System went unnoticed and received no response at the time. The artist wandered through the villages, creating painted , caskets (kuferki), canes (kii) and wood-carved portraits for their residents.
The events of the Second World War defined the focus of the official line in art for the next decades. These same years became a period of active formation of museum collections, which today represent a cross-section of works programmatic for Belarusian post-war art. Despite the huge number of people demobilized due to acquiring disabilities, images of the “non-normative” body are practically absent in the works of the 40s and 50s, when the main theme in art was the “feat of the people”. However, we can note individual works that were created during the reevaluation of wartime experiences in the 60–70s and include depiction of people with disabilities – 's (1972, man without an arm), 's (1967, a man without an arm), 's Portrait of Uncle Savka (1975, a man without a leg). The tabooing of representations of disability, which affected the selectivity of both artists and institutional collaborators, was, among other things, a consequence of the tendency to categorize "war invalids" as a separate group subject to surveillance in the 1940s and 1950s, the construction of criminal connotations of disability, resulting in arrests, exiles, and executions .
© Victor Gromyko: Soldiers, 1967
Inclusiveness of non-conformism of the 70s and 80s
Once again, artists not only of the official discourse became visible and expressed themselves in the 70s and 80s, when an alternative cultural scene, though not institutionalized, was developing and expanding – apartment exhibitions, performances and installations, the search for a new language. Non-conformism became a form of popular outsiderism: a refusal to conform to the late Soviet reality and a search for identity outside the political and social contexts of late USSR. The diversity of identities and the polyphony of outsiderism allowed artists from various groups, including those without formal education, with psychiatric experiences and with disabilities to find expression outside institutional frameworks.
One of the earliest examples of a personal collection that united the works of different artists but was formed based of materials collected in a psychiatric institution was the collection of ; his archive contains both drawings by professional artists (, and ) and also his patients. Some works were signed, others remained anonymous.
© Vadim Koshkin: Untitled, 1992, from the collection of Victor Kruglyansky
Another large and significant collection, which also contains the names of artists who found themselves on the borders of the professional field, is the collection of , which is a collection of the Belarusian avant-garde of the 1980–1990s. The focal point of this collection was the second wave of the Belarusian avant-garde and non-conformism, and the collection included works by artists without formal academic education, as well as with psychiatric experience (, ).
© Vitaly Rozhkov (Bismarck / Kalgin): Portrait of a Belarusian, 1987
In the second half of the 20th century, new names also appeared among the indigenous artists: , , , , , and others . In 1991, the Vitebsk Regional Scientific and Methodological Center for Folk Art and Cultural Illumination held the first regional exhibition "Talent of a Sincere Heart. Art of Insitus" and became the initiator of the following national exhibitions of naive art (1994, 2000, 2008, 2012, 2016, 2020) in Vitebsk. These exhibitions are curated by an art historian who is engaged in the study of the naive art in Belarus. A collection of works by naive artists is also kept in the storerooms of the National Historical Museum; the collection is based on the funds of the Republican House of Folk Art. The artist’s works end up in private collections (Sergey Koval in the private collection / ). And in 2023, was opened in Zaslavl, where you can see works by Alena Kish, Yazep Drozdovich and other artists.
Inclusion in Belarusian art at the beginning of the 21st century
In the early 2000s, the word "inclusion" itself gradually began to gain prominence and under the influence of international and public organizations, specific inclusive projects were implemented. In the field of art inclusion started to receive attention from the 2010s. Independent, as well as government-sponsored inclusive initiatives, exhibitions, workshops and studios began to emerge during this time.
Focus on inclusion in exhibition projects
© Fragment of Natalya Kovalevich’s personal exhibition A Person Occupying a Flower, Central Exhibition Hall, 2015
In 2015, the exhibition (, curatorial group: Natalia Kovalevich, Vera Kovalevskaya, , , Anastasia Ranko, 2015) took place. In one of the exhibition halls were shown the photographs of , a girl who was blind since birth, which she took using a special program on her iPhone. In another section were presented the works of Anastasia Hralovich, who captured Natalia’s everyday life through photography. The parallel program also included inclusive programs for children and blindfolded excursions: a wooden border and yellow tape were laid out around the perimeter of the hall, interior items and containers with smells were placed and a monotonous voice sounded in the space, repeating the name of each photograph. Later, in 2018, Natalya organized and conducted excursions for blindfolded people within the framework of (contemporary art gallery , curators: , Andrey Lenkevich, 2018), whose exhibition also used sounds, smells and fresh flowers for tactile interaction.
© Kirill Demchev: performance 135 Hours at the exhibition Names, Korpus, 2017
The exhibition (Cult. Center , curators , , 2017), took place in 2017 and was dedicated to the first anniversary of the charity media platform of the same name . The exhibition featured 10 installations that were the result of the interaction of 11 contemporary Belarusian artists (, , , , , , and Daria Tsarik, , , ) with the heroes of the magazine Names (Viktor Zolotilin, Sasha Zimnokh, Sasha Zhidovich, Igor Tsurilov, Yuri Kashin, Mikhail Zolotovsky, Rome Osipovichi his mother Galina, Pavel Raschinsky, Taisiya Popova and her son Gleb), representatives of the local communities, public and private institutions, experts, journalists. Interaction, mutual assistance, and community became the three main ideas of the project, outlined by the curators .
Fragment of the exhibition "Limitless. Other stories of Belarusian art", gallery of contemporary art Ў, 2019. © photo: Evgeniy Otsetsky
Work with archives and a focus on a more inclusive approach in describing the history of contemporary art in Belarus was marked by the exhibition "" (Gallery of Contemporary Art Ў, curators , , 2019). The exhibition was based on research, whose aim was to deconstruct established narratives, to discover and reintroduce into the realm of artistic discourse those forms and practices of art that are often labeled with external and inadequate terms like "outsider art", "art by special artists", "art of the mentally ill", and others. Part of the exhibition featured the archive of Viktor Kruglyansky, which contained works by both unknown artists, the doctor’s patients and such famous authors as Alexey Zhdanov, Gennady Khatskevich. Another part of the exhibition shed light on the art of contemporary authors working in various studios and workshops associated with residential care facilities (artists of the project , a boarding home in Pukhovichi and a studio in the Minsk psychoneurological boarding school No. 2).
Inclusive art workshops and studios
Inclusive art workshops and studios play a significant role in the discourse and action regarding the visibility of artists today. Among them there are both independent initiatives, private studios and workshops based on state institutions – Psychoneurological Residential Care Facilities and Territorial Centers for Social Services.
© Victoria Ilyashevich: Chupacabra, 2017
An example of the longest-running and systematically operating studios associated with residential care facilities is the studio in the Minsk psychoneurological boarding school No. 2, which has been in existence for over two decades under the leadership of Tatyana Birulya . Now there are two studios and a gallery space in the boarding school. The works of the studio participants have been repeatedly exhibited in , , gallery and other gallery and museum spaces in the regions of Belarus . As part of these exhibitions, you can see the works of artists from the studio – , Viktor Fedorov, Vadim Voynerovich, Valery Maksimovich, Vladimir Martynov, Lyubov Gurnova, Natalya Litvinova, Alexander Osanovich, Denis Gatsko, Victoria Ilyashevich.
The workshop from 2022 to 2023 has been working at the Day Care Department for the disabled and elderly in the agricultural town of Mikhanovichi and was an initiative of the artist and psychologist Katya Kardonchikova. Works by artists from the workshop Elena Babakova, Dmitry Belyaev, Svetlana Gonchar, Anastasia Kokoulina, Maxim Mazanik, Ivan Mishkov and Dmitry Shitikov were shown as part of the exhibition (Marks, curator , 2023).
The question of the value (and devaluation) of the works of artists with disabilities and/or psychiatric experience often accompanies discussions about the primary importance of the therapeutic effect of the creative process and the appropriateness of the concepts of "art therapy" and "art" in each specific case. At the same time, individual initiatives fundamentally and clearly speak about artists excluded from artistic discourse and define their work as building strategies for their inclusion.
One of the first projects that determined the focus of activity on the "legalization of deviant artists in the artistic and cultural space" was . In 2018 (exhibition , gallery , 2018) the initiative emerged as a result and continuation of years of experience in the field of inclusion by the curator, co-founder of the project , in collaboration with Katerina Savitskaya. As part of the Collection, Daria and Katerina supported the process of creating works and promoted artists with mental disabilities who cannot independently represent their interests as authors, and also curated a collection of deviant art.
© Konstantin Ladoshkin: "Valentina Tereshkova. Woman astronaut", 2018
During its existence, Zbor collaborated with Gennady Grishel, Viktor Kukushkin, Konstantin Ladoshkin, Vladimir Gordyko, Mikhail Bulich. Already in 2018, Collection of Deviant Art became part of ICOM (International Council of Museums) and an official participant of International Museum Day, within the framework of which a personal exhibition "" was held in psychoneurological boarding school No. 3. The works of Mikhail Bulich and Konstantin Ladoshkin were shown at Art-Minsk (Palace of Arts, 2018). At (, 2018), Collection participated in the format of an independent gallery and presented the personal exhibition . In 2019, the exhibition of (Zal #2) was held and works from the Collection were included in the exhibition "" (curators: Anna Karpenko, Sofia Sadovskaya, gallery Ў, 2019).
© Belonica Art Project Studio, 2021
As part of the project , Irina Bondarovich and Sergey Bondarovich conducted drawing classes for people with visual impairments using a specially designed color recognition device called Lihtar (in 2020 at Special School No. 188 for children with visual impairments in Minsk, an art studio was opened in 2021). Also, one of the project's goals was to attract the attention of viewers and the professional art community to the activities of artists with visual impairments (group exhibitions 2020–2021, Palace of Arts; , National Art Museum, 2021; Autumn Salon, , 2021). After the end of the exhibition at the National Art Museum, 8 works by the artists , Vlad Kornev, , Yana Smirnova were purchased by the museum and are now available for tactile perception in a separate niche of the permanent exhibition.
Today, several private art studios and workshops continue to operate in Minsk. Back in 1993, the art critic founded the studio , an "alternative learning area", where people with the autism spectrum disorder are also engaged. From time to time, personal exhibitions of studio partisipants are held in Minsk (Dima Ermolenkov’s exhibition , , 2023; Max Lagun’s exhibition , National Art Museum, 2022; by Maxim Laguna, Marks, 2023; , CA VA, 2023). In 2015, was founded (project of the MBOO "Good Deed. Helping People with Autism") – a creative workshop for teenagers and adults with autism, led by Tatyana Golubovich (group exhibitions , Historical and Cultural Museum-Reserve , CA VA , 2022, , 2023). Since 2019, the art studio has been also teaching children with hearing impairments (group exhibitions , 2020; , curator Marina Trofimova, 2023).
Also, since 2016, there has been the Family Inclusive Theater “i” , whose actors and actresses include, among others, children and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder. The project is led by Irina Kiseleva, while Leonid Dinershteyn, the producer, handles the search for funding and partners for the theater, promotes performances, and oversees the actors and actresses. During this time, students of the theater studio performed more than 10 plays (including the musical Flute Charadzeika, Belarusian State Philharmonic Society, 2016; Fire and Ice, MAZ Palace of Culture, 2021; verbatim play Light from, 2023, etc.).
Instead of a conclusion
In the absence of systemic support from the government and institutions, the search for and development of possible pathways in the field of inclusion is often driven by the personal initiative of specific individuals. This applies to both independent projects and cultural institutions and government establishments that host studios and galleries. Such forced selflessness often becomes the reason for the rapid cessation of inclusive initiatives.
© Mikhail Bulich: diptych Marusino Farm, 2018
Today inclusive projects remain projects, although they are becoming more visible but the impossibility of systemic support, research and archiving continues to keep this phenomenon excluded from the central narrative.