Volha Arkhipava: “The culture and history of Belarus are an excellent source of inspiration and future prospects”
We talked with Volha Arkhipava, a museum worker, art critic, curator, participant of our residence in Poznan about her work at the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus, her authorial project on nonconformist art of the 1980–1990s Belarusian Avant-Garde, the I-DZE-JA club and the reasons behind her move to Poland.
Volha Arkhipava / © photo – Evgeny Kolchev, 2016
Let's start with the main question in the new geopolitical conditions: under what circumstances and when did you leave Belarus and what is the history behind your forced emigration/immigration?
My emigration was rather a personal choice motivated by circumstances. In 2020, there were very strong hopes for change. I was particularly inspired by who put forward his candidacy for the presidency. For me his name was primarily associated with a number of cultural projects that he curated: , and the gallery , and these, of course, not the only cultural events associated with this person. I have never been a politically engaged person. Growing up and developing as a person in the 1990s, being a witness of glasnost, perestroika, the collapse of the Soviet Union, you rather become an anarchist in these matters, having no trust in politics and seeking to distance yourself from this unreliable and changeable development of the world. Family, friends, like-minded people and culture become criteria and support for you.
Since 1998 I have been working in the museum. When you engage in your passion, you think it will be your lifelong job, but as they say: man proposes, but God disposes. Of course I never wanted and planned to be an emigrant, I always thought that I was only needed in Belarus and would not fit into another culture. However, the purges within Belarusian society also affected museum employees. Of course, this has happened before in history when the totalitarian regime “searches” and “finds” enemies everywhere. Everything, as always and at all times, begins with denunciations, spies and fabrications. In 2021, an article was published in Soviet Belarus where "journalist" Mukovozchik conducted an "investigation" and found out that there are "normal" people among museum employees and expressed great indignation about it. At first, it seemed like the usual absurdity, something ridiculous and amusing: baseless accusations, excessive suspicion, and overthinking. But gradually, you begin to understand that it is precisely the workers of culture that are the most powerful and invincible weapon. Just like any cultured person, someone who is capable of analysis, critical thinking, and drawing conclusions. A person who knows his history, loves the national culture and understands what has happened before and what may happen in the future. Of course, for me it was a really strong psychological shock. You begin to realize that not only is your work unnecessary to anyone, but it is also dangerous for the authorities. Feeling absolutely defenseless and unsure of what might happen tomorrow: dismissal, fine, arrest – it creates an atmosphere of total panic. That's when the realization came that only emigration could bring about any change.
And immigration to Poland is quite logical. Our countries share a common history, common heroes and common national and cultural paradigms. Traveling through Polish museums you enjoy these parallels: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and the Commonwealth, the Slutsk and Polish belts as ambivalent concepts, the mythology of Sarmatism and the ideals of 19th-century romanticism – all this is incredibly interesting to observe from a Polish perspective. Of course, Polish and Belarusian cultures differ in many ways, but it is always fascinating to see the polyphony of one theme from different angles and different periods, both in the 20th and the 21st centuries.
Lecture by Volha Arkhipava "Without Borders: Abstractionism in the Art of Belarus" within the framework of the I-DZE-JA club, bar My (We), Poznan, 2023
After your in Poznań, which we organized, you and another former resident artist founded the I-DZE-JA club here. What is this project about?
Being in Poznan, it becomes evident and understandable that there is a large Belarusian diaspora here. It includes the youth, the middle generation and children. These are people who left their homes and not always by their own choice. If we generalize, we – Belarusians, are all a little bit “wounded”. Having been detached from our homeland, we all want to have a piece of Belarus nearby. The first thought that came to my mind was to create a Belarusian museum as a center of culture and a meeting place for Belarusians. But this is still a distant goal, so we decided to establish an artistic salon, a cultural club as an occasion to get together and show Belarusians their culture and art. The culture and history of Belarus are an excellent source of inspiration and future prospects.
Methodological lesson on the project The Universe of Yazep Drozdovich at the National Art Museum / © - photo: Dmitry Kozlov, 2019
You worked for 23 years at , in the department of Contemporary Belarusian Art. Tell us more about your scientific and curatorial activities at the museum, what were your main areas of interest and projects that you explored during this period?
During the years of work in the museum, I was engaged in various research projects and forms of activity. My first research was related to the collection of Belarusian sculpture in the museum's holdings, many sculptors' biographies had to be created from scratch, for example, that's then I first learned about the surname . His stones are kept in the museum's collection. It was interesting to analyze the collection itself, and it turned out that the majority of the artworks were from the 1960s-1970s – this was the period of significant acquisitions for the museum. Then there were biographies of painters and biographies of ones who were portrayed. In total, there were around 800 surnames. This research was also related to my main theme at the museum "Art Associations of Belarus". It turned out that the periods of the most active art associations of the 20th century are practically not represented in the museum's collections. Those periods were the 1920s and 1980s. The 1920s is a period that we primarily know and study more from documents than from artworks, since practically nothing has been preserved from this time, many pieces were lost during the Second World War, some artworks simply disappeared in the post-war period. There are only a few names in the museum's collection who were more fortunate than others and their artworks were preserved. These are , , , , , , while for other artists, either nothing at all or only one to five works have survived. As for the internationally known representatives of the Belarusian avant-garde of the 1910s-1920s, the museum has a sparse representation: a few works of , and appeared in the museum, but all of them were created much later.
And another period, the 1980s – a time of change and perestroika, a period when art underwent significant transformations in Belarus, but never made its way into museums, some of it ended up in private collections, some disappeared, some remained as myths and stories told by the authors themselves. In my opinion, these are examples of a time associated with the rise and democratic development of art, a time when artists created manifestos and were looking for new forms of existence and interaction. It all started with underground auctions at the Theater and Art Institute, when artists bought each other's artworks. This was the time of informal associations, when , , , , , , , and other artistic groups were created.
All this was connected with the search for common themes, perspectives, common preferences and like-minded people. The pluralism of forms and opinions, exhibitions free from exhibition committees have led to the emergence of bright artistic personalities, such as , , , , , , , , , , , , , and many others. Unfortunately, their contribution has not yet been fully appreciated in our country.
This period can rightfully be called the most interesting period in the art of the 20th century in Belarus. We shouldn't forget about independent platforms and galleries, international exhibitions and collectors who gathered this art and preserved it for us, many works ended up abroad, but there were also local collectors, people like , , who loved and treated their “wards” with special attention, but so far the storage and preservation still remain their own problem or the problem of their relatives.
Working in a museum as an exhibition curator, it is clear that this is also a different and very enriching experience. Maybe it is not always clear what is happening during the process of preparing an exhibition project, as it involves not only working with living artists but also conducting research on their legacies, searching for archival materials, and working in libraries and the collections of other museums. For me, it just a fact that the names of and became iconic, as those are the artists whose work is incredibly interesting to explore, and each time you discover something new.
Personal retrospective exhibition "Mikhail Filippovich. The Fate of an Artist" / © - photo and curator: Volha Arkhipava, 2021
You are the founder and the head of the online archive , which, unfortunately, did not last long and now continues to be hosted on our platform in an expanded volume. Tell us about this project and its fate.
When I came to work at the museum, my main research topic was "Art Associations in Belarus". Exploring this topic, it turned out that the most active period of the emergence of artistic associations coincided with the era of Perestroika and the formation of independent Belarus. This period was hardly represented in the museum’s collection, and it became obvious that this history of Belarusian culture should be archived and collected, and thanks to the Internet and digital opportunities, we had the idea to create a website about the Belarusian avant-garde of the 1980s-1990s. The site was established in 2012. The latest version of the site was called BMP – Belaruski Mastacki Paligon (Belarusian Art Polygon) – as an encyclopedia of independent, informal and official associations in Belarus. But due to financial difficulties, the website ceased to function in 2017, but the research on this topic is still ongoing. Currently I find this phenomenon intresting not only as a phenomenon of the 20th century, but also how it manifested in the 19th century and continues into the 21st century. This tendency of artists to come together in unions, groups, or creative tandems is characteristic of both past and contemporary art. This always reflects the fundamental paradigms of time and its distinctive processes.
This is a story from the Philomaths and Philaret of the 19th century to of the 21st century. This is the story of how culture and art exacerbate and solve arising problems and catastrophes of their time. As an example: the antivarcoalition, which emerged in 2022 as a reaction to the war in Ukraine, now is becoming a platform of protest against violence against individual freedom, on which artistic statements are much wider and more expressive than just an anti-war phenomenon. Art has always managed to make the statement more global and widescale. I am delighted that the information I have collected was useful for and is being preserved and developed within the platform.
Round table within the framework of the exhibition , / pictured Andrey Plesanov and (sitting), Volha Arkhipava (center), Alexei Bratochkin (deep), 2010
Speaking about this "Belarusian Mastaksky Palіgon", what is the reason behind the tendency of numerous associations, groups and associations emerging precisely in 1987, when, on the wave of perestroika, in one year such collectives as , , , , , , and many others were formed? Most of the collectives of that period ended their activities in 1991, immediately after the collapse of the USSR. Do you think this collective movement was a means of protection due to the fear of individual expression?
These are certainly deeper processes. Firstly, it was an alternative to the , functioning as a protest against the dominance of a single organization in the art world. Secondly, a group or a collective is already a society, an organization which, under the conditions of the Soviet era, could organize an exhibition, a project, the so-called concept of a “roof” at that time. And futhermore, the collective expression carried more weight and credibility as it represented the views of a group rather than just an individual. But at that time, these groups were very mobile, many artists exhibited and collaborated with different groups, or, for example, only took part in this or that project once, there were no limitations on the principle of collectivism. A vivid example is the “Forma” group, which initially consisted of 40 people, but later officially appeared under the patronage of the NGO Center, where were only 7 members. There were also groups that consisted of a single person, like and . Collectives provided artists with opportunities not only to create more exhibitions, but also to write manifestos, their programs and to express a public statement.
And as for 1991, this was the time of the establishment of a new state: the Republic of Belarus. At this time, there was no longer the same need for groupings as there was in the Soviet era. The 1990s have already left their mark in the history of Belarusian art as a period of new galleries, new exhibition and curatorial both local and international projects, the time of initiating an open dialogue with the global art world.
© / / 1987
Recently, Vitaly Chernobrisov and Andrei Plesanov passed away – it is bitter to witness the brightest representatives of the non-conformist movement of Belarus leave, and it is scary to imagine what will happen to their legacy. How can we prevent their creations and their collections from being forgotten? At the same time, there is a monstrous outflow of specialists who are able to preserve and work with such situations and archives. This raises another question: what is happening with your colleagues from the National Museum now?
The problem of preserving the heritage of artists and collectors, unfortunately, has arisen not only now, in the 2020s. Stories of Lost and destroyed artworks are probably more frequent than stories of rescued collections. One of the main functions of the museum is to preserve. But we are well aware of the history of the pre-war collection of the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus (formerly the State Art Gallery), which was not evacuated in time, and as a result many national masterpieces were lost during the war years, as well as the documents, and the work of the museum had to start anew in the second half of the 1940s. The fate of collections from renowned noble families is also unknown to us, even though we know from documents that their private collections contained works by internationally acclaimed artists.
I don't know what happened to the heritage of after his death, but throughout his life he repeatedly emphasized the importance of transferring his works both to private collections and to public ones (museums, archives, libraries), as it ensures their preservation. I really hope that the heirs of Andrei Plesanov, who collected not only artworks but also photographs, documents, posters, and books on events and contemporary artists, are aware of this. I am convinced that cooperation with museums and archives is necessary in order to preserve the history of art. These institutions are focused on proper storage and preservation.
Oblivion comes when there are no artifacts, no traces of a person and his creative work. I know this well from my own experience as a researcher. When I came to work at the museum in 1998, I didn't know anything about Chernobrisov, Plesanov and many other authors and collectors. But thanks to the studying literature, press, archives and the documents associated with the works, this knowledge is revealed. Today, in the age of digital technologies, it is necessary to digitize everything in addition to physical preservation, I hope this will prolong and make many other things accessible.
As for the dismissed specialists, these are certainly enormous facts. Cleansings of the intelligentsia are taking place in Belarus. This is a natural process after 2020. I really hope that this will not affect the national heritage and it will be preserved and used in better times. I also hope that the dismissed specialists, who have no opportunity to realize themselves in state structures, will find ways to apply their strengths and abilities. Currently only loyal people are needed in Belarus, but I hope that what has been done and will be done will not be destroyed and will play its role in the future.