Image featured in Machine Is Breathing, and I am Not, an exhibition dedicated to the medics and health care professionals in Belarus (© Ales Piletckiy; all images courtesy SHKLO)

On March 30, an exhibition called Machine Is Breathing, and I am Not opened at a pop-up location in Minsk, Belarus, dedicated to the medics and health care professionals who have been working on the frontlines of the country’s coronavirus pandemic.

The exhibition was slated to run until April 17, but one day after opening, it was visited by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, who claimed that the event violated sanitary rules, forcing it to close and taking several of its organizers into custody. While they were eventually released, their legal status remains precarious, and many in the country say that after contested elections last year, Belarus is in a stalemate with many artists, journalists, and cultural workers suffering under a climate of anxiety and oppression.

The shuttered exhibition was “dedicated to Belarusian doctors and the challenges they have faced over the past year: the COVID-19 pandemic and the politicization of the healthcare system,” according to the curatorial text. The works in the show were curated by the SHKLO + platform and mostly consisted of photographs made in collaboration with doctors working on the frontlines of the country’s pandemic.

“A year in standby mode, without plans and confidence in the future, in a panic, in shock, in apathy,” the curatorial text stated. “Suddenly, we find ourselves in a situation of extreme vulnerability and helplessness […] The study of these changes became the main motive of the exhibition.”

A worker surrounded by PPE, featured in Machine Is Breathing, and I am Not (© Ales Piletckiy)

On April 5, four days after the show’s closure, Belarusian police raided the home of several art workers, including Tatsiana Hatsura-Yavorskaya, co-organizer of the exhibition, alongside her colleagues Natalia Trenina, Anna Sokolovaskaya, Olga Shpakovskaya, and Yulya Semenchenko. The latter four were released following fines and administrative detention, but Hatsura-Yavorskaya remained in custody for 10 days, until April 16.

The authorities also confiscated their personal computers, cell phones, and other electronic equipment, while Hatsura-Yavorskaya’s husband, who is Ukrainian, was beaten and deported from the country. He is now living abroad with the couple’s children and banned from entering Belarus for 10 years.

Shortly after her release, on April 16, Hatsura-Yavorskaya said in a Facebook post that she remains a “suspect” in an ongoing open criminal case but doubled down on her commitment to social justice. She cautioned that this may be only the beginning of her ordeal: “This is just the beginning of my personal tragedy,” she wrote. “I am without a computer and have no time to describe the situation […] still feeling a bit deserted, though I am free, others remain in jail. Unfortunately, I may still need help.”

The latest situation seems to be part of a wider culture war aimed at silencing dissent in the former Soviet republic. After President Alexander Lukashenko claimed a landslide victory in a disputed election last summer, hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens took to the streets in weeks-long protests that have taken the form of artistic interventions that are now spreading across the country and beyond.

According to Belarusian curator and art writer Aleksei Borisionok, who currently has a survey of contemporary political art from Belarus on display at Kyiv’s Mystetskyi Arsenal, the latest situation in the country has contributed to an autocratic stalemate that leaves many cultural workers exposed to the whims of a nervous and weakened government. “Much of the artistic infrastructure is now paralyzed,” he told Hyperallergic. “At the same time, art finds new realms of creative expression and political agitation — in the streets, public spaces, and the internet.”

Hyperallergic spoke with several Belarusian art workers who said that the situation for political and socially engaged art in Belarus is now increasingly dire, particularly since the disputed election last summer.

According to Sarychau Maxim, an artist and member of the SHKLO platform who was a participant in the now-closed exhibition, the attack on its organizers is part of broader, more systemic problems in the country. He believes these conflicts are part of “the government’s plan to destroy uncontrolled actors in art, media, and culture. I have no illusions about the ability of the authorities to target artists,” he told Hyperallergic, warning that “dark times lie ahead.”

While tragic, the event seems to have galvanized the support of major international cultural organizations, including the Sundance, Cannes, and Berlin film festivals, all of which released statements calling for Hatsura-Yavorskaya’s release and for the authorities to cease their attacks on culture workers writ large.

A vase of dying flowers is surrounded by headlines regarding the COVID-19 crisis, featured in Machine Is Breathing, and I am Not (© Maxim Sarychau / project “Where have all the Flowers Gone?”)

Mark Cousins, a film executive part of the Belfast Film Festival, wrote an op-ed for the Guardian on April 13 professing his support for Hatsura-Yavorska, who he said has “steered her festival through the storm of KGB intervention, censorship and outright banning of films,” stating that she is “a reminder of how much culture workers matter in authoritarian states and at times of information deficit.”

While Hatsura-Yavorska is now free following massive global outcry, her legal status remains in limbo. However, with many Western leaders refusing to acknowledge Lukashenko as Belarus’s president, there now appears to be mounting international pressure against the autocratic ruler, who on May 24 diverted a passenger plane flying over Belarusian territory in order to detain an outspoken journalist critical of his regime

With many of the country’s artists now leading the way in demanding social justice, reform, and accountability, the fate of those on the front lines of this culture war seems anything but certain.

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Dorian Batycka

Dorian Batycka is an independent curator, art critic, and DJ currently based Berlin. Previously, he was curator of contemporary art at Bait Muzna for Art Film (Muscat, Oman), assistant curator for the...