Women And The FEMALE In The Belarusian Art Of The 00s

The history of women in art is a huge and well researched topic in the West, which can’t be said about Belarus. The West issues a great number of specialized biographies and directories on the topic. Suffice it to remember Linda Nochlin, who started feminist art criticism in 1971 by writing now world-famous Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?. She was the first to articulate the question about artificial nature of the notion of geniality. She was also the first to analyze the absence of female names in the history of art. It was this work that started a critical approach to the problem of female representation in art and in the history of art in general as an academic discipline.

Linda Nochlin demonstrated that art has always been inseparable from certain social situation. It was rooted in social structure and was represented by activities of social institutions such as academies of arts and other educational establishments, as well as art market and religion. Nochlin demonstrated a whole tradition of excluding women from the sphere of art on systematic basis. Her research was based on analysis of European academy establishment supporting the idea of geniality as an exclusively male attribute. It was the main reason due to which women were denied membership in the academy for centuries.

“The fault lies not in our stars, our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts.”1

In 1976 Linda Nochlin together with Ann Harris issued book Women Artists: 1550 –1950. Thanks to this publication names of many forgotten female artists were brought back. It’s worth mentioning that up to the seventies and the eighties of the previous century women had been practically excluded not only from the history of art but from history as such. It happened because this history was written only by men. Only in the twentieth-century female representatives of humanities started raising “female theme” never raised before. They started recreating the history including there missing women’s names (personalities). It was at the end of the seventies/beginning of the eighties that the women researchers joined the process of history (co)-creation and filling in the gaps, they started searching, retrieving, inserting the names of those who were excluded from “big” art and ‘big’ history.

As a result, there came not only loads of literature, but even specialized libraries (For example, the Women’s Art Library in London) were started as well as museums of women’s art, associations of women-artists (for example, Women Artists of the West (WAOW)), special art residences for women (for instance, A. I. R. New York), conferences and women’s congresses, women’s Biennales, The International Congress of Women’s Museums took place in Merano (Northern Italy) in 2008. Representatives of Women’s Museums from Argentina, Australia, Belgium, China, Denmark, France, Iran, Italy, Korea, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Senegal, Spain, Sudan, Ukraine and the USA took part in its work. There were ve representatives of women’s museums from Germany and two from Vietnam.

It’s important to know that today the International Museum of Woman (I.M.O.W.) exists; the online project in English that positions itself as a platform for communication and realization of human rights and gender equality (San Francisco)2, Women’s Museum; the Institute for the Future3, National Women’s History Museum (NWHM)); and even Museum of Menstruation and Women’s Health. In 1987 Vilhelmina Cole Holladay founded The National Museum of Women’s Art in Washington, where about three thousand exhibits of women artists are introduced from the Renaissance to modern times; there is also The Center of Feminist Art of Elizabeth Sackler which hands Sackler Center First Awards (one of the nominations is Overcoming Gender Stereotypes)4.

In 2012 the award First of the Kind went to American critic and art theorist Lucy Lippard. She organized Ad Hoc Committee of Women Artists that aims to overcome sexist practices of galleries and exhibition halls where the women’s art was represented only by 5–10% of general number of works. The Art Workers’ Coalition submitted 9 claims to museums, one of which sounded as:

“Museums should encourage female artists to overcome centuries of damage done to the image of female as an artist by establishing equal representation of the sexes in exhibitions, museum purchases and on selection committees.”5

This activity had some success, the per cent went up to 25% in 1970 but since then everything has stopped, i. e. the representation of women artists remains at the same level.6

History as “His-Story” — the History of Man

The history takes place mostly in the public sphere from which women were excluded and put into a private, personal one. As we know well from history strangers were not allowed to enter gynaeceum (i. e. women’s part of the house) and according to the rules voices of women were not heard from the place. While men spoke loudly and could be heard well at public meetings and their feats of arms were described and their fame is known today.

Men absolutely consciously displaced women from three main spheres of public life — politics, religion and army. As men’s history is represented in these three institutions from which women were excluded, it looked like they didn’t exist at all; they were left out from “big” history. The only sphere where women gained esteem and unquestionable respect was the institute of marriage, which had monogamous character in the West and was established so that woman-wife could give legitimate posterity. It was important, as only legitimate children had succession from ancient times up to the present, so high social status of legitimate wife is rooted here. Nevertheless, none of the ancient wise men left us any description of virtuous wives activity in private sphere. Though Plutarch was going to do this, he was able to write about the deeds of great men (Comparative Biographies in two volumes). And his plans to write about the ‘virtues’ of women came to us only in the form of arguments between wise men about male and female virtues (Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Plutarch and others). As a result of these discussions, we can see today Plutarch’s stories Virtues of Women (Bravery of Women: in Greek arête is translated as “virtue” or “bravery” or “excellence”). Out of 27 stories two are about chastity and shame as traditional women’s qualities, 13 are about collective heroism (The Women of Troy), other 2 — about two heroines (Micca and Megisto, Valeria and Cloelia, respectively), other stories are devoted to certain women.7

So, as we can see, women’s voice in history wasn’t heard and up to the twentieth century various factors safely separated “big history” and “big art” from women. As it has been mentioned before, the rights to professional arts education were regulated in men-centred society by laws and religious bans, that’s why so few women’s names remained in art. But in the nineteenth-century women started to acquire some skills from male artists who were close to them, Linda Nochlin describes such opportunity for women at the time and the role their fathers and husbands played in the process. But even with such support women couldn’t become creators equal to men as they were not allowed to paint living models.

“The very plethora of surviving ‘Academies’ — detailed, painstaking studies from the nude male studio model — in the youthful oeuvre of artists down through the time of Seurat and well into the 20th century, attests to the central importance of this branch of study in the pedagogy and development of the talented beginner. The formal academic program itself normally proceeded, as a matter of course, from copying from drawings and engravings to drawing from casts of famous works of sculpture, to drawing from the living model.

To be deprived of this ultimate stage of training meant, in effect, to be deprived of the possibility of creating major art works, unless one was a very ingenious indeed, or simply, as most of the women aspiring to be painters ultimately did, restricting oneself to the ‘minor’ fields of portraiture, genre, landscape, or still life. It is rather as though a medical student were denied the opportunity to dissect or even examine the naked human body”.8

Such unfair historical situation is often seen as a logical tendency (it was always like this so it’s right). In Belarus it became a kind of national tradition. Probably due to this “tradition” the idea and practice to organize exhibitions of so-called “artistic couples” gained some popularity. Quite a vivid example is a series of family exhibitions On the Gallery in the National Art Museum and not only there:

1. Natalya Zaloznaya and Igor Tishin (family): 4.09–4.10.1992, painting.

2. Pyotr and Tatyana Artyomov (family): 12.11–14.12.1992, decorative applied arts.

3. Valentina Dzivinskaya and Vladimir Zhohov (family): September 1993, artistic glassware and graphics.

4. The Poplavsky family (Natalya, Georgy, Katerina) (family): 2–13 of May 1996, graphics.

5. Georgy Poplavsky and Natalya Poplavskaya (the 70th anniversary): 18.01–11.02.2002, graphics.

6. Maria and Nikolay Isaenko (family): 22.11–03. 12.2004, painting

7. Graphics and Sculpture of Tatyana Radzivilko and Konstantin Selikhanov: August, the City Art Gallery of L. Schemelev works.

8. The Closed Book. Action and the Exhibition of Objects, Installations, Graphics and Photographic Works (Tatyana Radzivilko, Konstantin Selikhanov, Vladimir Parfenok): 1998, NOVA Gallery.

It’s worth mentioning here, that to be recognized women working in art try to avoid the female form of the word “artist” and prefer the masculine form.9 Such manipulations with grammatical forms of professional identity approve incredible theories that exist even today about the defective nature both of women themselves and women’s art in general. The essence of these theories is that the creative activity is a substitution of the natural instinct of birth-giving and maternity. Here follows the conclusion — the woman artist is defective and perverts her “real” nature i. e. her predestination; she creates “defective works of art” instead of a child.10 And here the idea of geniality as a man’s attribute comes to mind. This idea turned out to be enduring despite the fact that at the beginning of the seventies Linda Lochlin denied the myth about “a great artist”, who possesses a great talent, abilities, diligence and an ‘inborn’ quality later named “geniality”.11

It’s important to note here, that despite the fact whether a woman artist becomes mother or not she is still being forced to the outskirts of history. A bright example here is the seventeenth issue of pARTisan magazine where the art-eighties take considerable place. None of the authors of that issue remembered about well-known woman artist Ludmila Rusova (1954–2010); Rusova was a key participant of numerous art-projects, for example, exhibition Kazimir Reviving (Moscow, 1990), exhibition In-formation (Viciebsk). In fact, other women artists — active participants of the eighties such as Olga Sazykina, Galina Vasilyeva, Alena Sysun, Irina Maletina were also not mentioned here.

In the series of albums pARTisan Collection founded in 2009 no women’s albums are planned as in opinion of the series founder Artur Klinau there are no decent women artists (equal to men artists) in Belarus. In the fourth album Belarusian Avant-garde of the Eighties, it was the female names that “got lost”. For example, among the enumerated participants of the all-USSR seminar on informal art Celebration of Art. Narva-88, and later in collective exhibitions Experiment (1988), Kryzh-II (1990), Bel-art. The Panorama of Belarusian Art (1991) the name of Olga Sazykina is missing.

From all this, we may conclude that Belarusian society today is still patriarchal. Though women succeeded in achieving some emancipation and equality, they are still far from being equal with men in creative professions. The society is still being ruled by men and the “men” values remain prior and domineering, while women are being forced into the private sphere of the family. By the way, such reduction of women’s function to merely “biological” one is used in other fields of women’s activity, for example, in order to establish lower salary. Sexual differences are a part of cultural myths and ideologies, inherent not only in the history of arts; they are built into wider social contexts and influence the reproduction of sexual hierarchy.

Herstory in Belarus: Is it Possible?

Is it possible in Belarus under such conditions to open the big and serious female topic that is perceived by many (both in alternative and academic art environment) as ‘strange’, secondary, defective, alien? And if it’s possible, how can it be realized?

The analysis of Belarusian women’s art is scarce, as well as the one of Belarusian art in general, and even attempts to fill this gap made by Western curators and art historians don’t look sufficient. The exhibition Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today (2010) surely can be regarded as a breakthrough of high quality, which, according to its curator Kęstutis Kuizinas, was primarily concentrated on the question if contemporary art is topical in Belarus today.12 Young artists Anna Сhkolnikova (born 1976), Lena Davidovich (born 1970), Oksana Gurinovich (born 1975) and Marina Naprushkina (born 1981) took part in this big review exhibition of Belarusian contemporary art. It’s a pity, but this exhibition was shown only in Poland and Lithuania; its significance is to be analyzed and evaluated from the perspective of recognition and existence of Belarusian art as such.

The exhibition Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today was timely and significant for Belarus; despite the removing of bans inherited from the USSR, there was no perestroika in understanding of specifics of modern art. And the negative reaction of Belarusian art environment to the exhibition again demonstrated its inflexibility in perceiving art projects of a “new” type. The system of art that exists in Belarus is enclosed and the state money spent for its internationalization only deepens this enclosing. Belarus is isolated from important art events that take place in the rest of the world — no art celebrity has visited Minsk with a personal exhibition so far, unlike Kiev and Moscow. Lack of international contacts interferes with the development of national culture. “New” art is accepted with considerable problems as there are no skills to hold public discussions and deal with difficult questions; there is no understanding of connection between philosophical questions and artistic answers to them. Moreover, it happens against the background of absence of conceptually developed modern art discourse. As a result, those, trying to write about exhibitions of non-traditional art do not have enough knowledge and analysis skills to read the meaning of works.

That’s what happened to the journalist of Sovetskaya Belorussia (Soviet Belorussia) newspaper who tried to describe the exhibition Feminist Art View from the Eastern Europe that took place on 15–19 May 2002 in Minsk. It was the project of the Center of Gender Studies, EHU gallery and Polish Institute. It included installations exhibition Extra Dimension of Agata Zbylut (Szczecin, Poland) and round table, dedicated to the problem of presentation of feminist art in the Eastern European space. The participants of the discussion were Eulalia Domanovska, Ioanna Raykovska, Agata Zbyljut, Almira Ousmanova, Karina Astapenko, Olga Sazykina, Alla Pigalskaya, Tatyana Bembel. In the article with the eloquent heading

Women’s Small Vegetable Garden in the Outskirts of the Orchard the journalist describes what he sees in the following way:

“...being armed with the knowledge of the fact that men, according to the tradition of ‘feminist art’ are consumers of women, I with big trust to myself turn to the exhibits on the right hand. In the dark- red poster Agatha was pictured innocently lying, nude — this way even more good-looking — with not less good looking a fluffy puppy. The thing that remained not quite clear was the idea later expressed at the roundtable that ‘feminist art is not afraid of a man’s eye’. Why should it fear any eye at all? Triviality is almighty and invulnerable. Triviality cannot be bewitched. There’s nothing to fear”13.

It’s evident the journalist is just unaware of the categories feminist art deals with. The whole article is about “almighty triviality” though the author admits that “among the artists talking about ‘feminist art’ there are some talented ones...” and finishes the article with the idea “However the feminists found a cosy place for themselves. Why don’t we have something like this?”14

Well-known philosopher and feminist Almira Ousmanova at the roundtable that took place at the “Ў” gallery on 12 March 2012 under the heading Feminist Art — is it possible in Belarus?15 pointed out that the author of the article in Sovetskaya Belorussia “understood that he hadn’t understood a thing as every work had innumerous references”. For example, at the beginning of the article he writes “a wedding dress — OK, it’s clear ...” but what is clear to the journalist? Is it clear what this dress and the whole ritual mean in woman’s life? Did he get the reference to Pukirev’s picture Misalliance (1862) that pictures a wedding of an elderly man and a young girl in the context of the whole exposition? Did he understand the meaning of the wedding dress if we remember a famous feminist project Womanhouse16? I’ll explain — back in 1972 Judy Chicago organized the exhibition Womanhouse in Los Angeles. There was a group of women artists invited to the project; as a result, every artist was given a room or a working space in this House (there were 17 rooms to show) to express their opinion on woman’s life. In Womanhouse there was a wedding staircase, children’s room and ‘menstrual bathroom’. On the first day of the exhibition, only women were allowed, after that everyone could visit it. The exhibition was entertaining, ironical, scandalous, the House had everything connected with “woman’s” experience and living.17

It’s curious how much the statements from Sovetskaya Belorussia in 2002 about “almighty triviality” have in common with reviews of the recent exhibition of Antonina Slobodchikova It is Here which took place in “Ў” gallery (08.03–30.03.2012). On the net, they used expressions like “narrow-minded aesthetics”, “sickly sweet artificial showoff”, too “trivial” even “package” style, i. e. another “platitude”. Thus, we can arrive at the conclusion that nothing changed here in perception and understanding of women’s projects of modern art. But they needed (and still do) some special explanation of their meaning for Belarusian art space as a whole.

But let’s come back to the history of understanding the female perspective in art and its co-existence with traditional study of art and art criticism. The mentioned above American art theorist Lucy Lippard, who was trying to create a theory of art beyond the frames of institutional and dogmatic thinking and language of classical humanities, thought that creating both feminist art and feminist criticism is, first of all, creating new values, establishing of new conscience, it is not just an artistic but a social act, “pain and joy” of being born and realizing the experience anew. When women started using their face and body in photography, performance, cinema, video instead of being mere properties of men they started realizing their desire to make statements about their female experience and about themselves as artists.

“A woman using her own face and body has a right to do what she will with them but it is a subtle abyss that separate’s men’s use of women for sexual titillation from women’s use of women to expose that insult”.18

She thought that artists introduced an element of living emotion and autobiographical contents to performance, video-art and their books, they introduced ‘low rate’ traditional forms in their art such as embroidery, sewing and changed the meaning of central image building and ornament, multilayer painting, fragmentation and collage. And there was an idea of “dialectal” reality (which was opposed to “historical” reality that de ned art before that moment).19

Back in the 1920s, Walter Benjamin wrote that here comes the age of gap with the tradition as a new perceiving subject appears — the masses. Radio, newspapers photos, cinema turned out to be connected not only with the image but, first of all, with communication. Where the mass is involved in “new” culture there appear not only new technical opportunities of copying, but there is a serious interest to different aspects of life and existing variety of human experience and to a vivid manifestation of personal civil position. As well as the ability to tell about oneself, one’s cultural experience, i. e. to communicate with representatives of other cultures becomes a necessity in the rapidly changing multicultural world. Probably, our existence could be changed with joint e orts of most advanced art researchers, that are able to write all the time about “new” art, as well as by organizing public discussions on different topics on a regular basis that would deal with understanding of up-to-dateness. But to do this we need to realize the problem of absence of conceptual eld, without which new projects will look like commonplace and narrow-mindedness, and women’s art will look limited and inferior.

Problems of woman’s art in the period of the 00s

Trying to understand the topic of the female we should define general intellectual guidelines. I mean, we should find out who is the woman, whose place in art we try to understand and define? Are all the women dealing with modern art important enough to be included into history? Or do we try to find and define a special method of artistic practice which due to its marginal character and provocation is associated with something which is de ned as female?20

But it’s obvious, that the female story/ “her story”, i. e. the work was done by women scientists in the West on the restoration and inscribing women personalities into history, contributed to the destruction of male myths that filled the social history. But at the beginning of the 1980s, an American researcher Joan Scott suggested refusing from a simple opposition of “male” and “female” history and creating “gender history”. By “gender” she meant a system of power relations (or, in other words, “network of social connections”) that rooted in culture. These relations allow to create, con rm, and reproduce ideas about the male and the female, as categories of a social kind, to give power to some people (usually, men) and suppress other people (usually, women and sexual minorities).21 But the “network” of social connections can have some major units, that find it hard to “grasp” a single person’s life so instead of the idea of generalization and unity comes the idea of differentiation and multiplicity. Studies of individual practices (e. g. body and the intimate life) become topical, and they help to clarify specifics of different cultures and experience.

We can say that the fight for female equality (for example, bringing back forgotten names) is the form of activity determined exclusively by women. At the same time, there are ways of thinking which are feminist in a sense that they are supported by some way of thinking which finally undermines and formulates anew main ideas existing in the society (the system of power relations). A distinctive feature of such feminism is that it turns into research of subjectivity and identity and their connection with the symbolic order as well as categories of “otherness” and “time”.22 Are there such projects in Belarus?

Artist Antonina Slobodchikova

Let’s take, for example, works of a young Belarusian artist Antonina Slobodchikova (1979) presented at Still Life. Thing. Space exhibition, that took place at “Ў” gallery in November 2010. The artist has been working with collages since 2002. Antonina’s still lives from Black Spots series are combined from different fragments — photos, pictures, chalk inscriptions — and represent collages and constructions. In one of them, the artist places her photo on the place of a face of the saint. We can see her face in the picture, her eyes closed — which creates problems to personal vision. We see Madonna with a child on her hands (first, a symbol of Isis, patroness of maternity) and recognize the artist who is interested only in visual associations connected with Antonina’s personal maternity experience.

Antonina creates unreal collage still life due to which we grasp the condition of change in transitive time on the border of a dream, decay, sanctity and reality. We should note here that apart from physical time connected with seasons’ change there is a transitive subjective time, that does not coincide with physical time. This experience leaves its trace that continues living in our souls afterwards in affects or in objects as imprinting of our affects and strong emotions. Such repressed and subdued condition i. e. trauma comes back as a symptom or a distorted image (which normally comes late and according to Benjamin is called experience)23. Addressing her collages to anonymous spectators the artist involves them into the situation of experience exchange, into common space of affective communication. Besides, we can discuss our understanding of the works, which makes it multiple. Here we can discuss the things that affect us most, as well as something that we hardly notice in our everyday life. Analysis of every such catchy little thing or a short fragment of meaning unveils its unique separate truth which brings to a multiplicity of meanings and a scattered text.

The artist also tries to sense the image of a woman-mother-Madonna in her collage Mother-Heroine which was presented in 2006 in the frameworks of Christmas project Carnival in the Palace of Arts. In this work instead of Madonna’s face, Antonina places a photo of her own face. And she makes her beautiful body up with babies’ faces, putting into her hand a sheet with the reproduction of classical nude Madonna with babies and angels from a tear-off calendar.

It’s generally known that there are certain representations of a woman in the artistic tradition that became an iconographic canon. For example, in classical works of art, the (naked) woman was placed in the center which suggested it was seen as an object, as the vision of man artist was domineering. All women’s figures functioned as signifiers of patriarchal culture, as the man’s idea of himself and of women; the man was the creator while the woman was just his muse. Linda Nochlin wrote that ‘erotic’ was always seen as an erotic desire and vision of a man; there was no place for female eroticism in classical art.24 The ambivalence of the image of a mother and a virgin in symbiosis with as popular images of a whore and a witch originates from here.

Antonina Slobodchikova finds her own method of researching the topic — alienation of a female body from its owner. She uses a feminist approach not only where the traditional image of Madonna is (de)constructed — when the artist creates her own collage composition. Feminism is also seen in Slobodchikova’s works when she researches the problem of vision (and power) in general, when she changes the object and the subject of her vision, bringing together the object and the subject of perception. Antonina identifies herself both with an image she creates (when she images herself as Madonna whose body consists of babies) and with the viewer.

In connection with this, it’s interesting to speak about one more collage made in 2003 for ArtHouse exhibition (that took place at the Academy of Arts). This collage reminds of a three-face icon. The artist places three copies of a different size of one and the same picture of her head to the top part of the black surface of the collage. The artist puts on red color on her lips on two of them and paints her eyes on the third one. Such self/cut o and multiplied head of the artist becomes a closed system, which, possessing new intensity, plunges us, the viewers, into the state of notional difficulty or a torpor which, in its turn, stimulates invention of new meanings. The face is known to be an object of a cinematographic statement. Russian philosopher Oleg Aronson compares the face with the boundary where the significant (meaning, ethics) coincides with the sensory and susceptible (skin). That’s the place of the closest proximity where the field of communication is unveiled i. e. it’s the field where the other appears and communication is possible.

It’s necessary to note that collages need reading their inscriptions but not just looking at their visual part. The artist is interested in transferring from one register to another, the image is repeated as a kind of symptom but always in a different way, avoiding similarity with the images it repeats and the words that are written and that tell us their stories. It’s also worth mentioning that through Antonina’s search for identity, successive liberation comes out. As well as the intention to find out her own vision, which helps to go out of the darkness to be(come) visible and start communication with others. One of the famous female philosophers Luce Irigaray said that if our being in the world is provided with our visibility for others, the invisibility is equal to death:

“My face is always in darkness. It is never born. This is probably why it is at stake in metaphysics that wants to bring into the light that which is not yet clear. And that maintains the most radical polemos with the maternal, the intrauterine: irreducible darkness.”25

Artist Ludmila Rusova

Going on with the examples of female art projects of the 00s, connected with the researchers of subjectivity and identity and their connection with a symbolic order I can’t help mentioning projects of the Belarusian artist Ludmila Rusova (1954–2010). The artist belonged to another generation, she was the representative of underground or Belarusian avant-guard of the eighties. She did autobiographical writings and autobiographical projects, dragging the spectators into her stream. Rusova was the first of the artists who took the plunge to research the dynamics of signs, their multiplicity, fluidity — such research can be compared with the most ambitious projects of religious and artistic revolution.

Her photo-project Playing with Dolls (29.09–16.10.2000, NOVA gallery) is of a special interest for us. The synopsis of the program tells us that:

she is the main topic

she is the frozen essence

she is the immobility

i’m only to complement her


This photographic project is inspired by surrealist photography. In the middle of the seventies, a curator and an art critic Rosalind Krauss wrote an article The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism26 where she rethought the photography from a surrealist perspective. Her text was written in the period of radical revision of legacy of art avant-guard of the 1920s–1930s. Surrealists ascribed fetish status to the autonomy of vision. It’s them who tried to find an answer to the question what we see and don’t see in the surrounding world. What we prefer to look at and what we don’t notice at all. Surrealists looked intently at our world through the lens, the microscope, dreams and madness. And this optical physiological vision found out new facts; it manifested something unseen before.

To realize her project Playing with Dolls27 Rusova invited a photographer Sergey Zhdanovich, who made pictures of the scenes with a thoroughly worked out composition. A doll — a mannequin in women’s clothes — was used here both as a prop and a model. Practically in all the photos of the project, the object is a vision and difficulty of vision.

The image of eyes, i. e. the image of closed and open eyes of the artist “looking” into the camera comes as close as possible to surrealism. The picture frame tells us that there is a difference between this part of reality and the part left behind and the given fragment limited by this frame is an example of nature-as-representation, nature-as-sign.

Informing us about this experience of reality, the frame also controls and configures the reality. For this, the eyes are pictured at extremely close distance, chosen by Zhdanovich. The camera makes the glance visible, we, the viewers, can see this glance due to the photography. The staging of such glance points out a private character of the picture. But this super close photographing of closed eyes makes it di cult to see it. In this pictures, the figure of vision is present and absent at the same time, while a similar function is performed by the doll-mannequin in the pictures (it’s quite actively used in the project Playing with Dolls). The majority of the pictures are made in studio photography style, but why was this practice chosen and why does it interest the artist so much?

It’s generally known that aristocratic body served as a model in studio photography; this body had to undergo certain discipline practices (such as learning to dance, fencing, and horse riding). As a result, the whole body code was formed i. e. there was a thorough control over the body culture. Posing for studio photograph was oriented at painted portraits, meaning aristocratic body with good posture. Aristocratic, exquisite body was the only “real”, “normal” one that in the Soviet time got the meaning of a “smart looking” body. “Cultural level”, first of all, meant smart clothes, having nothing to do with the level of education, good manners and lifestyle. Female ‘smart look’ in a picture could be underlined by one element (jewellery, a hat) not agreeing with the whole image, but exactly these attributes were the markers of “culture”.28

In several pictures of the project Playing with Dolls the mannequin with Rusova’s face and a character, Rusova is placed side by side. However, both of them are placed in such a way that their glances are difficult to be inscribed into a single spectator’s strategy. I will remind here that the spectator’s vision is conditioned by the figure and the direction of eyes of the character in the picture.

In one of the photos, the sitting doll (which is woman’s height) in the hat with feathers, a silk dress, a velvet coat and shoes is an ideal example of “aristocratic” body. The doll is placed next to Rusova sitting in a similar pose, without any “smart dress” markers — she is barefooted, her dress is simple, her eyes are closed. In another picture — the doll in hat with feathers, Rusova turned her face o the viewer — we can see only the back of her head. In one more picture this pair forms two-level composition: the doll is sitting, Rusova is standing, her hands on the doll’s shoulders, her face is darkened. Rusova sits on the doll's knees, head on its shoulder, her eyes avoid the camera at the moment of taking the picture (on the left of the photo).

Apart from the picture frame at the level of the picture mentioned above the glance can be metonymically designated with the help of such elements as contrasting spots of light and shadow, reflecting surfaces, tiny details and complicated texture.29 The photographs of the series have all these elements. Apart from that, there are evident motifs of artificial and natural body in the series. Ludmila was interested in the question of her own identity; she researched the meaning of the collective and the personal. Studio shooting suggests a detached “public” eye, based on truncated standard bodies by a pattern. And closed or drawn aside eyes, i. e. the problem with Rusova’s model glance points out the difficulty with establishing a private, personal nature of the character’s image in the photo. Just this personal look and the difficulty with this look thrilled the artist. And the artist’s interest to the problem of the glance and the practices of a “technically reproduced” image says about her interest to the “modernity” and desire to look at herself with viewer’s eyes.

The synthetic project by Ludmila Rusova Dancing Place 2003 consisting of several media components became a sort of continuation of Playing with Dolls project.

“Static visual body of the project is formed by photomontage works by Sergey Zhdanovich and chronicle photo series by Alexey Velikzhanin. The dynamic audio-visual environment was created by video of Natalya Zubovich, a music of Alexey Vorsoba and performance ‘Living Sculpture’ performed by Natalya Simanovskaya” (NOVA gallery of visual arts).30

From the perspective of the topic, the most interesting part of the project is photo series31 by Sergey Zhdanovich, who used the effect of mirroring which carried its specific mood. The space of the picture in this case (as well as in the pictures of previous series) is divided into two parts. In one part of the picture we can see Rusova’s figure dancing on the bridge railings; the other one reflects the urban space of the first part and the figure is missing. Thus, the artist researches different regimes of her presence/absence in the world which provides our visibility/invisibility. The invisibility of the figure in the pictures is meaningful as her absence creates enigmatic atmosphere and the feeling of vague anxiety, forcing us to find out the gap between vision itself and naming, connected with the absent figure. Reflecting surfaces refer to the glance of “the other”, such visual regime is connected with modern urban space which the artist tries to research. Ludmila Rusova in her projects created temporary structures, addressing to the multiple in the frames of imposed unity.


Based on the analysis of the above mentioned examples of female art-practices of the 00s in Belarus, we can come to the conclusion that Belarusian women artists of different generations despite badly sensed agenda of female historical dumbness (anonymity) do still search their own vision and own voice in the space of modern art field. They want to be visible and want to enter the communication with others. They do their projects and they register changes (both personal and social) their life is based on, this way destroying stereotypes of women’s “deficiency”. They search for different ways of articulation of their experience which lasts in different interpretations of its contents.

However, alongside with that, we can’t underestimate the backwardness of the local context, which doesn’t allow women artists to feel themselves significant figures of the modern art environment. On the other hand, we should take into account that not every direction of women’s art and/or research is feminist — for such way of thinking a certain maturity and independent personality is needed. And that is hardly accessible against the distressingly patriarchal background of the modern Belarusian society.

Irina Solomatina - practicing humanitarian, feminist, director of “Gender Route” experimental project // Zero Radius. Art Ontology of The 00s. Minsk. 2000–2010

1 Nochlin L. Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists? // L.M. Bredikhina, K. Deepwell (eds.) Gender Theory and Art. Anthology: 1970–2000. M.: ROSSPEN, 2005.

2 See: http://imow.org/home/index.

3 See: http://www.thewomensmuseum.org/

4 Elizabeth A. Sackler. Center for Feminist Art Celebrates the Fifth Anniversary with the Sackler Center First Awards. Read more 

5 Lippard L. The Art Workers’ Coalition: Not a History // Art Journal. No 79–80 [Electronic resource] Mode of access

6 Ousmanova A. Women and Art: The Policy of Representation // Gender Studies. Tutorial. KCGR, SPb.: Aleteya, 2001. P. 465–492.

7 Plutarch. Table Talk // [Electronic resource] Mode of access

8 Nochlin, op. cit.

9 In Russian and Belarusian there are suffixes that can be attached to the noun and indicate the gender of the speaker. Khudozhnik means he-artist, khudozhnitsa means she-artist.

10 Kamenetskaya N.Y., Yurasovskaya N.M. Feminine Gender Art // [Electronic resource]

11 Ousmanova, Women and Art, op. cit., p. 465–492.

12 See: Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today. Exhibition Catalogue. Vilnius, 2010. P. 15.

13 Gramotin L. A Small Vegetable Garden in the Outskirts of the Orchard // Sovetskaya Belorussiya. 2002. 24 May 

14 Round Table Feminist Art in Belarus — Is It Possible? See

15 Ibid.

16 See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Womanhouse.

17 Ousmanova A. Defenseless Venus: Thinking about Feminist Critics on History and Theory of Art // [Electronic resource] Mode of access: http://arche.bymedia.net/3-1999/usma399.html.

18 Lippard L. The Pains and Pleasures of Rebirth: Women’s Body Art, Art in America // Gender Theory and Art, op. cit.

19 Lippard L. Sweeping Exchanges: The Contribution of Feminism to the Art of the 1970s // Gender Theory and Art, op. cit.

20 Petrovskaya E. Woman in Art or Woman’s Skillfulness // [Electronic resource]

21 Pushkareva N. Gender Agenda in Historical science // Gender Research, op. cit., p. 293. 22 Petrovskaya, op. cit.

23 Petrovskaya E. Image and Story. Lecture 4 // On the Other Side of Imagination. Modern Philosophy and Modern Art. Lectures. Nizhny Novgorod, 2009. P. 90–101.

24 Ousmanova, Women and Art, op. cit., p. 486.

25 Moi T. Patriarchal Reflections: the Mirror of Luce Irigaray // Moi T. Sexual/Textual Politics. М: Progress Tradicia, 2004. P. 157–180.

26 Krauss R. The Photographic Conditions of Surrealism [1981] // Krauss R. The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths. М., 2003; Krauss R., Livingston J. L’Amour Fou: Photography and Surrealism. New York, 1985; Krauss R. Le Photographique: pour une Théorie des Écarts. Histoire et théorie de la photographie. Paris 1990.

27 Set of Photographs Playing with Dolls (Performance: Ludmila Rusova) 

28 Gavrishina O. Snimki u fotografa // Gavrishina O. Imperiya sveta: fotografii kak virtualnaya praktika epokhi “sovremenntosti”. М: NLO, 2011. P. 41.

29 Gavrishina O. Mif kak “socialnoe fantasticheskoe” v sjurrealisticheskoy fotografii: Ralph Eugene Meatyard // Gavrishina, op.cit., p. 92.

30 NOVA gallery of visual arts

31 See 

Irina Solomatina, Women And The FEMALE In The Belarusian Art Of The 00s // Zero Radius. Art Ontology of The 00s. Minsk. 2000–2010