The Belarusian visual artist, archivist and activist, Lesia Pcholka, will open the exhibition 'The Street of Weakness' (Ulica Słabości in Polish) at the Günter Grass Gallery on 29 April 2022. This exhibition is her first in Gdańsk, the city that has welcomed Pcholka as an ICORN artist in residence earlier this year. The exhibition is an attempt to understand the experience of the Belarusian civic uprising against election fraud that started in 2020 and the subsequent wave of state repression.
Pcholka is a visual artist who explores themes of everyday life, memory, and social problems through her work and participatory practices. She is the founder of the VEHA platform, an open archive of everyday Belarusian photography that seeks to build a community that is more active and conscious of their future by encouraging participation in the preservation of community history. Pcholka earned her degree in Social Psychology from the Minsk Innovation University in 2017 and graduated from several international educational programs, including ArtPlatform by the European Cultural Foundation (2018), Sputnik Photos Mentoring Programme (2020), The East-European School of Political Studies (2020) among others. As a result of Belarus’ weak educational system, Pcholka became an independent learner from early on, and amassed knowledge from many fields which intertwine and nourish her work.
Lesia Pcholka: 'I enjoy working with memory themes and turning everyday practices into manifesting and political statements. Everything I do, regardless of the medium, is a reaction to events happening now.'
However, the source of the hardest lessons for Pcholka has been through her activism. She has been an active participant in protests in Belarus since 2010. Coming from a politically active family who was always in the opposition, she said that her detention for demonstrating and subsequent jailing was inevitable. She was arrested in January 2021 and the detention conditions she experience in a six-seater cell with 24 other women she described as akin to torture; expected, but traumatic in Belarus. Her experience is unfortunately not rare as there are more than 1,000 political prisoners serving sentences from 2 to 18 years, a vivid reminder of President Alexander Lukashenko’s enduring repression since 1994 when he came into power. Soon after being released, police officers came searching for Pcholka at her parents’ home and that is when she realized that she would not be able to continue with the forms of guerilla protests she had planned. Alongside her partner Uladzimir Hramovich, also an artist and former political prisoner, she fled the country with just a suitcase and a backpack.
The other manner Pcholka has confronted the day to day realities of living in Belarus has been through her pioneering and promoting of community archives. For her it is a direct response to the absence of archives, the lack of publicly available information in a totalitarian society, and even of digitized museum collections. In this context, archiving is not simply the act of collecting, but a defiant action for a people who see their language disappearing and history textbooks in schools constantly being rewritten.
Lesia Pcholka: 'Creating archives helps to unite a divided community, to tell a real story – can this be called activism? The realities in which Belarusian artists live are a lack of institutions, residences and grants. We were (and will continue to) be forced to create institutions ourselves, these "roles" are not a choice, but a forced state of affairs.'
Although Pcholka has been in Gdansk for only a few months, the work for her exhibition began much earlier. The key work at the exhibition is 'Invisible Trauma', a project about psychological violence. She started working on it in September 2020 through five in-depth interviews with Belarusian protesters, conducted alongside Kateryna Pomazanna, a human rights activist from Ukraine. Guided by simple stories and a retrospective of three years, exhibition visitors can better understand how a person and their attitude to what is happening can change when faced with a pervasive state of fear. The rest of the exhibition, made of objects and sculptures, reflect Pcholka’s attitude towards censorship and propaganda. Pcholka worked closely over half a year with curator Anna Lazar, an important experience for the artist who said this was the first time she worked with a curator who so deeply immersed themselves in the topic.
Ana Lazar, curator: 'Lesia Pcholka’s art does not serve any propaganda, nor does it try to lecture on what the construction of a totalitarian state is like; however, it is the utterance about the social mood in Belarus built in the field of art. This is not an easy exhibition. Because the experiences of our neighbours are not simple. When we open ourselves up to their stories we not only demonstrate solidarity, but also acquire knowledge.'
Pcholka’s exhibition 'The Street of Weakness' will be open to visitors from 29 April until 16 June 2022 at the Günter Grass Gallery in Gdańsk – 4G, one of the three branches of Gdańsk City Gallery (GGM), a self-governmental cultural institution founded in 2009. The three locations are located in the proximity of each other, in central Główne Miasto, and function as city salons, where progressive, often experimental contemporary art combines with reflection on broadly understood culture and society. The GGM is an important cultural partner for ICORN and in charge of coordinating the ICORN residency program in Gdańsk.
The Günter Grass Gallery in Gdańsk is located in 4G, ul. Szeroka 37. You can find more details of the exhibition on their website or on the Facebook event page.
To learn more about Lesia Pcholka’s work, you can read her artist profile on ICORN’s website.
Artist statement from the project 'Invisible Trauma'
(Images can be found in the gallery)
This project focuses on the experiences of Belarusians who suffer from psychological violence perpetrated by the regime and law enforcement agencies.
Since the beginning of August 2020, many world media outlets have published Belarusian citizens’ stories, raising awareness about the extreme physical violence in the country’s detention facilities. While these stories feature physical harm, including bruises and years spent in prison, they rarely acknowledge the emotional toll state violence took on its victims. Amid the horrifying details of illegal detentions, beatings, and torture, we often overlook other mundane manifestations of oppression. Permanent fear, helplessness, paranoia, lack of safety, or difficulties leaving the country are not mentioned at all, because “there are more serious problems to feature.” As a result, thousands of Belarusians are left alone with their traumas, unheard, unnoticed, and invisible.
I began collecting stories and photographing respondents immediately after the elections in Fall 2020. At that time, any critical activity towards the state was becoming increasingly dangerous. My documentary project, “Invisible Trauma,” was blocked from publication in three popular Belarusian media outlets in Fall-Winter 2020. The project was not safe for me to continue because activism and public speech were persecuted.
As reprisals grew, people started to use indirect symbols to express their protest. After the white-red-white combina was recognized as extremist by the regime, it was replaced by a white sheet of paper in the windows. Even a blank piece of paper could result in an arrest. This image shows exactly how absurd and dangerous the regime's system is.
Because I could not work with the media using the usual documentary methods, I began to use online space, working with white paper on a glass as an image of invisibility. I created a chatbot in Telegram to anonymously collect stories and an Instagram account where stories are published that are voiced by other people.
I no longer do portraits of my subjects or meet with them in person. Instead, I create a space where they can take a photo by themselves and write their story anonymously. The faces of these people are hidden behind a mask in the form of a white sheet of paper, or through this mask, I created on Instagram. The virtual space is the only one that we have left for expressing protest.