Marina Naprushkina is an artist from Belarus, currently based in Berlin. She creates her work under the umbrella of the Office for Anti-Propaganda, which she runs herself. Her work has primarily been focused on the political propaganda machine of the Republic of Belarus, although her interests extend to the mechanisms of political propaganda in general. She collects and exhibit these propaganda materials herself, often pointing out inconsistencies or fabrications and exaggerations, as well as changing the meanings of the materials. In many cases, she makes comparisons between the display of propaganda and the strategies of modern and contemporary art, as well as advertising. Beyond that, she takes an activist role as part of her artistic practice, attending demonstrations and protests, organizing, publishing and distributing an opposition newspaper in Belarus (in several languages, including an English edition that circulates in places such as Lithuania and Germany), and creates performances and performative work.
One of the performances that I found the most striking is entitled Patriot from 2007. It took place on the streets of Minsk, and was recorded in video. Given the current political situation in Belarus, where public spaces are heavily surveilled and those suspected of being part of the opposition are monitored, it is impressive that the artist pulled this off without being stopped or detained. The artist entered a bookshop and purchased a framed portrait of President Lukashenko. She proceeded to carry it through the streets of Minsk under her arm, on the subway, through the largest squares and main streets of the city. When she arrived home, she put the portrait on the wall and stood by it while the national anthem was played. When I asked Marina how she managed to do this, she responded that she walked very quickly, and never looked back. While the artist didn’t do anything to disparage the president or his portrait, the ambiguity of the act meant that she could potentially have been found in violation of article 368, part 2 of the Criminal Code – insult to the President of the Republic of Belarus. The piece was so ambiguous that some people asked her, as she passed, whether she was for or against Lukashenko. One person asked if he could take a picture, and asked why she was doing this, to which she responded by asking why he wanted to take a picture. This interchange demonstrates the high level of suspicion and fear surrounding people in a country that is heavily policed. In fact, in Belarus, the state security service is still known as the KGB.
The artist has created and distributed a number of opposition publications, an activity that is completely prohibited in contemporary Belarus, where such voices are swiftly silenced. Not only are protesters and demonstrators quickly arrested, in some instances people have been arrested simple acts such as clapping – an ambiguous gesture that was interpreted as an act of protest. The publication and distribution of these texts is a highly covert affair, and the artist did not want to reveal to many details of her methods, not only for fear that the operation could be shut down, but also that those involved would be caught and suffer real consequences. For Marina’s very radical art, the stakes are high, and it is admirable the lengths that she will go to for justice and truth.
Among the publications she has worked on are: The Convincing Victory: two Stories on What Really Happened (2011), a graphic novel and newspaper, telling two sides to the story of the night of the 2010 Belarusian Presidential election, December 19, presenting official information from the state media and reports from independent media, mostly taken from the Internet; a coloring book entitled My Daddy is a Policeman, What is he Doing at Work? (2011), as part of a civil campaign against police violence; and the newspaper Self # Governing (2011-2012), an independent publication aimed at informing the public about the current state of affairs in Belarus. In addition to it being distributed in Minsk, it is also circulated outside of the capital, in more remote areas where people may not have access to the Internet – otherwise the only real source of oppositional information in the country. It is also distributed in Vilnius, where a large expatriate community of Belarusians currently lives, in exile. The artist stated that the newspaper is not simply an indictment of the political statement in Belarus, but rather “raises the question about democratic processes around the world,” as no political machine is free from propaganda, manipulation, or even human rights violations.
Some of the artists’ visual work draws parallels between modern abstract art and the campaign of visual propaganda in Belarus. She describes the current regime as “working through images” as opposed to texts. Images are clearer, and convey a straightforward message. The message that the regime is trying to communicate is about the Belarusian national identity. In fact, it is trying to create one, and in doing so uses the colors of the state flag – a bright red and green – to cement this identity in the minds of the citizens. Marina takes these colors and graphics from official propaganda materials and the state flag, and creates abstract works of art with them – while the context may be different, the function is the same. She has used the colors to create pie charts that demonstrate the falsifications in official statistics. She has even re-created the platform of Lukashenko, which, she states, may be “mistaken for a minimalist sculpture.”
The artist has also managed to involve Belarusian citizens in her work, asking them to read aloud the articles printed in the official state newspaper Belarus Today. The newspaper was originally titled The Worker, and later, Soviet Belarus (until 2007). All state workers are required to subscribe to this newspaper, and, at least during the Soviet period, workers in factories had a “political hour” where they read and discussed this newspaper. In fact, this “tradition” has been recently re-introduced in all schools and workplaces in Belarus. In these video performances, the artist has workers reading aloud from the newspaper as it would be done during this political hour. In doing so, she foregrounds and exposes the language used in the text, offering it up for critique. However, the piece itself is completely ambiguous, which the artist feels is all that is possible in Belarus currently. As she said, “people are scared of everything” nowadays. Even during the making of one of these videos, which she did in front of a school, the caretaker for the school came out to question what she was doing.
The artist has moved toward taking a more activist role in her work because it enables her to get direct feedback. She commented that she has received a lot of positive comments for her publications, and thus feels that if it is difficult to receive support for her work as an artist (financially speaking), then she would at least like to do something that works, and has an impact. While the Belarusian government has quelled most public voices of dissent through intimidation and arrest, these subtle interventions can have a much greater impact. What better tool than art to provide people with the tools to question their everyday reality?