How Minsk courtyards are turned into galleries of protest art
15 September 2020, 8:00 | Yauheniya Shtein, Onliner
It is unclear what makes government security forces guard a pile of salt and a wall covered in bitumen, but it’s obvious that they are simply unable to cope with the flow of protest art. Recently, police officers themselves have become the center of protest art and its main protagonists. Every day, even more murals and sculptures appear in Minsk, illustrating the events and their participants of the last five months. More often than not, those pictures on the wall are turned into a vivid performance, which tens of thousands of Minsk citizens watch in fascination.
The mural on Peremen Square
For the record, in July 2020, two DJs played Viktor Tsoi’s song, “Peremen” [Changes], at the Doors Open Day of further education institutions and got a standing ovation due to the fact that the event had unexpectedly gathered supporters of Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya.
For this act, the DJs received 10 days of administrative detention, nationwide fame and a place on an electrical transformer substation in one of Minsk’s courtyards.
Dozens of Minsk citizens would probably have taken a selfie with the mural and forgotten about it had government security forces not considered it a matter of honor to get rid of it at any cost. This turned the transformer substation into a laboratory of contemporary art, the main protagonists of which are not the DJs and not even the residents who paint them, but the government security forces who try to tear the mural off, paint it over and guard the disfigured wall day by day.
On 10 September, government security forces painted the wall over with bitumen, waited for it to dry and tore off the silhouettes of the DJs, which had become a bas relief due to the persistence of residents. The result of that was a high relief, which the security forces painted over again. Several policemen spent the next day near the black wall. Everything seemed like concept art in the Berlinische Galerie. Dozens of people and journalists gathered around to watch this absurdity with their own eyes.
The police officers behaved politely and tried to blend in with the guarded object. Everything lasted until Sunday evening, when the residents seized a moment to take advantage of the absence of security forces and painted stylized portraits of the DJs on the black bitumen again. During the night, the “men in black” scraped off the mural from the transformer substation with the help of sharp objects, but instead of spoiling it, they made it even more beautiful. Of course, they corrected the situation later on, but the OMON-art managed to get on photo and video and make Minsk citizens fall in love with it.
The children’s playground with the transformer substation, which has accidentally become a laboratory of protest art, is called Peremen Square [the Square of Changes] by many citizens of Minsk. For a while, there was even a sign plate. Soon, the toponym was marked on Google maps. In addition, twin murals appeared in Uruchcha and Hrushauka, duplicating the graffiti at Charviakova.
Maria Kalesnikava Square
Protest murals began to appear in other districts of Minsk. For instance, one of the courtyards on Kalesnikau Street was decorated with a portrait of a political activist and named Maria Kalesnikava Square. A sign appeared on the wall and then the toponym was put on Google maps. Kalesnikava’s portrait became a meeting place for neighbors, and an exhibition of children’s drawings was arranged around it.
The other day, unknown people painted over the drawing in green and used a stencil to make offensive inscriptions, claiming that Kalesnikava was an agent of German intelligence.
But Kalesnikava, with her fingers folded in the shape of a heart, had already managed to penetrate into “Novaya Baravaya” and capture “snuffboxes” [a chain of kiosks owned by a businessman with close ties to the government – Translator’s note].
And in one of the districts, a mural with Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya appeared.
Murals in honor of OSVOD, MAZ, MES (Ministry of Emergency Situations)
Prior to the elections, the Ministry of Emergency Situations created many murals in its honor to glorify the rescue service and to remind citizens about the rules of fire safety. But lately, the agency has been engaged in a completely non-core business – dismantling white-red-white flags stretched between high-rise buildings. Not all employees of the MES agreed to do this work: we know of at least two cases when rescuers did not remove the flag, but only spread it out in the air. After that, at one of the transformer substations in Brylevichy, another drawing dedicated to the employees of the Ministry appeared. It is already a folk drawing.
Last Sunday, OSVOD employees were also honored with people’s love and administrative punishment. When protesters jumped into the Svislach river in an attempt to escape from OMON riot police, the rescuers pulled them out of the water and ferried them to the other side. After that, the OSVOD was also immortalized on one of the city buildings.
On another transformer booth, an image appeared in honor of the factory workers who participated in the strike and supported the protest. The other day, the image was washed away.
Portrait of Nina Bahinskaya
A portrait of the famous activist Nina Bahinskaya has recently appeared on the wall of a police school in Minsk. Since Bahinskaya became one of the symbols of women’s protest, many people have dedicated their art to her. They also reached the walls of the Academy of the Ministry of Internal Affairs.
Another protest art object appeared in Uruchcha on the night of 12 September. Several residents of Minsk, under the cover of darkness, repainted the local sculpture in red and white to indicate their position through art. The residents of Uruchcha named the snake Zmagarych [a play on words in the Belarusian language, combining the word for “fighter” with a fairytale protagonist “dragon” – Translator’s note] and arranged a celebration around it with music, kebabs and flags.
Locals assumed that the city authorities would soon repaint the sculpture in a different color, but so far nothing has happened to Zmagarych – though, baffled security officials were already noticed near him.
Another white-red-white mural appeared on the parapet of an apartment building in Uruchcha. It seems to depict the National Library in characteristic protest colors.
Its own white-red-white substation also appeared in Kamennaya Horka.
When losing a fight on the territory of street art, the authorities often involve administrative resources. For example, several houses in the protest courtyard on Charviakova Street were issued fines totaling 900 basic units (24,300 rubles, or 9,500 USD). The formal reasons have nothing to do with the drawings: the owners’ associations were accused of not checking the ventilation system on time. Other Minsk citizens are helping the residents of Peremen Square to pay a huge fine.
Fines are also imposed on other associations of owners marked by protest activity. Two houses on Dziarzhynskaha Avenue received fines of 200 basic units (5,400 rubles, which is over 2,100 USD) each. Sanctions were imposed by the Ministry of Emergency Situations for violation of fire safety rules.