Masha Svyatogor’s eccentric and elusive visual style, coupled with her innate understanding of Belarus’ contemporary context, has taken the Minsk-based artist all over the world. Svaytogor belongs to a new generation of Belarussian photographers who have gained the power to translate the ambivalence of historical silence into tangible works of art. In her latest piece, “Everybody Strike!” (since 2020), a natural continuation of her series “Everybody Dance!” (since 2017), she uses photomontage techniques characteristic of the propaganda of the early Soviet era. This seems to be a deliberate choice designed to expose the arbitrary inventiveness behind visual representations of the workers’ revolution.
“The original pictures look very inspired and joyful; people on these portraits are full of enthusiasm and energy; they are ready for hard work and production. So, I put these groups of people and individuals in the opposite context — strike, resistance and struggle, related to the situation in Belarus after the presidential elections.” — Masha Svyatogor
In the process of creating each piece, Masha Svyatogor carefully selects, cuts out, and arranges portraits of workers over a dominant red background. This approach to extract individuals out of a crowd and its original context further reinforces the sense of grotesque elevation and senseless euphoria written on the workers’ faces. Their individual destinies, as we know today, were bound to be forgotten. As is often in her work, the cutouts in “Everybody Strike!” serve as props, while she focuses on drawing powerful parallels to the current political situation in Belarus.
While the viewer is engulfed in her visual style’s sheer beauty and extravagance, Svyatogor highlights the impression that the image we have of the revolution is probably naive, idealised, unreal. Nevertheless, as Pierre Nora argues in his essay “Between Memory and History: Les Lieux de Mémoir”, “Modern memory is archival. It relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image.” In its process, we are not merely remembering the past but remembering memory itself. Herein lie the depth and the multidimensionality of Svyatogor’s modes of thinking and visualisation. Her practice is concerned with the redefinition of the terms in which the past is being understood today.
While the work on display is playful and seemingly naive, it is characterised by a clear degree of disillusionment with traditional modes of structuring knowledge. Even if there is a notable investment in artefacts that seem linked with private memories or mass culture as an antidote to the silences of history, Svyatogor manages to make the viewer painfully aware of how illusionary it is for a political system to claim possession over the truth.
As in the past, the tragic fate of the heroes of today remains unknown. Mass protests and political prisoners in the hundreds, silencing of the media, beatings, kidnappings and torture of civilians — this has become a reality for Belarussians today, eight months after the disputed sixth reelection of Aleksander Lukashenko, the first and only president of Belarus since the establishment of the office in 1994.
Maya Hristova / 2021