Interview with Almira Ousmanova on her research in Belarus
In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism?
There are no simple answers to what tradition(s) was continued or transgressed under socialism. Are we speaking of certain local cultural traditions linked to a sense of national identity (and shaped by religious, ethnic, or political communities) that provided the framework for articulating and representing gender issues in the national (nation-minded) art of the last two centuries? Or are we speaking of rural (i.e. folk, traditionalist) or urban (i.e. cosmopolitan, modern) cultural traditions that might be linked to the development of particular schools of thought or trends in the art scene? Or do we mention the role and position of various Eastern European male and female artists throughout the history of European modernism? All of these questions eventually point to the main problem: how “to retrieve the past” (bearing in mind that conceiving and reconstructing the past is always politically charged) relative to the potential legitimacy of the particular issue.
Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less-known subjects of local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies, or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?
The work for MUMOK generated for me a series of interrelated questions that should be addressed and incorporated into how Belarusian scholars approach their research. I realized that prior to a re-conceptualization of gender representations in socialist or post-Soviet Belarusian art we need to conduct, first and foremost, serious scholarly work that has not yet been undertaken and is long overdue. This work should proceed along two parallel lines: rethinking the art historical canon, and investigating the field of contemporary Belarusian art from a sociological perspective (examining the actors, institutional frameworks, the art market, etc.). In short, the modern history of Belarusian art needs to be rewritten in light of contemporary scholarship and restructured according to critical discourse and thinking.
While the sociological examination of Belarusian art has not even started yet, the reasons why “current art” in Belarus hardly exists have already been debated in intellectual circles for some time. Unlike many other Eastern European countries, Belarus resembles a “virgin” space where both properly institutionalized forms as well as lively discussions on the state of current art practices and processes are lacking. The Soros Art Centers and other such programs, which changed significantly the art scenes of all other neighboring Eastern European countries, never existed in Belarus. Under Lukashenko’s regime the country has been very isolated and “cut-off” from the cultural and theoretical debates that have taken place in other former socialist countries.(1) Of the initiatives and collective projects that came into being and flourished from the time of the perestroika through 1994, very few have survived and continue to play an important role in contemporary Belarus. As Belarusian philosopher and art critic Olga Shparaga argues, the Belarusian artists who were actively involved in the social-aesthetic renewal of Belarus roughly ten to twenty years ago have nowadays become either marginal figures or are involved in the cultural life of other countries.
Indeed, many artists as well as art critics emigrated in the 1990s and continue to work in different countries. Therefore, the question what counts as “Belarusian art” is now a critical one given the apparent division in the art scene between “here” and “there,” those who remained in Belarus very rarely participate in ambitious collective projects that would include Belarusians living abroad, and vice versa.
You described the split in the Belarusian art scene where, due to political reasons, many artists and theoreticians have left to live and work abroad. Could you characterize how gender issues were and are approached artistically and theoretically by both parts of the intellectual scene? For example, what are the roles of the Gender Itinerary festival and the International Women’s Film Festival in Minsk and the activities of the Centre for Gender Studies at the European Humanities University (EHU), based since 2005 in Vilnius, and how are they received?
I am not quite sure that I have a complete picture of what has been written on gender and Belarusian art in other countries (and in other than English, Russian, or Belarusian languages). I only have a fragmentary knowledge of some of the texts of such art critics as Olga Kopenkina (New York) or Nelly Bekus (Warsaw), but even these critics were not directly addressing gender issues or feminist art practices. Thus, I will concentrate instead on what the situation is like in Belarus.
Several attempts were made to introduce feminist topics into public discourse and the art scene-mostly through the initiatives of our Centre for Gender Studies at the European Humanities University. Since 1999 we have organized a series of workshops on women and art in Eastern Europe, on women and media art; launched a series of publications; introduced university courses related to gender representations in the visual arts; and organized exhibitions or film screenings (with the participation of Polish and Lithuanian art theorists, curators, and female artists). For instance, in 2002 our center published a calendar, (Ženščiny Belarusi: tvorcy kul’tury), on feminism and art from the eighteenth century through today (edited by Elena Gapova, a gender studies scholar and the director of the EHU Center for Gender Studies). Women at the Edge of Europe (Ženščny kraju Europy, 2003; edited by Elena Gapova) included several essays dedicated to women musicians and women artists throughout Belarusian history. The book Gender and Transgression in Visual Arts (Gender i transgressiia v vizual’nych iskusstvach, 2007, edited by me) was the result of a Belarusian-Lithuanian workshop that took place in 2003. Our colleague in Minsk, Irina Solomatina, initiated in 2005 a new festival titled “Gender Itinerary” that was created to serve scholars and practitioners of feminism in art from different countries as a forum for theoretical interventions supplemented by performances, live music concerts, or experimental video screenings. However, these sporadic events didn’t radically transform the art scene in Belarus. But we also weren’t planning for the “revolution” in inviting our audiences to look differently at the history of women as subjects in Belarusian art history and to examine its multicultural inspirations. The current state of the Belarusian educational system, the “local-mindedness” of art institutions, and the lack of resources provide little opportunity for other voices to challenge the existing canons for interpreting our art history.
(1) See, for instance, a very inspiring text by Elena Gapova dedicated to the symbolic “geography of desire” in defining the borders of Belarus, and to its “marginality” in contemporary cultural and political discourse: Elena Gapova, “Kroja kraja Europy” (Etching the Edges of Europe), in (Women at the Edge of Europe), ed. Elena Gapova (Minsk: European Humanities University, 2003), 7-22.
Almira Ousmanova, Research Belarus
Almira Ousmanova is a professor at the Dept. of Media and director of the MA program in Cultural Studies at the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania). Since 1998 she has also been working at the Center for Gender Studies at EHU and organized a whole series of conferences and workshops, including seminars on Feminist Art in Eastern Europe (2001 – 2003) and a conference on Simone de Beauvoir and Feminist Philosophy (2009).Her international fellowships and grants include a Fulbright Visiting Scholarship at the University of Madison – Wisconsin in 1996, Jean Monnet Fellowship at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy in 1997/1998, a Fellowship at the British Academy, Oxford, UK in 1999 and a Fellowship at IKKM (Bauhaus University, Weimar) in 2009. From 2002 to 2004 she was a Fellow at KWI (Essen), working in a research project directed by Luisa Passerini on the topic of “Europe: Emotions, Identity, and Politics.” Major publications are Umberto Eco: Paradoxes of Iterpretation (2000); Gender Histories from Eastern Europe (co-edited with Elena Gapova and Andrea Peto, 2002); Bi-Textuality and Cinema (2003), Gender and Transgression in Visual Arts (2006), Visual (as) Violence (ed., 2007), and Belarusian Format: Invisible Reality (ed., 2008). She is currently working on a book project on Representation and History: The Cinematic Images of “the Soviet”.