“Be a lady” introduction by Olga Bubich

When the American artist and writer Miranda Julу was asked to comment on the situation with the coronavirus and outline possible prospects for the development of art in the new world, she drew parallels with a falling man. “How can you describe this process? Now it almost feels like we are all falling and we don’t know what will happen next, when we land. Do we die when we land? Do we transform?” she wondered. The metaphor, in my opinion, is excellent for describing the “women’s issue” in Belarus: so rapidly is the situation changing that a single “entry point” into its interpretation merely does not yet exist (especially when it comes to looking at oneself from within the country). For a more or less objective analysis, time and distance are needed.

However, complex and contradictory nature of women’s role in the history of Belarus is by no means a new phenomenon. With the advent of Soviet power and up to now, the focus has been shifting with a frightening constancy: from the gallant collective farmer with a sickle, artistically proclaiming gender equality in Boris Iofan and Vera Mukhina’s sculpture, and propaganda posters of the 1930s, where women are represented, citing Stalin’s speech at the First All-Union Congress, as a “great force”, to Lukashenko’s statement that the Constitution was not “written for women”. And, if we turn to the events of late summer and early autumn 2020 – from the unfolding wave of women’s activism taking forms of peaceful marches and spontaneous street performances to the constant repetition of her “just a housewife” status by the opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya.

What place do girls and women with a camera take in this controversial context? According to the research of the gender ratio of “male” and “female” stories conducted by Antonina Stebur and Anna Samarskaya in 2018 and presented as part of “The Month of Photography in Minsk”, among 400 active participants of the photo club movement in Belarus (1959-1982) there were 21 women. Moreover, the position of photo club chairperson was held by a woman in the above-mentioned period only once (Svetlana Balashova). Among the winners of the latest “Belarus Press Photo” contest (2015), for example, only 20% were women. Formally, in the visual field women are much more often wanted and present as models and muses, perceived by both professional photographers and amateurs as “subjects” of shooting, and not as its initiators. However, we need to bear in mind that so far the only Belarusian photographer awarded with the prestigious “World Press Photo” prize in photojournalism is a woman (Tatiana Tkacheva) – by the way, for her work on also, symbolically, a “female theme”: abortions and their taboo in society. But Tkacheva’s case in our circumstances is an exception, not a rule. Thus, entering the territory where the rules of the patriarchal game are still in force, any public statement made by a female photographer is per se a challenge.

Over the past decade, attempts to analyze the role and place of women in history and culture have been undertaken irregularly, but actively (I personally would like to mention such successful events as the release of a special issue of “Partizanka” magazine in 2020 and a collective photo exhibition featuring female photographers projects “Hold on – Let go” at “aff” gallery in Berlin in 2017), so every event with such an agenda is worth attention. Organized within the framework of the festival “The Month of Photography in Minsk”, the “women’s” exhibition “Be a Lady” by Polish curator Marta Szymanska has every chance of becoming an important statement with a European resonance and presenting a different view on the topic sensitive for Belarus – perhaps from that very critical distance, which is especially relevant nowadays.

Olga Bubich

photo critic, “The Month of Photography in Minsk” member