Belarusian artist in Prague embroiders anti-Lukashenko protests “to ward off bad spirits”

Rufina Bazlova, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

Rufina Bazlova is a Belarusian artist living in the Czech Republic who has decided to record the ongoing protests in her home country through a unique way: embroidery. Her “vyshivanky”, as they are called, are based on the nation’s characteristic embroidery style with red and white colours. The artwork has met with much approval and may see use in projects supporting solidarity with the anti-regime demonstrations.

Demonstration, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

A new type of image has been circulating on Instagram this past week. Made and subsequently posted on the website by Belarussian artist Rufina Bazlova, it depicts themes from the ongoing post-election events in Belarus, embroidered in red on a white background.

She says the idea came to her when she was trying to process what was happening in Belarus as a citizen of that country.

“Belarusian vyshivanky are a specific code for recording information about the lives of people, the nation, and whoever wears the embroidery. It is a sort of coded history of the people.”

“When I was thinking about the best way to express what is going on, I felt this was the most fitting way to do it. Belarusian vyshivanky are a specific code for recording information about the lives of people, the nation, and whoever wears the embroidery. It is a sort of coded history of the people. What is happening now is historic, so I decided to use this method.

Flag of Belarus, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

“There is a joke that vyshivanky also had another purpose – to ward off bad spirits. Perhaps my embroideries can be used that way too.”

The importance of the vyshivanka in the country’s national heritage is also highlighted in the current Belarusian flag itself, which features the embroidery style on its left side. However, the red and white colours are also symbolic of an earlier red-white flag of the Belarusian People's Republic, which was formed in 1918, but absorbed into the Soviet Union and later Poland. It is that flag which is currently being waved at the many demonstrations by anti-regime protestors.

“White represents light and freedom. Red is the symbol of life, blood, the sun, or some sort of good.”

Rufina Bazlova explains the colours’ importance in the national heritage of the country.

Svetlana is my president, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

“It is very traditional, because it comes from folk tradition and crafts. White represents light and freedom. Actually, the opposition presidential candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya also called for this during her campaign. Red is the symbol of life, blood, the sun, or some sort of good.”

“I have a book on Belarusian embroidery, which features a great citation. To find out more about the vyshivanky, ethnographers questioned a certain Mrs. Khvydarovichova, who made them.

“She said: ‘I am uneducated. I know neither how to read nor write. All of my knowledge is embroidered on my covers and towels. Here, just as in books or films, you can discover much about the lives of people and animals, about the sun, the stars, health and sickness, a woman’s fate, or anything about the life of a person.’

DJs in Kiev Park in Minsk, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

“This is something I am also trying to do.”

Bazlova's embroideries play with established Belarusian patterns, but she adjusts them in such a way that they shift from abstract patterns to pictures. They include the recent death of a protester in Minsk, or the moment when two DJs hacked a pro-Lukashenko event by suddenly playing a song about the need for change. In another, Bazlova amends a traditional vyshivanka rectangle to make it look like an advancing police formation.

She says her embroideries have not just received many positive responses from the online crowd, but also artists eager to co-operate.

Original flag of Belarus, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

“Actually, right now, someone living in Saint Petersburg, who is originally from the same Belarussian city as I am, reached out to me.  He also does design and leads a studio. We are now preparing a series of t-shirts for sale, with all of the proceeds being sent on to the victims of the events that have unfolded in recent days.”

“We are now preparing a series of t-shirts for sale, with all of the proceeds being sent on to the victims of the events that have unfolded over the past days.”

Militia with the nation, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

Nearly 7,000 Belarusian expats live in the Czech Republic, according to the Czech Statistics Agency. Many of them are critical of the current regime lead by President Alexander Lukashenko, who was elected president of Belarus for the sixth time in row on Sunday and has remained in power since 1994. Protestors in the country are currently voicing their disapproval with the outcome of the election, in which Lukashenko received 80 percent of the vote, as they believe the vote was rigged.

Lukashenko, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

Rufina Bazlova says many of her friends, especially among the art community, are Belarusian expats and that they are staying in touch as events in the country unfold.

“We constantly call each other, share the latest news and support each other.

“For example, yesterday a girl who I never knew before got in touch with me and we discussed what we could do, as there will be an event in support of the people of Belarus this weekend.

Militia Belarus, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

“When we spoke, she proposed this idea, which I think is great, that we also do a ‘run from OMON’, which are the special purpose police units currently aggressively cracking down on the demonstrators. She asked me if I would be willing to make some sort of accompanying visual material for it.”

Bazlova has lived in the Czech Republic for 12 years, moving to the country to study illustration in Plzeň and later scenography at DAMU, the Czech Theatre Academy of Performing Arts in Prague.

Rufina Bazlova, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

She is currently working as an illustrator with the University of West Bohemia in Plzeň and says that it was partly this project that made her see parallels between the 1989 demonstrations in Czechoslovakia and those taking place right now in Belarus.

“I was doing illustrations about Plzeň on the occasion of the Velvet Revolution anniversary, drawing images of Wenceslas Square full of demonstrators.  After I finished the drawing and went to the square, I had tears in my eyes when I stood there and recounted the image I had used. It reminded me of what is happening now in Belarus.

“A lot of people are comparing the events there to Euromaidan (the 2014 revolution in Ukraine). However, even though I do not understand it too much, to me what is happening is more reminiscent of 1989. It is a situation in which the whole of Belarus has risen up in defiance to one enemy. I find similarities here with 1989.”

Solidarity with Belarus - Wenceslas Square, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova

Aside from embroideries, Bazlova says she is also planning to create either a comic series, or a book that summarises how the events of 2020 in Belarus unfolded.

Asked about whether she believes there will actually be any change in her home country, Bazlova says she that this time things are different.

“I really hope something will change. It has to. Otherwise it would be such a waste of all the deaths that happened, of all the people who were arrested, those who lost their jobs, the tears of the mothers who were waiting for their relatives in vain. It would be a terrible shame.

“I know that this is not the first time that something like this is happening, but it is the first time that apolitical people, such as I, have been touched by the backlash too.”

Rufina Bazlova’s embroideries can be found on her Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/rufinabazlova/

Victim, photo: Archive of Rufina Bazlova