Brno festival marks centenary of modern Czech statehood, women’s suffrage

Sylva Ficová and Kateřina Tučková, photo: Pavla Horáková

For the third year now, the Moravian capital Brno is hosting an international event that brings together representatives of various nationalities, cultures and faiths. The festival titled Meeting Brno features discussions, exhibitions, concerts, walks, screenings and much more, in an effort to prove that the city whose multicultural history was severed by the horrors and aftermaths of WWII is embracing its past and looking forward into the future.

Sylva Ficová and Kateřina Tučková,  photo: Pavla Horáková
More than fifty events taking place back-to-back over the course of two weeks in and around the Moravian city of Brno are marking the centenary of the declaration of independent Czechoslovakia in 1918. Besides that, until the 9th of June, the Moravian capital remembers its large German-speaking communities that left an indelible mark on its landscape and industry but were meant to be forgotten. The founder and president of the festival is the bestselling Czech author Kateřina Tučková.

“Every year there is a new topic so this year there is a completely different programme because we focus on the 100th anniversary of Czech nationality and we try to look behind the events of the last hundred years. We highlight the fates of the emigrants or people who were born in Brno and emigrated because of the totalitarian regimes and we try to discuss with people how it was, how it could have been. And the emigrants who are still alive, who emigrated in the 1960s and 1980s, we invited them back to Brno to discuss with us their perspective from abroad. So the topic is ‘re/vision time’, and we revise and also offer a vision for the future.”

Now in its third year, the Meeting Brno festival looks back at modern Czech statehood and its 20th century milestones, including the two totalitarian regimes that ruled the country and forced many of the city’s great minds to leave. Over the two weeks, guests from the Czech Republic and Austria are discussing the shared past prior to the year 1918 and the subsequent development of the two Central European neighbours.

“This year the main guest is Austria, Austrian artists and personalities, historians, for example, or people who are important somehow in the cultural space. And we discuss with them primarily the year 1918 which was the last common point of our common history. Of course, we see it from a different perspective. So some of the discussion forums are from the Czech perspective and others form the Austrian perspective. So the main guest is Austria and then the other guests in the discussion forums are from Germany, Italy, some of them from New York and the people who were born in Brno and emigrated are from Europe and also America.”

The festival president Kateřina Tučková says her favourite festival section this year is the one dedicated to the one hundred years of women’s suffrage in this country. She says the project closest to her heart is the “Even the Lightbulb Has a Statue” initiative raising awareness of the absence of women in public space in Brno. The woman behind the initiative is the Brno-based translator, poet and photographer Sylva Ficová.

'Even the Lightbulb Has a Statue' - a map of statues and busts in Brno,  photo: Pavla Horáková
“The idea came to me through children, actually. Because when I was walking around the city with my nephews and nieces, or children of my friends, and they saw a statue or a bust, they all kept asking me: ‘Who is that? Who is that?’ And they were always men. And quite often they kept asking again: ‘And where are the women? Are there any? Can they drive an engine? Can they be presidents? Can they be scientists?’ And I said, of course. ‘OK, show me one.’ But there was really none in the streets. So I actually tried to look at this more deeply. So I studied the Encyclopaedia of Brno which is a website with a list of all the statues and monuments in the city. And I decided to create a map, so there is an actual electronic map on Google Maps where you can see all the statues, busts and reliefs in Brno and you can make your own statistics and to see that there are about 70 statues and busts of men and just one statue of a woman.”

What are the reasons, do you think?

“I think there are more reasons. One of them is probably history – “his story”, as it is sometimes called. It’s because many of these statues were erected in the 19th century which was basically the boom of statue building, and at that time women had no access to education and politics, they could not really use their property so there is no surprise that there are no female politicians, female scientists in the streets. But what is surprising is that in the 20th century nothing really changed. Only one statue was added in the city of Brno. And from what I’ve heard from some of the people who are still sending me e-mails and messages the situation is very similar in other towns and cities. So this leads me to another explanation. I think that another one could be that the Czech society probably sees the woman only as a decorative object, as an ornament. Because there are statues of women, of course, in the city, but all of them are allegories or anonymous creatures representing something but not an individual who was brave, who invented something or created, composed or did really something spectacular.”

You launched a public vote within the Meeting Brno festival this year, what is the vote about?

“After I created this map, we thought that it would be great to present several women who probably could have a statue or a monument in the city and we came to the [symbolic] Brno number of eleven. It was actually very difficult to make this shortlist because we had to leave some of the names out. And we presented them in short video clips or video portraits, each of the women had an ambassador who presented her life and work. There was an online vote, people decided which of these women seems to be the most important or worthy of a statue in the city. And we also had an offline vote in the Husa na provázku theatre. So two names have emerged now. The winner of the online vote is Marie Restituta Kafková who was a nun and a victim of Nazi persecution, and the winner of the offline vote so far seems to be Vítězslava Kaprálová, probably the most successful female composer.”

And after the vote is closed, what happens next?

Women and the media panel discussion,  photo: Pavla Horáková
“I’m not sure because I don’t have the capacity to organise anything really, and it was not my goal, at first. But I hope that either there will be some organisation that will take this idea up and create something or maybe somebody from the city council will be interested. Because we know that already now the city council is planning to place at least another two statues of men in the city, so I think that this could be a hint to them that they should change their way of thinking.”

Are you in touch with other cities around the country? Are you going to export the idea to other cities and probably be a counsellor to them?

“As an introvert, I would not really like to do that but it would be nice or interesting maybe if this could be exported. I know that there is a small group in Prague trying to put up a plaque or a small bust, a monument to Marie Šmolková, the woman who was behind Sir Nicholas Winton’s project. And I know that there are more people interested in this project who are not actually from the city of Brno. So maybe if this project makes people at least look around more and think about “her story” of history as well, I would be completely satisfied.”

Regardless of the result of this year’s vote, I can think of at least one future statue honouring a remarkable woman from Brno. She is Kateřina Tučková whose fiction focuses on important Moravian topics and unsung heroes and whose numerous efforts have encouraged Brno to embrace some of the troubled moments in its multi-ethnic and multicultural past.