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The case of Tallinn’s Telliskivi Loomelinnak and the ‘Belarus. Protest. Art.’ exhibition

How the former Kalinin factory became a creative space to raise awareness for Belarus’s internal crisis and its artists who were forced to flee.

March 29, 2021 - Antonio Scancariello - Stories and ideas

Creative City in Tallinn. Photo: Kaupo Kalda

“It was last November when Yulia contacted me. She is from Belarus but she lives here and she has family here. Everything that’s going on there is very close to her. She started with a small group of people with a series of exhibitions. She came to me with a rough idea; we said ‘yes,’ because all Estonians know what’s happening there is a threat to democracy,” Bianka said.

Bianka Soe, 36, is a content manager at Tallinn’s Telliskivi Loomelinnak, or Creative City, a place she herself described as a “city within a city” where artists can meet in a “friendly space for fragile thoughts and projects.” Her friend Yulia Rebase, from Belarus, approached her and the rest of the team at Creative City with a “rough idea” about showcasing a series of works created by Belarusian artists with the hope of raising awareness for the internal political and social difficulties rocking her native country.

Yulia, a Belarusian woman now living in Estonia, found an Instagram page called “Artists with Belarus” through which she gathered works from Minsk and the rest of the world to feature in the exhibitions held in Tallinn. According to her: “The thing is that when the protests were sparked and there had been lots of press and internet coverage, I thought about making a documentary, but then it was quite hard to get in touch with people because they were imprisoned or didn’t have enough time for an exhibition taking place in Tallinn.”

Yulia has been living in Estonia for 15 years but she has kept in touch with relatives and friends and, inevitably, the social and political challenges facing the country were what she realised she wanted to “draw attention” to.

“There are two types of feelings. First of all, of course, there was unhappiness. Unhappiness to see what they have been doing. The thing is, we talk about this as ‘the last dictatorship in Europe.’ It all propped up in August but it’s been there for many, many years. We all took it as if it was a ‘soft’ type. I am unhappy about the changes in society, with people being more apolitical. Everyone in Belarus was in pain watching the repression. But I am happy to see the nation is fighting. Belarus is becoming a society of people with some ideas, and there is a lot of solidarity. More and more people are speaking their own language instead of Russian, often referred to as mother tongue.”

Yulia thought “attention was shrinking,” when she first started to work on the project in November, compared to the initial wave of protests in August.

She said the exhibitions could provide a “good way to learn and have knowledge about what was going on,” and also explained how Creative City, close to where she lives, seemed a “logical” place to go to develop the idea thanks to the presence of young people and the centre’s openness towards different topics and stories.

Outdoors exhibition at Creative City in Tallinn Photo: Bianka Soe

With this in mind, she reached out to Creative City, hoping its environment and openness could help her cause. As a matter of fact, Yulia found fertile ground in Tallinn, and the team at Telliskivi, which means “brick,” was happy to get involved. The site’s content manager Bianka explained why they decided to get involved: “Yulia found my contact information and we were happy to help. We are always up for things like this. We feel like a city within a city. We feel that some things need to have more attention and if we can do something about it, if we can help, we do as much as we can. Estonia is supporting democracy in Belarus. Estonians can relate [to Belarusians]. We had a similar environment, like in the beginning of the 1990s and the late 1980s. The first thing that happened was the murals and the next was the protest art exhibition. We did the first exhibition and now we have the second, ‘Belarusian Protest on the Walls,’ which will be on at least until March. It’s an outdoor, free exhibition available 24/7. It’s next to our children’s playground. We wanted it that way; we have a nice set up for these exhibitions. It will be good if we could get more attention on the Belarusian protests. A lot of people have visited the exhibition and even if a small part of these people see it and start thinking about what’s happening and show support, that is really good. The aim is to seek solidarity with people living in Belarus. The art at the exhibitions is mainly visual and that’s the fastest way to reach out to people. I think art is a means to reflect what’s going on in society. It can be political; it does not have to be, but sometimes it’s the best way to bring the message to people. We can’t ask anyone to be political but if they feel like it, especially for the Belarusian situation, it can be a big support. We have only received positive comments. At the first exhibition we were a bit concerned because the visual art was a bit rough for people who were just passing by on a Sunday morning, but it’s important to show things as they are. It’s a reflection of the artists and the way they see things.”

Belarus crisis and the artists

Since last August and the day following the last political election, Belarus has witnessed its biggest anti-government protest ever. Alyaksandr Lukashenka, ruling the country since 1994, was seeking his sixth term in office.

He was declared the winner on August 10th, amidst rumours of rigged elections. The final results were rejected by Lukashenka’s main opponent Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya. Since that moment, large mass protests have swept the country, with protestors calling for Lukashenka’s resignation. This marks the starting point for a group of artists.

The “Artists with Belarus” movement started when Urte Karalite, 34, from Lithuania got in touch with several local artists, including Karolis Strautniekas. The project then reached the rest of the region and the world, going as far as India, Indonesia, Hong Kong and, of course, Belarus.

She explained how the movement was born to spread the message about the “cruel and brutal” crackdown on protests.

Urte said: “It is a movement on social media. It all started the first week after the protests in August. It encouraged artists to create and express solidarity. It was an impulsive and emotional vision. I didn’t know if artists were interested and wanted to create on the subject. I got in touch with some artists, one of them internationally renowned, Karolis Strautniekas, and ask them what they thought.

For the first two days, it was only Lithuanian artists. Then we had artists form the rest of the region, too.”

Urte also stressed how the artists, and everyone else involved in the project, joined as volunteers.

Talking about the current situation in her native Belarus, Yulia also added that people in the country lived under a status quountil “we opened our eyes and thought this is not good anymore.”
“We have nothing left of what you can call civil rights or human rights. Imagine you have hundreds of people in prison or that there are court procedures via Skype that last up to 10 minutes, and people are getting results of the procedures and have to spend days or months in prison. Someone went to prison for writing ‘we will not forget,’” she said.
There are artists, she also said, that were happy to have their work used in the exhibitions but did not want to be named, which shows “how the situation is getting even worse now.” Her words on the internal situation were echoed by the Belarusians creating works of art, both in their country and abroad, who joined the protests with their craft in order to raise awareness.

Darya Trublina, 23, a Belarusian student in Moscow, said: “I saw the group on Instagram, and then they asked for my works for an exhibition in Vilnius and I gave my works to them. I make animations, posters, paintings. With the whole situation in Belarus, I wanted to help somehow and encourage people in the country. I wanted to help with my tools, and I make what I can. My works were about caricatures of the president. I wanted to make something funny to make people laugh and not be scared.”
She also said: “It feels strange [to be an artist] because people from the government or the police noticed me and asked my parents where I was and where my works were. My parents said I was in Russia, and they asked me to hide some of my works because they came to our house and started to look around. It’s not pleasant. I am a little bit scared to go back to Belarus and I don’t know what they want from me, so now I think ‘what can I do,’ but I want to continue to fight with everything that comes. I think I need to, because many people have taken risks for my freedom. I’ve always wanted to fight but I don’t want to go to prison. Many people have become friendly and we are all together. And this is, of course, a great feeling. It is a bit scary in Belarus at the moment. If you go out to the streets, somebody can come take you to prison. This has become normal and this is scary. You can’t even go out for a walk because people will think ‘you were at the protests,’ ‘you organised it,’ ‘you wrote that.’ I hope this will change.”

Another artist, who will only be identified as Rita, said that “living under a fascist regime” is “scary,” but what’s even scarier, she added, is “to pretend that nothing is happening.” Rita had always considered herself “apolitical,” but the August events were too big and defining to be ignored.

Artwork by Rita

“I work in the field of fine arts. I’ve been drawing my entire adult life. The main goal that I pursue in this area is self-expression. My attitude, images, emotions and experiences, everything that is born somewhere on the border of consciousness and subconsciousness — this is what I strive to express in my work. Simply because I cannot remain silent, and fine art is the language I speak. I have always considered myself a very apolitical person. I preferred not to look in the direction of politics, since I want to see the light, to see the beautiful. And then there was hope that our life could get better. But after the August events, everything changed. It became impossible to remain an apolitical person. After all, when a wave of deception, aggression and violence from the authorities rolls over, from which the heart shrinks for everyone who fell under this wave, this is no longer politics. Therefore, in my works it is now possible to clearly trace socio-political themes. At the moment, I have had no problems with the authorities because of my works. But this is rather due to the fact that they are not very famous. My creative work was first published on ‘Artists with Belarus,’ and this happened recently. I do not believe that I am doing something illegal, expressing my thoughts and feelings in creativity. But, unfortunately, now very many people fall under the hand of repression just for expressing their civic position, and sometimes for less.”

Rita praised the “Artists with Belarus” project, saying it “contributes to the development of not only democratic aspirations in our country, but also the development of Belarusian art in general.”

She added that it can be also beneficial “to unite the artists, to unite the audience, because art unites, it helps to live, gives hope, awakens feelings and reason. It is cool that such a project gives an opportunity for any little-known artist to show his work to a much wider circle of viewers, while evaluating not diplomas, awards and work experience, but the artistic value and expressiveness of creative works on a relevant topic.”

Another Belarus based artist, Olga Balai, also had her say on why the protests took place and why they also reached the internet. Like many others, the 40-year-old design illustrator realised that: “The reason is that everybody was moved by the events that happened in August. For three days after the elections, there was no internet and the whole country couldn’t get any news. And unless you were in Minsk, you couldn’t know what was going on. We couldn’t think about drawing fashion when the country was in such a state, so some of us expressed our feelings through art.”

Artwork by Olga Balai

Olga then started “drawing almost every day,” inspired by the first protests led by the “Women in White,” and using the hashtag launched by “Artists with Belarus” to let the internet notice her works.

It is not easy, however, to have such a role in the country now.
She said: “First of all, it’s dangerous because even if you are not expressing your attitude, it does not mean you are safe. Anyone can be taken in the police van and sent to prison. In a day or two you can sit in court and with no proof, you can get from five to thirty days in prison, or more. Many artists had to leave Belarus because their lives were in danger.

It’s been almost half a year and the situation hasn’t changed at all. It’s difficult to say what’s going on because the action of the government is the same.

People can get arrested for being in the street at the wrong time or for wearing red and white colours even with no connections to the protests.”

Olga also said that nowadays protesters take to the streets around their neighbourhoods, so it is easier to escape from the police. In other cases, dissent has moved online.

From railways and factories to an artistic hub — the Creative City backstory

Creative City was born in 2009, when a former Soviet industrial area finally became the artistic hub now present in Tallinn. The 19th century site was first developed when the Baltic capital was connected to Saint Petersburg by train. “Tallinn’s main railway station, today known as Balti jaam, was established on an old pastureland,” and during the “same year, a new railway factory started to function no more than a stone’s throw away,” VisitTallinn.ee said.

The industrial development that followed also included military industries, with on-site production involving tools for power plants, railways and airports. In Soviet times, the place was surrounded by a “mysterious” halo, content manager of the centre Bianka explained, since only people who worked there were granted access to the site.

After Estonia gained its independence in 1991, the site was abandoned and what was left of the old industries and factories was removed bit by bit.
In 2009, the area was sold to a private company. It was demolished and refurbished to become the attractive site known today. Bianka said: “Now we have 1.500 people working in the area, more than 200 companies, and also shops and restaurants. People and creative companies can rent rooms. We want something that can bring something to the area.”
The second Belarus-themed exhibition at Creative City is about street art. It opened in February with the name “Belarus protest on walls.”
The first exhibit will move to another Estonian city, Tartu, to be showcased at “Aparaaditehas,” a similar place to Telliskivi.

Bianka also added: “The next one about street art is interesting in the sense that it in general shows things in public, where everything has been restricted. It’s important to know streets always win. All of the works they have done disappeared within 10 minutes or an hour, as politicians and police are acting very quickly to remove them. So, it’s something that can’t be seen in Belarus, but we have it here.”

These projects have been funded through the Estonian-Belarusian Association, for which Yulia acts as representative.
Funds mainly came from the donations of Belarusian people living in Estonia, Yulia explained. While on some occasions, people working at Telliskivi paid with their own money whatever was needed to carry on.
Bianka said: “We co-fund them from our pockets. We have never received any support from the city or government. If something resonates with us and needs our support, we try to help as much as we can. The outdoor gallery, located in the main square, and Telliskivi Creative City’s gallery are run and supported by us as well, meaning we take no rent for exhibiting, pay for prints and offer communication support.”

Despite COVID-19 limiting people’s movement, exhibitions at Creative City have been successful. After an initial lockdown, the government took a different stance towards the pandemic during the second wave, Bianka explained. Schools, shops and restaurant were open and a night curfew was implemented, but Estonia “compared to other countries in Europe is like a ‘free country’ in that sense,” Bianka said.

Since the first “Belarus. Protest. Art.” exhibit was opened, around a thousand people have visited Creative City.

The second exhibition on Belarus, “Belarus Protests on the Walls,” will be in Tallinn until at least March, with the hopes of keeping everyone aware of a nation’s demands through its art and creativity.

For more details about Tallinn’s Creative City click here .

Antonio Scancariello is a journalist and holds an MA from De Montfort University, Leicester, UK

More of Rita’s art

More art from Olga Balai

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