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Cockroaches, White Knights + One-Eyed Monsters: Decoding Belarus Protest Graphics

We asked five illustrators to explain the visual references within their posters

In the middle of the night on August 9, 2020, thousands of Belarusians rushed into the dark streets. The internet had gone down that day, and all roads and entry points into Minsk, the capital city, were blocked by the army. It was the day of the presidential election, and state news was claiming that incumbent Alexander Lukashenko had won by a landslide 80% of votes. The result was internationally condemned as neither free nor fair, and many Belarusians, who had put up with his authoritarian regime for 26 years, had had enough. 

That night, protestors carried white ribbons and flowers as symbols of hope and peace. Police responded with batons and bullets. Lives were lost, thousands were brutally detained, and many are still missing. But the spirit of rebellion is only gaining momentum as rising numbers continue to march week to week. 

Graphic designers and illustrators are using their skills to join Belarus’ struggle for democracy. In July, artists Sergey Shabohin and Maxim Tyminko set up Cultprotest.me to create a platform for the best pro-democracy posters being created in Belarus and internationally. It now houses over 200 works that are highly expressive, visually arresting, and unique in their treatment of the topic. Many of the posters on the platform contain clever visual metaphors that make reference to Belarus’ history and the symbolism used in the protests.

“What is happening now in Belarus evokes an incredible spectrum of emotions: from growing indignation and anger towards the disgusting lawlessness and violence of the authorities, to admiration for the courage, determination and dedication of a huge number of different people united by a single goal—freedom,” the founders state in their appeal to designers. 

They believe that this time is different. Not only have the protests become more widespread, they have also become “truly aesthetic.” As designers use their visual language to raise their voices in support of a free Belarus, we asked five illustrators to decode their work and reveal the visual references contained within.

1
Andrii Yermolenko

The Ukrainian illustrator Andrii Yermolenko uses the colors of Belarus’ historic white-red-white flag, now a symbol of opposition and resistance to the current regime, as a base for his message of solidarity with protestors. 

“Blood was shed in the first days of the confrontation in Belarus. As no one has said better than Thomas Jefferson, ‘The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.’ The bloody strip on the image symbolizes the blood of patriots, and white (the color adopted by peaceful protestors) bright thoughts. So, it’s about bright thoughts and shedding blood. This poster shows police violence suppressing the rallies. The knight on horseback is the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the first emblem of independent Belarus. He rose up against evil and fought against tyranny. The text reads ‘Believe! We Can! Win!’”

2
Mitya Pisliak

The NYC-based Belarusian illustrator Mitya Pisliak looks to Greek mythology and the story of the one-eyed giant Cyclops to imagine the toppling of Lukashenko’s regime. His use of rounded lines and vibrant colors brings the age-old legend sharply up to date.

“‘We Can Handle It Together!’ was born at the beginning of political changes in Belarus and the ongoing fight against Covid-19 around the world. The main message in the poster is, of course, the struggle between the people of Belarus and the aggressive regime, represented by Alexander Lukashenko. The Cyclops’ mustache is a reference to him, while the baton on his hand is a symbol of the brutality of the security forces during the peaceful protests. The crown on his head suggests the Covid-19 virus, an enemy of both Belarusian and world society. I wanted to show that even the smallest efforts of individuals in society can make a huge contribution to the common struggle, and together we are a force that can cope with any problems.”

3
Sergiy Maidukov

The Ukrainian editorial illustrator Sergiy Maidukov felt compelled to respond to protests in Belarus having lived through and participated in the “difficult but bright and necessary” 2014 Ukrainian Revolution. His quick, coarse style is a call-to-arms for activists everywhere.

“This poster is about the triumph of national consciousness and strength of spirit over the police-run state. Revolutions do not happen without rebellion; this poster calls for struggle. The white rider (the one standing on an overturned, defeated police car) is a historical symbol of Belarus, which in 1995 was pushed out of circulation and completely replaced by Soviet symbols of a pro-Russia Belarus. Therefore, the presence of this knight is also a victory over its Soviet past.

This type of black car was typically used by the militia in Soviet times (and sometimes still used now). It is strongly associated with police arbitrariness and violence, and has nothing to do with the protection of human rights and welfare. It is called bobick and it should burn. I love simple colors in posters, so I took Belarus’ national color scheme of red and white and added a bit of black for the enemy.”

4
Rufina Bazlova

Rufina Bazlova finds a common thread between current events and traditional folk art. She borrows the metaphor of cockroaches from the election campaign of Sergei Tsikhanouski, who employed the slogan “stop the cockroach” in reference to Lukashenko. The pro-democracy activist was arrested two days after announcing his candidacy for president and his wife Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, who then stepped in as a candidate, was forced to flee the country.

“Historically, Belarusian women couldn’t read or write, so embroidery was the only way to depict life. That’s why they created special geometrical signs and predominantly used red as a symbol of blood and life on a pure linen background that symbolized freedom and purity. It is, in a way, a code for our national history that could be read as a text. Folk embroidery was also used as a talisman against evil spirits. I would like to believe that it has not lost this power in these times. 

The events of this summer represent a portion of our great history. Belarus changed, woke up; big changes are coming and must be written into the code of embroidery. The national awakening simply demanded this technique. The image depicts a resting cockroach near a pile of mess he made. I think there is no need for a detailed explanation of who these insects are in our country. But when they leave our home a lot of damage will remain after them, so Belarusians will have to clean it up. I wish them strength!”

5
Jana Galushkina

The graphic designer Jana Galushkina plays with color contrasts using a mix of computer graphics and watercolor to deliver a powerful message with a double layer. 

“To say that this is a difficult situation is to say nothing. You feel the full range of emotions, from the deepest horror to the most incredible pride. I didn’t have a clear plan or a definitive idea of what I wanted to depict. I had only a huge desire and emotions that overwhelmed me. I spent a lot of time on the composition, color depth, intensity, hue, and texture so that it would reflect exactly what I saw and felt. This image is not only a literal representation of Alexander Lukashenko in a blood-stained jacket but also of the violence and brutality of the whole authoritarian regime. Lukashenko is the face of the bloody system in Belarus. Red is the color of danger and blood above all. This is the color of the regime in Belarus. I chose gray as the embodiment of system, strictness and correctness. Gray is the color of an official’s jacket, it is the color of solid metal and it is the color of everyday life. I think it’s quite symbolic when something that should always be clean and tidy has a stain.”

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