Ones to Watch 2021: Masha Svyatogor

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Each year, British Journal of Photography presents its Ones To Watch – a selection of 20 emerging image-makers, chosen from a list of nearly 450 nominations. Collectively, they provide a window into where photography is heading, at least in the eyes of the curators, editors, agents, festival producers and photographers we invited to nominate. Throughout the next few weeks, we will be sharing profiles of the 20 photographers, originally published in the latest issue of BJP, delivered direct with an 1854 Subscription

Using collage, Svyatogor reflects on Soviet imagery and contemporary life in Belarus

“I was born in Minsk, Belarus, in 1989, and I still live there,” says Masha Svyatogor. “It’s unsafe to live there now, in addition to the lack of financial security and prospects.” Indeed, Belarus is authoritarian, and its leader, Alexander Lukashenko, has been described as “Europe’s last dictator”. Elected in 1994 as the country’s first president following its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, he has been in power ever since. Lukashenko – known for his short temper, aggression towards his opponents, and scolding of independent media – regularly wins an apparent 80 per cent of the vote. Those who dare question the election results, or indeed any of his policies, are violently suppressed.

Everybody Dance! © Masha Svyatogor.

Living under such a regime is like “some kind of nightmare,” says Svyatogor. The “endless repression by the authorities against civilians, striving for absolute control of everyone and everything” means it is difficult to make critical work. Nevertheless, the artist does so via collage, and is best-known for her ongoing project Everybody Dance!, which she started in 2018 using images culled from the likes of Sovetskoe Foto. The monthly publication was active from 1926 to 1991, and was the only magazine dedicated to photography in the Soviet Union during that time.

Svyatogor has also made other collage projects, including Everybody Strike! (2020-ongoing), A Brave New World (2019) and Autobiography Without Facts (2016-17). These use, respectively, images from Sovetskoe Foto, her own photographs, and family photos stretching back to the days of the USSR. 

Everybody Dance! © Masha Svyatogor.

The photographer’s current project combines Soviet imagery with surreal elements. A recent work, titled In the Deep Forest, comprises figures that include soldiers with birds’ heads. “The deep forest is a metaphor for the place where the authorities commit a crime and then cover their tracks. They obscure them so the traces merge with the surrounding space, as if they never existed,” she explains. “In my work, figures personify power. For example, uniformed men that don’t have human faces. They have an inhuman appearance, faces of monsters from my bad dreams, because I, like many others who live in Belarus, sometimes cannot believe that all this is really happening – it is so crazy, illogical, irrational and terrible.”

Svyatogor’s use of Soviet political imagery is complex, reflecting both the contemporary parallels with Stalinist repression, but also the post-communist reality of Belarus, a country still peppered with Soviet iconography. It also allows her to critique the current government indirectly, instead of confronting its might head on, and to expose how such imagery is used to manipulate. 

A Brave New World, © Masha Svyatogor.

“She is intelligent in how she uses the language that is open to her,” observes Andrei Liankevich, managing director and founder of Month of Photography in Minsk, who nominated Svyatogor, along with Polish photographer and activist Rafał Milach. “At the moment it’s hard to work in the street in Belarus as you can be shot or put in jail,” Liankevich continues. “Art is a safer way to work, and to a totalitarian regime it’s more difficult to understand. But while she uses archival pictures, it’s not an archive project. Her work is political; it’s about the totalitarian regime but also about art and the role of art under such a regime.”

Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy