“Arms folded and her lips sardonically askew, Eva makes an unlikely icon for the protest movement that’s shaking Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko ahead of presidential elections.” This is how Bloomberg authors start their article telling about the masterpiece of expressionist painter Chaim Soutine and its impact on Belarusians.
The arts and politics
The ongoing presidential campaign in Belarus took a new twist after the authorities seized the $20 million art collection built up by Viktor Babariko, the ex-head of Belgazprombank and major challenger to Alexander Lukashenko, at the bank’s gallery in Minsk.
On 14 June, 150 paintings (by Chagall, Soutine, Bakst, Tsarfin, Lubich and others) from Belgazprombank’s corporate collection were submitted into evidence of the case against the bank. According to the Belarus-1 news report, the paintings were prepared for smuggling out of the country.
In Belarus, if one is exporting artwork abroad, one needs to get permission from the Ministry of Culture in advance, otherwise the customs will not give the go-ahead. According to TUT.BY, in recent months the Ministry of Culture has not issued such permits to the owner.
“Where is the logic in returning the paintings to the country, make them available to public and then what? Take them abroad? And why sell them? They belong to the shareholders of the bank,” said Viktor Babariko at a meeting with voters in Bobruisk.
Belgazprombank started its collection in 2011, the owner paid customs duty when importing artworks and had no problems with the tax authorities. The aim of the project was to return the works of representatives of the Paris School – natives of Belarus – to their homeland.
Five days after the searches the “Art Belarus” gallery re-opened without paintings from the Belgazprombank collection on display. However, the works could be viewed on a large projector, while authors’ biographies and paintings’ descriptions via QR codes in empty frames.
Shorlty after Viktor Babariko and his son Eduard Babariko, who is also his campaign manager, were detained on suspicion of financial crimes, protests erupted, social media exploded with Eva’s art pieces and people showed their support by wearing T-shirts with her image.
This is how Eva, the portrait by the Jewish expressionist painter Chaim Soutine of Belarusian origin, has got into the middle of a political storm. She also triggered people’s creativity – Eva was now showing her middle finger, she was looking from behind bars, dressed in prison uniform or detained by the security services.
Also, several campaigns have been launched on social media to support the bank’s corporate collection with hashtags #BringEvaBack, #TogetherWithEve, #Evalution.
“It is important that even at such a time, people begin to talk more, fantasize and be creative with one of the pearls of our collection, Eva,” says the curator of the bank’s corporate collection. “I think Soutine himself, on the one hand, would be very jealous of the fact that someone does hommages, that is, quotes his work.
On the other hand, I think he would be glad that almost a hundred years later, “Eva” became again the sovereign of thoughts in our country. We hope that Eva will stay with you and with us. And in due time the results of the Art Belarus project will be appreciated.”
The most expensive painting in Belarus was bought for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s auction in New York in 2013.