Ala Savashevich

Arm and Protect

Solo exhibition: november-january, 2023-2024
66P Subjective Institution of Culture, Wrocław, Poland
Curator: Joanna Sokołowska
Text: Joanna Sokołowska
Photo: Małgorzata Kujda

Arm and Protect is an exhibition about the exploitation and reclaiming of the body by persons forced into women’s social roles. However, in Ala Savashevich’s series of new works, no bodies are directly visible. The artist confronts the traces of forces that seemingly operate “beyond the periphery of the skin”[1]: in global and local markets, in offices and fields, at the assembly line, in services, families, schools, churches. Dispersed and omnipresent for generations, they break backs and bend necks. They suck out vital forces and take away life itself. They enforce repetitive gestures or unnatural stillness. They prohibit the expression of emotions and the pursuit of one’s needs, teaching instead how to conform to the needs of others. But up to a point.

The objects prepared for the exhibition have been inspired by the tools and materials used daily by women trained for hard work, serving and obedience – in exchange for social acceptance. Some of them hide echoes of the artist’s personal story, connected with her education in a Belarusian school. In the classes called Труд (toil) in Russian, schoolgirls were taught to do housework, including sewing, making handicraft ornaments and gifts. As in many other schools in authoritarian and patriarchal societies, they were taught a double lesson: the gender division of labour and gender as a role to be played. The decorative, floral costume worn for the women’s performance was meant to mask real hardship and make life more pleasant for others.
The artist worked through the memory of her school assignments in the object Sew It Yourselves. Using hundreds of small metal rings, she “wove” a heavy form resembling an apron-cum-armour. She used the same method to make the chainmail sashes (Miss Worker, Miss Best Worker, Miss Home Worker), which touch on deeply rooted sexist patterns by alluding to female shock workers’ decoration in Soviet countries and the sashes worn by winners of beauty pageants. Created as a result of strenuous, long-lasting labour, the objects emphatically show the real burden carried by the body in connection with fulfilling the role of a woman. On the other hand, as their form suggests, they can be transformed from tools of oppression into arms or armour.

A similar dynamic of associations is set in motion by a series of objects resembling shields, which the artist made using the decorative technique of straw marquetry. The “shields” combine military camouflage patterns with the floral imagery. This “feminine” symbol of many revolutions acquired a topical significance during the 2020 uprising in Belarus, when women took to the streets en masse with flowers, forming chains of solidarity and calling on the uniformed services to stop the violence. Although the revolution was suppressed, the women’s peaceful protest demonstrated the existence of a great collective force, hitherto ignored.

In the intergenerational memory of women’s capacity to confront the burden of patriarchy, exploitation and violence, Ala Savashevich brings out the mighty power and will to live. She experienced it through performative, embodied work, in which she transformed a traumatic story into a herstory of female solidarity, self-defence and struggle.

[1] Silvia Federici, Beyond the Periphery of the Skin: Rethinking, Remaking, and Reclaiming the Body in Contemporary Capitalism, PM Press/Kairos, 2020.