Walking through history: What art can reveal about Lithuanian politics
A seven minute walk in the heart of Vilnius old town is all that separates the UNESCO Gallery from the Jonas Mekas Visual Art Center. During those 7 minutes in November and December, one could have had an imaginary journey through 70 years of Lithuanian history.
Anybody visiting these art galleries would have been introduced to Majd Kara, Ramūnas Paniulaitis and Jonas Mekas. All three visual artists have faced pivotal moments in Lithuanian history: Democracy, Soviet System and post-war.
By Sergio Mañero
Democratic Lithuania, Majd Kara: A young Syrian artist in Lithuania
‘I would tell you look and enjoy, but I think it is better if I tell you look and suffer, because life is beautiful’: These were the only words uttered by Kara at the opening ceremony of his exhibition ‘The Second Birth’, which took place at the UNESCO Gallery on November 15, 2016. Kara is a Syrian artist who escaped the atrocities of his war-ravaged homeland to arrive in Lithuania as a refugee. Our imaginary journey starts here, with him, in contemporary Lithuania.
Kara’s paintings show human figures with undefined features. In each painting, a disturbing abstract situation is taking place: a pale baby is seeking to reach a hand beside a stain of blood, the crucifixion of an anthropomorphic pink mass. The sober and cold colours and the defined strokes contribute in creating an atmosphere of solitude and simplicity, as if every image hid a very clear idea. Kara explains the philosophy that guides his hand on the canvas: ‘You cannot appreciate life without death, happiness without sadness. I need to focus on the other side of life’. He explores the idea of human transformation and a spiritual rebirth.
This idea of rebirth seems to reverberate in Kara’s personal story. He decided to leave Syria, his home country, after having lived under war for three years. Then, he started a two year journey, which led him through Turkey, Greece, and finally Lithuania. He arrived here last year as one of the one thousand Middle Eastern refugees which Lithuania agreed to accept.
Upon his arrival at the Rukla Refugee Center, Kara started to paint, and his talent did not go unnoticed. He received support from the artistic platform Arts Agency ARTSCAPE, which helps young culture professionals to develop in their careers. Kristina Savickienė, who works for this NGO, noticed Kara’s paintings during a visit to the Center. ‘Immediately I recognised that Majd was a professional artist’ she says. She thought that his paintings did not need words and could be understood by anybody who had an interest in art. Therefore, for Savickienė, the language expressed in Kara’s paintings could work as a way of understanding between Lithuanians and Syrian refugees in Lithuania. With that they decided to organise an exhibition, and this is the second one they have run.
Kara has not found an easy way to work, even before the war started in Syria. In his opinion, it is very difficult for artists in Lithuania, Syria or anywhere, to make a living from their art. However, Kara describes a specially hard situation in Syria where many artists are living completely ignored, without resources to grow as artists. ‘It is like if you took a plant and you put it in the dark. It has no light, so it can not grow, or do anything’, he says.
In Lithuania, he believes that he has been given the opportunity to express himself. Here he has freedom and an audience; the light for an artist to grow. He is aware that in the beginning the Lithuanian audience was more interested in his political status as a refugee than his art. Now, after two exhibitions in Vilnius, he believes he has started to garner attention because of his artistry alone. From the UNESCO Gallery, walk 7 minutes to the Jonas Mekas Visual Art Center and allow your imagination to go 30 years back in time to the Lithuanian Soviet Socialist Republic.
Soviet Lithuania: Ramūnas Paniulaitis, a forgotten Lithuanian avant-gardist
Žym Žymas, an expression which stems in origin from both Russian and Lithuanian, can be translated as ‘being depressed’. It was used by Paniulaitis, a young artist living and creating in Lithuania in the early 80’s, and his friends as a slogan. Paniulaitis developed his own theory of conceptualism, the avant-gardist global art current at that time that revolutionized the grounds of art, turning on its head the understanding of the function of art. Despite this, his artistic career was largely unsuccessful, as at that time Lithuania was hostile to free artistic expression.
Paniulaitis died in 1982 aged 25, and more than 30 years later, he had his second exhibition. On November 25, 2016 the Jonas Mekas Visual Art Center displayed some of his works, rescued from oblivion. He only had one exhibition prior to his death, in 1981. His friend and one of the curators of the exhibition, Česlovas Lukenskas, had believed that Paniulaitis’ art works were lost until he found some of them among his packages. He showed them to Kęstutis Šapoka, art critic and curator, and together they agreed that they had to organise an exhibition in order to secure Paniulaitis’ place in Lithuanian avant-garde history.
During his lifetime, Paniulaitis was a complete outsider, not only in an artistic sense, but also socially. He simply did not fit in the institutionalised Soviet art system. At that time to work as an artist you needed a diploma, which allowed you to work just in a specific discipline. Paniulaitis, however, had no diploma, and without it you were out of professional exhibitions.
According to Kęstutis Šapoka, at that time Lithuanian official art was partly realistic, partly modernistic, but always in a Soviet sense, a propagandised version of modern art. In a political context where the ideological system was absolute, artists always had to follow the Soviet guidelines on how art should be. Therefore, from a contemporary perspective, ‘Ramūnas is almost unique in this context of the beginning of the eighties, a total avant-gardist’, says Šapoka.
Paniulaitis created a series of collages, drawings and art applications where he was more interested in the concept than in the visual result. For example, he performed his series of ‘appropriations’, where he could take a reproduction of a work of art from any artist and just add a slight change, like a line or a symbol, so he makes it new, and he “appropriates” it. In his series of “Counting”, he add numbers, painted, typed or sticked as a collage, on a white canvas, on a painting or in a photograph.
‘It was very radical at that time and it was completely an underground movement, nobody understood it’ says Šapoka. According to him, Paniulaitis was a pioneer on what he calls a ‘conceptual break’, or a turn towards conceptualism in Lithuania. Although avant-garde clusters have been documented in the Soviet Union during the late seventies (for example in Leningrad, Charkov, or Moscow), there were no registers in Lithuania. Now, some artists including Paniulaitis, are seen clearly as the participants of this ‘conceptual break’, defining in early eighties a serious avant-garde space.
Unfortunately, Paniulaitis met a tragic: After a failed escape attempt to Asia via the Trans-Siberian Rail network, Paniulaitis was captured near Moscow and imprisoned in a psychiatric clinic. He was later imprisoned in a Vilnius psychiatric clinic, where he reportedly took his own life. However, the exact circumstances surrounding his death still remain unclear.
Our journey in time does not end in in the 80s. Standing in the Jonas Mekas Visual Art Center we can travel another 40 years back in time and see a different Lithuania.
Post-War Lithuania: Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian refugee in New York who became the godfather of American avant-garde cinema
Paniulaitis’ exhibition was on display in an art gallery named after Jonas Mekas, who is more commonly referred to as “The godfather of American avant-garde cinema”. Similar to Kara, Mekas formative years were marked by war, survival and exile. He was born in 1922, in the village of Semeniškiai, in Lithuania. During World War II, he and his brother Adolfas were imprisoned for eight months in a labour camp in Elmshorn, Germany. After the war, they lived in displaced person camps in Wiesbaden and Kassel until the end of 1949, when they finally emigrated to New York as refugees.
When Mekas arrived in New York in 1947, he bought a 16 millimetre camera. Since then, he has been collecting images, turning slowly what seems to be random everyday moments into a poetry canvas, a mirror of his dreams, obsessions and ideas. This artist’s impulse for creation has led him to produce thousands of hours of footage. His artistic production is huge: Films, poetry, prose, music, and also audiovisual experiments, such as The 365 Day Project, a video diary filmed for a complete year in 2007.
Looking at Mekas’ films, one is introduced to his personal outlook on the world. His experience as a displaced person and refugee is present throughout much of his works. His book “I Had Nowhere To Go” or his movies “Reminiscences of Germany” or “Lost, Lost, Lost” describe his painful experiences in a Nazi Forced Labor Camp, his escape, his postwar experience living five years in displaced person camps, and his feelings as a Lithuanian immigrant in New York City. From the moment Jonas bought his first camera, he has been documenting his life, his imaginary world and his past. He contacted the most avant-gardist artists living in New York. He walked down its streets and he explored new ways of expression, always with an eye looking inside and to the past.
In the forties, Lithuania was trying to recover from war, but after being occupied by Nazis, it did not experience freedom under Soviet occupation. Feeling that he had no home anymore, Mekas decided to move somewhere else where he could feel integrated. He found in New York not only that, but also a place where he could express himself freely and grow as an artist. He found this opportunity outside of Lithuania. The same opportunity that thirty years later Paniulaitis would never have. And ironically, the opportunity that thirty more years later has been given to Majd Kara, in the same but completely different Lithuania.
Art as a freedom barometer, but also as a catalyst for social change
These stories, connected through two art galleries in Lithuania, show Lithuania’s transition through time. Moreover, they also reveal how different people’s fates can vary depending on the historical and political context of the place they are living in. Artists, who have a natural instinct to express themselves in a personal way through their artistry, sometimes face societies which are closed to diversity and difference.
The curators of the two exhibitions share the opinion that art has an ability to act as a catalyst for social change. Kestutis Šapoka recognises underground or non official art as one of the levels of resistance which operated during the Soviet Union. Kristina Savickienė, on her behalf, sees art as a tool for understanding among different cultures, very needed today, as she sees history in Europe repeating itself, with right wing nationalism growing in strength.
The three artists share one thing in common: Despite the social and political challenges they faced, their desire and craving to express themselves in an open and creative way came to the fore. Previously, Lithuania was not a place for those who dared to submerge without boundaries in the creativity of their imagination. However, nowadays the country has become a shelter. As Kara said, a plant needs light to grow and live. And this plant can now find roots in Lithuania with the minerals needed to grow: freedom.