Alexei Kuzmich is not known for his timidity. On polling day in the Belarusian presidential elections on 9 August, the performance artist undressed himself at his local polling station in Minsk, sticking his polling card — which he’d emblazoned with a phallus — onto his bare chest. He tied a blindfold over his eyes. For a few moments, he spread his arms wide, as if crucified, shocking electoral observers. It was part one of his performance, I Believe or the Philistine World of Political Animals. “For me, this performance was about the belief in democracy, our ignorance of the circumstances in which we elect leaders, and the demagoguery used by politicians,” Kuzmich told The Calvert Journal. “I made a parallel between politics, democracy, and the archaic principle of choosing the domineering male in a tribe — hence the sketch of a phallus.” Security forces chatted to him in the courtyard outside the polling station, but quickly let him go.
It is not the first time that Kuzmich has caused a scandal. In October last year, he sparked outrage with the performance, Shield or the Ministry of Phallo-culture, at the National Centre of Contemporary Art in Minsk, where he undressed himself, and thanks to a Viagra-induced erection, attached a plaque from the Ministry of Culture in Belarus to his erect penis. On his palms, he wrote “I agree with everything”. The gallery filed a complaint to the police and threatened the artist with a criminal case, but they eventually gave up. Instead, the performance went viral and became an internet meme.
But the presidential election protest had serious consequences. The Monday after election day, at 5 am, Kuzmich was woken up by loud, aggressive knocking on his door. Police officers had already taken down the first door leading into Kuzmich’s apartment, and were rapidly trying to unlock the second one. Kuzmich called his lawyer, as well as a local radio station. He was taken to the central office of the Ministry of Internal Affairs but released, once again, a few hours later. Opposition protests against the vote had already started, as the Central Electoral Committee announced victory for Belarus’ long-standing president, Alexander Lukashenko: a result widely seen in Belarus as rigged.
Kuzmich joined the protests. Three days after the elections, the artist carried out the second part of his performance: he stood, once again, with his arms wide, and the phallus sketch on his bare chest, facing a chain of policemen and armoured police cars. The crowd of protesters were behind him. This time, he was arrested and taken to a cell, together with other demonstrators.
“I thought that the holding cell would be my last stop. I thought I would not get out of there alive,” Kuzmich remembers. “We were 100 people in a room of nine square metres. They treated us like animals. They did not feed us. They gave us water and we went to the toilet twice a day. They tried to break us both physically and mentally. We were beaten by groups of five policemen. Then they also made corridors of 15 policemen, and the detainees had to run through this corridor, and they would beat us with their batons. They made the detainees say that they would never go to protests again, that they loved OMON [Belarus’ special forces], that they loved the President, that they were Western spies. Young people who disagreed with the regime were written down as foreign agents.” Kuzmich himself was beaten three times, but was not interrogated.
After three days of detention, an ambulance arrived and took four people from the cell, including Kuzmich. “The doctors saved my life,” he says. Once he received first aid at the hospital, he left to live with friends. “It is still dangerous for me to go home,” he adds. Kuzmich still goes to the hospital for further medical care for his injuries on his back and legs. “But I was among the lucky ones,” he admits.
Despite his experience, Kuzmich says he will continue to make art. Indeed, earlier today, as he passed by the Temporary Detention Centre in Minsk to get his stuff, Kuzmich seized the moment to take another snapshot of himself, standing with his arms wide, facing the queue of protesters and their families at the entrance. On his legs, the massive bruises caused by the brutality he had been subjected to in that same place, stood out.