Protest as if Stitched: Rufina Bazlova Captures the Fates of Political Prisoners in Belarus Through Embroidery

Protest as if Stitched: Rufina Bazlova Captures the Fates of Political Prisoners in Belarus Through Embroidery

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Belarusian-Czech artist Rufina Bazlova, living in Prague, brings the power of embroidery into her work, utilizing it to document the events of protests in Belarus. Her pieces draw from traditional Belarusian embroidery while also capturing current social and political events. She gained recognition with her series History of Belarusian Embroidery, which intricately maps out the protests that shook Belarus in 2020. Rufina also incorporates the voices of athletes who stood up for justice during these protests into her works. In our interview, we attempted to delve into her creative process and also asked her how she started with embroidery and what it's like to be part of a revolution.

When we start from the beginning, the first project where you worked with embroidery was called "Ženokol," which included dresses and a small booklet. What led you to choose embroidery as your medium?

The dresses were created in 2012 when I was studying illustration in Plzeň. We were given a task to create an original book, and we had a free hand. I had the idea to create a book on dresses where the first and last images would be the same, thus creating a cycle. At that time, traditional patterns were very popular in Belarus, Russia, and Ukraine.

I started with the thought that embroidery is a cultural code, which is quite obvious. Moreover, from embroidery, you can always glean certain information, such as the region it's from or the situation in which it was created. Each symbol carries some meaning and is encoded into the embroidery; there are even dictionaries of symbols. For me, the main inspiration was the idea that through embroidery, stories can be told and information passed on. So I created a comic that I subsequently embroidered on dresses.

I try to stylize the patterns in a way that is understandable and at the same time preserves the roots of Belarusian embroidery. I think it also relates to living in Bohemia, where these patterns are not as common, and people don't always understand their symbolism and meaning.

Embroidered dresses from the "Ženokol" project in Rufina Bazlova's studio. PHOTO: Adam Mráček

On the website, where there is also a section dedicated to Belarusian athletes, how would you describe the projects? How did you manage to reflect the events in Belarus at that time?

When I present my work, I teach people three words: "vyšyvanka" – embroidered shirt, "vyžyvanka" – a neologism, a wordplay based on the verb "vyživat," meaning "to survive," and "vyzyvanka" – as a call for people to engage in the project or a challenge.

Even before the pre-election events, it was clear that radical changes were happening in society. I got the idea to record historical events with a folk code – ornament. The project itself was created impulsively, based on what struck me the most during the protests or what was considered important. I was bombarded with information from various sources, which influenced my way of working. During the first days after the elections, the internet was shut down throughout Belarus, and people in the country didn't know what was happening. It was difficult to obtain accurate information. For example, the death of Alexander Taraikovsky was shrouded in uncertainty, which influenced my drawing. Based on the available information, I created the triptych "Prometheus of the Belarusian Revolution," representing the first victim of the protests. Later, when images were released showing that he had been shot, I created a second version of the picture showing how it actually happened. The work was created on the go, and even though my view of events changed, it remained preserved in my artistic work. The work on the website is divided thematically, there is a chapter dedicated to solidarity and the historical white-red flag, which became a symbol of protest in Belarus. There is a chapter about Lukashenko and his accomplices. There is also a series RIP dedicated to murdered protesters.

Rufina Bazlova. Prometheus of the Belarusian Revolution. SOURCE:

On the mentioned website, you'll also find a chapter titled SPORT. How did this chapter come about, and what will you find in it?

Protests gradually spread to all social spheres, and even well-known athletes criticized the elections. Subsequently, a letter was created, under which they signed, such a charter expressing disagreement with the outcome. Lukashenko has an obvious passion for sports, especially hockey; he has even had many hockey arenas built in Belarus, making it a matter close to his heart. He often claims to have raised athletes with his left breast, and it seems to have been quite painful for him when athletes disagreed with him. They loudly expressed their opinion, which led them to organize and become activists. Thanks to their popularity, they also mobilized other people, their fans, which further unsettled Lukashenko.

Rufina Bazlova holding her work "Yard Games" in her studio. PHOTO: Adam Mráček

They formed a group called SOS BY 2020, which raised money and assisted repressed athletes, keeping track of how many of them were in prison, how many were beaten, etc. They established a fund that provided support to their colleagues. I think their discipline and perseverance led them to realize that the fight would be long, but even if they lost, they had to continue their work. They were like a shining force that gave courage to others and strongly supported them. They organized various events, such as marathons or joint training sessions, where they reached out to the general public. The most painful moment for Lukashenko was the cancellation of the planned Ice Hockey World Championship in Belarus. Thanks to the efforts of the athletes and also the great work of Belarusian activists in the Czech Republic, who convinced Škoda not to sponsor the championship, the cancellation was successful.

Despite the increasing repression, athletes tried to unite people and support them, meeting with them and staying in Belarus even when it was dangerous. Another part of their work involved reaching out to artists because they realized that it was important for their campaigns to be visible and well-crafted. I was approached by Ekaterina Snytina, a basketball player and former captain of the national women's basketball team. The topic of sports unexpectedly intrigued me, and I drew several, in my view successful, pieces. It was also an attempt to boost morale through athletes again, and I saw potential in that.

Rufina Bazlova. Elena Levchenko. Source:

Another well-known basketball player, Elena Levchenko, once said: "Throughout our careers, people came to support us in the stands, and now it's up to us athletes to support the people back." That was very powerful to me. The creation of the work "Yard Games" was inspired by how athletes organized events where they played various games together with people. There was diversity and unity visible, with children drawing, others taking walks, some exercising, and others playing football. Through solidarity, sports connected with the lives of ordinary people, and that was the fundamental idea of the sports series. I devoted myself to this for about half a year, then the focus shifted more toward political prisoners, and I started working on a new project #FramedinBelarus /

Rufina Bazlova, High Jump. Source: author's website

What's your own attitude towards sports, was it a close topic for you?

It was peculiar because I was never particularly interested in sports, especially Belarusian sports. Suddenly, though, I saw how people came together, the whole nation unified. It was chaos, revolution, but also a rediscovery, when everything got mixed up. Gradually, as things settled down and new relationships emerged, I started to perceive athletes not just in terms of their sporting achievements but more from a human, human rights perspective.

Embroidery Perpetuum Mobile, an image of endless energy and support, an exchange of forces where athletes inspire people and people inspire athletes. Source:

Currently, you also utilize embroidery in your project called Framed in Belarus. How are individual embroideries created, and how time-consuming are they?

As the name suggests ("framed" in English means deceived, unjustly accused, framed, or in the Belarusian context also imprisoned or placed in a frame), the "Framed in Belarus" project is dedicated to political prisoners in Belarus. Currently, there are more than 4000 of them, considering those we know have the status of political prisoners. This number continues to grow. It's a collective project. I process the story of each of them into an embroidery pattern so that it's possible to visually understand who the prisoner is without the need to read the text in a specific language.

Printed embroidery pattern. PHOTO: Adam Mráček

I don't work on the project alone, for example, with the Stitchit association. After the patterns are drawn, we encourage people from all over the world to participate in the project. Those who join the register, and we send them the embroidery pattern. They then embroider it and return it to us along with comments on their feelings during the embroidery process. We regularly exhibit the embroideries at group and individual exhibitions. We are also preparing an online gallery. In the future, we plan to exhibit all the works as a whole. Although we already have almost 500 completed embroideries in the collection, there are still many more to come. It's an ongoing process as the situation evolves and unfortunately, repression continues to grow. For now, we work with what we have.

Currently, we are intensely involved in developing a website to facilitate communication with participants. This website will have a system that guides participants through the entire embroidery process and will contain an archive of all the embroideries made so far.

The final form of the embroidery on a shirt, created by one of the project participants. PHOTO: Adam Mráček

How do you process individual stories into the final pattern?

First, I prepare the pattern on the computer, from which a digital image - a template for embroidery - is created. Some people print it on paper, while others use a digital template. Participants buy their own materials unless they are part of workshops we organize, where we provide them. The basis of cross-stitch embroidery is counting full and empty stitches. Each participant signs their work - embroiders their name, year, and country or city. We have over 530 active participants in 42 countries.

Detail of the printed embroidery pattern. PHOTO: Adam Mráček

Do you have a database of individual characters and elements that you depict? How much did you have to simplify the language of the embroidery?

When I started designing embroideries in 2020 during the protests in Belarus, the formats varied, from smaller to giant, and of course, it depended on the number of stitches. When I started working on the #FramedinBelarus project, I had to create suitable dimensions that would be sufficient to express the content but also realistically embroiderable. I had to limit myself to fit as much information as possible into the given space so that it was clear what was happening and where it was happening. At the same time, I had to avoid overcrowding the stitches too much because it complicates the work for participants. Although I already have a fairly large database of elements, designing the pattern takes me the most time because that's where the creativity lies. I sit in front of the computer, creating and assembling individual elements together. However, I also have to verify whether my idea is understandable to the impartial viewer. That's why I often ask for feedback from others.

You stylize the embroidery in white and red, which are also the colors of resistance in Belarus. Was this intentional or does it hide another symbolism?

The symbolism of the embroideries is twofold. Originally, I was inspired by folk embroidery, where the predominant color was often red on a white linen base. Symbolism, myths, and beliefs are an integral part of embroideries and are often associated with ritual significance. However, I believe that these basic colors were chosen more from a practical point of view - white, red, and also black are essentially the easiest colors to obtain in nature. However, when we focus on the protest context, it is possible to interpret the symbolism of the colors of the protest flag in Belarus. Thus, many people in my works find other meanings that were not originally my intention.

Did you have any doubts about getting involved in a project like #FramedInBelarus?

There were a lot of doubts. I realized it was a massive project that could completely consume me, which it did. I also doubted whether it was ethically questionable for me to create art while people suffer in prisons. I was afraid that people might interpret it as exploiting the issue. However, at the same time, I felt it was a great idea and necessary to talk about the situation in Belarus. Who else could do it but us - those who live safely abroad? Darja Losik, the wife of a political prisoner and now a political prisoner herself, once said: "The more we talk about them, the safer they are." I always remember this when a crisis arises. Will the situation improve if I stop doing it? Probably not, but if I continue, there's a chance to change something.

The embroidery from the #FramediBelarus project at the "Thread of Resistance" exhibition at the GASK Gallery. Source:, Photo: GASK

Thanks to the works from 2020, I gained some popularity, and as a result, the situation in Belarus started to be discussed abroad. However, I also asked myself why do it at all when news from journalists is faster than embroidery. Then I realized again that even though there's not much talk about the situation in Belarus anymore, it's even more important to explain what's happening. I found that people outside the Belarusian bubble might not be as informed about the situation as we are. I realized this also due to events in Ukraine when I found out that not everyone knew about the protests in Belarus and that some thought all Belarusians were with Russia.

Výstava Běloruský folklor v Artwall gallery, 2022. Zdroj:

In 2020, I also noticed that while realistic photographs are shocking, many people no longer want to see them because they are too painful. And then there are beautiful, delicate things like embroidery, where I give people the same information but in a slightly more pleasant and lighter way. People often avoid unpleasant topics, and this was a way to get them involved.

Are you still trying to keep track of and document current events in Belarus?

I'm managing it less now, and there's also a bit less news to follow. I know where to find updates if I need them, but I can't immerse myself completely like I did at the beginning. Sometimes it bothers me a bit; I feel like I'm gradually distancing myself, but keeping up with everything for several years in a row is simply demanding. When you look at my work from 2020 when the protests started, the embroideries were still quite positive, with a lot of humor in them. But since I started working on the project about political prisoners, I don't know how to incorporate humor into the work anymore. Sometimes I manage it, but it's difficult. Reading about injustice and suffering over and over again is very exhausting. In addition to that, I'm also dealing with how to survive financially, so it's no wonder I filter some things. At the same time, I'm committed to the project, and I have to see it through. I still believe it will serve some good in the future.

Rufina Bazlova in her studio. PHOTO: Adam Mráček

What are you currently working on?

At the moment, I'm dedicating a lot of time to preparing the website, so I'm looking forward to its launch. After that, I hope to start drawing again. I need to think about how to further work with the accumulated material. Currently, we have about 500 pieces available, while we presented only 130 of them at one exhibition. Repression is increasing, and so is the amount of work. When exhibitions are held, it's difficult to exhibit everything, especially for group shows. There are many participants, just like there are political prisoners. I really want to give each of them space. I've spent a lot of time with each person on their story and embroidery design, so I've built a relationship with them and experienced it with them on a personal level. That's also why we're preparing an online gallery where we can show each story and each embroidery individually. We continue to hold exhibitions and workshops regularly, plan research, etc. I'm also thinking about how to make the project sustainable and how to help political prisoners and their families even more. I hope we can talk about that sometime in the future!

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Published 17.05.2024

Sabina je studentkou architektury na Fakultě architektury ČVUT. Baví ji sledovat českou kulturní scénu, umění, design a architekturu, avšak nejvíce ji zajímá, jak se tyto obory vzájemně prolínají. Věnuje se popularizaci designu a architektury prostřednictvím psaní článků pro magazín Czechdesign a aktivně působí ve spolku Kruh. Od června 2023 přispívá i do magazínu Sport in Art. Odpočinek nachází při cestování, jógové praxi nebo běhu, skrze který poznává město z jiné perspektivy.

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