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Godzilla in an embroidered shirt, portraits of Belarusian writers combined with Hindu mythology – Maksim Osipov combines folk motifs with modern images and symbols. We start our series of articles about creativity in emigration with an interview with the artist, known for his colourful carpets. “Not Today, Not Yesterday, Not Tomorrow” talked about the Belarusian context in his paintings and about the “itch” instead of inspiration.

Tell us about yourself, what do you do?

I’ve done a lot of things and it would be too long if I started from the beginning. My destiny is a living illustration of Max Korzh’s songs: if you want to do something, don’t piss off, take a risk and do it. And sooner or later something will somehow work out. I spent part of my life in advertising, design, marketing, ostensibly to have money for creativity. At least that’s how I explained it to myself. But creativity was… just anything, just about anything and nothing, frankly.  In fact, all of the above was eating up my resources: I worked very honestly in advertising. At first I decided to become an individual entrepreneur so that I wouldn’t have to sit in an office and be able to choose what to work with. There were even some successful event projects. And during the covid, I somehow completely separated myself from advertising.

It was only when I finally “shit on the social package” and had to zero out three times that something started to happen. For the last few years I’ve been living with art. I am especially proud that I can afford not to apply to foundations, grants etc. I sell my work, print reproductions. I live from it.

You wrote that you are proud of not applying to funds, what do you see wrong with that?

First of all, there is nothing more satisfying than getting resources for life from what you do, directly from the people who pay for it. You feel that what you’ve made resonates with people enough that they want to have it in their homes. I’ve never had a single collector buy from me. Only people who are really drawn to it. “Pride” isn’t really the right word. It’s more about a kind of high. I am grateful to everyone who has purchased an original or reproduction from me for that feeling.

Regarding international funds. I have received one scholarship in my life: the Polish Gaude Polonia in 2021. And used it as best I could as a springboard for further endeavours in the conditions I found myself in at the time. Six months of a very lite existence to create a project. After that I didn’t try to knock on anyone’s door, because I have the conviction that if I can’t provide for myself what I do, I need to do something else.

Carpet – “There are no stupid ones”. Photo from Maxim Osipov’s personal archive

And another important topic: international funds to support the arts have come up for cultures that are now on the verge of extinction. First of all, this is about the culture of peoples who now have no statehood. It’s just that the world democratic community values any kind of otherness. Cultural diversity is what moves the world forward, we believe it, at least if we consider ourselves carriers of European values. That’s why international funds support, even if not the development, but the preservation of cultures that are in danger of extinction.  I don’t really want Belarusian culture to be like the culture of apaches, roms or crimean tatars. If a part of society or business is ready to support those who are creating something now, it is necessary to hold on to it. After all, if we hope only for international assistance, then our culture is fucked, because first of all, we are not interesting to ourselves anymore.

Why did you emigrate from Belarus?

Your question contains a statement that is not appropriate here. You should distinguish between migrants and refugees. Migrants aspire to other countries to integrate into the local community, to work and to have better living conditions for themselves and their children. Refugees leave involuntarily, for safety, and integrate just enough to be able to function in other conditions. After all, they did not leave of their own free will. I belong to the second group. Why did I leave? I reserve the right not to tell you.

Your carpets are filled with folk and mythological symbols, could you tell us about them?

My carpets are filled with a lot of things. This is pretty natural for the genre: the first authors of painted carpets could honestly draw from postcards, newspaper clippings, reproductions of paintings, illustrations of the Bible. They didn’t care about copyright, probably didn’t even know it existed.

In my case, it’s definitely not about symbols, but about images and their moving meanings. Every known work of art that I “weave” into my carpet is naturally a symbol, and it is this part of the work that I buy into. Stripped of its own symbolic history, the image becomes part of a new story, but remains educational.

And the fact that they are sometimes too much – well, this is also the rules of the genre: carpets should be such that you can “stick” in them and see something different in them every time, depending on your own state of consciousness.

How do you feel about copyright, because as I understand, the first creators of carpets did not care much about this issue, and if your work was used for other works, how would you feel about it?

Yes, I don’t live in the interwar time of the XX century, I don’t copy other people’s drawings, I use them for other subjects, already my own.

Carpet – “Myrotogenesis of the Black Square”. Photo from Maxim Osipov’s personal archive

Regarding copyright, I’m pretty light on the whole thing. One time I created a caricature, which was taken apart by almost all world media without designating the authorship anywhere. Even European politicians used the image for trolling on Twitter. Frankly speaking, I didn’t give a damn that I wasn’t credited anywhere. The important thing is that it was used by the way.

Regarding my carpets – If something is used, put into a different context, made better, fine. I’m quoting and rhyming again, too.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

From reality, of course. I’m not sure the word “inspiration” is even appropriate here. The image of a shaggy-haired creator with a fiery gaze and a romantically dishevelled jabot has an immediate impact. The word “itch” is more appropriate for me. I look at what’s going on, some event or conflict, and I’m itching to figure it out.  I don’t sing songs, I don’t do poetry, I don’t write scientific monographs: directly I don’t know how. I know how to draw pictures and explain to the text what is depicted on them. With the help of this I overcome my own itch and sometimes evoke it in the viewer. Carpet as a thinking tool for myself and people, somehow.

You have said that art for you is a kind of “itch” for what is happening. Can you call your art social?

Well, it’s certainly not antisocial. I don’t see anything criminal in Kupalovsky’s “talking to the whole people”. I don’t really believe in the existence of art outside of a social context. And I’m not very fond of contemporary “salon” art, which seems to be created exclusively for galleries and the small and buttoned-up communities that hang around those galleries.

In your opinion, should art be rooted in times past or should art be supernova?

Uh, what’s “supernova”? Everything new in the world happens through the overthrow of individual creators to create that new. But the creator of the new does not live in a state of spherical horses in a vacuum. 

Whether they profess it or not, they are the bearers of the culture of previous generations. And each of us is the rightful heir to all the fantastic achievements and epic fuc***s of the cultural community that shaped us as individuals.

Everything new, unknown and even uncertain is always based on what has already happened. Take a simple example. Someone learns delicate woodworking, someone creates glue to attach one piece of wood to another. Someone learns what graphite is. And then someone comes along, combines it all and creates a pencil. Everything we’re used to now was once not just an innovation. Even the pencil.

And innovation doesn’t always happen because everyone was waiting for it. Or because there was no choice. The Stone Age didn’t pass because the planet ran out of stones. The best creators can respond to the demand of mankind much earlier than mankind can think of a way to articulate that demand.

The carpet is a “Call to the roots”. Photo from Maxim Osipov’s personal archive

For example, copies of books by our first printers were often burned in squares. Sometimes along with the authors. But in the end, over time, their cause triumphed and greatly accelerated the development of mankind.

And the smartphone, familiar to us now, was once received rather sceptically after its first presentation, as society did not demand a pocket computer back then. But before that, world culture had created the landline and then the mobile phone, the computer, the Internet and software. Can Steve Jobs create a “supernova” without building on existing achievements?  Without it, it is possible to invent a bicycle. Or even its wheel..

And this principle works in all spheres of culture, including creative activity. “The new is the long-forgotten old” is rubbish, of course. An example of “wisdom” from creative impotents. But the new is created from what has been learnt before. What was also new in its time.

What are your paintings about?

Each one is its own dramatic story. My carpets are my own hell. And I share the heat of my hell with the universe, ha ha! About life in general and the processes that happen to us. I try to reflect on them as best I can.

You’ve said that every job you do is your hell-do you think every job should be tortured?

Wow-wow-wow-wow. “Tortured” is a very pejorative excuse for anything-artistic or scientific or, I don’t know… as if it’s an activity that’s solely about self-inflicted violence. Violence certainly has its place, but as a tool to make the appropriate effort for the sake of a result that you will eventually be satisfied with. Well you shouldn’t believe in the existence of creators with a fiery gaze and a romantically dishevelled jabot who do everything with ease, as if under psychedelic means. Pardon my French, but everyone who does anything worthwhile is working hard in one way or another.

How do you feel about the expression “art for art’s sake”?

I hope I don’t feel in any way. Now there are two extremes, either repetition of what has already been done and remade, or a frantic search for new original forms of expression. In the process of that search, the creator sometimes forgets that he actually has nothing to say to the Universe. And he hides it behind an original form. Sometimes successfully, unfortunately. Art still has the function of creating something new to think about. The form is defined by the content that you can’t wait to convey.

Carpet – “From great-grandfathers from time immemorial I have a legacy”. Photo from Maxim Osipov’s personal archive

Three of your favourite artists that you would hold up as examples?

I don’t have any. Creators as individuals don’t really interest me.

I am fascinated by individual works, individual books, individual songs, and individual scientific research. And this list is constantly transforming, as I am curious and tend to zero in on everything previously accumulated.

And it’s all quite intimate. If I start listing what works of art are just now, it will be like some “rules of life” – ridiculous attempts by media people to feed their private “recipes for success” to people who are less interested in themselves than in famous actors and businessmen.

Can your style be classified as primitivism?

I use what you call “primitivism” as a language that I am more comfortable using for what I am trying to talk about. I’ve tried many visual languages to reach people, I’ve succeeded (so far) only with this one.

I don’t want to create something that will be understandable only to me, and others will cluck their tongues, shake their heads and pretend that they understand everything and even like it. That’s some kind of creative masturbation that should be avoided.

You’re in Poland now. Where are people more interested in art in Belarus or Poland? Where do paintings sell better?

I work with the Belarusian context and primarily for ours. I have no expertise in other contexts.

I do not seek to fit into the local art community. If someone from Poland or France buys something, it is nothing more than a pleasant bonus. Some people call it isolationism. I don’t think so. After all, it would be rather hypocritical of me to pretend that I understand the local context so well that I am itching to explain something about it. I have a premonition that life will not be enough to study even a small part of our contexts. And who else besides ourselves will study them and broadcast the results outward? There is no “forest of hands” here.

Carpet – “Portrait of many unknowns with flowers and fruits”. Photo from Maxim Osipov’s personal archive

In your opinion, does the political environment affect the creation of paintings? Where is it easier to create in authoritarian Belarus or “free” Poland?

Nowhere easy, as both states of existence are … well, unhealthy. This should be professed, understood and not ridiculously labelled.

Yes, it’s safe abroad, but man, it’s an existence in the state of an invasive species in a foreign cultural environment. And it takes a lot of effort not to lose touch with our reality, not to perch in a conditional Belarusian “chinatown”, or not to get confused among the locals.

In Belarus in the state of “internal emigration” – similar problems due to the inability to have access to the public, free relations with different communities, not to mention a basic sense of security.

I had a long period of “working in a box” for about four years before all the events in Belarus. This is a serious challenge, as there is nowhere to draw motivation to continue besides yourself. Not to mention the interaction with the audience. For example, if we take our music, many musicians have seriously slipped through the “black lists”, as the marriage of contact with their audience is weightily overcome by foreign tours or a narrow circle of loyal fans. Now, thanks to the Internet, there are new tools of communication, but they are not to everyone’s liking.

I have a bad attitude towards “professional Belarusians” abroad, who do not hesitate to broadcast something like: “the main thing for you there in Belarus is to preserve yourselves, and we, here, abroad, will deal with the development of culture”. Such people do not yet realise what challenges they are actually facing. Historically, diasporas usually kept something, preserved previous cultural achievements in difficult times for the country. But this is not about creating new demanded meanings. The main thing will happen one way or another “on the Big Earth”. And preserving ties and creating new ones is more important than many things that are over-emphasised at the moment. Yes, I think these complexities should be seen as a challenge to which one has to think of a response. But the rich are the ones who confuse a challenge with a judgement, eh, alas.