Skyped last week with my friend Aleksei Shinkarenko in Minsk. We go back to my first visits to Belarus in 2000, when I started work on my photo book The Waiting Room.
Aleksei is a quiet force in the local scene. He recently opened Cafe Cultura, a clean, minimalist storefront space set up to spark conversation on culture. Basically it's a tiny gallery with a coffee machine. While Aleksei makes your macchiato, the work on the walls is food for thought, and for talk.
He told me customers seem to pick up on that cue, and culture is a hot topic. A big question facing Belarus has long been one of national identity. Many feel it's the main element keeping the country in a kind of limbo between East and West, with Lukashenko being as much effect as cause of Belarus' isolation and uncertainty (depending on who you ask, perhaps up to half the population does support the authoritarian leader up to a point, or at least the degree of stability they feel he brings against buffeting forces from every direction).
Aleksei, along with colleagues like my friend Uladzimir Parfianok - a stalwart of the Soviet-era photo scene in Minsk who also has quietly but doggedly fought for the role of independent photo art - always recognized the potential of photography and art to be a catalyst for progressive thought and even change.
Our first collaborative exhibitions - The Seeing-Eye in 2001 with the Czech photographer Karel Cudlin and Seeing-Eye II in 2003, both at Parfianok's Nova Gallery - helped nurture the idea of the photographer as humanistic observer, which was a rather weak tradition at the time in the tightly controlled landscape of post-Soviet Belarus. Aleksei expanded and built on on those seeds, launching the first independent photo school in Belarus, the Center of Photography.
In 2009, I met the Swedish photographer Jens Olof Lasthein at the school (Jens just so happened to be in Minsk last week and joined our Skype) when we were both invited to be instructors at the first Summer Photopracticum documentary workshops. By then it was clear that the local photo scene had matured to the point where there was a new generation of young photographers - such as Andrei Liankevich, Alex Kladov, Pavel Grabchikov and many others - casting a savvy eye at the Belarus that was evolving (albeit slowly, but evolving nonetheless) from the cliches of 'black hole in Europe' and 'frozen in time' into its own kind of Third Way.
So now Aleksei has this humble, elegant concept, Cafe Cultura, to carry the torch as well. We discussed bringing the franchise to Washington DC, which could also use higher quality discussion of culture, art, and identity. In the meantime, if you're in Minsk, stop by for a кофе with a shot of intelligence.