In mid-February, as the pandemic was already close, yet seemed still far, I traveled for the first time to Chișinău, for a curating class in a non-institutional context, organized by the Oberliht association. That is where I met Vladimir Us, an artist, curator, and educator who offered me answers and contacts for my documentation for this text. That is how I ended up in the same classroom at Zpațiu, in Casa Zemstvei, at the same table at Gălbenuș cafeteria, or out dancing in Pro-Sănătatea together with some of the artists I will talk about.
A brief attempt to map the independent political art scene in Chișinău
In these last few years, the city of Chișinău has gained a kind of cool peripheral reputation, typical for the exoticizing, and then gentrifying, gaze. From a central, or central-European perspective, Chișinău is a liminal space, one that fascinates. Various people come to document this capital on the other side of the Prut river, leaving Moldovans no chance to represent themselves. See, for instance, the pretentiously titled Moldovan Diaries, a visual log, with a nostalgic aesthetics, of Post-Soviet decay, made by two Italians. Underlying such projects is a cultural arrogance, in which one suspects the benevolent-superior gaze of the philanthropist.
However, I admit that this fascination has its basis in reality: the city’s energy is special, more authentic and warmer than in large Romanian cities. It is an atmosphere I have only encountered in small or medium-sized towns, like Zalău or Dorohoi perhaps, places where strangers strike up conversations just for the pleasure of it, where the fear of the other has not set in, yet. Perhaps it makes sense that their version of Romanian is “the sweet Moldovan tongue.”
In order to avoid such an approach – that of the stranger faced with the “object” of their fascination – I have gathered some thoughts from Vladimir Us, Nicoleta Esinencu, Maria Guțu, and Ramin Mazur
What has changed in the last 10 years on the independent art scene in Moldova?
I started from this question with Nicoleta and Vladimir, in order to have a global understanding of these contemporary artistic and curatorial phenomena. “It is perhaps easier to express yourself now. Vladimir Voronin, from the Communist Party, who was president between 2001 and 2009, was a more authoritarian figure, and the context was not favorable for free expression – a similar situation to Belarus,” Vladimir believes. “After that, the capitalist side became very present, but the situation of independent artists never improved.” The cultural budget grew from 700,000 lei for all cultural initiatives for a year to 5 million in 2009, but “most of that only reaches visual artists, not independent contemporary ones. The program is managed directly by the Ministry, but it is very poorly managed, and we have been talking for years about how to improve it,” he adds.
Nicoleta Esinencu is more radical, as we have come to expect of her:
“The pandemic has strongly impacted the independent sector. But the virus has been in our local independent sector for a long time. The virus is the Ministry of Culture, which is a deeply dysfunctional structure. The fact that we have managed to bring our shows to an audience throughout these 10 years is the merit of the team that made it possible, a team that thought nothing of health, money, and self-exploitation. In these 10 years, no ministry has had any connection to the history of independent theater or to that of Teatrul Spălătorie.”
Us would like to see prominent independent artists, like Esinencu herself or Pavel Brăilă, become integrated into public structures, in order to be able to share their experiences and to benefit from regular financial support, but is aware that this could also mean their “artistic death.” He also repeatedly emphasized the deterioration of local arts education, the failure of the Art Academy to come up with new programs, to educate new generations of critics, and to invest in something else besides the painting scene. “I believe that the academic environment is toxic for independent artists, which is why they enroll in programs outside the Art Academy.” With regret he tells me about the Soros Center for Contemporary Art (KSA:K), which is no longer active, not even as a library. Its archive is also hard to access, as it has not been digitized. The Soros foundation was active in Chișinău between 1995 and 2000. After its withdrawal, the KSA:K reestablished itself as an NGO, attempted to gain financing from other sources for about five more years, as its activity slowly diminished.
Vladimir Us: “On an infrastructural level, institutions are simply lacking.”
Together with the Oberliht Association, which he founded 20 years ago, Vladimir has sought to make up for for this lack of involvement on the part of state institutions, the most prominent example being the project Apartamentul Deschis [The Open Apartment]. Launched 10 years ago, Apartamentul Deschis is a functional replica of a Socialist-style apartment designed by visual artist Ștefan Rusu. It functions both as an art object in the public space (a mini-module extracted from an apartment building with the elements typical of a transition society: the main facade with a balcony with double-glazed windows, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom) and as a meeting place for citizens to take part in debates, film screenings, or to tend the small garden in front. Vladimir also supports civic autonomy, be it through growing vegetables in the public space, an essential act towards decolonization, together with saving food, or through alternative transport, by creating a critical mass.
“There is strength in numbers.” This means solidarity, which often coalesces around Zpațiu, at Casa Zemstvei, which hosts multiple independent cultural organizations and cultural, artistic, and civic events. Zpațiu manages to survive but has not managed to develop into a more powerful center, and some of the organizations hosted were evicted. The Ministry wants to use some of the spaces in Casa Zemstvei as storage spaces, and there are plans for opening a museum of Romanian literature there. “These are some pretty shapeless things, which do not necessarily create an audience interested in critical art,” Vladimir believes.
Recently, the cultural actors in Zpațiu came together in the Coalition of the Independent Cultural Sector in Moldova (Coaliția Sectorului Cultural Independent din Moldova), a cultural advocacy group. I asked Nicoleta how optimistic she is about this initiative:
“I think it sounds great on paper… but, sadly, it is work that someone has to do duting their own free time. And I don’t see any big changes in the near future. My colleague Nora Dorogan is working on this, so she could tell you more. I really don’t know if we can speak of solidarity. The independent scene is very divided, because, fundamentally, what independent actually means varies a lot.”
Without dodging the issue, Nicoleta mentions the self-exploitation that (almost) everybody in the independent cultural field subjects themselves to, as well as the invisibility of advocacy work, in a sector marked by tension due to precarity.
I decide to push the issue and ask her if she believes this kind of union solidarity could be extended abroad, as the practices there are similar, and the Romanian AFCN’s fund serves independent artists from both sides of the Prut. “I believe a different kind of understanding is needed. Our grandmothers were and are feminists, in the ways they helped us, fought for us, raised us… I believe that is where solidarity needs to begin,” was Nicoleta’s answer, bringing the idea of solidarity back into the frame of the family, of empathetically caring for “one another,” for an extended family.
However, even though Chișinău has no financing plan, no cultural strategies, the creative industries are evolving, such as Artcor, which took over a space from the Art Academy, with British, American, and Swedish funds. Vladimir criticizes this kind of development as “substitution: from the study of art as experiment to art as commodity,” seeing it as part of a profit-oriented tendency. I reply that sometimes the creative industries can become allies of experimental art – I’m thinking of Diploma, the free festival organized in Bucharest by The Institute, where recent art graduates were exhibited. Vladimir retorts with the fact that various rich Swiss people supported the Dada movement without any immediate gain in sight, which, years later, proved to be a good investment. But business also requires education to be able to plan for a long-term strategy.
A look at contemporary art
Probably the first Moldovan artist I met was Ghenadie Popescu, in 2019, at Art Encounters, where his work, The Racovăţ River (2013) was on display. Around the same time, I watched one of his short films, Nina and Ștefan, which had a strong impact on me. It tells the story of a family of Moldovan deportees which takes with them a traditional, handwoven rug, which, after a while, they successfully trade for a cow in Siberia, which saves them from starvation. Ghenadie also creates a history of deportations through satirical animations that make sense when seen together (future curators, take note!). The thing that is not rememorated institutionally is rememorated in the context of independent art, both less visible and more authentic. European memory politics were defined around and against the Holocaust, somewhat overshadowing the Soviet genocide of deportations and gulags. This is what Ghenadie Popescu makes visible. In Romania, deportations took place internally. As Moldova had been annexed to the USSR, following the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, the deportations there were also internal, but that meant within the whole territory of the USSR. As a result, Moldovans ended up in various regions, from Siberia to Kazakhstan. In the summer of 2019, Ghenadie worked with a group of children from the Țigănești secondary school, teaching them how to tell a real story through animation – his work developing two political layers here. Țigănești Kurgan Țigănești, povestea lui Vasile Vieru [The story of Vasile Vieru] is a 2D animation in which we look at the history of deportations through the eyes of Vasile Vieru.
Another important and extremely relevant series in the context of the Anthropocene, made by Ghenadie, is that of the Rivers. In Ciorna River, a judge flatly recites the text of the Moldovan Constitution, and, as he loses his head and turns into a snake, the viewer becomes aware of how little it is actually respected by public officials. Răut River shows a group of people constrained by precarity and lack of education into voting for “what they have to,” while Ichel River shows a drunken sailor battling trash floating in the sea. Ghenadie gives a new meaning to political art through his playfulness, his subterfuges, and his nuances, showing that he had experienced the slippery linguistics of the old regimes, with its allusions, meaningful silence, and metaphors.
Ghenadie and Pavel Brăilă, the contemporary Moldovan artist who exhibited at the Venice Biennale, documenta 14, but also other international events, are the most visible in mainstream art discourse (which is lacking as is). Interestingly, both started out as amateur artists. It is becoming “a local trend for people to enter the field without having studied it formally. The university preserves an academic logic and binds you to certain forms of art production,” remarks Us, who views the two artists’ non-institutional career approvingly.
Vladimir sees Nicoleta “more classical, in her [academic] background,” but I can only point out to him her intersectional-feminist radicalism, which I attempt to briefly illustrate by quoting a short fragment from her text “Intubated Europe,” written during lockdown:
rich in our cheap labour force
i loathe your economy
you are ready to kill us all
you are ready to kill us all
you laughed at the queues in the ussr
and now you’re queuing for toilet paper
if we flatten the infection curve
can’t we flatten the capitalism curve at the same time?”
Us argues: “In the center-periphery context, Nicoleta is very central, she operates with some very modern forms, perhaps even borrowed from other forms of theater production, but her merit is that she tackles local political issues.” He brings up Nicoleta’s studies abroad, giving the impression that they somehow invalidate her political art. But that is not the case, and Nicoleta’s courage to say things as they are has echoes not just in Moldova, but also in Romania and Germany (last time they went on stage there, she tells me). Together with Nora Dorogan, she founded Teatrul Spălătorie, with which she plans to reach a diverse audience. For example, Apel de urgență [Emergency Call], a very recent project through which their shows are replayed as phone calls, dedicated to people isolated during lockdown (but not only) throughout Moldova. Anticipating her answer, I ask Nicoleta if she is interested in transposing her plays online, as many independent theaters in Romania have done. “Right now, we tried to escape the online, by phone or by mail, to put our shows out there through other means than the internet, and so not just for the same audience. We are working on a sound performance for radio and a sound installation. But we are also trying to reach schools with our show about the Holocaust – Clear History. To reach those who do not have access to the internet or to our stage,” she replied, and I was heartened by her wish to make her work accessible outside the art world’s bubble. And even if she does not focus her efforts on the regular theater consumer, the team of Teatrul Spălătorie will prepare some sound performances which you will be able to find on their page.
The Moldovan photography scene
Documentary art photography has been recently gaining in popularity in Moldova, with regional support. The Center for Documentary Photography in Iași [a city in Romania but in the Moldavian region—tr.n.] offers young photographers a quality platform as well as grants, a great example of regional collaboration and solidarity.
Ramin Mazur, born in Transnistria and close to the Center for Documentary Photography, worked for a time as a photojournalist but after a while felt unable to accept the lack of professionalism and understanding of his line of work and decided to go independent. Ramin often documents practices in Moldova and Transnistria, consistently applying self-reflection and self-critique to his visual imaginary. For example, when he started taking photos of the Transnistria region in which he was born, he discovered that his images reproduced the same cliched discourse of other journalists, one of self-exoticization by highlighting a state of abandonment, a region apparently sinking into oblivion. Revisiting his practice, Mazur tried to visually reappropriate this space, and the aesthetics of the Left Bank series is a subjective one that makes no judgement, realistic and dreamy, reminding me somehow of Mario Vargas Llosa’s landscapes and happenings. The effect intensifies when browsing the masks from Rural Carnival, a series in which Ramin documents archaic village carnival practices, in which “alterity” is imagined as cheerfully grotesque, frightening but dancing.
“If we talk about the Republic of Moldova everything is quite unclear for me. We never had a formal or informal school of photography. So there is no generational increase in interest. Instead there are people who find their own path. I would rather look at the entire region of so-called Eastern Europe and the tendency to overlook what we are and where we are going. Instead of just consuming premade ideals and adapting them here, it is better to reevaluate the state we find ourselves in,” Ramin tells me.
Moving on, I look towards the characters of Maria Guțu (b. 1996), who is interested in the link between remote areas and people. Looking at one of her photo series, I am drawn to the image of a young man leaping from an abandoned boat, and we begin talking about the Stânca-Costești dam, built in 1997, which I also happened to visit a few years ago and was impressed by its size (59 km², the largest artificial lake in Romania). For its construction, the Romanian side had to move 7 villages, and the Moldovan/Soviet one 11. Maria tells me about the villages Duruitoarea Veche and Duruitoarea Nouă, separated by the dam, which, during its use, were connected by barge. If back then this meant 2-3 km by water, nowadays one needs to go around the lake on 40 km of country road. “People had to build their houses again, they even moved the church,” Maria tells me, which she knows from her field research about the inhabitants of a village that is now underwater.
Guțu graduated from the Art Academy in Chișinău this year, and for the time being she is happy to be living in the countryside but is considering pursuing a master’s degree abroad. However, in the long run, “I do not wish to leave the country. The Republic of Moldova is full of topics and stories that can and must be documented. One issue would be the lack of exhibition spaces for photography, so young people look for spaces abroad or online. In spite of the hardships we are facing right now, I have noticed a rise in the number of young people interested in documentary/art photography, which, I hope, will bring positive changes in our local culture.”
Mikhail Kalarashan, a photojournalist collaborating with Scena9 and Oameni și Kilometri, develops the same idea as Maria:
“In a poor village, social issues are on the surface, are easier to notice. That is why being a documentarist in Moldova is such an engaging job. Still, this poverty does not spare you – in Moldova it is difficult to just do your own long-term project without also engaging in projects that can get you money quickly, and this saddens me. At the same time, there are very many topics to explore here. The presence of so many cultures in such a small territory is a curious phenomenon, anthropologically speaking.”
Speaking of Moldovan art that is unknown to Romanian audiences, Mikhail recently documented an intimate material about painter Valentina Rusu Ciobanu for her 100th birthday in her home in the center of Chișinău. A critical perspective connected to the curatorial discourse of the exhibition Valentina Rusu Ciobanu – Un veac de singurătate is brought by Ovidiu Țichindeleanu, in an article deconstructing his own colonial view towards Moldova.
I will stop here, in the hopes that this article dedicated to the independent scene in Moldova was useful for you and has made you curious to look through these words online, until you have the chance – which is uncertain at the moment – to see them in an exhibition.
Other artists worth following
Both Nicoleta and Vladimir recommend Cătălina Bucos, a young (b. 1997) politically involved (Occupy Guguță) artist about to leave abroad for her studies. Cătălina works in mixed media, linocut, photography, and performance. An installation I am particularly drawn to, conceptually and aesthetically, is The Door (Ivano-Frankovsk, Ukraine, 2017), in which she projects a video onto the door of an apartment building, creating an interactive and recursive work about passing, gates, and housing.
Tatiana Fiodorova, contemporary conceptual artist interested in the materiality of things, in Socialist architecture, and in performance art. I recommend her work Moldova. The Best Building in the World.
Artiom Zavadovsky, recommended by Nicoleta Esinencu, is a queer documentary filmmaker, activist, and performer.
Elena Sirețanu, another young contemporary photographer specialized in warm, richly textured, and nostalgic portraits. They can be viewed here.
The Polyakov Brothers, Anton (photographer) and Maxim (mixed media). Anton’s photos can be viewed here.
From the time of writing this article, Maia Sandu has become the first female president of the Republic of Moldova. Without a doubt more competent and suitable than the pro-Russian Igor Dodon, Maia Sandu could bring about a few worse policies, local independent artists warn. For instance, the Republican Stadium could become the new office of the US Embassy, which is what Vladimir Us fears, as the PAS, Partidul Acțiune și Solidaritate, of which Maia is a part, supports this. However, for the independent cultural scene, her election is good news, as “she is part of the logic of liberalism, and we are already discussing with certain officials about possibilities of improving financing for cultural activities,” Vladimir adds.
Translated by Rareș Grozea
 The Soros Foundation often runs a few funding programs before discontinuing them and moving into other geographical areas, even though there is still a need in the initial community, leading to a gap, a discontinuity on the level of policy and public action.
 But also other independent artists and curators.
 A workshop led by Clara Abdullah, Ecovisio, as part of the Edu-Art 2020 project by the Oberliht Association.
 The struggle for clean air through direct action: a cyclists’ movement, based on the principle of “strength in numbers,” but also on traffic safety. The critical cyclists’ mass creates a gridlock of bicycles in order to draw attention to this clean, alternative means of transportation.
 Etymologically, the house’s name comes from “zemstvo,” an institution of government set up during Tsar Alexander II’s liberal reforms in the Russian Empire. The first was founded in 1864. Zemstvos took care of local issues pertaining to primary education, medical and social welfare, fire response, food supplies, and road maintenance. A large part of their members were aristocrats, but, even so, it was a good platform to make your voice heard.
 The manifesto is available at: https://cscirm.wordpress.com/2020/10/19/manifestul-scenei-culturale-independente/.
 You can scroll through Valetina Rusu Ciobanu’s works here: https://www.theopen-art.com/artist/valentina-rusu-ciobanu/.