Detroiter showcases her research of free expression in Eastern Europe.
While many in their mid-20s are just trying to get their bearings in the “real world” and establish themselves in a career, Alexis Zimberg of Detroit already has made a name for herself within a field she is extremely passionate about: freedom of expression in Post-Soviet countries.
Zimberg graduated from McGill University in Montreal with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Russian studies and earned a master’s degree from Georgetown University’s Center for Eurasian, Russian and Eastern European Studies in Washington, D.C. Now she’s back in Detroit and has founded Post-Soviet Graffiti, a research and culture hub that seeks to explore alternative avenues of expression in the Post-Soviet region.
Zimberg returned here in 2012, after hearing about CommunityNEXT’s Live Detroit Fund, which provides rent subsidies to selected young adults who choose to live Downtown.
“It’s the only place I would live,” Zimberg says. “All my friends are in the city, the energy is very exciting and the community is unmatched.”
Growing up, she attended Tamarack Camps for 12 years and was later a counselor there. Her involvement in the Jewish community continues, as she is currently active in the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue in Detroit and tries to keep Shabbos.
Zimberg’s research focuses on Eastern Europe, which she sees as an inherently Jewish area.
“Eastern Europe is Jewish to me,” she says. “You see the old synagogues. In Prague, you see that clocks on the street have Hebrew letters; and you see the old cemeteries and lines of the ghetto in Poland.”
She went to Russia in June 2009 as part of a research project during graduate school at Georgetown, studying at St. Petersburg State University. She returned in 2011 and 2012 on grants, and is going to Warsaw and Berlin this June for fieldwork.
While in Eastern Europe, Zimberg noticed people weren’t expressing themselves freely in the news, but showed a clear disdain of the government through street art. This sparked her interest and inspired her to start Post-Soviet Graffiti.
Zimberg believes street art is popular in the Post-Soviet area because it’s anonymous. Authorities are able to track dissent on the Internet, writings or music.
“Street art is great because it’s very accessible to all types of people whether they’re rich or poor; anyone can see it and internalize it,” Zimberg says.
One of Zimberg’s most memorable experiences was taking the train into Belarus on July 3, 2011 — Belarusian Independence Day, commemorating the end of Nazi occupation in 1944. Zimberg says it was as if an attempted revolution had fallen into her lap, as people began to revolt against the current government led by President Alexander Lukashenko.
“I thought there’d be marches, but I didn’t think there’d be protests like that in such a strict state,” she says. “It was so beautiful how people wanted to work together to change it. I respect them so much for their bravery.”
Of the artists she has encountered, two standouts are Grino and Misha Most. Grino and his crew primarily do giant murals of sorrowful Soviet women that, according to Zimberg, are “beautiful, painful [and] nostalgic.”
Most, who is now venturing into the world of galleries as well as street art, does many types of work, including critiques of the Russian constitution by writing passages of the constitution on canvases and walls and blocking out words. (See his work at www.mishamost.com.)
“Not many people really think of the constitution,” says Most, who considers his work a social project.
The Post-Soviet Graffiti logo was designed by a friend of Zimberg, Rebeccah Mary Hartz of Montreal.
“The logo’s image is taken from a common theme in Eastern European/Russian graffiti,” Hartz says. “The government’s censorship of media outlets leaves citizens feeling forcibly blinded from the reality of their surroundings and gagged from expressing their truths. But the use of graffiti in these countries constitutes an underground alternative to government-manipulated journalism, and is a valuable forum for an otherwise stifled population.”
Through her work with Post-Soviet Graffiti, Zimberg has begun to plan different events in Metro Detroit.
“My goal is to one, create community that doesn’t have to do with bars [but is] based on values, education and cultural tradition,” Zimberg says.
“Two, raise awareness. I have a mission and an agenda: I want people to know that in Hungary, Jewish life is threatened. I want them to ask questions about it, and I want to talk about it as much as possible.
“And three, create discourse — get people talking to each other and talking to me about expression and alternative expression and inspire them to express themselves in non-harmful ways.”
• Alexis Zimberg will be showing fieldwork photographs from her travels to Eastern Europe through July 25 at the Janice Charach Gallery in the Jewish Community Center in West Bloomfield as part of the exhibit “Let My People Go: The Soviet Jewry Movement 1967-1989.” She also will be giving a lecture entitled “The Spray Can is Mightier Than the Sword” at 7 p.m. on Thursday, June 20. This event is free and open to the public.
• She also is a partner of Cinema Tov: Detroit Jewish Film Lab, which will be showing 400 Miles to Freedom, the story of an Orthodox Jewish community in Ethiopia, at 6 p.m. on Sunday, June 16, at the Isaac Agree Downtown Synagogue. For more on upcoming movie showings, visit their Facebook page at “Cinema Tov: Detroit Jewish Film Lab.”
• Zimberg, as part of Post-Soviet Graffiti, is opening a store on Etsy.com to sell prints of her street art photographs as well as copies of her books and merchandise featuring the Post-Soviet Graffiti logo. Her second book, Post-Soviet Graffiti; Free Speech in the Streets, will be released this summer. Pre-sale for the book begins June 20 on amazon.com and her website (www.postsovietgraffiti.com); order forms also will be available at her Charach Gallery lecture.
By Nicole Goodman, JN Intern