This post originally appeared on VICE Romania.
On January 7, 2015, the whole world was in mourning after the shootings at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. A day after that, a frightened Romanian government spoke of instating a big brother-esque law, forcing cellphone providers to retain their clients data and hand it over to the authorities when asked. While the law was being debated in the government's Victoria Palace, a couple of young protesters holding some signs that read "Freedom of Expression" staged a demonstration. Another protester held a drawing of a man being shot with machine guns. Both drawings were by artist Dan Perjovschi.
And they weren't the only ones. From the Roșia Montană marches against cyanide mining in Romania, to the Turkish protests in Gezi Park, and the social movements against the Brazilian World Cup, Perjovschi's drawings have been printed out and used as banners all around the world.
But his work has had the strongest impact in Romania, because for a long time, nobody cared about youth movements in his home country. The media refused to cover them, considering activism, as a whole, irrelevant, unless it was done by the major political parties. When Perjovschi, an internationally renowned artist, backed the local protests with his art, it began to convince a lot of people of the importance of fighting for a cause you believe in.
Perjovschi's drawings make you laugh at first. Then, slowly but surely, they leave you with a bitter taste. To find out more about the man behind the drawings, I arranged a meeting.
"I was born in 1961, when the Berlin wall was built," Perjovschi tells me. "I come from the side that didn't have any graffiti on it."
Ever since he was a child, Perjovschi loved to draw. When he was ten years old, he took his first step into the world of Soviet art when his parents sent him to art school in Sibiu.
"I didn't realize that things were so bad. I was young living in Sibiu—a nice city with girls, love, and Lia," says the artist, remembering the young woman who would eventually become his wife. "We were in the same class when we were ten. We became friends in the eighth grade, then had a nasty breakup, and found each other again right before the end of high school, when most people were splitting up."
But it wasn't long before he started to find out what it meant to grow up in a repressive regime that frowns on freedom of speech. "I was in high school, and when I opened my textbook, I noticed somebody had drawn a mustache on Ceausescu," Perjovschi says. "I thought to myself, Wow, what if the professor sees it? So I discreetly tore the page, slowly, so nobody would hear me."
But the teacher caught him and called the principal and the school council. She wanted to kick him out of school. "And I wasn't even trying to act like a dissident—I was just trying to cover my ass."
Because he didn't tear up any other photos of Nicolae Ceausescu, Romania's second and last Communist leader, Perjovschi graduated and went on to art college in Iași. If you ask him now to tell you about his early work, he just makes a sour face, as you've just offered him a rotten apple. "I always hated painting," he told me. "I ended up majoring in it because there wasn't really an alternative. I did some absolutely horrible paintings. Some sort of boring surrealism."
After college, Perjovschi married Lia and moved to another city, Oradea, where he took a job as a museum curator. There he joined Atelier 35 Oradea, a platform for young artists. "I got there with my crappy painting style and those men influenced me. They worked with photography, and they experimented. Meanwhile, my wife had gone to college in Bucharest, and she exposed me to new ideas. That was my true education."
Perjovshci knew each of his works or exhibits would go through the filter of Communist censorship. He had to invent his own language, something which couldn't be a protest against dictatorship, but which also would not respect the status quo of paintings of flower pots and apple baskets. That's how he started making "little people."
"I was doing a sort of pattern; I would do a grid on paper and draw a little man in each square. The people in charge of censorship didn't get it. I would tell them, 'It's about industry, working men, whatever.' They figured out that I was pulling their leg, but they needed me to go through this act. In Oradea, we were a young group of experimentalists, but we couldn't attack the system. We were basically playing with our dicks in the sand, and they let us do it. But we were playing, not hiding."
Despite the Iron Curtain's closed doors, Dan Perjovschi's art left Romania before he did—in an envelope. He would send his work to foreign artists, and they would, in turn, respond with their artwork.
"There was an entire alternative trend in the West against the art market. I would send art to you, you would send art to me. Some even did entire exhibits in their workshops with what they received in the mail. Other works, which were more complex, were called visual poetry, and they were shown in museums. That's how I had my work exhibited in São Pauloback then. I would send my drawings of little men," explained the artist.
The rebellious streak came later for Dan Perjovschi. "Back then, I didn't do what I do now. I started fighting the dictatorship only after it was over."
When the Communist regime fell in 1989, Perjovschi was spending his Christmas with his family in Sibiu. That was the same city in which dictator Ceausescu's son resided, so it was full of security and armed forces. It became the scene of pandemonium, a city under siege, where nobody knew who was firing at whom.
"History was changed by the corpses of the people who marched in the streets," Perjovschi says. "I will never forget that a thousand people died, so I can speak now."
He's not a theoretical man, but one who likes to experiment. "I look at something and think, Does it make sense, doesn't it, does it say something? These objects are slightly strange, they function in a minimal setting, but if you look carefully, you could see more. They are like a society, so if you pull them, they bend, but you cannot break them," he says about his little wire men, a sculpture he's working on when we meet.
We arrive at the Regional Francophone Centre of Advanced Research in Social Sciences (CeReFREA) in Bucharest, where a curtain of little wire men hangs in the library of a classroom. Nearby is the lavish villa of the former Romanian PM, who just got released from prison.
Perjovschi remembers the last time he was in the Parliament: "I will never visit that horrible building again. This symbol, which has nothing to do with culture, dominates Romania—the parliament is currently housed in Ceausescu's former palace, which is one of the largest structures in the world. It's become sympathetic. Robbie William put on a concert in front of it this year. These things make it sweeter—they humanize it. I say that in my representations: It's on fridge magnets now. You stick the building on the fridge. It's a rare perversion. It's called the People's House, but the people have to buy a ticket to visit it!"
On the walls in CeReFREA, Dan Perjovschi puts the People's House where it belongs—in the background. The building is reduced to a blotch under his marker. The library is also decorated with some of the little men he made out of paper at the beginning of the 1990s, when he was in Germany on a scholarship. "Sometimes I have no mental strength left, so I let my hands do the work. I am ashamed to just sit around, because I'm an artist. This kind of activity helps me clear my mind. It helps me relax."
What do they represent? "You can imagine whatever you want about these dudes." And indeed you can: Some seem to dance, while others seem to fight. Their creator takes each one and makes them face each other, just like he convinces his audience to pay attention to his drawings.
To get a bigger picture about Perjovschi, I spoke to several people who knew him, from both the art world as well as activists and protesters.
"I saw something which made me freeze on that wall," says Olga Stefan, an ethnic Romanian curator, who was born in Chicago and lives in Switzerland. "There were hundreds of figurines drawn on paper, layers and layers of them. The work was signed by Dan Perjovschi."
The young woman was studying art management at the University of Chicago. Her Masters term paper was about the relationship between art and the development of civil society. It was the first time she heard the name of Dan Perjovschi, and she decided to contact him.
"He became my mentor for the Master's degree. He helped me, and he opened my eyes," says Stefan who, later, became a curator for his exhibits. "Dan Perjovschi's messages work on several levels. They leave conventional space. They go from museum walls to the street."
In the spring of 2013, Dan Perjovschi received a message. It was from Mihai Bumbeș, a former history student and a founding member of NGO Spiritual Militia, whose mission is to mobilize civic consciousness.
These were the first days of the Occupy University movement, where students from several universities around the country refused to leave their classrooms as a protest against the poor funding of the education system and government negligence.
The students from Bucharest invited Dan Perjovschi to support them. His drawings ended up covering the classrooms.
"He is an artist who constantly uses anti-systemic political messages in his creations," says Mihai Bumbeș. "He is a well-trusted person, and his 'minimalist' message has a strong impact on society, especially in the marginal intellectual groups. Also, he's very modest. Success never got to him."
Dan Perjovschi's drawings move people and are used everywhere from amphitheaters to protest fliers, because they are "smart, critical, concise, edgy, ironic, subversive, and in flux", says curator Simona Nastac, who currently lives in London. She organized Perjovschi's exhibit, Drawings in the Factory, in May 2014, in the city of Suceava.
"He creates a space for critical reflection and convinces the public to participate, to enter a dialogue," says Nastac. "Dan creates new drawings every day. He keeps you in check with what is happening around the world, and he inspires you to answer—to react."
It will come as little surprise, then, that when the protests concerning the Roșia Montană mining operation started, Dan Perjovschi couldn't just stand by. These were basically the first large youth protests in Romania since the early 1990s, and no major media outlet was talking about them, even though thousands of young people occupied the main streets of Bucharest and hit the asphalt with plastic bottles filled with pebbles to wake up the blazed city. On September 7, which was the seventh day of the protests, he told the protesters, "Keep calm and smash the plastic bottles" on Facebook. "The noise those bottles made, the rhythm made by hitting the asphalt with them was like a subliminal chant," says Perjovschi. "I've seen soldiers with riot shields who stomped the same rhythm with their boots."
"I would receive thousands of messages per day. I don't want to brag—I can't handle protests anymore, I had my fill in December 1989 when the regime fell. I couldn't imagine that such solidarity could exist again. For me, it was a great surprise, and I admired their protest. I grew up with another type of protest, where we were isolated in the middle of the city and the government surrounded us, so we stewed in our own juices."
Dan Perjovschi produced a lot of slogans for the Roșia Montană protests. Again, his drawings had spread through the streets. Just like they would spread in 2015, on January 8, when a protester could barely feel his hands from the cold after holding two papers with Perjovschi's messages. The protester, Alexandru Alexe, told me that he chose those messages because they underlined the essential points and anybody could understand them. "A drawing by Perjovschi helps everyone understand why we are protesting and what we want."