Five Contemporary Polish Artists Engaging with Race
This essay showcases the different strategies of representing race and ethnicity deployed by five Polish artists in relatively recent solo shows. The theme of race was central to some of the shows, while it appeared more marginal in others. Representing race turned out to be complicated by the viewing context, including the location and the medium in which the work was exhibited.
There are two major ways that ethnicity and race play a part in Polish history and in present-day Poland. One is the historically strong Jewish presence, which ended with the Shoah. Additionally, after the war ended, mass emigration and the partial cultural erasure of surviving Polish Jews was instigated by the Communist authorities, who instrumentalized anti-Semitism for political ends. The recent resurgence of Jewish culture in Poland has partly reversed this cultural dynamic, if not the demographic count. The other area is the contemporary prominence of race in global mass culture, which in Poland stands in stark contrast to the very small number of non-white residents. One reason is that the country never held overseas colonies and was not involved in the African slave trade. Moreover, for economic and cultural reasons, Poland is not usually seen as a desirable destination for non-white immigrants. (Most of its immigrants and very numerous foreign seasonal workers come from neighboring Ukraine.) The 2015 election, which installed the current right-wing regime, had been decided in part by the Right’s successful fear-mongering about the supposed threat posed by African and Middle Eastern migrants entering the country and settling there. These fears have since subsided, but Poland’s relative ethnic homogeneity remains an object of pride and a continuing political goal for the Right. Even more concerning is the fact that the xenophobia instigated by the Right has not provoked a sustained public debate about ethnicity and race.
The artists discussed below engage with aspects of Polish history as it pertains to ethnicity and race, as well as with contemporary debates about race. They do so in several ways and with differing degree of success. Four of the five artists expressly wished to incite and inform a debate about ethnicity and race, in part by importing strategies and discourses which had been tested in Western Europe and in North America. (One was more overtly focused on class.) Conversely, two of the artists were confronted with these critical discourses being applied to their work. All of them were on a frolic of their own when tackling race and ethnicity (as well as class) in the sense that none of them was invited to focus on these subjects by the curators or gallery owners in the respective exhibitions discussed here. All of them had sufficient stature to freely choose their subject-matter. They also represent a generation more interested in the question of race than their immediate predecessors. (Four of the five are in their thirties or early forties.) Of the five shows, three took place in Warsaw, one in Cracow, and one in Birmingham, in the UK; one of the Warsaw shows travelled to Belgium and France, and the Cracow show was linked to an international human rights festival. One of the five artists is a woman and four are men. The analysis draws on informal conversations with the artists and, in some cases, also with gallery owners who hosted the shows.(I am especially indebted to the five artists discussed here—Adam Adach, Przemek Branas, Irena Kalicka, Karol Radziszewski, and Radek Szlaga—and to Michał Suchora of the BWA Gallery in Warsaw, as well as Sebastian Gawłowski of Leto Gallery, also in Warsaw, for conversations about the shows and for additional information they have kindly provided.)
Karol Radziszewski: Identity Politics
Let me begin with a brief discussion of the most straightforward example, Karol Radziszewski’s 2015 show Ali at BWA Gallery in Warsaw, which included Cubist-inspired portraits of August Agbola O’Browne (1895–1976), a professional jazz musician born in Lagos, in today’s Nigeria, who moved to Poland in the 1920s. The moniker “Ali” refers to O’Browne’s involvement in the underground resistance movement in Nazi-occupied Warsaw: “Ali” may have been the only Black participant in the unsuccessful 1944 uprising. O’Browne left Poland for the U.K. in the late 1950s. Radziszewski’s depictions of this little-known historical figure form part of his larger effort to make public memory in Poland more diverse. Radziszewski previously focused on non-heteronormative heroes and aspects of the past, designing a mildly homoerotic mural for a major museum dedicated to the 1944 uprising (the plan was rejected as allegedly offensive) and producing series of portraits of queer historical figures. Radziszewski has also been collecting artworks and artefacts which document Poland’s queer history under the auspices of the Queer Archive Institute, which he founded. His portraits of O’Browne’s reiterate the strategy of gay visibility while applying it to race. Radziszewski consistently offers a determinate affirmation of the social identities he presents. His work is read as progressive and even radical, as well as unpatriotic by right-wing standards, because making homosexuality and race visible disrupts the normative image of Polish national identity, exposing it as a social and political construct.(Photos from Radziszewski’s 2016 Ali show may be viewed on the BWA Gallery’s website: https://www.bwawarszawa.pl/index.php?action=exhibitions&lang=pl&id=41&s2=foto. The website contains the curator Konrad Schiller’s essay on the exhibition. Schiller remarks on O’Browne’s non-obvious place in Poland’s historical memory, but does not suggest any similarity to Radziszewski’s treatment of queerness. Noting the Cubist manner of the Ali series, he mentions Pablo Picasso’s 1948 visit to Poland to attend the World Congress of Intellectuals in Defense of Peace (http://www.bwawarszawa.pl/index.php?action=exhibitions&lang=pl&id=41&s2=texts&text_id=327). It is not unthinkable that O’Browne and Picasso crossed paths on the occasion.) Notably, Radziszewski produced work reflecting the racial diversity of Brazil, where he had spent time, without relying on a comparable strategy of seeking recognition of racial markings and identities. This difference in approach illustrates that the strategy of the Ali series was geared to the Polish context in which there is very little racial diversity, making the visibility of race especially significant.
Irena Kalicka: Mocking a Stereotype
Irena Kalicka, too, draws on Polish history, but focuses on mocking stereotypes rather than minting positive portraits of minority members of society. Known for her snapshot images of people wearing clown faces, she employed both make-up and masks in a 2015 show called The Horse You See Is the Horse You Get (New Athens) at the F.A.I.T. Gallery in Cracow. The show’s title quotes an entry from the first Polish encyclopedia, New Athens, dating from the mid-eighteenth century and authored by the clergyman Benedykt Joachim Chmielowski, a dedicated dilettante. His entry for “horse” most literally translates as “Everyone can see what a horse is like” (Koń jaki jest, każdy widzi) and may have been intended as comic relief in a compendium arranged thematically rather than alphabetically. The phrase has come to represent the manner in which New Athens is filled with trivia and made-up, frequently nonsensical information, such as drawings “from nature” of non-existent creatures. It is readily recognizable to Polish speakers, who learn about New Athens in school as an example of an Enlightenment project gone awry.
One of Kalicka’s photographs in the show presented a smiling man and woman, their nearly naked bodies and faces painted a deep brown, against an obviously artificial landscape filled with exotic animals and lush vegetation. The work alludes to the so-called ethnographic gaze, which exoticizes Africans and other indigenous peoples. In an interview, Kalicka confirmed her intention to mock commonplace but misguided ideas about race, such as those perpetuated in century-old nursery rhymes whose lyrics infantilize Black people, in racist jokes repeated without reflection by people who may have never met a Black person, and in other gestures so transparent that they seem innocent to those who perform or witness them. Using irony, Kalicka amplified such familiar gestures in order to make their racist meaning apparent. In the show, her focus was not only on race but also on misogyny, homophobia, uncritically held religious views, and the widespread veneration of Catholic clerics, among others.(Anna Bartosiewicz, “Gra w Polskę” [Playing the game called Poland] (Interview with Irena Kalicka), Czas kultury (December 7, 2016). Online http://czaskultury.pl/czytanki/gra-w-polsk/.) The F.A.I.T. Gallery in Cracow, known for its activist practice, was a good fit for this critical project. (F.A.I.T., pronounced ‘fight,’ stands for Foundation – Artists – Innovation – Theory). At the time, F.A.I.T. was cooperating with Trans*Festival, a Cracow-based international event focused on transgender rights and gender variance. The Festival was organized by a foundation called Culture for Tolerance (Kultura dla Tolerancji). Among the participants were activists from Trans-Fuzja, a Warsaw-based NGO advocating for transgender rights, as well as other activists from Poland and from abroad. The opening of Kalicka’s show was programmed as an official Festival event and Kalicka was approached for an image with which to promote the Festival online. She offered a photograph similar to the one described above, in which the two models are crouching. Arguably, the patently artificial representation of race could be associated with gender understood as a social construct and yet burdened with naturalizing prejudice.
After the photo was posted online and before the Festival began, prospective participants from France and Sweden protested the use of this photograph, denouncing it as racist for using blackface. The protest was joined by others, from Poland and abroad. In response, Kalicka and the Festival organizers picked another of her photos to post online and, once the Festival began, they scheduled a debate at the gallery. A small number of Festival participants attended in order to demand that the photo of the two models similar to the one which had been posted online be removed from the show. According to Kalicka, these participants declined to see the show or even enter the exhibition space. After Kalicka and F.A.I.T. refused to censor her show, a group of Trans*Festival participants disrupted its opening.
Kalicka acknowledged being aware of the significance of blackface and of its place in racial stereotyping in the aforementioned interview. Indeed, that is why she had included blackface in her show, treating it much the way one might treat children “playing Indians”: as a practice which may seem innocent but is not. Her referencing of Chmielowski’s encyclopedia underscores the danger of uncritical acceptance of common knowledge, especially knowledge of the Other. At the time of Chmielowski’s writing, his claims were widely shared by his readers. While we are in a position to laugh at the exoticizing and frankly fantastical gaze he was casting on faraway lands and their inhabitants, our awareness of his patent errors does not necessarily save us from making our own mistakes in the present. Kalicka’s overt reference to New Athens was thus supposed to underscore the message that seemingly innocent, even unintended, stereotyping is dangerous and wrong, with other works in the show providing examples other than race. However, the context of New Athens was likely unavailable to non-Polish viewers in particular, while they and others assumed blackface to be inherently racist. Moreover, the work’s dissemination as an isolated image used to announce an activist event, posted online and thus viewed outside the context of the rest of the show, may have abetted the negative response.
The same set of images did not meet with comparable opprobrium in other contexts and Kalicka was exonerated from the charge of racism by some Polish art critics in the mostly informal debates which ensued. In 2016, Kalicka donated a print of the image originally used by the Trans*Festival to be auctioned off at a charity event whose profits went to a cause in Nairobi.(The auction “Poznawać, działać, dzielić się” [Learn, Act, Share], organized by Fundacja Razem Pamoja was held on January 27, 2016. Kalicka’s photo is Lot 16 in the auction catalogue. Radek Szlaga’s Kolonie (2015), mentioned below, is Lot 66. The photographed lots may be viewed online: https://artinfo.pl/wyniki-aukcji/aukcja-sztuki-poznawac-dzialac-dzielic-sie?page=1. Both these lots found buyers.) That same year, the works previously exhibited in Cracow were shown at the Profile Foundation Gallery in Warsaw in a solo show named after another quote from the infamous encyclopedia, “It’s hard to slay the dragon, but you must try” (Smoka pokonać trudno, ale starać się trzeba).(See the gallery’s website: http://www.fundacjaprofile.pl/index.php?id=376.)
Adam Adach: The Use of Color
Artists working abroad (or partly abroad) and those more directly engaged with discourses about ethnicity and race circulating in the so-called “global West” may find it easier to negotiate the untidy waters of rendering race, though their intentions may not always be legible when they exhibit in Poland. Radziszewski, who spent time in Brazil and elsewhere, is one case in point, in that his reliance on the politics of visibility is arguably an example of such engagement. Adam Adach, the oldest of the five artists discussed here, who has lived in France for many years, is another. His treatment of race is linked to his representations of queer sexuality, making him similar to Radziszewski. Unlike Radziszewski, however, Adach also embroils the representation of race in his use of color. Adach is also overtly interested in a decolonial perspective.
His show Representation took place at the BWA Gallery in Warsaw in June 2012 and was concurrent with the UEFA European Football Championship. At the time, the BWA Gallery (which also represents Radziszewski) was located across the road from a brand-new sports arena built expressly for the games. The arena, dubbed the National Stadium, is shaped like a gigantic, folkloristic basket woven from stripes of white and red, the colors of the Polish flag. The show’s title, “Representation,” invokes a term used for the national football team’s activity—that is, the team taking part in an international sports tournament on behalf of a participating country.
Adach’s show played on the polysemy of “representation.” Some works, such as Malevich Hooligans (2012), used colors corresponding to national banners and folk costumes to portray soccer players while invoking art history. Several others depicted soccer fans as a group of shirtless men in a homosocial setting, suggesting a link between nationalism and homosociality (Żyleta, 2012). Two paintings: Józef Klotz (2012) and Ezi, Ezi (2012), based on photographic images of famous Polish soccer players from the interwar years, who both played in the very first Polish national team, complicated the notion of nationality implied in representation: one memorized Józef Klotz, a Polish Jew who perished in the Holocaust, the other Ernest Wilimowski, a Silesian who subsequently played for the official team of Nazi Germany.
Several works thematized representation by commenting on painterly technique, especially the use of color. A small-sized portrait of an anonymous soccer fan, titled Fun (which Adach appears to regard as near-homophonous with “fan”), employed the white and the red of the Polish flag, as well as grey. In the picture, a young man has had the flag painted, make-up like, on his forehead. In the manner of a soccer fan attending a game, he is also wearing a red-and-white scarf around his neck but, in a departure from realism, the scarf bears the Greek letters alpha and omega, suggesting that the man may regard his national belonging and his dedication to soccer as the be-all and end-all of his identity. In an earlier, publicized version of the work, the young man was sporting the Polish flag also on his cheeks, which Adach erased the night before the show opened, giving the man a bit of a blush by smearing the red and white together.(Adam Adach, “Reprezentacja,” Czas kultury 1 (2012): 7. The image on this page is that of Fun before the final alteration I am describing. Some other works from the same show are reproduced on pages 4–6 and 8–11.) The man’s faint blush and his sullen gaze suggest shame at seeing his team lose, with Fun ironically (and prophetically, in 2012) commenting on the Polish representation’s slim chances.
The painterly tradition of using red and white to render “white” skin—and hence the representational modalities of “race”—is evoked explicitly with Incarnata (2012). The word refers to a mixture of white and red (carmine) paint used for that purpose. It is etymologically close to “incarnate,” which suggests embodiment, and to “incarnadine,” an adjective for bright crimson or pinkish red. Adach’s Incarnata comments on bodies and power. As displayed in the show, though reputedly repainted later, Incarnata defied its eponymic reference to the painterly tradition of using red-and-white by admixing yellow and brown in its rendering of a group of nude men playing soccer with a human head instead of a ball.
The work has been read as commenting on homophobia, a reading that Adach asserted in an interview: the nude soccer game connotes gay erotic imagery, while the use of brown and yellow connects these bodies to fecal and urinary imagery, implying social stigma via the stereotypical association of gay sexuality with body waste.(Arek Gruszczyński, “Flaga Polski na czole” (interview with Adam Adach), Dwutygodnik 82 (2012), https://www.dwutygodnik.com/artykul/3542-flaga-polski-na-czole.html.) The use of yellow is also reminiscent of Adach’s earlier work For Such Thing as Love (2009), which depicts an encounter between two male figures. (A subsequent correction reputedly covered up the brown and yellow in Incarnata, a gesture with which Adach may have renounced the negative stereotyping he had critically represented in the 2012 version.)
Little attention has been paid to the way the original color scheme of Incarnata made the soccer players appear non-Caucasian. According to BWA Gallery co-owner Michał Suchora, in depicting a soccer match in which a severed human head serves as a ball, Adach was inspired by the Lisbon-based anthropologist Ricardo Roque, who describes a similar ritual that had been practiced on Timor Island to render a defeated enemy truly powerless. (However, severed heads were thought to be potentially dangerous and capable of biting.) Roque argues that the island’s Portuguese colonizers mimicked indigenous headhunting customs by collecting skulls and transporting them to Coimbra, where they were studied and displayed, and where they are still kept at the Science Museum, though the general public may no longer view them.(Ricardo Roque, Headhunting and Colonialism. Anthropology and the Circulation of Human Skulls in the Portuguese Empire 1870–1930 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010). An unsigned essay, written by critic and the BWA Gallery’s then co-owner Tomasz Plata, traces the ritual game to the Portuguese colony on Timor Island while calling the players homosexual: http://www.bwawarszawa.pl/index.php?action=exhibitions&lang=eng&id=12&s2=info. (The essay’s attribution to Plata was possible thanks to present co-owner Michał Suchora).)
Given the reference to Timor’s colonial history, the yellow and brown used by Adach in the original Incarnata demands to be read as connoting racial difference in a colonial context. Adach appears to be drawing an analogy between racism and homophobia, much as he does between nationalistic fervor and homosociality in some other works in the show. His approach is distinctly social-constructivist, and his painting technique underscores this. However, the reference to race was scarcely noted; for example, it barely figures in the interview referenced above. Adach’s allusions to ethnic diversity in interwar Poland and his comments on homosociality and homophobia were far more prominent in the show’s local reception.
Radek Szlaga: Self-ironic Identification with African Americans
Radek Szlaga, too, has been living abroad, intermittently residing in the US ever since his family of origin left Poland for Detroit in the late 1990s and he stayed behind to attend art school. His 2015 show All the Brutes at the Leto Gallery in Warsaw stands out among my examples because it tackled race directly, not least by referencing African Americans. It offered a reflection on “color” (and its racial connotations), straddled the Polish and the US contexts, and combined a broad decolonial perspective with a critical, often self-ironic, regurgitation of racializing stereotypes.
The show, which traveled to Belgium and France, was inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899) and its protagonist’s ambivalent call to “exterminate all the brutes,” as well as the novella’s many cultural reverberations, including Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Szlaga recreated scenes and introduced quotes from Conrad and from Coppola. He also reenacted some artistic gestures which they provoked, such as Christopher Wool’s word painting Apocalypse Now (1988). He further drew on historical contexts unrelated to the Belgian Congo or the Vietnam War, for example, by paying homage to Wilhelm Sasnal’s Shoah (Forest, 2003), itself a tribute to Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985).A word painting titled—and spelling—Kolonie (2015) deploys the red lettering on whitish ground emblematic of the Solidarity movement from the 1980s, with the signature white-and-red flag flown over the letter ‘n.’ Kolonie means both “colonized territories” and “summer camp,” a double entente underscored when Szlaga created a diptych of the same title (2016).(The 2016 diptych is reproduced in Anna Sańczuk, “Rozterki ‘późnej polskości’: Co zrobić z kimś, kto urodził się w Polsce i jest niewierzącą osobą czy gejem? Czy to wyklucza go ze wspólnoty?” [The dilemmas of ‘late Polishness’: What to do about someone born in Poland who is not a believer or who is gay?], Gazeta Wyborcza, May 13, 2017, https://weekend.gazeta.pl/weekend/1,152121,21567712,rozterki-poznej-polskosci-co-zrobic-z-kims-kto-urodzil.html. Works from Szlaga’s 2015 solo show are reproduced in Radek Szlaga, All the Brutes (Warsaw: Fontarte Editions, 2015).) Given the color scheme and the inclusion of the Polish flag, the work’s polysemy is even more encompassing. Kolonie alludes, on the one hand, to Poland’s partition by its neighbors from the late 18th century until the end of the Great War and its subsequent subjugation as part of the Soviet bloc, which the Solidarity movement protested. On the other hand, it alludes to territories that Poland controlled at various moments in history, and which were or are now parts of Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldova, Romania, and the Czech Republic, as well as the ludicrously fantastic plans to acquire overseas colonies formulated in the short period of Poland’s restitution between the two World Wars. These past events and misguided colonial projects may be linked to attitudes toward ethnically distinct and strategically racialized groups. For example, prior to Poland’s political collapse in the eighteenth century, members of its landed gentry widely thought of themselves as Sarmatians rather than Slavs, and therefore as ethnically distinct from the peasantry over whom they lorded, as well as from other groups, including the Ruthenians and the Ashkenazi Jews.
Szlaga treats the mythologizing of the nation’s past—some of it still holding sway over political discourse—with a healthy dose of ironic, and self-ironic, distance. Time spent in the US, where many would be hard-pressed to locate Poland on the world map, may have inspired Republics (Poland and Congo) (2015), in which a contour of Poland is placed next to that of the Democratic Republic of Congo, underscoring the similarity of their shapes and humorously suggesting their mutual exchangeability, perhaps also with respect to elements of their histories.In Republics (Poland and Congo), the letters “RPBLK” in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas may be variously deciphered, for example, as standing for “Republik” or for the Republic of Poland (abbreviated RP) followed by the word “black” (BLK). Conrad’s writings inspire Szlaga partly because they allude to the impossibility of putting one’s message across in an unequivocal way. The seeming inevitability of the fiasco of communication is arguably compounded by the experience of being a migrant and relying on a foreign language, an experience which Conrad and Szlaga share. Interviewed by the US-born, Brussels-based curator and gallerist Harlan Levey (who hosted the show in Belgium), Szlaga says: “One of the things that made me feel so close to this text [Heart of Darkness] was how Conrad gives the reader scraps of puzzles. I usually treat the viewer in a similar way when I construct an exhibition.” Referring to Conrad’s prose, he adds, “It’s an intentional riddle.”(Harlan Levey, “Harlan Levey In Conversation with Radek Szlaga,” in: Radek Szlaga, All the Brutes (Warsaw: Fontarte Editions, 2015), 27.)
A number of works in the 2015 show allude to the color line and engage with racial stereotyping in ways that make it difficult to pin down Szlaga’s message, which is tightly intertwined with palimpsestic meanings and outright irony. For example, one work pictures cans filled with white and black paint, another a man working on a large-format facial portrait of an ape, yet another of an ape painting, and so on. Shown as a group, these works defied interpretation in the sense that they implicated their author in the very stereotyping which they critiqued by putting it mockingly on display. The artistic strategy is partly similar to that used by Kalicka. However, Szlaga’s ironic self-questioning is more personal, even confessional in character. In this vein, Cliché (2014), which was part of the show, is one of many black male nudes that Szlaga refers to as his self-portraits, though of course they are not literally self-portraits. Rather, this designation acknowledges his long-standing—if also avowedly wishful and ultimately fantastical—self-identification with African Americans. “That’s me in the painting called Cliché: A self-portrait of a wannabe with a gentle face and an intimidating body,” he says in the same interview.(Levey, 36.) Szlaga’s identificatory fancy, while it romanticizes African Americans, is offered self-ironically. The work’s entire right-hand side is taken up by a blank white space, somewhat smaller than the part occupied by the seated male figure. The rectangle of white marks the accompanying image as dreamwork and, specifically, as a white man’s fantasy, introducing a sense of distance and reminding us that the word cliché is a synonym for stereotype.
Szlaga avoids excepting himself from the possibility of harboring unexamined racist views by implicating himself in the racializing gestures which he critically portrays and by doing so in a seemingly candid, almost confessional manner. He seems aware that his status as a white man is simultaneously enabling and limiting, even as he mitigates this partly US-specific positionality by occasionally underscoring that he is an East European. The dialogue and tension between his ethnically Polish and his partly US-based perspectives translate into “an intentional riddle,” as Szlaga actively, but also self-ironically, interrogates his sense of identity.
Przemek Branas: Class versus Race
The tropes of self-questioning and self-irony are no less evident in the work of Przemek Branas, a performance and visual artist who often works with masks, and who is my final and most recent example. His 2019 exhibition at the Centrala space in Birmingham, I Is Somebody Else, featured a larger-than-life, grotesque male figure made from cardboard packaging instead of marble: the monumental colossus imitated, in a broadly generic way, statues that Branas examined during a residency in Florence.(Photos from the show may be viewed in an online mention by the Szum art magazine: “‘I Is Somebody Else’ Przemka Branasa w galerii Centrala,” Szum, July 30, 2019, https://magazynszum.pl/i-is-somebody-else-przemka-branasa-w-galerii-centrala/.) The sculpture, currently in the collection of a textile museum in Poland, looks like a cross-over between an armored knight and Frankenstein’s creature: roughly hewn, with powerful-looking legs, broad shoulders, and ears sticking out. Brand names and logos—Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Prada, Nike, Adidas, Acne, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga, Miu Miu, Dior, Hermès Paris, and others—adorn the cardboard corpus, turning it into material text, much like accessories and tattoos might commodify and objectify the human body.(Michał Różyc, who included Długi in an exhibition he was curating at the Central Textile Museum in Łódź, Poland, applies the term “dandy” to the piece in a short promotional film posted on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/marcin.rozyc.75/posts/10223912036330885.) The work’s title Długi means “big” or “long,” referencing both the oversized figure itself and the tube-like prosthetic protrusion at its center, reminiscent of a codpiece or a male chastity device. The word długi is also the plural of “debt,” for example, mieć długi means to be in debt, or, to have loans to repay, an allusion perhaps to the expensive labels displayed on the man’s body.Branas has not explicitly described Długi as a self-portrait, but the sculpture is one of many instances in which he has donned humanoid or animalistic masks and other objects of his making or attempted to otherwise inhabit them in performative contexts. It is therefore reasonable to regard the cardboard colossus as a displaced reflection of its maker’s “I” recast as “somebody else,” as the show’s title suggests. Similar to Szlaga, Branas is engaging in ironic self-questioning as he puts forward a phantom object of desire which is also a model for vicarious self-identification. Unlike Szlaga, Branas may not have been attempting an identification with a racialized other in Długi but—whether intended by Branas or not—a reading in terms of race has been part of the work’s reception abroad. To illustrate, in an email message sent to the gallery, a free-lance writer based in the U.K., who attended the show’s opening, commented on its “uncomfortable content,” exemplified in part by “racist imagery” in Długi.(The information about the content of this message and its sender comes from Przemek Branas.)
In the Birmingham show, the striking giant was placed on a podium made from more cardboard boxes that had once contained bananas, which Branas picked up at a Warsaw supermarket. (Branas exclusively used boxes discarded by store owners, collecting them from the streets in Warsaw and in Florence.) The boxes “grounded” the figure in the physical sense while the repeated pattern of a smiling monkey face on the side of the boxes added an animalistic flourish below the glorified human figure, likening it to a monument. The reference to bananas provided also a more figurative grounding by suggesting a nutrition regime linked to body building. This association with an inexpensive nutrient from a supermarket chain contrasted with the impression of luxury induced by the brand names adorning the figure itself.
This monkey face image on the banana boxes was described as “racist” in the aforementioned communication. However, there has been no indication from the show’s curator that the work was about race.(The Birmingham show was curated by Dominik Kuryłek, who is based in Poland. His curatorial essay makes no mention of race.) Neither was a consideration of race specifically intended by the artist. In the Polish context, Długi appears to be, first of all, a comment on masculinity and its relationship to class rather than race. It mockingly portrays a popular style of being male through body-building and donning particular, often pricey brands of clothing and accessories (authentic or fake). While this mode of performing masculinity is linked to ethnicity and race because fashions in clothes and body styles may reverberate with these social distinctions, as they do with class, the association between the look one cultivates and race is likely to vary with geographic and social context. The Polish slang expression seba (or sebix), used for the type of male persona depicted in Długi, apparently derives from the name Sebastian. The name is thought to be pretentious: it connotes parvenu class posturing, not race. In such a place as Poland, where almost everyone is white, a gym body wearing certain brand names is less likely to prompt an association with blackness than it might in the US or the UK. Had this association even been made in Poland, it would likely have been mediated through representations circulating in popular culture rather than based on direct observation. It is therefore no coincidence that a reading in terms of race has presented itself when the work was exhibited in a context characterized by greater ethnic and racial diversity.
The image of the monkey face and the response it provoked brings to mind Kalicka’s attempt to ironize a stereotypical image. Unlike Kalicka, however, Branas was not aiming to address race as such but overtly focused on class. Subsequent to the Birmingham show, he created a series of collages of the colossus’s face in which he experimented with color in ways that may be related to race. As he continued to recycle cardboard reclaimed from packaging, his “skin colors” included pale beige and black, as well as blue. I read these uses of color as a deconstructionist gesture that figuratively put quotation marks around “race.” An earlier example of a similarly deconstructionist treatment of race is his The Birth of Black and White (2016), which consists of two versions of a child’s head, one black, the other white, and a pool of wood tar previously presented in a 2016 group show called Masters Peasants, Peasants Masters, which focused in part on the history of class relations in Poland.(The exhibition called Masters Peasants, Peasants Masters was curated by Wojciech Szymański and Magdalena Ujma in two provincial locations in southeastern Poland in 2016. The Origin of Black and White was presented at the Razem Pamoja Foundation in Cracow in 2016. The pool of tar exemplifies Branas’s frequent use of olfactory effects; Branas has previously used the smell of bananas in his performances.) In this show, the potent odor of wood tar had a similarly “grounding” function as the banana boxes in Długi, as it overtly referenced physical labor with its smells and its dirt, forging an association with the abjected lower classes. (The show partook in an unfolding debate about the mistreatment of peasants by the landowning elite throughout much of Polish history.) By redeploying the wood tar in The Birth of Black and White, where it was positioned next to the pair of heads, Branas mapped “the color line” of race onto the sharp class distinction characteristic of a feudal economy, implying that class precedes and determines race. Branas, who repeatedly spent time in Southeast Asia, has previously produced photographic images and other works which may be read as reflecting race. However, race has not been the main subject of any of his works apparently due to his decision to focus on social and economic inequality stemming from a range of factors.
This brief survey first of all suggests, perhaps not surprisingly, that artists drawing primarily on the Polish context when addressing race have been confronted with criticism expressed by viewers coming from places of greater racial diversity and ones in which the public debate about race has evolved in ways which are not the case in Poland. The 2015 controversy regarding Kalicka’s photograph vividly illustrates this point. A response to Branas’s UK show also suggests that work resonating as critical commentary in the Polish context may be viewed from another, explicitly race-inflected angle when presented in a more racially diverse context. By contrast, the artists whose engagement with race seems relatively seamless may be those who draw on a visual language used elsewhere for engaging this issue, and who effectively import this language into the Polish context. Radziszewski’s affirmative representation of race in the 2015 Ali series falls most neatly into this category. However, such borrowing is not always easily performed. Significantly perhaps, Adach did not discuss race when interviewed about his 2012 show, though he acknowledged the colonial subtext of Incarnata. The omission of race may suggest that Adach views representing race in Poland as a still-unresolved problem even though his rendering of ethnic diversity in interwar Poland did not present the same challenge and was obviously readable to the local audience. Szlaga’s self-mocking “self-portraits,” in which he vicariously identifies with African Americans in a gesture with which he regurgitates and simultaneously critiques racializing stereotypes, betray a certain productive unease about tackling racial difference. Arguably, Szlaga’s engagement with race is the most consistent and deliberate among the five artists discussed here, not least because it depends on an implied comparison between the US and the Polish contexts: one in which race has been consistently prominent in public discourse, the other in which its rather occasional articulation has not (yet?) resulted in a sustained debate. However, it bears emphasizing that a debate focused on “the color line,” characteristic, among others, of the US context, is not the only way to address race. Adach’s invocation of a postcolonial perspective and Branas’s determinate reading of class as causally underlying racial distinction are alternative ways of thinking about ethnicity and race. Such conceptual diversification has the potential to produce representations best suited to reflect localized histories.
This article is part of the Special Issue Art and Race in Contemporary Central and Eastern Europe. You can find links to the other articles in the special issue below: