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The Birth of “Grassroots Feminism” in Poland

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Under slogans such as “Militant Polish woman or The Polish woman is not yet lost“, and in particular actions and works of art that are strongly provocative, women artists are hijacking patriotic symbols in order to expose their chauvinist and sexist nature, and to assert their rights in the public debate. Who are the leading figures in this “grassroots feminism”?

 

At the beginning of July 2018, some shocking messages appeared on the buildings of the Metropolitan Curia in Warsaw: “Murderers”, “THIS IS MY BLOOD AND THIS IS MY BODY – HANDS OFF! MITOCHONDRIAL EVE”, and on the pavement: “NO MORE HELL FOR WOMEN”. Under pressure from the Church, the Sejm had recently been re-examining the “stop abortion” project, pushed through by the religious fundamentalists, which included a ban on abortions even in the case of severe foetal defects. The messages had been written hurriedly, in red and black spray paint. Their very appearance breached taboos, and the content of one of them constituted outright blasphemy: the words of Christ were paraphrased and attributed to the hypothetical common ancestral woman, making her a defender of the women tormented by the Polish Church. The history of the Church, recognised in Poland as the source and guardian of cultural tradition, was audaciously juxtaposed with the much older and more universal history: after all, the hypothetical Eve lived about 200,000 years ago.

 

The feminists’ attack on the church buildings…

The feminists’ attack on the church buildings was deemed more than just an act of vandalism – it was considered sacrilege. The small number of people who spoke out in approval argued that this act constituted an appropriate response on the part of the women to the political involvement of the Church, to the war it was declaring on women by pushing through a complete ban on abortion. The feminist graffiti can be read as an invasion of the Church’s terrain – a response to the invasion of the women’s bodies that the Church was enabling. At first, this event shocked and amazed me (a border had been crossed that would have been intransgressible just a year or two ago), but I soon experienced a strange sense of relief, similar to the feeling that accompanies a coming storm after a muggy, stifling day. Yes, it had been hanging in the air, it was inevitable. But what was “it”? Let’s say, perhaps, that it was a certain rupture, an angry breaching of a contract. It is true that, in recent years, a new collective entity has emerged in the Polish public space, in the collective imagination and in the realm of art: that of furious women. This new female entity is angry, shameless, threatening and loud. Importantly, for some time now, it has ceased to be perceived as marginal or weird. It may arouse indignation, but it is no longer being dismissed. A feminist rebellion is taking place at the very heart of Polish culture, where up until now there had been silence – in the place where religion, national identity and corporeality meet. Until now, few had even peered into this space; now, all of a sudden, there’s uproar. It cannot be drowned out or silenced. Something has changed irreversibly. In order to understand the meaning of this change and to accurately decipher its manifestations in art, we need to re-examine a chapter of Polish history.

For two decades following the political changes of 1989, the subject of gender equality was neglected in the public sphere and referred to as a “supplementary” or “customary” issue. People joked that women’s rights was an abstraction that interested only a small number of feminists in Poland, while “normal women” were occupied with “real life”. If disputes over women’s rights were reported in the media, it was because the European Union was exerting pressure in this area – demanding legal regulations on discrimination in the workplace, for example. There was a consensus concerning the EU – this was a serious matter: first we aspired to it, then we tried to adapt to it. After all, we were returning to Europe, this was a momentous historical process. Europe had a strange obsession with equality, so we had to surrender – or rather, pretend to surrender. The thing is, there was one key player on the scene – the Catholic Church, which had clear views on this matter that happened to be contrary to those of the EU. It was under the pressure of the Church that an anti-abortion law was introduced in 1993; though one of the most restrictive in Europe, it was euphemistically labelled a “compromise”. This compromise was not to be publicly discussed, and feminists who tried to do so were denounced as insane. Why? In the period leading up to the accession referendum in 2003, there was a clear message that the Church should not be angered because without its support, Poland would not enter the EU. Following the accession, the Church was still not to be angered because it was believed that without its blessing, liberal democracy in Poland would come to an end. And so the topic of gender – not only the reproductive rights of women, but also domestic violence, political representation, and the rights of sexual minorities – was silenced for many years pursuant to an unwritten contract. Don’t upset the Church, because everything falls apart without it.

 

Today, we know that the calculation was incorrect…

Today, we know that the calculation was incorrect. It has fallen apart. We are witnessing the death of the young Polish democracy and the destruction of all the achievements of the Third Polish Republic. This is happening with the full approval of the Church; meanwhile, feminists have taken on a key role in defending democracy. I would argue that this unexpected shift in roles has had profound consequences for the awareness of Polish women, including those who do not identify themselves as feminists.

During the bizarre “compromise” between nationalist Catholicism and European liberalism, the voice of female rebellion was predestined to be marginal, but it was nonetheless present in literature, art and science, and occasionally also in the public sphere. It was the voice of opposition to the universally accepted “normality”, a voice from the shadows. At times, feminism has been a major talking point: a novel by Izabella Filipiak, “Absolute Amnesia” (“Absolutna amnezja”, 1995) caused quite a stir, the visual art of Katarzyna Kozyra and Anna Baumgart aroused interest, and Dorota Nieznalska’s installation “Passion” (“Pasja”, 2001) caused a scandal and led to a court case that was widely spoken about in Poland. The key figure for humanists is the theoretician Maria Janion – I believe she was the one who introduced feminism into the language of the Polish intelligentsia (“Women and the Spirit of Dissidence” / “Kobiety i duch inności”, 1996). Janion also provided patronage for an important exhibition, “The Polish Woman. Medium, Shadow, Image” (“Polka. Medium, cień, wyobrażenie”) at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw (2005), which incorporates contemporary feminist art into the history of Polish culture. Another extremely important work is a poem by Bożena Keff entitled “A Composition About Mother and Homeland” (“Utwór o matce i ojczyźnie”, 2009), in which the question of gender is interwoven with Polish-Jewish history and the grotesqueness of national martyrdom myths is ruthlessly exposed. From time to time, there have been flashes of energy around feminism in the public sphere: the first Manifas1 garnered attention (2000 onwards), and the Women’s Party and the Congress of Polish Women were established (2007 and 2009, respectively); literary critic and activist Katarzyna Bratkowska caused an uproar when she declared that she was pregnant and intended to get an abortion on Christmas Eve (2013). Each of these political, media and artistic events – and many others which I have omitted here – was an isolated case in the collective perception. It was not clear for whom Polish feminism was speaking, and there were many indications that it spoke only for itself. There was no female “people”, no demos, no collective body to which these statements and events could refer. But there was an unwritten agreement on the special role of the Church in Poland, and on women’s silence – that unfortunate “compromise”, which concerned not only abortion, but everything related to sex and sexuality that also has a political dimension. This agreement meant that the female “people” could not be construed as a fully-fledged entity of collective life. Women’s claims to full rights simply did not fit into the official narrative of “Poland’s return to Europe”. Feminism remained a cultural niche – creative, interesting, but marginal and having little impact on the course of history.

 

Granica pogardy

Granica pogardy (Border of contempt), photo © Katarzyna Nurowska.

 

Somewhere around 2013, the “compromise” was terminated…

Somewhere around 2013, the “compromise” was terminated. The contract was broken by the Church, which openly cut itself off from liberal democracy and entered into an alliance with the populist, anti-European right. Left-wing commentators had been observing the Church’s anti-liberal trend for years, but for the liberal mainstream, this only became clear during the “gender ideology war” initiated by the Church and the hate campaign pursued by the extreme right. This campaign attacked not only feminists, LGBT communities and sex educators, but also the entire liberal West, which was overtly demonised in anti-gender equality discourse as a “civilisation of death”. Poland played a special role in this story: it was supposed to be the mainstay of Christian values. The gender ideology campaign fomented social fears and antagonisms, strengthening not only homophobia and sexism, but also aggressive nationalism, which became a collective obsession during the refugee crisis. Attacks on gender equality activists were combined with the demonisation of refugees, spreading the message that gender equality weakens Poland, making us wimps, and that Poland needs to defend itself against an invasion from the “wilderness” that the EU intends to fund.

This, more or less, is the right-wing vision of the world and Poland which, in the autumn of 2015, led to the victory of the Law and Justice party (PiS) and allowed them to demolish the independent judiciary with impunity in 2018. Whereas in the 1990s and the first decade of the 21st century, the liberal elites were convinced that without subservience to the Church there would be no such thing as a European Poland, today the same elites perceive that it was in fact the many years of subservience to the Church that led to the defeat of democracy, and may be about to lead us out of the EU. The Church betrayed Polish democracy – this statement, which had previously resounded only on the margins of public debate, finally reached the awareness of the circle which had long considered the alliance of the state with the altar as indispensable2. The topic of gender unexpectedly found itself at the heart of the struggle for Polish democracy, with feminists widely recognised as political players. As I write these words, on 25 July 2018, on the front page of the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza is a photograph of female activists from the Women’s Strike protesting outside the Senate against the law destroying the independence of the judiciary. The heroine of the protests against the attack on the independence of the courts is Klementyna Suchanow, a writer and feminist who has been tracking the activity of the global anti-gender equality movement.

The violent offensive of the right wing in alliance with the Church caused a new political entity to appear in Polish culture: that of furious women. The fight for women’s rights turned out to be the same as the fight for democracy. After two decades of silencing, disrespect and ridicule, we have a female “people”, a collective political entity. Its most obvious incarnation is that of a social movement which is capable of extremely efficient mobilisation, well-connected, colourful and diverse. This “people” has no leader, although several important and respected frontwomen have emerged. It also has no cohesive ideology or world vision. It is anti-clerical, but not anti-religious – many of its participants are Catholics who are outraged by the political attitude of the Church hierarchy. When I say that there is a female “people”, I am thinking of something more than a collective body ready to go out onto the streets. What we are dealing with is a community of the imagination, a revolution of images, texts and songs. New phenomena have appeared in culture – not only individual works or trends in art, but also a certain language of expression, new forms of reception. The “black protests” that took place in 2016-2018 established a new female community of the imagination, expanding the space of what can be thought and said in Poland, including in the field of art.

 

What is the new female subject that speaks to the female “people”?

What is the new female subject that speaks to the female “people”? It’s no longer the ironical artist, the researcher, or the solitary author of dissertations on gender equality, but a witch, a Cassandra, an avenger speaking on behalf of “ordinary women” who have run out of patience. The art of angry women draws on the earlier achievements of Polish feminists, though it differs from them in an essential way. It is more radical, more embroiled in context, bolder, but also more egalitarian – it is pointedly directed towards a mass audience. It often borrows from, appropriates and transforms national symbolism. However, it aspires to universality – it talks about the global (not just the Polish) alliance of nationalism with religious fundamentalism, about the refugee crisis, and about ecology. These female artists draw strength from the long tradition of female anger, consciously referring to witches, revolutionaries and avengers. To the forces of nature. To humanity. And yes, to Mitochondrial Eve.

The close relationship between the culture of female protest and the new women’s art scene brought to my attention the exhibition “Polish Women, Patriots, Rebels” (“Polki, patriotki, rebeliantki”), which I saw in Poznań’s Arsenał Gallery in autumn 20173. As pointed out by the curator, Izabela Kowalczyk, the included works are immersed in the Polish political and cultural conflict, but they do not succumb to its logic. They consistently apply a strategy of “appropriations”: with angry irony, they adopt national symbolism for the female cause, revealing the exclusion of women from the collective body known as “the nation”, but also mocking the grotesque, flexing the muscles of the masculinity that occupies the centre of the national imagination. An excellent example of this strategy is Agata Zbylut’s “Gown” (“Suknia”) – a piece made of football scarfs, a symbol of the nationalist aggravation of recent years. To a large extent, its power results from the care with which it was made. With its elegance, the gown is clearly mocking football fan culture: the combativeness of the “scarves” is entangled in consumer culture, fashion and gadgetry.

Another example is Liliana Piskorska’s “Self-Portrait With A Rented Man, AKA: I’m A Polish Man So I Have Polish Duties” (“Autoportret z pożyczonym mężczyzną, aka: Jestem Polakiem więc mam obowiązki polskie”). The artist, who openly identifies as a lesbian and is previous known for her lesbian art project, captures an image of herself in a bed made up with commercially available “patriotic” bed sheets and a man with a shaved head sporting patriotic tattoos. The combination of the grandiose symbols with the idleness of the pose between the sheets, and the idea that a nationalist can be “rented”, provide a comic effect. But the picture also contains an element of terror. The ironic gaze of the artist seems to ask: Is it enough to survive in today’s Poland? Who is this man, where can he be rented, and what is the price for which he provides the lesbian with protection? The photograph is part of the series “Camouflage Methods in Contemporary Poland” (“Sposoby kamuflażu we współczesnej Polsce”, 2016), the intention of which, according to the artist, is to question the monopoly of the extreme right on patriotic symbols. Interestingly, the work itself succumbed to cultural “appropriation” when it became a popular online meme. Some commenters saw it less as a critique of nationalist culture, and more as a manifestation of it – an advertisement for the bedding used in the picture4. It is hard to say whether this response demonstrates the success of the work or constitutes its defeat. In some ways, the “camouflage” worked almost too well, and the fate of the work is a sad confirmation of the diagnosis that in today’s Poland, the only widely understood language is the language of nationalism. However, parallel works such as Zbylut’s “Gown” and Piskorska’s “Self-Portrait” function in feminist circulation as signs of resistance against male national hegemony. They are equally audacious – for example, the banners appearing during women’s protests inscribed with “Cursed wombs”, “Militant Polish woman” and “The Polish woman is not yet lost”.

 

Choeur de sorcières

The Witches’ Choir, photo © BTW_PHOTOGRAPHERS_MAZIARZ_RAJTER

 

How is the female “people” represented in the theatre?

How is the female “people” represented in the theatre? In recent years, I have been involved in several important performances referring to the current struggle for women’s rights: one of them is Oliver Frljić’s “The Curse” (“Klątwa”), another is Jolanta Janiczak’s “Wives of The State, Whores of The Revolution, or Maybe Learned Ladies” (“Żony Stanu, dziwki rewolucji, a może i uczone białogłowy”). The intensity of the political engagement of these performances is unprecedented in Polish theatre. In both cases, the audience is called on to fight the patriarchy, and to make their experiences and views public. At some point during “Wives of The State”, the auditorium is transformed into a street demonstration, and the audience, equipped with banners, file out to the front of the theatre. In one of the scenes in “The Curse”, an actress with an exposed stomach bearing the message “1,000 zlotys” enters into a dialogue with the audience: she asks the women present to say if they have had an abortion, then claims that many women have not owned up and accuses them of hypocrisy. In the end, she shows an ultrasound and says that she’s planning to have an abortion in the Netherlands.

This kind of audience participation is effective, but it remains theatrical. It’s only the musical performance of The Witches’ Choir (Chór Czarownic) that has caused me to emerge from the role of viewer and to feel part of a political and simultaneously creative community, the existence of which I’d had only an inkling of. The musical performance of the Choir owes its emotional strength to a bold combination of music, theatre and words, but also, I think, to the participation of people with no professional experience, enthusiasts for whom inclusion in this project is the adventure of a lifetime. The majority of the Choir’s members never learnt to sing. In their day-to-day lives they work in various different places. The axis of the entire undertaking, and the main source of the pathos within it, is the way in which the condition of women in contemporary Poland is combined with a dark chapter of women’s history.

The Choir was formed in 2016, on the initiative of activist and artist Ewa Łowżył, as part of a social campaign to restore the memory of women killed in Poland for alleged “witchcraft” (especially to commemorate the burning of the first Polish “witch” in 1511 in Chwaliszewo near Poznań). The lyrics are written by Malina Prześluga-Delimata and the songs are composed by Zbyszek Łowżył, Patryk Lichota and Malwina Paszek. As the creators wrote in the description of their show: “We don’t see this project as an opportunity to beat our breast for the blindness and atrocities of five hundred years ago. It is an attempt to confront history and folk superstitions with the present times in which atrocities, although they may manifest in a subtler way, are still committed. It is also an occasion to stop and take a look at one another – our culture, diversity, our everyday eccentricities and obsessions”5.”

 

The hateful comments that appear…

The hateful comments that appear under video clips of the Choir’s performances include frequent accusations of paganism, demonism and sectarianism. One reviewer accurately described the Choir’s performance as “a bizarre, dark oratorio”6. As a matter of fact, the Choir’s shows are an attempt to establish a female sacrum in a Catholic country where the culture persistently excludes women from this sphere. A dozen or so women stand before us; their figures emerge from the darkness. They are of various ages and have very different bodies – from the conventionally beautiful to the explicitly non-normative. The outfit – or rather, the lack of outfit – is key. The members of the Choir are demonstratively “undressed”, wearing only flesh-coloured cotton petticoats. They stand in a tight formation, strong emotions showing on their faces: anger, determination, despair. After a piercing instrumental introduction, we hear around a dozen songs that seem to be sung in a trance. Each of the witches’ songs is a wonderful feminist poem, but it’s not only the lyrics that are striking – it is also the extraordinary intensity of the performance, which resonates with the psychedelic music.

The performance of the Choir is a spectacular, angry curse directed towards the patriarchy – a refusal to participate in the conventional game of femininity, the denunciation of duty. Witches from the past materialise as modern Polish women and speak – or rather, shout – in a unified, inspirational voice. It is a voice that is incompatible with the endless demands on women, incompatible with accusations, with patriarchal obligation, with disregard, and with the anguish of everyday life:

I’m on fire, and still/ I’m on fire, and still/ The dinner to cook/ The children to raise/ Nails to bite/ Elbow-deep in laundry/ Make yourself a deity/ Potatoes and cabbage/ Non-fat yoghurt/ A pill for the headache/ The butter’s finished/ Be nice, be nice…, be nice, be nice.7

The witches’ songs aren’t all complaints about the fate of women. There’s also dark fantasy about rebellion, escape, and sometimes revenge. The opening song, “Chwaliszewo”, is full of swearing and blasphemy sung from beyond the grave. “Pack of Women” (“Wataha kobiet”) is a strange, oneiric vision in which we participate from within, adopting the perspective of a group of wounded, wronged females at the threshold of awakening. They’ve been fleeing too long, and they’re about to start pursuing their torturer: “We dream that when we escape/… The pack of women who know how to defend themselves/ Is still escaping but will one day chase you off.”8

Ewa Łowżył has talked about the therapeutic dimension of the Choir’s activities: “The ability to sing and hear such simple, distinct songs often becomes an act of collective self-therapy – both for the group and for the listeners. As we know, something that is named and spoken out loud loses its negative charge: suddenly, it turns out that we all have similar fears and experiences9.” Although not wishing to undermine this thesis on the healing power of singing, I would argue that the political dimension is superior to the therapeutic element. During the Choir’s performances, the members of the audience spontaneously stand up and join in the singing. This is accompanied by extremely intense emotions: a sense of community, as well as both dread and hope. Women embrace each other, hold hands, shout.

 

How does this relate to the new women’s movement?

How does this relate to the new women’s movement? The Choir was formed a few months before the Women’s Strike, and one of their songs became the protest anthem. They also performed during the Women’s Congress, where they received an ovation10. However, this is not a public service activity. The Choir is an autonomous artistic project which, I think, will endure and evolve independently of the “black protests”. In the meantime, it is working in harmony with the protests, if not in symbiosis, expressing and at the same time strengthening the female rebellion. It is co-creating a new collective consciousness – or perhaps, an imagination and an emotionality. The witches from Poznań end every performance with a rhythmic, poignant protest song, which was also sung during the “black protests”:

Your power/ Your faith/ My fault/ My punishment/ My world is in your hands/ You’ve had me over a barrel for a million years!/ Look me straight in the eyes/ I am your mother, sister/ I am your daughter, wife/ I stand with my head held high/ A million of us are standing now, none of us are afraid/ I stand, I shout, I stand, I shout…

 

A slightly different kind of symbiosis with the culture of the “black protests” comes into play in the case of the performance collective Czarne Szmaty (The Black Rags/Slags, CzSz), who, in their own words, “work within what is broadly defined as performative art – performance, street art and happenings11.” I will start from the latter, with an action entitled “Greetings from Lesbos” (“Pozdrowienia z Lesbos”, 9 June 2018), the most vocal project in the history of the collective. It’s hardly surprising that it was met with enthusiasm – it was provocative, bold and funny all at once. On the day of the Equality Parade in Warsaw, three young women made their way onto the island in the middle of the Charles de Gaulle Roundabout, one of the busiest intersections in the capital. Crucially, since 2002, this spot has housed the installation “Greetings from Aleje Jerozolimskie” (“Pozdrowienia z Alej Jerozolimskich”), the famous Warsaw palm tree, which was created by feminist artist Joanna Rajkowska. With Rajkowska’s permission, CzSz “transformed” her project by placing a green sign (like the ones used to mark towns across Poland) under the palm tree displaying the word “Lesbos”; they set up deckchairs and spent several hours on this special beach, dressed in bathing suits and reading lesbian poetry. The reactions were wide-ranging: some passers-by gave them a friendly wave, others thought they were out of their minds. Pictures from the performance were circulated online and sent to the media, causing amusement, indignation and numerous discussions, including on the topic of the refugees omitted from the performance. One of the artists, Karolina Maciejaszek, gave the following commentary on the performance:

We all have our Lesbos. For me, this action has a surreal character. The sign is like one from a Polish village, and we’ve put it on a roundabout in Warsaw. We were thinking about Lesbos itself in two dimensions. The first association is a cultural one: the connotation with the island of Sappho, which has always been associated with female homosexuality, but also with the space of sisterhood and female culture. The second association related to the present. Nowadays, Lesbos evokes the context of refugees. Here we had some doubts. I wouldn’t equate lesbians in Poland with refugees on Lesbos. That would be misappropriation12.

 

« I won’t give birth to a child (if I’m) dead », Marta Frej fresco, photo © Agata Kubis.

 

CzSz were visible in the public space…

CzSz were visible in the public space long before they became famous for “Lesbos”. The group was set up on 3 October 2016 in Warsaw; its members are Marta Jalowska, Karolina Maciejaszek, Monika Sadkowska and Magdalena Staroszczyk. Their first action was simultaneously reckless and poetic, and it took place during the first Women’s Strike. CzSz blocked street traffic in Warsaw, standing across multiple streets with a several-metre-long black sheet displaying huge letters in white that read “BORDER OF CONTEMPT”. Asked about their motivation, they explained: “We felt the need to finally say: enough. Enough of treating women like dirt, we’re setting the border here”13. This happening drew my attention because it was both bold and poetic; CzSz used a trope that is rarely adopted in art: a metaphor turning into literalism, which can give a ludicrous effect, and in this case happened to be an extremely strong means of conveying political meaning. The silent act of holding the “rag” was an expression of resistance, but also of powerlessness and despair in the face of violence. The group is not only about the ban on abortion – their name, after all, is an appropriation of one of the vilest, most misogynist, contemptuous terms used against women in Poland. Here we are, the slags. There is an element of absurdity and bitter irony in this literalism. Where is the border of contempt towards women? Here, at this crossroads, on this street. Who determines it? We, the women holding the black rag, the group known as The Black Rags/Slags. Of course, it was impossible to hold the border for long – impatient drivers began to beep their horns, the police intervened, and they had to withdraw. And so the “border of contempt” roamed the city centre, and participants of the Strike joined CzSz spontaneously, thus becoming co-creators of the risky event.

The repertoire of CzSz also includes the equally powerful message “WE (STILL) HAVE THE RIGHT/LAW” (“(JESZCZE) MAMY PRAWO”), which appeared during protests against the breaking of the Constitution by the Kaczyński regime. Another reads “END(LESS) HATE” (“(BEZ)KRES NIENAWIŚCI”), which was displayed during the “Black Friday” marches on 23 March 2018. At a certain point, two members of the collective attacked the “LESS” with a bottle of black paint, so “ENDLESS” became “END”. CzSz celebrated the first anniversary of the Strike by decorating several mermaid monuments in Warsaw with sashes bearing the words “YOU ARE NOT ALONE” (“NIE JESTEŚ SAMA”). The appeal of this action lies in the ambiguity of the message. In the context of the ongoing war over the right to abortion in Poland, the characteristic black banners can be read as words of encouragement for oppressed women from the courageous activists. It is a manifestation of female resistance – pathos, the struggle, and a sisterly community of indomitable women. But after a little reflection, the humorous dimension of this event also becomes clear: here are Warsaw’s mermaids – historically isolated and immobilised on their pedestals – greeting each other from different parts of the city.

 

The messages roaming the city…

The messages roaming the city could easily be seen simply as huge banners created with great care. But they are something more, just as The Witches’ Choir is more than a musical group to accompany the “black protests”. It is a form of performative art, simultaneously radical and surreal, inspired by the work of the American group Public Movement and consciously referring to the situationists, as well as to the traditions of the Academy of Movement and Orange Alternative, Polish performance groups from the time of the PRL.

Lastly, a few words about the most popular (not to mention “pop”) manifestation of female creativity in recent years: the memes of Marta Frej14. This phenomenon straddles the border between art, applied art, politics and commercialism. Frej’s environment is the internet, and her memes are computer-processed photos (she works in Photoshop, using a pen). The key element in these images is the text added by the artist – sometimes a dialogue, sometimes a commentary – which gives the memes a sense of subversion. This creates a witty, sometimes lyrical, sometimes malicious commentary on various contemporary phenomena and events, a commentary that many women see as reflecting their own – Frej’s Facebook page has 160,000 fans, and her memes often get several hundred shares. Users appreciate the political message of her work, especially the exposing and ridicule of the Church’s power in Poland. The most popular memes include one showing a group of bishops with the tagline “We know all there is to know about women”. In another example, two girls are walking down the school corridor; one says: “My tummy really hurts”, and the other replies: “I’ll take you to the chapel, there used to be a doctor’s surgery there”. There are also memes commenting on the ills of Polish capitalism (for example, a group of people are seated in a circle; one woman says: “I’m Magda and I’ve got a mortgage in Swiss francs”). There are numerous memes of a confessional nature; Frej uses her own image in them, talking frankly about her family life, her fantasies, her dreams, her mistakes and indecent thoughts. On behalf of the female “people”, she comments on the norms of femininity and the various manifestations of the patriarchy, including the hypocrisy and prudishness that prevail in the sphere of sexuality. The images she creates don’t play the role of “art” as it is understood in terms of works addressed to the elites, but they function in mass circulation, mainly among women. The language of these statements is the joke – antagonistic, sincere and rebellious at the same time. Frej’s memes are not angry and dark like the CzSz projects or The Witches’ Choir performances described above, but despite their lightness, they can be surprisingly radical in terms of their message, hence their popularity. It is also important that the memes are pretty in a feminine way, even stylish, and work well in the form of various gadgets: mugs, calendars, T-shirts, bags, phone cases, and so on.

Frej has also created a mural commemorating the Women’s Strike of 3 October 2016, the famous “Black Monday”. It was painted on the wall of a building on Targowa Street in Warsaw and depicted a crowd of women with umbrellas, with section signs falling on them instead of rain. It included a tagline, one of the protest’s slogans: “I won’t give birth to a child (if I’m) dead.” Marta Frej gave the following commentary on this piece: “The mural is not only to commemorate the day when Polish women came out in solidarity to fight for their rights and protest against the Polish state’s discriminatory and incapacitating policy, but also to remind us that the fight has only just begun… Polish women have immense power, but they also have an immense job to do15.”

The works described here are not works of art whose creators are experimenting with or referring to feminism. They are radical feminist statements whose creators chose an artistic form of expression because they happen to be artists. Feminist engagement is simply a part of their lives. These artists actively participate in protests in defence of democracy; Frej is basically the icon of modern feminism – a regular at demonstrations and the Women’s Congress, and an organiser of numerous cultural projects, meetings and debates in her home town of Częstochowa. The key feature of this creative work, and at the same time the thing that distinguishes it from the feminist art of the previous two decades, is its accessibility and egalitarianism. This is not elite art that requires significant cultural capital to decipher, like the critical art of the last twenty years, including feminist art, which was ironic, allusive, autothematic, signalling its own seclusion. The works and projects I’ve written about here are not crude or primitive – on the contrary, they can be extremely formally sophisticated, and their creators are professional artists who are familiar with art history. However, although CzSz are referring to phenomena in modern art such as performance or situationism, you don’t have to know this to be a fully-fledged recipient, or even a participant in their performances. Modern feminist art rejects hermeticism and self-irony, just as modern street feminism – the feminism of the “black protests” and the Women’s Strike – rejects the elitism of academic feminism. Perhaps the key to this new poetics is the very rejection of irony in favour of pathos and sincerity – a phenomenon otherwise common in contemporary political art, in which affect plays a vital role. The message is at times ambiguous and multidimensional, but there is no distancing from reality. This is engaged art that encourages recipients not only to actively receive, but also to express themselves radically. The goal is to create an affective community, to seize the recipient and infect them with a shared emotion – or, if they’re on the other side of the barricade, to initiate confrontation.

 

The theme of darkness…

The theme of darkness appears in the new female art on a strikingly regular basis. I don’t just mean the use of black – as demonstrated by CzSz, and the figures of the women in The Witches’ Choir emerging from the darkness – but also the numerous references to dark motives: witches, madness, death. This relates in part to the fact that we are living in dark times; these works are a response to the situation, an expression of dark emotions. However, a thread of dark female power is also being repeated. Rejecting the saccharine feminine aesthetics of the post-feminism era where women’s strength lies in dynamism, optimism and entrepreneurship, many of these works are inspired instead by the trend of feminism in which darkness is the source of female power. This dark trend certainly includes Agnieszka Holland’s film “Spoor” (“Pokot”, 2017), based on the novel by Olga Tokarczuk, in which an eccentric old woman – half madwoman, half witch – is preoccupied with her mission to defend animals from hunters. The protagonist gathers a group of sensitive people around her, outcasts from the violent world of the Polish province just as she is, and together they declare war on this world. In a key scene, a church is set on fire – allegedly by birds, but de facto by the protagonist. The film was accused of promoting “ecoterrorism” and “paganism” – and if you read it literally, this probably is its message. Holland’s work, however, should actually be read as a highly metaphorised expression of a particular collective emotion. Like the CzSz song “Pack of Women”, “Spoor” is above all a fantasy of revenge. While Christianity today has the face of an army of old men who, according to Frej’s meme, “know everything about women”, female rebellion is assuming wild forms, consciously referring to pagan rituals. This involves a pain, fury, intensity and determination that have never been seen before in Polish culture.

By quoting the blasphemous inscription on the wall of the Curia at the beginning of this article, I deliberately took a risk: I exposed myself to the aversion of a significant number of the recipients of this text. Did this act of feminist “vandalism” rouse your indignation? Okay! Did it excite you? I find that hard to believe, but so be it. In my case, admiration was preceded by shock. The radical statements of the women that I’ve described here don’t aim to please. That’s not their objective. Instead, they demand to be taken seriously, and the collective entities behind them likewise. Their creators – perhaps with the exception of Frej, whose works have an abundance of charm and consciously avail themselves of this fact – don’t try to flirt or ingratiate themselves with their recipients. These acts of female speech contain violence, pathos and panache. Just as the feminist inscriptions on the walls of the Curia were previously inconceivable, today’s art incorporates female expression that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago.

This art is a symptom of a deep political and cultural divide, one of the fronts of the cultural war into which Poland has plunged. This war also has a spiritual dimension: witches, madwomen and rebels are emerging from the darkness in defence of the good – democracy, freedom and pluralism. On the other side, they see evil – nationalism, misogyny, ossified tradition and atrocities. I don’t know what women’s art will look like if the authoritarian right-wing government turns out to be just a brief episode in our history. But one thing is certain – traces will remain in the collective consciousness from the phase of darkness and defiance when an angry female community rebelled.

Translated by Kate Webster
Cover: « Nie jesteś sama » (You are not alone), Czarne Szmaty #CzSz, photo © Marta Jalowska.

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