Visual intervention (In)visible (female)body – text
Where have the women been for the last two millennia? What do we know about them? What traces did they leave behind? How can we restore the memory of them? What form should any possible future monuments take? In this chapter, I will try to answer these and other questions. Among other things, I want to focus my attention on visual interventions in the city space that with no exaggeration can be called gestures of civil disobedience. They will be discussed, among others, on the basis of my own actions and creative work over the past several years. I will consider the concept of weak resistance, consisting in entering into alliances rather than building individual narratives. Weak resistance is likely to become the strength of previously excluded individuals. That is why in recent years, with the increase of feminist awareness, which was helped by women’s emancipation movements, various forms of activism have become so popular, including, for example, undertaking joint actions or organizing into groups. The feminist methods of deheroisation and the everyday in action suggest empowering those who seemed to do be able to nothing or very little. In this text, I base my entire argument around a long-term artistic project I called “Laying flowers”, including events from earlier years and actions undertaken as part of my teaching at the Department of New Media Art of the Pedagogical University in Kraków.
Power relationship and counter-monuments
In Poland, there is a lingering belief that the monument should have a figurative, dominant and dramatic form. Referring to the classical pattern of figures placed on a high pedestal, contemporary statues are raised to commemorate men. In this formal approach, it is clear who looks down on whom, who has the power, and who is just dust at his feet. Such pathos-laden canon of figurative sculpture was alive and well at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków when I was a student there, in 1999–2004. Equestrian statues of great leaders rising several meters above our heads were promoted as examples to follow. The more important the personage, the higher he stood, thus emphasizing the power relationship. And yet, paradoxically, such monuments are not seen, they do not engage the viewer, the recipient, or the passer-by. Often, it is just the city’s pigeons that love them, competing for room at the top, that is, on the statue’s head. James E. Young, proponent of the term “counter-monument”, believes that traditional memorials, with their form of an objectified myth and their simplistic explanations, destroy a deep understanding of history, instead of reminding us of important events and encouraging us to think. As a form of criticism of this way of commemoration, I chose to lay unusual “flowers” at the feet of the aforementioned statues. My soft flower-sculptures can be perceived as counter-monuments. Counter-monuments often employ invisibility, ambiguity, and site-specific actions; also, they invite the viewers to partake in their creation.
With my action, I wished to start a discussion on how to commemorate women. I also asked how to create a female archive, and how to keep the memory of women? Without doubt, there is an urgent need to invent a form other than those vertical statues that no one pays attention to. One would like to shout: “More monuments for women!” – but not the kind of monuments that were built of men; instead, we need other forms in the space of contemporary cities. Trees, squares, greens, oxygenators – let us find something closer to the human body. Let us create places where one can fully be oneself; where one can stop, think, and feel. The figures on the pedestals only force one to jerk one’s head up, and fall on one’s knees, or possibly hang down one’s head if one is afraid to boldly look up. Well aware of those questions and those need, I “attacked” traditional monuments with soft women’s clothing. Where did this form come from? My goal was to start discussion on new, alternative forms of commemoration.
If today we tend to think that women wither with time, while the men bloom, this is mostly due to the images that continue to poison our imagination, from Goya’s withes to Walt Disney’s pictures.
In 2004, I was invited to the Youth Biennale at the Centre of Polish Sculpture in Orońsko, where I first performed the “Flowers” action: In the morning, when everyone was still asleep, I took a bag of clothes to the surrounding park, I undressed from one set of clothes and underwear, then put on another, only to undress again, a bit further, near the monumental, vertical sculptures. This action was a reaction to the mood at the Sculpture Department, from which I just graduated. We, women students of this field were considered weak, but possibly beautiful; our art was to be quickly forgotten, because, as they said: “your baby will suck your talent away, along with milk.” In the view of the vast majority of male teaching staff, we were too weak physically to create monumental sculptures, which were the only ones that really mattered, in their opinion.
My ephemeral and very impermanent flowers were feminine sculptures, soft and delicate. They were also the absence of a woman, of a model, who left behind her trace, and temptation. They were a critique of the male gaze and of the oppressive brutality faced by women, who are constantly judged for their appearance, and whose aging, withering, makes them useless and transparent in the eyes of men. In a review of my later individual exhibition, in which I repeated the gesture of undressing to create flowers, Magdalena Ujma wrote:
“Objects spread on the floor are circular, soft, irregular. They are spots of colour from casually draped fabrics. When you look at them closely, they elude their biological references: to fungi, mould growth or indeed, to flowers. What is striking is not merely their decorativeness, but also some kind of randomness. The sense of purpose disappears as we get closer to the work, and we recognize what it actually is. And it is a trace of a certain gesture. They are simply clothes, left behind, as it happens when you hurriedly throw them off, just come out of them, leaving them on the floor, in the place where it happened. Therefore, the objects are also traces of the artist’s intimate performances.”.
The objects were accompanied by a series of photographs – photomontages. “Flowers” show absence; the person who had been wearing the clothes is missing. The “Flowers” also touch on another, very important aspect, which is the aging of women – the passing of their beauty, simplistically understood. The greying of hair, the appearance of wrinkles in a woman heralds the entrance into a phase of life, which raises socially sanctioned fear and disgust. There is a reason why the tales of witches, with their dried body and thin hair, are told to frighten children. Older women are smarter, richer in experience – these are undesirable features, because they threaten the position of men. “Witches” know their own mind, and at the same time, they are not afraid to speak it, which is why they are called loud-mouthed hags. The witch (wiedźma) is the one who knows (wie). A wise old man inspires respect, whereas the witch inspires fear and mockery. What a discrepancy in the perception of wisdom resulting from life experience in both sexes. What injustice!
Laying of flowers
“Laying of flowers”, which began in 2019, takes place on the hundredth anniversary of women being allowed to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Flowers made of garments, laid at the foot of monuments, symbolize the absence in the public awareness and in public life of all women, thanks to whom this particular man found his way onto the pedestal. All those women, who laid down their lives at the feet of their “lords and rulers” and who were denied presence in social discourse, and remained underestimated for centuries. Until now, I have held a series of performances, among others, at the Academy of Fine Arts building in Kraków at Matejki square, at the memorial to Piłsudski’s Legions, and in several other locations. The work is conceived as photographic and video documentation of direct actions of “attacking” the monuments with “flowers.” The artist, dressed in work uniform, is caught during the action of laying “flowers” at the statues’ feet. This action is a form of weak resistance: undressing, taking off one’s clothes is an everyday gesture, one that is prosaic, intimate, private, maybe even shameful. On the one hand, using this gesture as a form of visual intervention, and laying one’s underwear at the feet of the figure of the hero can be perceived as an insulting gesture. On the other hand, the recipient gets trapped in a tempting flower; the imagination begins to project images of a naked woman, which typically evokes pleasant associations.
Fine Arts Academy
My first “laying of flowers” performance took place at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, because it was the art colleges in Poland (then still under partitions) that defended themselves the longest against the admission of women. The first woman who was let into the art school was a student of the Sculpture Department, the same department that I graduated from.
In the main building, I laid flowers at the foot of a copy of Michelangelo’s sculpture depicting Lorenzo de Medici (from the Medici tombstone). He looks down, from his height, at the woman who is kneeling and arranging flowers. This gesture was meant to commemorate all nude models that posed for years at the Academy, and female students who were hindered in developing their artistic careers, worked on their art for years, but were not taken seriously – who were not invited to exhibitions, were ridiculed, and had the value of their work depreciated. Laying flowers at Medici’s feet was also a gesture of disobedience, because how dare you throw rags on monuments?
Accademia di Brera
In the spring of 2019, I was visiting Academia di Brera in Milan as a guest lecturer. The school building is housed in a Renaissance palace with an impressive courtyard. It is decorated with figures of distinguished men associated with Milan, of course, fully clothed and titled by their names. They are: Carlo Ottavio Castiglioni – polyglot and numismatist, Tommaso Grossi – writer and poet, Bonaventura Francesco Cavalieri – mathematician and astronomer, student of Galileo, Gabrio Piola – mathematician and physicist, Pietro Verri – economist, historian, writer, philosopher, and Luici Luigi Cagnola – architect. However, in the centre, there is one that is naked, depicted as a young god with only a fig leaf on his genitals – Napoleon Bonaparte, a genius of war. Predictably, among the statues, there is not a single one of a woman. When I saw this courtyard, I started dreaming about doing the laying flowers performance there as well. In a gesture of solidarity and unity across the borders, women – residents of Milan, encouraged by my friend, came to the courtyard, and without my participation repeated the gesture of folding their clothes at the feet of Napoleon’s statue. A common, yet intimate gesture – which implies remaining naked, vulnerable, exposed to injury – is a form of weak resistance.
Eight women entered the courtyard and undressed symbolically at the feet of the bronze statue of Napoleon Bonaparte by Canova, and walked away naked into the arcades. They did this to commemorate all the nude women who had modelled for centuries at this academy, and all those women who supported the men commemorated in the statues of Academia di Brera courtyard. This gesture can be interpreted as an expression of disobedience and disagreement with glossing over the long-lasting invisibility of women and all those dumb masses of people who were tools in the hands of Napoleon, and who gave their lives, nameless. In a broader context, the action was aimed at negating the individuality of the archive, and including those hitherto excluded. Feminist archivists started the process of rereading the archive, aimed at negating its neutrality, and fighting against the current patriarchal ways of narrating history (more about that later).
Napoleon Bonaparte – the genius of war, hailed as one of the greatest military leaders in history, with dictatorial and totalitarian proclivities – was the ruler of France and Italy, and throughout his reign he pursued an expansionary policy of conquest. It is believed that the Napoleonic Code, introduced in his subordinate territories, was the basis for a new civilization and culture. The new legislation contributed to the end of the feudal era, gave rise to the bourgeoisie, and contributed to the flourishing of capitalism.
According to the latest readings of history by feminist researchers , it was early capitalism that relegated women to home – unpaid female work was needed so that the system could bring ever-greater profits. In later history, capitalism exploited women at home, workers in factories, and indigenous people in the colonies. That is why I consider the gesture of “laying flowers” at Napoleon’s feet particularly important. A look at the past from this perspective shows a fixed model of the relationship between capitalism and social degradation of women, the model we had been oblivious to for centuries. Their unpaid work was not called work, but “housekeeping,” “looking after children and the elderly,” and there was no payment provided for it. The purpose of this enslavement of women was to economize on labour costs, so that capitalism could continue to develop, wars could be fought, men could remain in power. In order to meet these priorities, a whole host of ordinary citizens had to work for free or on the basis of extreme exploitation. All this in the spirit of development and progress.
In her text “Independent, or the archaeology of inequality”, Magda Lipska refers to the words of Immanuel Wallerstein, and she points out that events such as the French Revolution or the adoption of the constitution of the United States – reference points of every modern democracy – in their records and resolutions not only omitted women, but also all non-white citizens. Therefore, brotherhood and equality applied to white men only. Not women. This is the foundation of European states after World War I.
In the autumn of 2018, in connection with the centenary of Poland regaining independence, an exhibition was launched at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, titled “Women, Independence, and National Discourse”. In the publication accompanying the exhibition we read:
“The exhibition (…) began with the question of not so much the absence, as the invisibility of women in the dimension of historical narratives. However, talking about the invisibility of women cannot take place without touching upon the social context in which women functioned, and the narratives in which they were entrenched. Patriarchal national states, including Poland, needed women when they fought for independence and they continue to need them in order to develop and breed. However, reducing women to the role of nation’s breeders, closely related to national symbolism, showing the homeland as a mother (mother-land), does not do much for women themselves. The nationalization of the female body and its reproductive functions corresponds rather closely on the one hand with the production “labour force” quoted by Federici, and on the other hand, with national myths.”
In Poland, under the partitions, the myth of the suffering mother-land was alive – raped, torn, plundered by the invaders, trampled by enemies, suffering and crying over the fate of her children – the soldiers. The female body was an allegory of Poland. Only in this imaginary way was a woman present in the pursuit of independence. On the other hand, the presence of flesh-and-blood women, fighting and risking their lives, was unspoken, silent. The flowers I created from the taken-off clothes, which I laid at the foot of the memorial to the head of the Polish state after regaining independence in 1918, Marshal Piłsudski and his Legions, are dedicated to the memory of those women. They speak of the invisibility of female figures in the mainstream historical narrative. This is because the masculine – that is, dominant and until recently the sole possible historical canon discusses only outstanding individuals (leaders, kings, generals), and marginalizes the masses of anonymous characters who really built the success of the given leader’s policy. It is a very selective form of presentation. The unheard and invisible persons, who contributed to changing the course of history, must now be brought to light in order for the story of the past to be more complete and closer to reality. And this can happen thanks to the feminist reading of documents, records, and chronicles. We should evoke those who supported the warriors, who dressed the wounds, who laundered the uniforms, who cooked the food, and who also risked their lives. Without all this, without their work in the background of the battle, victory would not have been possible. Because reducing them to the role of “handmaids” and “midwives” is harmful – as in Plato’s ancient concept of Chora.
In her essay “Woman, Chora, Dwelling” , Elisabeth Grosz analysed the problems of work consisting in constant repetition of the same activities, and of domestic slavery in the context of Plato’s philosophy. According to Grosz, woman has the status of a Platonic Chora: the one who helps to come into the world, through whom everything passes, but she is only a tunnel, a midwife of all beings. She is not owed remembrance or admiration. Chora resembles the womb, but at the same time she is not the mother of what is created, she is a being/non-being with numerous female features. Grosz says that women were reduced to the role of supporting the masculine. Therefore, the main historical narrative equals centuries of exclusion – of women, among others – from the creation of culture and history, and this absence renders their memory impossible.
Currently, the development of the idea of a feminist archive opens up the way for the ordinary, for the hitherto oppressed and excluded entities, as well as their individual stories. Not only for women, but for everyone other than a white heterosexual male, enjoying success, position and money. This makes it possible to transform history that had so far been founded only on the experience of privileged individuals, who were male, into history that is truly universal. It shows the historical role of everyday drudgery, the multitudes of “handmaids”, and all those staying in the shadows, silent.
Current work by Iwona Demko, PhD shares in this spirit. She collects biographies of women associated with the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. In her call for admissions, she writes:
“If Zofia Baltarowicz-Dzielińska had not written her autobiography, maybe I would never have found, years later, her history about how she conquered the Academy as the first female student in 1917. I would not have been able to bring back the memory of her … (…) Write, girls! Take care of your biographies!”
Iwona learns the most about the lives of former students of the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków from informal sources, which historians normally consider unreliable. Her search is conducted somewhat across academic research methods, using the artist’s intuition and sensitivity. Birth certificates, baptism certificates, death certificates, and censuses are archival materials. But Iwona also uses Facebook, looking for descendants of the first students, trying to learn from them about the lives of the first women at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków. Social media give us an opportunity to search for people almost anywhere in the world, and to contact them. However, researching women’s past and finding their traces and testimonies of their existence is difficult, mainly because women changed their names when they got married. It is even more difficult to find documents of students of Jewish origin, and it is not only because they fell victim to the Holocaust. The trace of many of them disappeared because in order to survive the war they often had to assume a different identity, change their name, their date of birth. After the war, they did not return to their real identities; instead, they continued to lead their – or someone else’s – lives, without telling anyone. In our conversation, Iwona Demko told me that when looking for traces, she also goes to cemeteries, where some women’s graves have two names, each with a different date of birth. However, the date of death is the same.
Therefore, the feminist archive, understood as a form of the institution of the common, as well as a strategy of reading the traditional archive, faces a challenge: to demystify, verify and record that which has been omitted, underestimated (just like trivialized witch hunts). It is important to introduce – so far seriously imbalanced – more equitable proportions between gender representations.
An attempt at a broader look, one that would take in everything that has been secondary, ordinary, overlooked, not taken into account, is made by Günter Grass in an alternative version of human history contained in his book Turbot – a controversial one, as it turns out.
I do not know how many women have privately laid down their lives at the writer’s feet, but all those women he described in Turbot – babysitters, cooks, comforters, mothers, muses, mistresses offering their breasts to comfort a man, and so on, and so forth, laid their lives at the feet of other men whom they supported and accompanied. I read this book as a kind of alternative human history from the perspective of women and their contribution to the course of that history. Aua, Wigga, Mestwina, Dorota from Mątowy, Margareta Rusch, Agnieszka, Amanda Woyke, Zofia Rotzoll, Lena Stubbe, Sybilla (Billy), Maria were absent from the mainstream of historical narrative, or barely outlined as extras to male history. Grass brings them back to life; they appear of flesh and blood, uncontrollable, erotic and free. Of course, Grass’s intentions are not entirely clear, and it is not known whose side he takes in Turbot. (Feminists were outraged by some exaggerated representations, and by the statement that women are equal to men in everything, while at the same time Grass denies them the ability to create). I believe, however, that it does not matter so much, which side the writer is taking, but it is essential that he masterfully tells an “alternative” history and encourages creative dialogue on the “only true” readings of the past and their possible versions.
From the book edited by Maria Janion, titled “Günter Grass and Polish Mr. Quixote” (Günter Grass i polski Pan Kichot), which contains a conversation with the writer carried out in Gdańsk in August 1981, we learn that, initially, Turbot’s theme was to be the history and development of human nutrition. Grass said:
“In historiography, whether in the West or the East, the problem of food it is not addressed at all. Our narratives of history are oriented only on the politics of power. I also had to write this book against the traditional approach and interpretation of history. Scientific historiography refers to documents, believes in documents, puts them in chronological order, and builds a picture of history out of them. However, today historians should know that documents – which are usually biased, anyway – as a rule, are left by the winners. Those subjected to historical processes, the conquered and the defeated do not have documents, they are dumb, silent (only those who can write can leave them – in the Middle Ages, for instance, this was 1% of the population). A writer should understand that his task is to restore the voice of the human masses of our past, those hitherto with no voice. He should use fantasy and imagination to find documents, which are more accurate than those that were given as allegedly authentic.”
Monument-bench commemorating the writer stands in Gdańsk-Wrzeszcz, near the tenement house where he lived. This form of a bench with a sitting figure is currently a popular alternative version of a monument, more modern and close to human scale; where you can sit along, next to the statue, and take a souvenir selfie. As part of the annual Grassomania festival, in the summer of 2019, I did the performance of laying “flowers” from clothes around the Günter Grass bench. In memory of all women appearing in Turbot, to whom he gave a voice and a place in the history of humanity. Thanks Günter!
“Laying flowers” has a certain connection with the “Warm/cold” installation dating back to 2004, which I realized in the historic, Renaissance Potocki Palace at the Main Square in Kraków. The action consisted of laying a colourful mosaic between balusters surrounding the entire courtyard on the first floor of the building. The mosaic was created from used clothes, which I brought to the white, cold palace – the quintessential male architecture, designed for the eye. The work pointed to inequalities in the representation of women and men in the history of architecture. Women were barely allowed to take care of interior design, but not to design buildings. Even the Bauhaus, who initially postulated openness in admissions of both women and men to university studies, reserved those more prestigious disciplines – such as painting, sculpture and above all architecture – for men, allowing women to study weaving and interior decoration. The architect was a man.
I took used clothes, donated by friends, and wove them between balustrades of the courtyard. I warmed up the architecture – otherwise physically and visually cold. What is low, close to the body, soaked with its smell and its fluids, has become the material of a woman’s work. A soft assault on the existing order. Weak resistance against its durability. The apparent decorativeness hid the potential of rebellion and attack. As it turned out, these colourful cloths could actually threaten the architecture. Balusters were made of sandstone; in the event of rain and too much humidity, clothes might stain them. Visual intervention – soft, devoid of aggression, non-violent – could potentially “destroy” that which people strove to keep intact for several centuries.
In the Renaissance, the male body – identified with the human body and considered ideal – became a model and metaphor for the ideal cities and buildings from that era, for clean architecture, designed for the eye, for planned spaces under the strict control of the architect, rather than living organisms that could find shelter in the designed building. Diana Agrest argues that male anthropomorphism was the supreme system of Western architecture, since Vitruvius. A controlled, clean space was considered male, and the space contaminated with bodies, uncontrolled, dusty, bearing traces of everyday life, was deemed to belong to women. Gulsum Baydar wrote about this in her Figures of wo/man in contemporary architectural discourse. Such valuation is consistent with the general attitude of patriarchal power towards what is dark, vicious and devilish. Since the sixteenth century, all forms of female disobedience and independence were harshly stigmatized, and the spectacle of witch trials during the Renaissance was meant to discourage women from cultivating their freedom.
It is worth emphasizing that what was happening to women on the Old Continent at the time was also happening to those who were forcibly Christianised; they were exploited and made to work hard, and not infrequently murdered in newly conquered regions of the world.
There is an anecdote behind the T-shirts with “Lady Boss” application. In the summer of 2016, Iddi Bashir came to Poland. He was an artist from Nairobi, associated with Fundacja Razem Pamoja. We were supposed to work together. It was not easy, because Iddi called me “lady boss”, and thus imposed a hierarchy: I was expected to decide and invent the project, while he preferred to remain a tool in my hands. Collaborative work, on partnership terms, was not possible. This made me realize how difficult it is to go beyond the relationship imposed by the colonists: a white woman automatically becomes a “lady boss”, even though she does not want to be one. Iddi is an artist, he had been to Europe before, he has an open mind, and yet he is still stuck in the paradigm outlined above. An average resident of Kenya is even more so – and this affects the methods, as well as the opportunities for collaboration between us. I visited Nairobi several times, each time entering into collaboration with the local women’s cooperative called Cooperativa Ushirika, meant to empower women from the slums of Mathare. The learning of skills, self-awareness, and the opportunity to become independent offered by the Cooperative are tools that enable its members to be “their own bosses.” Symbolically, as part of one of our joint actions, I symbolically gave the local women the title of “lady boss”, which they gladly accepted. This gesture was embodied in simple white T-shirts, on which each member embroidered that slogan. The women wore them during the exhibition opening and communal dance in front of the Mathare Art Gallery, in some way manifesting the emerging self-awareness.
In this action, I draw attention to the fact that a black woman in the process of colonization was humiliated the most, and her status in today’s savage capitalism still remains precarious. It still requires much time and much effort for black women to be truly recognized – not only by men, but also by themselves – as “lady bosses”.
Silvia Federici points to the close relationship between the Europeans’ treatment of the natives in the newly conquered colonies, and the situation of women in Europe. She believes that in the sixteenth century, in the Old Continent, women’s independence was limited, and women themselves reduced to the role of breeders and guardians of the hearth and home – all for the sake of the primary accumulation of early capitalism, developing at that time. She believes that this moment should be considered the most important in the process of capitalist society development, and the formation of modern proletariat. Two hundred years of “witch hunts” was the time when social degradation of women began, and it should be recognized as such. Until recently, burning women at the stake was treated as an element of folklore. Male historians did not place much importance on studying this phenomenon. As reported by Federici, it took the feminist movement to discover that the reason for burning women at the stake and subjecting them to the cruellest torture was the fear of their strength and the threat that they posed to the hierarchy of power. These two hundred years of war against women were a turning point in their history in Europe – hence, we need to readdress it in order to understand the lingering misogyny, which still characterizes the relationship between women and men.
Therefore, together with African women, we are connected through the momentum of being oppressed by the white man. Just like our ancestors in Europe, African women were degraded in the social structure along with the colonization of the continent. Unfortunately, this process did not end here. It would seem that the times when women were burned at the stake are now gone and forgotten, that this resulted from backwardness; merely an episode. Alas, this is not true. Witch hunts started again in Africa in the years 1980–1990, and Federici links them to the development of capitalism in former European colonies. As part of the so-called assistance, the World Bank encourages the commercialization of land in Africa, which causes the disintegration of local societies that have so far used land together for cultivation. As a result of these activities, older people, mainly women, who are defending “non-capitalist” forms of land use are forced out, and become outcasts. Federici writes:
In other words, the battle is waged on women’s bodies, because women are seen as the main agents of resistance to the expansion of the cash economy and, as such, as useless individuals, selfishly monopolizing resources that the youth could use. From this viewpoint, the present witch hunts, no less than ideology that the World Bank promotes with regard to land, represent a complete perversion of the traditional concept of value creation, which is symbolized by the contempt that witch hunters display for the bodies of older women, whom, in Zambia, they have at times derided as ‘sterile vaginas’.
Contempt and disrespect for older, smart, lonely women who stand in the way of complete commercialization of all areas of social life – doesn’t this sound terrifyingly familiar?
Seeking other forms of commemorating women
How to commemorate women? How to restore the visibility of our female ancestors in the city space? Attacking monuments with soft interventions can trigger discussion on this issue. During the meeting and conversation accompanying the exhibition of Zuzanna Janin “Archive of volatile feelings” in the headquarters of the Razem Pamoja Foundation in Kraków, the artist postulated that a female figure, made of polymer, in motion, walking, running, unstoppable would be an apt format for a contemporary monument. Until now, women were mainly sitting down. When they weren’t just looking after the house, they were chatting in cafés, confiding their problems, making plans, and writing books. Perhaps now is the time to get up and move, to act – and to be unstoppable. According to the artist, the resin statue of Majka in motion is a personification of the spirit of women, and of all those who can no longer be silenced and excluded, and put down. Hence the growing popularity, in recent years, of protest marches, which are the best form of expressing dissatisfaction and civil disobedience.
A hundred banners for the centenary of women’s right to vote in Poland: 24 November 2018
A parade or a protest march – which is people marching together through the streets of the city – is a privilege of citizens in democratic states, one that we seem to take for granted. Marches are rebellious in character. The participants show up to express their commitment. The power of the unarmed, committed people, considering themselves equal, marching through the streets, can cause concern for the rulers. Women took to the streets against President Trump. The famous Black March has become an inspiration to many other Black Marches throughout the world, including in Poland. Evidently, a walk through the streets of the city can in some cases be a form of civic engagement, and it can imply political action. Joint marches, during which participants express their views, are a form of civic disobedience. Since the conservative PiS political party came to power in Poland, we often have had the opportunity to witness and participate in protest marches.
The originators of the Hundred Banners’ parade in November 2018 wished to commemorate the centenary of women gaining electoral rights in Poland. We celebrated this day with such thunder largely because those same rights to self-determination are again threatened today in our country. The invitation to participate in the march was addressed to a wide group of people from all over Poland, and everyone could join in with their banner or placard. Not only well-known artists, but also many other people from various cities, including my students, have come to the march in Warsaw. The initiative gathered together banners and placards – connected by their message, and varied in their forms – and there were many more than the original 100. The participants, who carried them on a rainy November day in Krakowskie Przedmieście in Warsaw, represented an exhibition in motion – where the viewers stood still, and the art was moving. “Make women great again!”, “Gender makes no difference!”, “Nothing about us without us!” – these were just a few of the slogans. This visual intervention in the city space was an important manifestation of the awakening spirit of weak resistance, and the ability to be together.
Copernicus was a woman, too!
Another form of commemoration and visual intervention is a mural I made, as part of my didactic practice, together with students of the Institute of Media Art at the Pedagogical University in Kraków. In the studio I run, I involve students in actions related to current social and political problems, with particular focus on women’s issues. In the spring of 2019, we made a mural commemorating the first Polish feminists, women who fought for the right to education and financial independence, for themselves and for future generations. From among many persons worth commemorating, we chose five to feature in a mural we created as part of the Women’s Year celebrations at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, titled Copernicus was a woman, too. We wished to commemorate those women who got involved in social issues, and who are very superficially (or not at all) present in the collective conscious and historical discourse. One thing is certain: no monuments were built for them.
In this action, working with students is very important, as the young generation sometimes is not aware that what is obvious and readily available to them today was not always so, including democracy. Political situation in Europe, including Poland, with surprisingly strong support for a right-wing political party closely associated with the Church and a distorted understanding of religion, is a threat to all those who do not live in accordance with the traditional division of social roles and the model of the family. We, women, feel threatened by the fact that, a hundred years after our emancipation, the right-wing government wants to impose restrictions on us again, claiming control over our bodies and interfering in our private lives, in our decisions, silencing us. That is why it is so important to constantly remember the past, and revisit it from a feminist perspective.
The women who feature in the mural were precursors of feminism in Poland. One of them is Narcyza Żmichowska, associated with social and independence movements. In her pedagogical work, she dealt with the development of an education program for girls. She believed that education would enable them to make informed decisions when choosing their life paths other than the stereotypical roles of wife and mother.
Żmichowska’s teacher was Klementyna Hoffmanowa, also commemorated in the mural. She was the first woman in Poland for whom her own creative work had become the source of income. That is why in her social and pedagogical activity she strongly pushed for the economic independence of women.
To facilitate and embolden women to apply for universities, Kazimiera Bujwidowa – another woman commemorated in the mural – launched the initiative of writing individual and collective university applications. This achieved the intended result, because already in 1896 the first students were accepted.
Bujwidowa was also involved in political support for the first female candidate for the Sejm (the Polish Parliament) – Maria Dulębianka, who is also featured in the mural. Dulębianka was a Polish social activist, feminist, painter, writer; she was strongly involved in Poland’s aspirations for independence. She was active in the field of women’s rights, including admitting women to study at the School of Fine Arts in Kraków.
When another one of our protagonists, Zofia Stryjeńska, was unable to enter the above-mentioned university, she went to Vienna, and pretending to be her brother, she studied painting in masculine disguise for one year. Twice locked up in a psychiatric hospital by her husband, throughout her life she struggled with the fact that she did not fit the mould of the submissive, obedient, quiet woman. She had forceful temperament and charisma, and if she were born a man, she would certainly have gained great fame in her lifetime – instead, as a woman, she was considered mad. We wanted to commemorate her, so that her steadfast attitude would become an inspiration for other women.
The Monument to Women Textile Workers
Łódź is a city, which was created and expanded thanks to the development of textile industry. It grew in strength, being the main fabric producer in Central and Eastern Europe since the nineteenth century. Powerful factories, which were nationalized after World War II, during the People’s Republic of Poland employed mainly women. It was the women who contributed to this city’s growth. Today, efforts are being made to create the Monument to Women Textile Workers in Łódź. Several NGOs have joined forces in a joint grassroots initiative to fund it. The proponents of the memorial of Women Textile Workers are well aware that this physical form of commemoration can be but a fig leaf, covering the lack of other activities to support the still-living workers who are struggling with health problems that are the result of their work in harmful conditions for many years. Therefore, at the same time, they postulate the inclusion of former employees in a support program.
Here I come to an important issue related to the form of commemoration. As I stated before, I believe that feminist ways of commemoration must not duplicate patriarchal patterns, that is, they should not take the shape of heavy, figurative bronze statues. They should take a form adequate to the views and ideas currently propagated by feminists, that is: reciprocal equal treatment of all human beings with respect for the planet and its ecosystems. The boldness and pride that accompanies putting up permanent monumental statues (and permanent they are in the opinion of those who commemorate) do not go hand in hand with the values supported by feminism. A more fleeting, ephemeral and sensuous form would seem appropriate. I imagine this could be a hundred-meter flowerbed, looking like a strip of fabric just woven at the factory. Of course, the flowers would blossom seasonally (when thinking about monuments in a traditional form, we always take into account that the material from which they will be made must be highly resistant to environmental factors, weather changes, sun, rain, frost; visible in a permanent, constant form). This one, however, would change with the seasons. It would be a composition of plants that live in different seasons, remaining visually attractive also in winter, and reminding of the passing and the ever-recurring cycle of birth and death. And here, again, we come back to flowers, only live ones.
A monument is a kind of an archive, a record and commemoration of events or people that are important for the identity and memory of a given social or national group. Therefore, to conclude this chapter, I will refer to the text by Ewa Majewska, who considers ways in which a feminist archive should be created. The theoretician advocates for the concept of revolutionary reformism as a form of fluid feminist archive, not requiring complete negation or rejection of the existing records. According to Majewska, this action “transversally exceeds the already worn out formula stabilizing the division into ‘reform’ and ‘revolution’.” The works I discussed in this chapter are temporary, interventionist in their character; with their very presence, they disturb and act against the existing order. They constitute a vivid statement intended to inspire discussion – if you like, searching for “holes” that can be intercepted and occupied by other narratives. It is only though such action, in my opinion, that we can hope to create a more complete picture of reality. The use of that which is low, ordinary, mundane, that which is subject to the passage of time, is a form of weak but effective resistance. A mural, marching with flags and banners, T-shirts with inscriptions, ephemeral fabric installations and, finally, live plants. The consolidation of knowledge about women and their culture-forming and political agency can take place through such interventions, through continuous discussions and conversations. After all, the point is not to undermine and destroy, but rather to make this resistance to the patriarchal canon a tool and an element of the feminist archive.