Queering Poland in London
By Lisa J Walters, on 20 October 2017
Starting from the century of Polish women’s movement, and the LGBTQ politics to Polish art in London and Brexit.
Emancipation now seems to be in a backlash. In October, Polish women again demonstrated to commemorate October 2016, when the whole of Poland was dressed in black; when thousands of Polish women and men demonstrated against a proposal to radicalize already one of the most radical abortion laws in Europe. This was also part of the London story; many Polish women also honoured October 2016 a few weeks ago in front of Polish Embassy. The story of women’s emancipation, gender politics and migration was a leading theme of many SSEES’ seminars and talks. Let’s recall some facts….
When I start my Polish classes, I ask my students about any Polish people; Copernicus, Fryderyk Chopin, Lech Wałęsa… Women hardly ever appear in the list, so I mention, usually to my students’ surprise, Marie Curie.
Marie Curie is quite a queer personality for her time. Perhaps, not queer in the today’s primary meaning of the word, but pretty exceptional and ground-breaking. She was the first Polish woman to become a Nobel Prize winner. She is also the first woman ever to win that prize and to win it twice (in 1903 and 1911). Maria Skłodowska – Curie, known as Marie Curie, was ahead of her time not only as a woman among a man’s world of science, but also across different geographic boundaries by forming her home away from the country where she was born and becoming a citizen of Europe long before the idea of global citizenship was born. She must have been a queer person for her time. And she indeed is an icon for the Polish emancipatory movement and perhaps she should be for Polish contemporary migration.
What is the Polish history of emancipation? Well, it is a pretty representative Eastern European story of a vibrant interwar (1918-1939) emancipatory movement, then impeded by communist times after WWII. Polish women were granted full equal political rights quite early, in November 1918. This emancipatory political act was followed by many changes. The 1920s and 1930s were an important time for advanced re-thinking of issues like abortion, women’s economic freedom, and body politics. Poland was one of the few countries that stopped penalizing homosexuality since 1932. Yet, the post-war communist time was not very responsive to women’s movements and LGBTQ groups, even though homosexuality was legally allowed (from age 15), the general attitude was very negative. In 1959, for example, the French philosopher Michel Foucault, now an iconic person in queer studies, was forced to leave Poland accused of homosexual provocation against militia.
The post-communist transformation of 1989 and its politics brought a lot of change, yet from the point of view of the gender legislation this new democratic time was a kaleidoscope of liberal attitudes and conservative tendencies. The first Congress of Polish Women took place in Warsaw (20-21 June, 2009). In her opening speech, Maria Janion, a Polish scholar and former anti-communist activist, expressed her disappointment with the new Polish democracy. “It took some time – she memorably said – before I realised that democracy in Poland has a masculine gender”. She meant a traditional, heterosexual, conservative masculine gender. This is quite a pessimistic view of contemporary Poland, but alas, impossible to dispute. Women are still overwhelmingly seen as belonging to the private realm, and not fit to be participants in the public domain. “Feminist” is an offensive or ridiculous label: a feminist in Poland is still seen as a single woman (most likely a lesbian, which is treated as an ultimate insult) with no children. Obviously, no one would have to worry about these inane stereotypes, if it did not figuratively capture the position of women’s and other vulnerable groups in Polish society. Polish women have only the most minimal abortion law and this law is still under threat to be radicalized. Women are grossly underpaid in comparison to men in similar positions; enjoy very limited access to the better-remunerated posts and carry out the lion’s share of domestic labour. In Poland there is no same-sex marriage or even legal partnership and same sex couples have no right to adopt. There is no easily accessible help for IVF, and there is still a high level of intolerance against homosexuality and gender variance. Following the huge feminist and emancipation movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the rise of queer theories in the 1980s and 1990s, the last two decades – in Poland, amd in other Eastern European countries, (and in the world in general) – show that societies have not fundamentally changed their attitudes and representations of women and LGBTQ people. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that either feminist ideals have failed or that we are facing one of the biggest anti feminist/anti emancipation backlashes ever…or both.
Yet, this story of academic debate on Polish emancipation movement started in 2013 with a cheerful tone. About 110 years after Maria Skłodowska-Curie won the Nobel Prize, in May 2013, a wonderful crowd of Polish alternative artists took part within the University College London Festival of Art, celebrating Polish language becoming one of the biggest migrants’ languages in the UK. It was a time of acclaiming migration, open borders, applauding the fact that many LGBTQ people feel better in the UK than in their own country. London was praised as a space where – thanks to the open borders – many migrant artists could fulfil their dreams.
In 2017 University College London’s Festival of Culture revisited similar artistic projects to see how London reacts toward increasingly nationalistic and conservative politics in Poland. Last year in Poland there was a nonsensical attempt to radicalise an already quite profound anti-abortion law, followed by the biggest march of women in recent Polish history, called the ‘black protests’. Nevertheless, the anti-gender rhetoric is heard all over Polish media. Nationalist and conservative politics are now dominating. At the same time the sense of openness of London and the UK is slowly melting into the sour feeling of unknown: how will Brexit change the lives of many Poles who made their homes here?
Katarzyna Perlak, a Londoner, a mixed media artist, interested in the social issues, captures in her artistic visions the aftermaths of contemporary politics. In 2016 she started a fictional documentary “Niolam Ja Se Kochaneczke”, in which she queers the folk traditional. The project seems to assume provocatively that since tradition is all too often used by conservatism rhetoric, why not rethink it through queer. The title is written in a Polish dialect. It refers to a popular folk song and it means I had a lover. Polish language is gendered, especially in past tense, in which the gender of the speaker is immediately exposed, so in the Polish title we know that it is a man (miałem/niolem) who used to have a woman lover (kochaneczkę). In Katarzyna Perlak’s title the speaker and the lover are both women. “Through this work I revisited Eastern European folk traditions” – explains the artist – “and whilst employing feminist and queer reading I questioned why queer love has never been preserved and celebrated in the folk history. I reclaimed these stories by subverting the narrative of ‘straight’ love songs to represent queer love stories instead. I questioned what ‘national values’ are / are claimed to be and I looked at the ‘fragility’ of national identity, threatened so easily by ‘otherness’ and queer subjectivities.”
In 2017 Katarzyna Perlak created another artwork called „Vulnarable”. It is a several – hour recording of 30 exchanges between the artist and the participants who tell her how to pronounce the word “vulnerable” properly. As Katarzyna explains: “The work reflects upon the relationship between language, power structures, social mobility and vulnerability. It was also made in response to the hate crime killing of Arkadiusz Jozwik on 27th August 2016 in Harlow, which happened shortly after the Brexit vote.”
Małgorzata Dawidek, another Polish migrant artist, is also interested in the notion of vulnerability, such as the susceptible ill body or position of women and their ability to express their desires. Similarly, the artist exposes limits of linguistic efforts to assert our identity. The artist presents photos of notes written on the body or creates palimpsests of words and this way emphasizes the ethnic, gender, or national language platitudes we use and replicate trying to express who we are. Małgorzata lives and works in London and now, with the Brexit “phantom,” she feels like something may change: “mobility by definition is inscribed into works of contemporary artist and academic. I myself am a migrant in many senses… I strongly believe that art and science can grow only through the process of shearing of the knowledge. And now Brexit, with its peculiar closure of borders, means not only an exclusion of the others, alteration of lifestyles and behaviours, but first and foremost it means a closure of opportunities for a free intellectual movement and exchange of ideas and thoughts.”
And the world is indeed based on the exchange of ideas and experiences; this is how the world may get better. Another migrant artist, Hanna Jarząbek, also settled away from Poland and analyses the world from the Spanish perspective, living in Barcelona. One of her works is devoted to Polish lesbian couples. In her project “The Lesbians and much more” she presents a series of beautiful photographs to expose the part of scenery that is still tabooed in Poland. The artist explains: “In a society that strongly promotes a traditional family model, the situation of lesbian women is complex. Frequently they suffer a double discrimination: first, because of their so-called ‘ill sexual orientation’ and second, because they do not fulfil their ‘natural role’ within the frame of a traditional family. Put in the margins of society, they are often ignored and practically invisible in the public space.”
Hanna Jarząbek’s photos when presented in London lose their subversive element, so strong in Poland. In London the political stance seems milder and less important, the aesthetic tissue of the project becomes a chief element. This Polish-London experiment shows how predominant the political stance is in Poland queer works. In a more open society queer can be simply art. The political stance is inevitable when the social group is left in a vulnerable position. Yet the political stance in art is a bit like anger: powerful yet hampering the essential communication by its emotional cargo. Hanna Jarząbek’s works remind me of Izabela Morska’s poem from Madame Intuita, most likely first, openly lesbian Polish collection of poetry. In this poem a lesbian woman, who left her husband is happy and calm and this happiness is the worst that can happen to the world that she left:
I’d hardly got undressed when he said:
My wife left me for another woman.
Hurt him like hell.
On my way out the door, I thought,
Honey, I can understand why.
When he ran into her at a bar
She was different, like a razor,
All nonchalance, cigarette, and shaved head.
A militant bitch who wouldn’t let anything slide.
That other one turned her against him.
If not for her, they could still get along.
The girlfriend eyed them discreetly
From above the jukebox.
You know me, Razor told him.
If I were miserable,
Then maybe I’d miss you.
If I were just sort of happy,
Then I’d be able to forgive you.
But the way it’s going, honey,
it doesn’t look good,
it doesn’t look good for you.
(trans. Karen Kovacik)
The poem is an ironic story of a female protagonist who transgresses the nationalized womanhood based on heterosexuality and sacrifice for children and family (both as a symbols of nation). The lesbian/queer happiness here is an infuriating gesture, undermining centuries of heterosexual normativity. The poem in the Polish context also bears additional meaning: it cannot be Polish bar; it is American most likely with its jukeboxes in the corner. This fact may be seen both as a reference to an American migrant phase of the Izabela Morska (then writing as Izabela Filipiak) or the political standpoint that in Polish scenery lesbians are invisible, especially in bars, hence the story has to be taken to another world.
When thinking about the emancipatory movement of the last 100 years, from the time of Marie Curie, we see, how much has changed, and – by comparison to London’s perspective – what still needs to be done. Many Polish socially focused artists and migrants through their writing and art show us the points where the social tissue of tolerance and compromise is breaking. It is worth listening to their stories. Queering Poland is a bit like queering Marie Curie, juxtaposing the terms and notions that usually are far away from each other in their usual connotations. Poland with its Catholicism and conservatism. Yet, this is a necessary exercise to make to see Poland and more broadly tradition in general differently, to see everything that need to done to continue the next century of the social emancipation. London, with its diversity, openness and tolerance, acts here an example of advancement. Brexit cannot change it.
Seminar delivered by Katarzyna Perlak, June 2017: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gUPN9UwWom4