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Where were women in the fight for Polish independence?

21 stycznia 2019, poniedziałek,

Women of independence, or women of obscurity
“The Niepodległe exhibition questions the male-centric vision of the world and history”.

Kudzanai Chiurai, „We Live in Silence” ( Chapter 1–7), 2017, courtesy of the artist and the Goodman Gallery (Kudzanai Chiurai/press release)

It is hard to imagine that many Poles have managed not to notice the centenary of Polish independence. But what about women’s suffrage? Has this anniversary been noticed? The new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw – “Niepodległe: Women, Independence and National Discourse” – focuses on women, freedom and historical narratives, as well as the role women played in the fight for independence. According to its curator, Magda Lipska, the exhibition was created to “draw attention to the missing part of the narrative of independence – women’s participation in the fight for national liberation.”

But what about us, women?

National liberation discourse often does not allow any highlighting that women played essential functions in the fight for freedom, that their role was huge, and that it is important to notice both this fact and the new opening of the female chapter in the history of independence. The Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw has joined the national celebrations of the centenary of Polish independence with its unique exhibition Niepodległe: Women, Independence and National Discourse. It is a brave and extraordinary offering – a must-see point on the to-see list of exhibitions. “The uniqueness of the exhibition consists in the very broad presentation of the subject of national liberation,” says Magda Lipska. “Although the time frame of the exhibition (1918-1989) is defined by the Polish historical experience, we do not focus solely on the history of Poland, but show the entire seven decades between the two dates, as this is the period during which many countries gained independence, including mainly the decolonised countries of Africa and Asia,” emphasises Lipska. Niepodległe (Polish for “independent women”) is also a manifesto of sorts, says Ewa Ayton, Head of the Arts and Culture Department of the British Council Poland, which is a partner of the Niepodległe exhibition. “The era of erasing women from the historical narrative is ending,” she adds.  “Women in Poland, the United Kingdom and other countries took active part in the struggle for independence. They encouraged men to join the army, worked as nurses during the war, and when men were fighting on the front, they took over “men’s” jobs. We ought to remember that at the same time they continued to be mothers, housewives and sole breadwinners.”

Goshka Macuga, Death is not the End, 2013, courtesy of Giovanna Silva Collection

Cook, dress wounds, clean

This multiplication of the roles performed by women often meant that the situation was treated as a norm, and the women themselves were marginalised as less important and external to the great fight for “great” causes – ultimately, they were left with everyday life. What is more, this everyday life – both home life and the help brought to the wounded – was often limited to naturalistic, biological, and body-related issues. “The matters of the spirit” were in a way “the men’s thing”. Women cleaned and cooked, dressed wounds, menstruated and gave birth. They were both fully “corporeal” in their ordinary character and nature and simultaneously deprived of sexuality, although this seems to be an inseparable element of corporeality and humanity. The works of artists who appear at the Niepodległe exhibition remind the audience of these facts. Female sexuality – disciplined and removed from the social image – is one of the main motifs of the exhibition. This theme returns with unusual, almost demonic power, according to the exhibition’s creators, in the works of Goshka Macuga, a Polish woman residing permanently in Great Britain who, in a way, represents  both the UK and Poland (Macuga is the only Pole to ever be nominated for the Turner Prize). In her collages, the artist emphasises the role of female sexuality – and its repression – in contemporary culture. Totes Meer / The Shock of the Old Eve (2008) depicts a clash between male power and the destruction of war and the embodiment of sensual femininity.

Goshka Macuga, Totes Meer / The Shock of the Old Eve, 2008, courtesy of the artist, Estate of Eileen Agar, Estate of Joseph Bard, and Tate Archive (TGA 8927/12/16, TGA 7050PH/64)

Sexual taboos, enslavement and issues of biopolitics are also raised by Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, a British artist with Ugandan roots. Her Paradise (2012) juxtaposes two worlds – the titular paradise and the place in which a Polish community began its new life. It recalls the story of Polish refugees from the USSR who settled in Uganda. The work of Wolukau-Wanambwa confronts both realities, highlighting the taboo of white women’s relationships with dark-skinned men, one quite typical of patriarchal communities.

Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, Paradise, 2012, courtesy of the artist

The male (negative) side of sexuality is also shown in a series of figures created by Lubaina Himid, a British artist. Her works depicting men with monstrous penises symbolise enslavement, violence and evil. They were created in the 1980s and have been presented for the first time at the exhibition Five Black Women in Great Britain. This was her statement against the oppression, notably sexual and racial, which she encountered in life.

Lubaina Himid, Freedom and Change, 1984, courtesy of the artist and Hollybush Gardens, London

All women fighting for independence

Despite the diversity of cultural circles represented by the artists, their different styles and artistic techniques (the exhibition includes sculptures, collages, photographs and audio-visual projects), the exhibit creates a coherent vision of femininity as unrestricted freedom, autonomy and independence. These ideals are, however, mostly images of desired futures. The present and past are a source of worry and outrage. “In this exhibition, I draw attention to the fact that despite national causes being fought over under the symbolic canopy of femininity represented by feminine allegories of the nation, or Niepodległa (a metonymy of independent female-gendered Poland), they do not commemorate the achievements of the women who took part in the struggle for independence,” says Magda Lipska. “This dissonance is the main driving force behind the exhibition.”

A new way to commemorate

What other unique features does the new Museum of Modern Art exhibition have? Ewa Ayton notes that the exhibition is also an exceptional voice among other Polish events commemorating the centenary of the country’s independence. “There are no pompous and clichéd national symbols,” she emphasises. “It is a statement on the subject of independence and freedom told through the prism of women, outlined in the stories about women’s exclusion from historical narratives. Nowadays, this seems to be an important, inclusive voice, one that does not suggest that there is only one way of celebrating freedom, but emphasises that freedom belongs to everyone, regardless of one’s views, gender, skin colour or sexual orientation. It is a rather modern voice within the context of present-day Poland,” adds the Head of Art and Culture Department of the British Council Poland.

Lubaina Himid, Dog Years (section), 1981–1982, Richard Bliss Collection

The British Council report on the situation of women

The British Council report on the situation of women may also turn out to be vitally important in the context of the anniversary of Polish independence and women’s suffrage. In the United Kingdom, 2018 marks the centenary of two important legal acts – The Representation of the People Act and The Parliament (Qualification of Women) Act – both of which marked major advances in women’s political participation and empowerment. To commemorate it, the British Council prepared a special report entitled Women, Power and Politics in the UK: What’s changed in 100 years? A study commemorating 100 years of women’s right to vote. “We wanted to also consider the progress which has been made in the field of women’s participation in politics, power and leadership in the four nations of the United Kingdom, to emphasise the challenges and priorities which are still valid today and consider the perspectives of other countries” explains Ewa Ayton from the British Council Poland. “The definition of women’s participation in political life, power and leadership goes beyond the representation of women in parliament, being also about women’s influence in power and decision-making structures, including politics.. The goal of our report is to contribute to the on-going international dialogue on the participation of women in public and political life.”

How to silently make history

The British Council report, just like Niepodległe: Women, Independence and National Discourse, draws attention not only to the pressing issues which plague women in the modern world, but above all to the history which has gone unnoticed for decades, emphasising the important role which women played in making history and how much we owe to them, also in the context of the fight for independence. “The exhibition showcases the part of history which has not penetrated the social consciousness – the knowledge which both men and women have been equally barred from,” concludes Magda Lipska, the curator of the exhibition. Therefore, it is worth to take one’s time to look at the works presented at the exhibition also, and perhaps especially, through this very prism.”

Author: Polityka.pl
You can find polish version of this article here.

The material was prepared in cooperation with the British Council Poland.