“Niepodległe: Women, Independence and National Discourse” at Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw
The exhibition “Niepodległe: Women, Independence and National Discourse” examines the role played by women in 20th-century narratives of national liberation.
Taking the centenary of the revival of Polish independence as its starting point, the exhibition looks at pivotal moments in history and at various liberation movements: beginning with the year 1918, through 1945 – when the political discourse of independence expanded to include the decolonization of the global South – all the way up to 1989, when the fall of Communism ushered in a new era of globalization. The show reveals the gendered character of historical narratives by showing how women have been overlooked in the national narratives in various times and places.
The title of the exhibition postulates an urgent shift away from the considerations of symbolic womanhood manifested in allegorical representations of a nation, as in the metonymic expression niepodległa (“independence itself,” referring both to the country, which is a feminine noun in Polish, and a woman who is independent). It looks instead at actual women who played parts in liberation movements, along with what women’s presence – or, too often, their absence – may say about the condition of a country, a nation or, more broadly, contemporary culture in general. Hence the “niepodległe” (the plural form designating women of independence) of the title, referring at once to a collective that has been ignored in the telling of history while underlining the political agency of women independent from confines set by the dominant culture. The works of the twenty-nine artists in the exhibition, both female and male, undermine the masculine gaze and patriarchal order of the historical narratives, striving to shape a more diverse representation of women and the way they are depicted in history.
The beginning of the 20th century brought forth multiple, often contradictory visions of Polish independence. Paweł Bownik opens the show with the work “Rewers 8”, depicting the uniform of Marshal Józef Piłsudski – first leader of the newly independent nation – turned inside out, exposing its intricate seams. This gesture sets forth the exhibition’s narrative at the historical moment of Poland’s newly reclaimed independence (1918), while calling attention to hidden, invisible aspects of the national struggle such as the erasure of women in the writing of history. It’s not widely recognized that thousands of women fought for independence in the Volunteer Legion of Women and other paramilitary organizations established on Polish lands as early as 1912. Only recently have their accomplishments and stories brought them into the spotlight, thanks to the efforts of researchers and herstorians. The counterweight to the figure of Marshal Piłsudski within the exhibition is Rosa Luxemburg, who, despite her political engagement, has never been acknowledged in the pantheon of thinkers of Polish independence. Today, her transnational ideas of struggle against exploitation forge an unexpectedly current perspective on the ills of the contemporary world.
The end of the Second World War brought, for Poland and for other European nations, the reconfiguration of world power. Yet at the same time, the new Cold War order opened a new perspective for the liberation of the colonized countries in Africa and Asia. The diptych “The Widow” (2013) by Marlene Dumas features Pauline Lumumba, wife of the first president of the Republic of Congo, stripping her breast to protest against her husband’s assassination, which had been backed by the CIA. Works by Catarina Simão, Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc and Filipa César demonstrate within different media the engagement of women in independence movements in Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau.
Woman as a symbol of revolution has always belonged to the imagery of independence struggles. Eugène Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, depicting a battle in the July Revolution of 1830 led by Marianne, national symbol of French Republic, is one of many examples. Lubaina Himid, in her work “Freedom and Change” (1984), and Sanja Iveković, in “Lady Rosa of Luxembourg” (2001), take a closer look at allegories of the nation and symbols of liberty from the female perspective. In Iveković’s work, Nike – goddess of freedom, depicted on the monument Gëlle Fra in Luxembourg, commemorating the victims of the two world wars – receives a pregnant belly, while the pedestal inscription, originally referring to ideals of the French Revolution, – la résistance, la justice, la liberté, l’indépendence – has been replaced with words commonly aimed at women: whore, bitch, madonna, virgin. In Freedom and Change, Himid sets up a postcolonial reading of Picasso’s 1922 painting “Two Women Running on the Beach (Race)” by playing with double meanings of the word “race,” and recasting the two main figures in Picasso’s work as black women in African batik dress running over a field of spilled coffee beans.
The year 1989 is another important point on the timeline of independence. Iveković’s “Invisible Women of Solidarity” (2009) and Zuzanna Janin’s “Wajda. Wałęsa. Ossowska” (2016) demonstrate how the Solidarity movement forgot its female heroes after its triumph, locking women out of government and out of the overall historical narrative. Janin’s collage is a warning about historical manipulation and the appropriation of Solidarity’s legacy by its male figures. A similar perspective on the history of independence is taken by Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, who paints “invisible” heroes of South Africa’s anti-apartheid and anti-colonial struggle. By painting her “personal pantheon” of heroes, as Nkosi refers to it, the artist tries to question the way historical narratives are shaped by eliminating the multitude of voices and replacing them with the singular and too-often masculine hero.
The question of biopolitics and reproduction rights has always been part of women’s struggle. After Poland’s political transformation, women’s independence was swiftly limited, with an abortion ban introduced by the first democratic government as early as 1993. Katarzyna Górna’s “Ten Virgins” (1995) is the first and probably the only depiction of that era to recall the thousands of women condemned to endure back-alley abortions. Notions of biopolitics are also raised in the work of Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, a British artist of Ugandan heritage. In “Paradise” (2012), she recalls the story of Polish refugees settled by the British government along Uganda’s Victoria River, told through memories of Kasule, a local man who had helped the settlers in the village. By juxtaposing the imagined paradise of the title, recalled by survivors, with the violent testimony of locals who refer to the destruction of mixed-race babies, the artist highlights the lasting taboo within patriarchal societies regarding sexual relations between white women and black men.
One of the central themes of the exhibition is the backlash against and policing of women’s sexuality within patriarchal society. In the works of Goshka Macuga, Frida Orupabo, Tony Cokes and Zbigniew Libera, this returns with diabolical strength in the guise of madwomen, monster babies and uncontrollable fury undermining and threatening the social order. In Libera’s “Death of the Patriot” (2016), the fear of female sexuality takes the form of castration anxiety. The artist, calling upon the Romantic-era legend of the death of Polish insurrection leader Emilia Plater, turns the female hero into a group of Furies out of Greek mythology, savaging the body of a young soldier.
The exhibition culminates with works by Kudzanai Chiruai and Adejoke Tugbiyele, which examine the role Christianity has played in shaping the colonial state through the influence of European missionaries. In “We Live in Silence” (2017), Chiruai recasts the history of the post-colony inspired by the film Soleil Ô by Mauritanian filmmaker Med Hondo, by creating the figure of a woman savior whose symbolic crucifixion becomes a symbol of the death of female independence during the colonial era. Tugbiyele’s work “AfroOdyssey IV: 100 Years Later” (2014) mingles Christian, colonial and postcolonial literary and juridical sources that all demonstrate, independent of their particular aims, an aversion to the nonheteronormative community in her native Nigeria.
The selective nature of historical narrative is an aspect underlined by the exhibition’s architecture, conceived by the Berlin-based architect Johanna Meyer-Grohbruegge. It was inspired by the book “Tree of Codes” (2010) by Jonathan Safran Foer, an American author of Eastern European–Jewish descent, which attempts a new reading of Bruno Schulz’s classic “The Street of Crocodiles”. By cutting and erasing entire phrases and sentences from Schulz’s book, Safran Foer makes it so that the pages, overlapping along with the author’s edits, make up a new visual whole, while the text takes on an entirely different narrative. The narrative thread holding “Niepodległe: Women, Independence and National Discourse” together works in a similar way, with the exhibited works coming together as a palimpsest, a collage of diverse images and stories. Considered from this perspective, the exhibition’s architecture turns the whole into a text of sorts, indicating missing links and blanks scattered throughout women’s history, as it waits for those gaps to be filled in at last.
at Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw
until 3 February 2019