Even 2020 has had its upsides. With physical events cancelled and artists locked out of studios, museums, biennials, and galleries have found new ways to come together online, with Zoom-symposia and IGTV-based talks. For creatives living outside the Western world, it has been an opportunity to participate in cultural discussions previously inaccessible — proving just how it’s possible to foster creative communities without borders. And although many countries now find themselves coming out of lockdown, the demand for online communities and discussions remains.
Born of a tumultuous year, The Red Zenith Collective was founded on the belief that art thrives on a strong sense of community. Its founders, curator Marta Grabowska and photographer Zula Rabikowska are both from Poland — they wanted to support women and non-binary artists from Central and Eastern Europe and promote a better understanding of the region. After meeting in 2019 at a talk in Covent Garden, where Rabikowska was speaking about her documentary practice, the two creatives bonded over their shared experience of Eastern European education and the difficulties of breaking into the art world. Before the start of lockdown, Grabowska had curated an exhibition dedicated to the Polish community and Rabikowska was organising talks on the post-communist female identity. Lockdown presented an opportunity to turn their shared interests into a supportive network.
Now, in a back-to-school spirit, the duo have launched an Instagram-based events programme that includes speakers from a wide range of backgrounds, including Slovak-Vietnamese visual artist Kvet Nguyen, and Lerca Antonella Duda, the first trans Roma woman to run for elections in Romania.
Kicking-off The Calvert Journal’s partnership with The Red Zenith Collective, the founders reveal why they didn’t give up on their collaboration in lockdown.
Let’s start at the beginning: how did Red Zenith come about?
At the start of 2020, Zula ran a symposium series about what it means to be a woman in a post-communist Central and Eastern Europe; the first one took place at the Curzon in London and the second one was online via Zoom. There was a lot of interest in the topic, and the number of participants grew with each event. With galleries and spaces closed over the Covid-19 lockdown, there was a sudden demand for creatives to connect, exchange ideas, and showcase their work. The idea for Red Zenith came about through a conversation we had been having about the lack of online spaces dedicated to womxn creatives from Central and Eastern European (CEE) countries.
What was the inspiration behind the name?
Choosing a name for the collective was an organic process. “Red” has an obvious link to communism, which is just about the only thing that Central and Eastern Europe is associated with in the West. We wanted to tap into the irony of that image because our programme is very much dedicated to challenging stereotypes. The colour is also associated with fire and blood, as well as energy, strength, power and determination, which are the pillars of Red Zenith. We were both fond of the idea behind “zenith”, which signals when something is at its most powerful or successful. Any photo enthusiast out there will also tell you that Zenit is also a Soviet camera brand.
Both of you have an interest in visual culture. What made you choose pursuing a platform with a dedicated programme, over an exhibition or a photo project?
Marta: I studied Photography at Krakow School of Art and Fashion Design, and the biggest lesson I learned from staging my first exhibition was that the real power of art lies in the collaborative work behind the scenes.
For the last five years in London, I have been working as an independent curator, staging exhibitions and organising artBLAB talks, and have seen the benefits of hosting networking events for artists and other art professionals. With Red Zenith Collective, we wanted to encourage collaborative learning. It is, first and foremost, a platform for starting new collaborations, exchanging ideas, broadening artistic horizons and getting inspired. We think of it as a sisterhood for like-minded people who want to talk about the issues people face across CEE countries, and challenge existing taboos.
We have seen a tendency amongst emerging artists to be really fluid with their practice and to avoid labels, meaning you no longer have to choose one specialisation. For this reason, it has been especially important to create an intersectional and diverse platform for creatives.
It is also important to mention that our goal is to promote creativity that isn’t defined as an artists-only domain. We believe that creativity comes in different shapes and forms and want to encourage women, female-identifying, and non-binary individuals to challenge its premise and create on their own terms.
Zula: I recently completed an MA in Documentary Photography from the London College of Communication, after a career in finance, working as an operations manager. As a freelance photographer in London and Europe, I wanted to meet like-minded creatives to share ideas and support one another. Photography can be incredibly competitive, and I faced a lot of animosity, particularly from other female creatives. I wanted to challenge this mindset and create a safe and collaborative space. As Marta mentioned, photographers don’t exist in a void anymore, and it’s really important and also inspirational to work with creatives from other industries.
More and more museums and arts institutions are dedicated to diversity in relation to their workforce and artistic programming. Why do you think there’s still a need for platforms solely for female-identifying and non-binary artists?
The institutions you are referring to are predominantly based in the West. It is important to remember that arts institutions in CEE countries face completely different sets of problems. Countries like Poland and Hungary are struggling with providing a safe space and outlet for their LGBTQ+ community, and a large part of culture is still dictated by the Church.
We still live in a patriarchal society where misogyny is as commonplace as everyday bread, so there are issues that should be discussed outside of the creative field. We want to promote female-identifying and non-binary artists first and foremost, but we are an accessible space and very much welcome male and male-identifying creatives.
We’re also dedicated to challenging the idea that CEE countries are not a white Christian homogenous mass, as they are often depicted by the West. We recently held a symposium led by women of colour from Eastern Europe, and regularly invite artists from different practices and backgrounds to ensure that we contribute and challenge the notion of CEE diversity.
Can you give us some highlights from your first few months so far — exciting artists, live events, or initiatives?
We have had three big achievements so far. We successfully launched our first open call and were overjoyed at receiving submissions from 35 different countries. We also had our first Zoom symposium with an incredible turnout and inspirational speakers. Finally, we have devised an amazing programme of talks, which we call Red Zenith Dialogues, in which we invite artists and art professionals to share their career paths, failures, and achievements, as well as the experiences of the industry as a migrant. We are also excited to announce that we are close to finalising our first zine, which will feature the winners of our open call alongside other chosen artists, and is going to be launched at Centrala, in Birmingham.
There are a few recurring topics across your online talks: from formal education to experiences of migration. Can you give us some insight into the issues you’ve noticed cropping up?
Marta: There is a tendency for Western institutions, employers, or galleries, to often dismiss the experience or education of CEE artists. A degree from the Prague Academy of Fine Arts or The Cracow School of Art and Fashion Design is not valued in the same vein as a degree from the Royal College of Art. It is much harder for CEE creatives to gain recognition or breakthrough in the UK or the USA. Not to mention that most jobs in the art world are not advertised, and opportunities arise at private views and after-parties.
Zula: To this day, people often feel entitled to tell me that I don’t sound Polish, or look Polish, or do a job that they associate with Polish people. It was this experience and frustration that motivated me to speak out and challenge this perception.
Both of you are currently based in the UK: how do you think your experience of the arts in the UK has filtered through into Red Zenith?
We definitely want to give back to the community everything we have learned about the art market in the last 10 years and help other migrants to navigate their artistic life in the UK, and in the West in general. We also want to create an open dialogue about the ugly side of the arts, especially in its treatment of minorities and migrants, to hopefully change things for the better.
What plans have you got for the rest of the year?
We’re working on our first publication, which will collate the selected entries from our open call. Marta is also moving permanently back to Poland, to establish local links in CEE and Zula’s plan is to stay in Krakow for a few months to meet local artists, run events, and other workshops (Covid-19 restrictions permitting).
Are there any local initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe you want to give a shout-out to?
We would like to mention a few sister organisations, we have been working with. Camera Femina in Poland is one of them, they organise the Demakijaz Festival that we will be attending in Poland this autumn. The ladies behind the #DONTCALLMEMURZYN campaign, especially Marta Udoh, Ogi Ugonoh, who took part in our first Red Zenith Symposium about Racism in CEE countries, are a huge inspiration. We are also excited to be working with the We Do Festival in Oslo, that promotes Polish Culture and Art, as well as Women Photograph Ukraine and many more organisations that you can read about on our Instagram profile.
Finally, if you could give your younger creative self advice, what would that be?
Marta: I would advise my younger self to believe in herself more and not to be scared of her ideas. You do not have to be like everybody else; it’s okay to follow your own path.
Zula: I came from a family where we did not have much money growing up, and this deterred me from making the decision to study art at 19. Instead, I chose a safe BA degree from Warwick University, followed by years of rigid 9-5 jobs. I would tell my younger self to listen to her heart, follow her dreams, but also to always have a plan B, or even a plan C.