Solar panels and selfies: how Polish artists are pushing back against ultra-conservatism

With eco-guerrilla tactics, illustration, performance, and digital interventions, Poland’s cultural activists are exposing growing discontent with the government’s stance on gender, sexual equality, and environmental justice.

20 July 2020
Top image: Iwona Demko

Since the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party took power in Poland in 2015, the country’s eco-warriors, feminists, and LGBTQ activists have all seen their work become more difficult. It is a trend which is unlikely to end soon. PiS leader Andrzej Duda won the country’s tightly-contested presidential elections on 12 July with a campaign that hinged on “traditional values”; his victory giving heteronormativity and nationalism another five year mandate.

PiS’ vision of conservatism has not spared cultural institutions, particularly those whose vision does not align with the government’s. Theatre group Teatr Polski and the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA) have both seen new, ultra-conservative heads appointed by the Ministry of Culture, despite backlash from staff and the artistic community.

Yet in this deeply-polarised country however, artists are also re-dedicating themselves to public conversations on some of PIS’ most controversial policies. The Calvert Journal spoke to five creatives questioning the official line — and creating their own small revolutions.

Diana Lelonek

BWA Bydgoszcz Gallery is Poland’s first-ever solar-powered gallery — a radical step in a country where 80 per cent of the power supply is generated from coal. The move is thanks to Diana Lelonek, a young creative from Silesia, Poland’s largest coal producing region. Rather than spending the funds for her exhibition catalogue on printing, Lelonek invested them in a photovoltaic system. The resulting installation, ‘Post-exhibition Catalogue’, supplied energy for all the exhibited works at her solo show at BWA Bydgoszcz, and is still functional to this day. “The roof of the gallery became an extension of the [photovoltaic system as an] art object, whose main role is the production of alternative energy,” she explained. The work is a criticism of overproduction and highlights the role which art can play in reducing CO2 emissions. It has also stirred a much-needed conversation around alternative environmental solutions within the art world.

Lelonek often collaborates with activist Solar Ninja, who carries out urban solar guerrilla actions, whereby she places solar panels on the roofs of housing blocks while bypassing official, bureaucratic procedures and hacking systems.

Bartosz Staszewski

In March last year, right-wing councillors in the eastern Polish town of Swidnik were among the first in the country to declare their local government “free from LGBT ideology”. Within a year, 100 municipalities followed suit.

The move prompted activist Bartosz Staszewski to take a tour across Poland, photographing local LBGTQ people in front of a self-made road sign saying “LGBT-free zone”. The pictures went viral on social media. Later, working with a group of human rights lawyers, Staszewski stopped right-wing magazine Gazeta Polska from distributing their own “LGBT-free zone” stickers, while growing international attention also saw twin towns in Germany, France, and Ireland condemn and even cut ties with municipalities who had joined the anti-LGBTQ scheme.

But rising LGBTQ suicide and emigration rates also speak to Poland’s growing climate of homophobia. “Almost everyone of us knows someone who has left Poland or will leave in the near future,” Staszewski told The Calvert Journal. The activist was recently invited to a police interrogation after right-wing politicians accused him of lying about the way LGBTQ people were treated in Poland.

Staszewski now worries the hostility of the ruling party may discourage some activists from speaking out. “Of course there are risks and challenges involved, but there is no rose without thorns,” he said.

Iwona Demko

In one of her most striking artworks, the 2016 photo collage ‘408 231 Skirt Liftings or my dream about the Black Protest’, Iwona Demko is seen standing in Krakow’s main square as she lifts her skirt up to display her genitalia. Demko says that the inspiration for her work came from British author Catherine Blackledge’s 2003 book Raising the Skirt. The Unsung Power of the Vagina, a celebration of the beauty of the vagina, where the gesture of raising the skirt (or anasyrma in ancient Greek) is understood as a powerful form of feminist dissent. “I am convinced that our emancipation is also the emancipation of the vagina, that it is necessary to recover our bodies in order to be fully free,” Demko explained.

Polish women’s power over their bodies are currently limited by harsh abortion laws. A further bill introduced in March 2018, and supported by PiS, looks to further restrict legal access to abortion, outlawing the procedure even when a foetus shows fatal abnormalities.

Demko also hopes to fight back against PiS’s opposition to sexual education. For her PhD at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, the artist even came up with her own term: ‘vaginatism’ — the study of vaginal worship, a quasi-religion giving female genitalia its historical cultural significance back — in the hopes that a shift in language could also cause a shift in attitudes.

Joanna Grochocka

A former street artist, Joanna Grochocka maintains her political edge through illustration. During large-scale protests calling for stronger women’s rights in 2016, she crafted a poster showing the pink thighs of a woman holding a slingshot alongside the message, “Basta!” (Polish for “Enough!”). Grochocka is part of a growing number of contemporary Polish illustrators who use their art to make social statements, building upon Poland’s rich historical poster tradition.

Zofia Krawiec

Setting up her official Instagram profile in 2016, curator Zofia Krawiec wanted to prove that the internet could support women in their fight for emancipation. Rejecting current norms of respectability and shame, she began flooding her handle, @zofia.krawiec, with sex-positive, empowering selfies, taking on different roles using Instagram filters. She hopes that “selfie feminism”, which is relatively new to the Polish-speaking digital community, will empower young women as they fight for agency against patriarchal political regimes. “My work is about reclaiming power over our own image,” she said.

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