I am! human! Why Poland’s LGBTQ+ artists won’t be silenced

This is our Poland

5 July 2021
Top Image: Liliana Zeic

“I am! human!”

The words float in fluffy clouds under a rainbow near a bright yellow sun. Nearby, a unicorn-mermaid shakes its fiery rainbow mane; two dolphins share a kiss; a giraffe with rainbow-coloured spots declares that love is love. More words are emblazoned across a sea of postcards, many filled with love and hope: “We matter.” “Queer people are magic.” Some are more somber: “Homophobia kills.”

Polish artist Filip Kijowski has collected more than 1,000 postcards over the past year. He projected a selection onto the facade of Galeria Labirynt in the Polish city of Lublin on 17 May, the International Day Against Homophobia.

Kijowski returned to Poland in 2020 after a 15-year stint in London, as Poland’s presidential election campaigns were in full swing. That June, conservative incumbent Andrzej Duda proclaimed in his campaign speeches that “LGBT are not people but an ideology” — and an ideology “worse than communism”. That autumn, dozens of small Polish towns declared themselves “LGBT-free zones” as Polish clergy thundered from their pulpits to “beware the rainbow plague”.

Postcards collected by Filip Kijowski at Galeria Labirynt, Lublin. Image courtesy of the artist

Lublin, where Kijowski is an artist-in-residence, is surrounded by the highest concentration of these zones in Poland. For one of his projects, he decided to ask gallery visitors and passersby to share their thoughts about Duda’s words on blank postcards.

“The postcards are an important way to let people know what others are feeling right now,” he tells me in a recent call. “I’ve learned to love and accept myself, but that doesn’t change the fact that these words are so detrimental to people’s existence.”

“I seek out humanity in others because so many people are suffering. Everyone wants to live with dignity”

As part of his residence, Kijowski is also creating a library, Biblioteka Azyl, in the gallery. He describes it as a safe place for LGBTQ+ youth who face daily discrimination, as well as a lack of support and understanding from their families. He hopes that the crowdsourced books and materials will help them overcome their feelings of alienation and their families foster acceptance and love.

“So many young people say they can’t wait to leave Poland when they’re 18,” he says. “The country risks losing so much talent by taking away their rights.”

A still from Love Tasting (2020) by Dawid Nickel
A still from Love Tasting (2020) by Dawid Nickel
A still from Love Tasting (2020) by Dawid Nickel
A still from Love Tasting (2020) by Dawid Nickel
Read more LGBTQ arts face increasing censure in Poland. Will this be the country’s last queer exhibition?

Poland today has one of the worst rankings in the EU for LGBTQ+ rights. The conservative Polish government and powerful Polish Catholic Church are openly anti-LGBTQ+ and highly codependent, Poland’s official separation of church and state notwithstanding. But against this backdrop of anti-LGBTQ+ oppression, Poland’s vibrant and extensive artistic community has grown stronger.

Many queer artists make art that reflects their personal experiences as LGBTQ+ citizens, while other artists openly support the LGBTQ+ communities as allies.

This stance has made artists a target for conservative ire. In January 2021, three Polish female artists were put on trial for “offending religious feelings’’ and “desecration” after creating and distributing an image of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa — a Polish Catholic icon — and the infant Jesus she holds, with rainbow halos. The image of the reimagined duo began appearing everywhere: on signs held at pro-LGBTQ+ protests and women’s rights demonstrations, pasted onto public spaces and widely shared across social media.

This trial ended with an acquittal in March. But the “fear of the rainbow” is very real in Poland, Joanna Klass says. She’s the co-founder of Curie City, a cultural centre in Warsaw that works with an array of Polish artists, many of whom are LGBTQ+.

A still from Love Tasting (2020) by Dawid Nickel

Photo diary: what I learned after coming out in noughties Poland
Read more Photo diary: what I learned after coming out in noughties Poland

“The government needs an enemy,” she tells me. “It operates through the dissemination of fear.” She’s concerned about how conservatives and the church openly work to shut down any art — like the rainbow Black Madonna — that isn’t aligned with its conservative, Catholic ideology.

Many creatives find that in a country where simply being out as LGBTQ+ can be a radical act, being an outspoken queer artist is difficult in itself.

Multidisciplinary artist Liliana Zeic focuses on themes that are “absolutely political”. Yet she’s finding that fewer institutions — especially those that receive government funding — are open to showcasing these topics. These “self-censoring” institutions, as Zeic puts it, are part of the larger system that seeks to silence and omit LGBTQ+ voices. She doesn’t believe it’s her work that’s gotten more radical, but the state and fundamentalist Catholic organisations “who want me to be afraid, insecure, not to speak up. That’s their goal.”

Yet Zeic — like all the artists I spoke to for this piece — is undeterred. “I know what I want to develop, what to pay attention to, and how to work,” she says. In Sourcebook | Książka źródeł (2020, ongoing} Zeic presents an archive of Poland’s non-normative female queer and lesbian history within the generation of Polish women who fought for electoral rights and women’s equality.

Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 25 by Liliana Zeic

“I create text, drawings, photographs, objects, and an expanding catalog,” Zeic says. She looks for forms of expression that are not merely illustrative, such as traditional straw braids. “The history of female non-normativity is made of white spots,” she says, “of silences; of the self-censorship of women writing letters to each other and writing their memoirs.”

She opens the Sourcebook with the words of Maria Konopnicka, whose fairy tale, Berry Hunting, she read hundreds of times as a child. She only learned much later that Konopnicka was non-heteronormative. “This canonical text written by a canonical patriotic writer,” Zeic says, “can be used to imagine a queer girl separatist commune living on the fringes of society.”

Yet despite the difficulties that artists face, their persistence is making an impact.

Performance by Filip Kijowski. Image Diana Kołczewska
Performance by Filip Kijowski. Image Diana Kołczewska
Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 33 by Liliana Zeic
Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 33 by Liliana Zeic
Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 36 by Liliana Zeic
Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 36 by Liliana Zeic
Postcards collected by Filip Kijowski at Galeria Labirynt, Lublin
Postcards collected by Filip Kijowski at Galeria Labirynt, Lublin

So many young people say they can’t wait to leave Poland when they’re 18. The country risks losing so much talent by taking away their rights.

Artist Karol Radziszewski was one of Poland’s first openly out gay artists in the early 2000s. “I grew up in a different world,” he says, with virtually no societal references about what it meant to be gay.

When Radziszewski began to make art at the turn of the 21st century, he was one of Poland’s first artists to pave the way for a LGBTQ+ narrative. In response to a conservative movement that was gaining power, he created a highly visible, fictitious gay gang. In his photo/video series Fag Fighters (2007), the pink balaclava-clad gang wreaks havoc and violence: a parody of what conservatives say they fear, he says.

Radziszewski is now no longer one of the only LGBTQ+ artist on the Polish scene, and his work has become increasingly radical through the years, especially in response to stronger government repression. “My activism is to influence what is in books a decade from now,” he says, “to affect education and thinking”.

Radziszewski established the Queer Archives Institute in 2015, to research, collect, digitise, present, and exhibit Central and Eastern European queer archives. He launched the archive’s website specifically on 15 November to mark the 30th anniversary of the start of Operation Hyacinth, a secret mass operation by Polish communist police to register all Polish homosexuals and those with whom they had contact.

He draws upon research from the institute in his latest art project, a series of acrylic paintings of historical figures paired with little-known facts about their non-heteronormativity. He shares the portraits on Instagram, on which he has a large and attentive following.

The portraits are vividly coloured, with accentuated outlines and loose brushwork. The images feel fresh and of the now, even as they ask the viewer to reconsider their subjects’ history through a different lens. “I’ve realised that I don’t have to take on all the radicalism myself,” Radziszewski says. “Instead, I consciously create space for others to feel empowered and act.”

An illustration by Marta Zablocka

While the Polish government shows little willingness to relent in its state-sanctioned homophobia, the public and private responses that pro-LGBTQ+ artists receive spur their persistence to reimagine worlds where they are no longer on the fringe.

Like Radziszewski, filmmaker Dawid Nickel saw no representations of himself in the Polish movies he grew up watching (despite being a decade younger). Nickel knew from an early age that he wanted to make films and that he wanted them to touch on themes that were important to him.

“I didn’t see it,” Nickel says. “So I had to find the strength within myself to do it. I’ll be the one who represents me.”

“I’ve learned to love and accept myself, but that doesn’t change the fact that these words are so detrimental to people’s existence”

In his debut feature film, Love Tasting (2020), young Poles from a small town fall in love and lust, experience first heartbreak and first betrayal. Delicately filmed, the film manages to be both sexy and subtle, robust and gentle.

One of the film’s characters is gay. He sends his sister a note about a dream he had, then asks her to read it aloud as they sit side-by-side. In the dream, he and a man are next to each other, she reads, but they don’t do anything. Why not? she asks. I was afraid of rejection, he says. She looks up from her phone at him. Don’t be, she tells him after a beat of silence. “There’s such a gap in Polish cinema,” Nickel says. “Polish films don’t talk about people like me.”

Love Tasting won a major award at the 2020 Gdynia Film Festival. That recognition — paired with the fact that 80 per cent of the film was financed by the Polish Film Institute, a state entity — are hopeful portents, as was the response from his hometown.

Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 7 by Liliana Zeic
Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 7 by Liliana Zeic
Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 9 by Liliana Zeic
Sourcebook | Książka źródeł No 9 by Liliana Zeic
Total Solidarity: listen to the electronic mixtape supporting LGBTQ rights in Poland
Read more Total Solidarity: listen to the electronic mixtape supporting LGBTQ rights in Poland

Nickel now lives in Warsaw, but grew up in a small Polish town of 60,000. When he won the award, his local paper did a write-up. Nickel braced himself for a homophobic backlash that never came. Old friends wrote supportive messages; locals congratulated his mother, who works at one of the town’s shops. Nickel says that the reaction could be because locals know him — “that’s our gay” — but against a political backdrop that fuels hate and fear, it feels like a victory.

“I’m writing my next project,” Nickel says. “It’s about things I myself have experienced. It’s important to tell my story here, in Poland.”

Yet while the cultural sphere may allow LGBTQ+ artists space to breathe, wider policies continue to crack down on their home and family lives. Choosing to stay in Poland is not easy. Same-sex civil unions are illegal in Poland, and in July 2020, President Duda proposed a constitutional amendment that would prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children.

For illustrator and artist Marta Zablocka, who also lives in Warsaw, those policies mean that she cannot legally marry her partner, nor can she legally adopt their two-year-old son. Zablocka’s popular series Zycie Nad Kreske (Life Beyond the Mark) explores the frustration at the government’s words and actions, which directly impact her own life and the lives of those she loves — alongside expressions of love and hope.

“For years, I kept my private life very private,” she told me. “But I began having a lot of emotions around the protests.” She also despaired about how much hate speech was being regularly disseminated in the public sphere. “I began to feel terrified,” she says. “Powerless. The law won’t protect me.”

Filip Kijowski with Biblioteka Azyl
Filip Kijowski with Biblioteka Azyl
Postcards collected by Filip Kijowski at Galeria Labirynt, Lublin
Postcards collected by Filip Kijowski at Galeria Labirynt, Lublin
Read more Queer Poland: how the country’s first virtual LGBTQIA museum is defying conservative times

She began sharing those thoughts and feelings on her social media accounts, and received an outpouring of support, kinship, and love. She realised that sharing herself “wasn’t just about me. I’m not alone.”

As we talk, her partner is getting ready to take their son out to the playground. Zablocka calls him over, and he runs into her arms, all blonde curls and rosy cheeks. They snuggle for a few minutes.

Zablocka is also active and outspoken beyond the screen; she regularly organises community events in her neighbourhood. But she makes sure to invite all of her neighbours — even those who have told her that they voted for Duda.

She recently led a first-of-its-kind community mural project, and invited the entire neighborhood to help paint it. When some neighbours told her they couldn’t draw, she told them to come anyway and that it would mean a lot to her if they showed up, which a number did. Zablocka made sure that everyone was able to participate in some way, and that they understood how much she valued their help.

“I try to see and appreciate everyone as human beings,” she says. “I seek out humanity in others because so many people are suffering. Everyone wants to live with dignity.”

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