Where art meets resistance: the galleries pushing back against Poland’s illiberal politics

This is our Poland

30 July 2021

In October 2020, Poland’s “women’s strikes” commanded global headlines. As a wave of rallies washed over the country to protest the tightening of already strict abortion laws, demonstrators channeled their anger into a carnival of costumes, masks, and signs. “They’re worse than gooey pickles,” one proclaimed of the ruling Law and Justice party. Others were more serious. Pregnant female bodies nailed to crosses featured prominently on placards, a scathing indictment of politicians’ alliance with the Polish Catholic church. Even more ubiquitous was the symbol of the lightning bolt in red and black: scrawled in lipstick and hot pizza sauce, speaking of rage too raw for words.

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As the marching wound down, a group of young artists sought to preserve that outpouring of creativity. As they called on protesters to entrust placards and banners into their care, an improptu installation sprung up outside Warsaw’s Museum of Modern Art. The institution soon offered the “Forest of Signs” a permanent home in its archives; similar proposals were made by Gdańsk’s municipal museum.

It was, however, a mid-sized gallery in Lublin – an eastern city Warsaw’s hipster set often like to dismiss as a backwater – which truly seized the zeitgeist. Galeria Labirynt, with long-time chief curator Waldemar Tatarczuk at its helm, threw its exhibition space wide open to the art of the street. By mid-December, the gallery had gathered hundreds of protest signs, graphics, and stickers, displayed alongside work by professional artists inspired by Poland’s “popular uprising”. The show was titled You’ll Never Walk Alone.

It was not the first time Labirynt had zeroed in on rights issues. Last summer, Tatarczuk and his colleagues staged an artistic “coup” against the homophobic rhetoric of then-presidential frontrunner Andrzej Duda. Duda, re-elected after a knife-edge run-off against Warsaw’s liberal mayor, sought to rally his base by stirring fears of “the rainbow menace”. “They want to fool us into thinking LGBT [means] people,” he told supporters in the Silesian town of Brzeg on 13 June 2020. “It’s an ideology, a kind of neo-Bolshevism.”

Local university students decorate the gallery's outer walls as part of the exhibition We're People. Image: Diana Kołczewska

“I want a Poland where an LGBTQ+ library can be a regular part of the public space, much like the local church or corner store”

Ten days later, Labirynt opened a special exhibition featuring work by over 20 queer creators. The title was simple: We’re People. By November, 80 more artists had sent in their contributions. The curator had been inspired after attending one of Duda’s rallies alongside Filip Kijowski, a dancer and choreographer who has been Labirynt’s artist-in-residence since March 2021. “I was shaken by the hostility and hate on display,” Tatarczuk says. “I felt it was our obligation to respond. The show came together in days. I knew it couldn’t be an exhibition revolving around an abstract curatorial concept. I thought of it as a cry for freedom and equality. As we kept adding work and the show grew denser, it began to look more and more like a demonstration.”

Paradoxically, it was the pandemic which afforded Labirynt the freedom to respond to current events in this way. “Our exhibits are typically planned one or two years in advance,” Tatarczuk explains. “But soon after the first lockdown, I gave up on that. We had a good amount of empty space at our disposal.”

He is somewhat reluctant to call You’ll Never Walk Alone an “intervention” similar to last June’s show – although both he and most of his colleagues strongly supported the women’s marches. “[You’ll Never Walk Alone] was more of an attempt to record and reflect on reality,” he says. “We were fascinated by the language and imagery of the streets. It was so affecting that I struggle to picture an artwork, performance, or happening that could have a comparable effect.”

“We wanted to capture that within the gallery space. Our goal was also to enable people who hadn’t been able to participate in the strikes to come together and experience them in a different way, even as they were being banned and blocked by police.”

The exhibition We're People. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz

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Both of these shows, however, have had consequences. Tatarczuk and Labirynt have been firmly labelled as “activist” by Poland’s right-wing politicians and lobbyists. In early 2021, culture minister Piotr Gliński refused to approve Tatarczuk’s automatic re-appointment as the gallery’s director. He now serves as its acting director, while Lublin’s city council mulls re-opening nominations. Tatarczuk is concerned about what he perceives as the ministry’s double standards.

“Officially, the minister is in favour of appointing directors through open competition, as it’s supposedly more democratic,” he explains. “However, this has not prevented him from hand-picking the heads of Poland’s leading cultural institutions.”

A quick internet search corroborates the trend: since 2018, Gliński’s direct appointees have assumed posts at Warsaw’s National Museum, the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, and a major film festival in the coastal city of Gdynia, among others.

Tatarczuk says that his relationship with Lublin’s city hall has been mostly constructive. Despite some less-than-encouraging comments from local conservatives (he recalls one critic opining that a gallery’s role should be to “show art that is beautiful and sells beautifully”), he believes there is a meaningful chance that he will be re-appointed.

Yet potentially more disturbing is the hostile media campaign launched in March by the Family and Life Foundation, led by high-profile anti-abortion campaigner Kaja Godek. Godek and her allies have called on the city council to cut off Labirynt’s funding, arguing that tax payers’ money could not be used to finance “divisive and controversial content”. The gallery is largely reliant on these local municipal funds, as support from the culture ministry in Warsaw stopped abruptly after Law and Justice came to power in 2015.

The exhibition We're People. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz
The exhibition We're People. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz
The exhibition We're People. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz
The exhibition We're People. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz
The exhibition You'll Never Walk Alone. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz
The exhibition You'll Never Walk Alone. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz
The exhibition We're People. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz
The exhibition We're People. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz

Godek’s outrage centred on You’ll Never Walk Alone (the gallery fended off accusations of “pro-abortion propaganda” and “hate speech”), as well as a queer-themed exhibit running concurrently in its main Lublin space. The latter, Ménage à Deux, showcased the work of two prominent Polish artists, and scandalised conservative activists with its candid treatment of gay male desire and depictions of male nudity.

The painter and multi-media artist Karol Radziszewski, whose works featured alongside those of Maurycy Gomulicki, strongly rejects the criticisms. He says that it is vital for public funds to be used for furthering minority representation in the public sphere. “The understanding that all social groups have the right to be represented is key to the functioning of advanced democracies,” Radziszewski tells me. “In a democracy, public funds are allotted to minorities precisely because they are minorities, and would otherwise struggle to achieve public visibility. It’s precisely queer art, engaged art, “provocative” art which should be publicly funded, in the interests of diversity and opening up debate. Besides, aren’t I a tax payer too?”

But away from city hall, a steady campaign of low-level harassment lingers. Filip Kijowski, Labirynt’s current artist-in-residence, says that the gallery has been targeted by vandals ever since the Life and Family Foundation ramped up its media attacks. He references vulgar graffiti and the defacing of Labirynt’s promotional banners.

Labirynt is also far from alone in facing these attacks. Monika Szewczyk, the director of the Arsenał modern art gallery in the northeastern city of Białystok, says that it too has has been subject to similar pressures. She argues that galleries’ right-wing critics deal in “manufactured outrage”, invoking moral and religious values in order to advance their own interests.

“Inclusivity is at the heart of what we do. This goes beyond the content of specific exhibitions. We consistently try to ensure equal access to culture”

“A gallery is an easy target, as it is supposed to be open and welcoming towards all,” she says. “Attacking a supposedly ‘immoral’ or ‘offensive’ artwork affords conservative activists instant visibility. It has also been used as a tool to pressure local political rivals. None of this is really about art.”

She says that she is used to local politicians roaming Arsenał‘s halls in search of a scandal. “From 2003 to 2011, local right-wing figures would inspect each of our exhibitions, hoping to see works they could find fault with,” she tells me. “The goal was to harass gallery staff with threats of legal action, adverse media coverage, attempts to undermine public trust in us. Our budget was also drastically cut over those eight years.”

The exhibition Menage a Deux. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz
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She recalls regular visits by groups of elderly women who would leave indignant messages in Arsenał‘s visitor book. “It was clear that they were copying down a text written for them in advance,” she says. “I never saw them look around our shows. I suppose they wanted to steer clear of any danger.”

Arsenał has come under renewed attack following last autumn’s exhibit, Fear, which featured artworks tackling sexual assault, anti-immigrant violence, and discrimination. One of them, an installation by the Ukrainian artist AntiGonna reflecting on the aftermath of rape, quickly became a lightning rod for right-wing groups for its supposed “pornographic” and “distasteful” content. Arsenał has since lost support from a ministerial fund intended to foster collaboration between artists from Poland’s eastern regions and the country’s post-Soviet neighbours.

“We always try to work with the most interesting artists we can find,” Szewczyk says. “Unsurprisingly, they often reference social realities they’re troubled by. Our exhibitions are always accompanied by a range of educational resources; we try to engage with our audience’s questions and concerns. However, few, if any, of the people who attack us are gallery-goers.”

On the whole, both Tatarczuk and Szewczyk credit mostly positive relationships with local authorities for their relative freedom in a difficult political climate. On 24 June, Lublin’s city hall rejected Pro Right to Life’s petition to axe Labirynt’s funding. Over in Białystok, the mayor has spoken out against attempts to repress independent art in the city; municipal support for Arsenał has also increased to make up for the lost ministerial grants. Even so, Szewczyk underlines that future personnel changes could easily upset the balance.

Filip Kijowski with Library of Refuge (Biblioteka Azyl)

“The goal was to harass gallery staff with threats of legal action, adverse media coverage, attempts to undermine public trust”

“Different curators have taken different stances,” Tatarczuk explains. “I assumed from the outset that I could say goodbye to ministerial funding. It wouldn’t have made sense to try and mislead officials, presenting myself as a harmless character with no objections to their policies. They’re smart enough to see through that.”

Multiple artists I speak to reference Tatarczuk and Szewczyk as examples of curators who would not alter their vision in the face of financial and ideological pressure. But not everyone is able to take such a stand. At Kraków’s Cricoteka art centre, a group exhibition scheduled to open in May was scrapped following protests by participating artists, after gallery management sought to exclude a work featuring protest signs from the “women’s strikes”. The piece, by Polish photographer Krzysztof Powierża, was previously shown at Labirynt. Powierża describes Cricoteka’s conduct as an act of self-censorship.

I ask Tatarczuk and Kijowski if Labirynt has any plans to tone down its “activist” programming. The answer is a resounding no. Tatarczuk speaks of his vision for the gallery as a meeting space with a special responsibility towards marginalised groups. “I think a gallery should be free to react to the world around it,” he says. “Moreover, inclusivity is at the heart of what we do. This goes beyond the content of specific exhibitions. We consistently try to ensure equal access to culture. We aim to provide audio descriptions of our displays for people with visual impairments, and translate all our spoken content into Polish Sign Language.”

Kijowski is also keen to introduce his current project, hosted and supported by Labirynt. His Library of Refuge (Biblioteka Azyl) aims to create one of Poland’s first public collections of LGBTQ+ literature, open to all in the local community. “There’s such a dearth of books with LGBTQ+ themes in Polish public libraries,” he says. “I know how much I would have given to have such a resource when I was growing up. The aim is to create a safe meeting place for members of the LGBTQ+ community. However, our doors will be open to everyone, as long as they can respectfully engage with the space. I’d like to welcome our heteronormative peers, allies, parents who might struggle to understand their child’s identity.”

The exhibition We're People. Image: Wojciech Pacewicz

Kijowski says that it’s crucial for similar community spaces to exist in the open. “I don’t want similar initiatives to be thought of as a shameful secret,” he tells me. “I want a Poland where an LGBTQ+ library can be a regular part of the public space, much like the local church or corner store.”

But in many ways, it is also a culmination of Labirynt’s recent artistic endeavours. You’ll Never Walk Alone embodied protest and resistance. Ménage à Deux created an ideal reality, where everyone, queer or straight, is free to discuss desire, pleasure, and eroticism. In its own quiet way, Library of Refuge achieves both.

“Side by side, [our two exhibitions showed a] meeting of two worlds,” says Tatarczuk. “By pure chance, we created a kind of anti-patriarchal conglomerate. I think that captured the moment.”

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