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Under a Conservative Regime: ‘Niepodległe: Women, Independence, and National Discourse’ at Museum of Modern Art Warsaw

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, X (after Betty Shabazz), 2017, oil, canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Nando’s UK
Eliza Levinson reflects on anexhibition that uses the centenary of the 1918 Polish Revolution as a starting point to commemorate Polish female activists as well as expanding its survey beyond national borders to shape a more diverse image of women and the way they are depicted in history.
Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, X (after Betty Shabazz), 2017, oil, canvas. Courtesy of the artist and Nando’s UK

They say those who cannot learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. And what if our knowledge of the past is limited — stories shaped by hierarchies of privilege and power, and thus told only by the victors? This postmodern ethos, paired with the backdrop of increasing nationalist fervor in Poland, guides curator Magda Lipska’s latest exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, Warsaw. Entitled ‘Niepodległe: Women, Independence, and National Discourse’ it coincides with the centenary of the 1918 Polish Revolution, and uses this as a starting point to commemorate Polish female activists as well as expanding this survey beyond national borders. Featuring 29 international contemporary artists, Lipska’s exhibition intends to ‘undermine the patriarchal order of … historical narratives, striving to shape a more diverse image of women and the way they are depicted in history.’

This is an ambitious task and is executed to overwhelming effect. In a packed single-room, works range from feature films to paintings to multimedia collage, hand-woven fabrics and multiple small-scale artists’ archives, with subjects spanning from the specific — abortion rights in Poland, the 1980 workers’ strikes in Gdánsk, and significant women from around the world — to the abstract: war, religion, gender roles, race and racism, stereotypes, communism and colonialism.

The revisionist archive is the equivalent of highlighting an empty space: a task literary critic Pierre Macherey has referred to as ‘measuring the silences’, focusing on what the author does not say, tapping a ruler from end to endless end of the incalculable. 01 For artists working in visual fields, this poses a curious paradox: what image suffices to demonstrate the void?

Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, Paradise, 2012. Photo: Franciszek Buchner

Some artists, like Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, choose to centre the emptiness. In a four-part lightbox installation entitled Paradise (2012), Wolukau-Wanambwa uses three brightly-coloured photographs of open grassland peppered with dusty brown boulders to turn the measured silence into subject, using absence as a signifier of history, erasure and loss. As the final lightbox explains in somber white on black text, the photographs document the former Ugandan settlement of Polish refugees fleeing the Soviet Union in the mid-twentieth century — to quote the artist,

The fact that when I get to Koja there is almost nothing to see is by design, for when the camp was finally closed in 1952, it was systematically dismantled. Every brick, every bench, every lamp, every tool was either sold for profit or given away to locals. … Sixty years later old people weep openly in Warsaw as they describe the trauma of being made to leave this home. … I think about it again later as I stand looking at the anthills. And at the lake. 02

By staging her installation to be ‘read’ left to right as three vibrant landscape photographs followed by the artist’s caption explaining their ominous context, Wolukau-Wanambwa provides evidence of a nation ‘systematically dismantling’ its history, showing both the danger and the futility of this practice. The necessity of the text explanation is a testament to the violence of breaking down ‘every brick, every bench, every lamp, every tool’ to mask a past some would prefer is forgotten. The installation’s seemingly ambient images, placed alongside the description of Warsaw’s weeping elders and the artist’s own thoughts, evoke the persistent lingering of memory and the urgency of its preservation.

Witek Orski, Meadow (After Rosa Lusxemburg’s Herbarium), 2018, ink-pigment print on archival paper. Courtesy of the artist

If Paradise reflects negation, other artists elect to construct. The exhibition features several handmade memorials to history’s previously excluded heroes. Witek Orski’s Meadow (2018), a series of framed prints document the prison notebooks of Polish activist Rosa Luxemburg. Between 1913 and 1918, Luxemburg was repeatedly jailed, during which time she preserved and recorded notes on local plant life. Orski presents photographs of the dried, faded flowers pressed between pages, with Luxemberg’s handwritten notes in Latin or German and sketches in varying positions around the preserved cuttings. In several instances, Luxemburg has coloured in the missing parts of the flower in thin pen: the curved stalks of crumbling pink and purple petals; the soft circular ovals of leaves where a thin twig takes root.

Luxemburg is referenced by several artists in the exhibition, who use her image as a means of gesturing toward her legacy. Conversely, Orski ignores her physical body, instead focusing on her material effects. While viewers may know Luxemberg’s image and politics, it is unlikely they are as familiar with her more personal attributes (the curl of her handwriting, her interest in botany) or have considered her fallibility (misprinted words scratched over several times). The activist’s mortality is also indirectly referenced through the fragility of her yellowed documents and the webbed splintering of what was once green. Due to the ambiguity of Luxemburg’s captions, some have speculated her notes conceal coded political messages, a hypothesis Orski leaves open-ended in his excavation of this previously unseen archive. Whatever the truth, Orski puts an image to the duration of her time in prison, creating a unique portrait of the activist.

In another memorial, Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi’s five oil paintings on canvas depict five different South African anti-apartheid, anti-colonialism activists: Betty Shabazz, Anene Booysen, Jabu Mahlangu, Emidio Josias ‘Mido’ Macia, and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. These figures, drawn from what the artist calls her ‘personal pantheon’ of heroes, range from the spouses of celebrated revolutionaries (Shabazz and Madikizela-Mandela) to sport stars (Mahlangu) and unjustly slain citizens, victims of xenophobia and sexism turned symbols of political outrage (Macia and Booysen). Thenjiwe Nkosi’s paints their features with soft, smudged lines, their hair perfectly flat, undetailed matte black and their faces shaded with streaks of brown and beige. The whites of both their eyes and teeth are rendered in the same impossible light brown hue. Each woman is shown in front of a seamless backdrop of different shades of grey and the artist zooms in intimately, hovering at the space below their shoulders and leaving only a small amount of space above their heads. By merging representational portraiture with her modernist painting style, Thenjiwe Nkosi emphasizes the ‘personal’ in her ‘pantheon’, and thus, the mutability of the historical subject overall by indicating the form such figures take in her imagination.

Thenjiwe Niki Nkosi, X (after Betty Shabazz), 2017, oil, canvas. Photo: Franciszek Buchner

A theme of Niepodległe is to showcase the fingerprint artists leave on their representations of historical figures. In addition to adding vibrancy to the sometimes-stuffy archive, this technique also calls attention to the ideology which upholds more traditional depictions of such figures, masking their canonical portraiture as neutral. It is in this way that artists such as Trinh T. Minh-ha deploy allegory and storytelling to critique the artificiality of existing historical narratives.

Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989) is perhaps the artist’s most famous film: an experimental documentary exploring the stories of five Vietnamese women, merged with poetic interludes of overlapping archival footage. Traditional Vietnamese music and dance is intercut with excerpts of texts, repeating refrains that detail how the ‘Vietnamese Woman’ should behave, and the role she should take both in the home and in society. As the film continues, the five women are revealed, in fact, to not be the Vietnamese women whose stories they have been telling, but hired American actresses. Leading up to this narrative turn, Trinh has both defined the terms of Vietnamese womanhood — introducing to unfamiliar viewers stereotypical gender roles and behaviour — and relied upon the viewer’s natural familiarity with the documentary form to unquestioningly believe what they are being told. By effectively pulling the rug out from under the viewer, Surname Viet, Given Name Nam encourages the audience to interrogate the facticity of supposed ‘truths’, particularly in ethnographic archives and documentary. In this way, Trinh reminds the viewer that all archives are constructed and uses the visual shortcuts of documentary film to emphasize their duplicitous nature.

Trinh T. Minh-ha, Surname Viet, Given Name Nam, 1989, digitized 16mm film, 108′. Courtesy of the artist.

Engaging with existing archives and subverting them through collage is the final technique of ‘measuring silence’ featured in Lipska’s show. While some artists, like Lubaina Himid and Zuzanna Hertzberg, use multiple forms of media — wood, paint, fabric, and small-scale, archival photographs among them — other interventions are more subtle. Anna Niesterowicz’s series of untitled works on paper from 2018 combine found images from Communist Poland with slogans from contemporary feminist movements. Overlaid on a black and white photograph of a tight-lipped, smiling woman with a headscarf signing a document handed to her by an amused-looking balding man in a suit, is the phrase ‘#METOO’. This caption is printed upside-down in a small Helvetica font. Through juxtaposing archival photographs with modern expressions of feminist activism, Niesterowicz references the temporal disjuncture between the photograph’s making and its effect on today’s viewer. Like the portraits of Orski and Niki Nkosi, Niesterowicz’s collages allow the artist to reclaim a form of agency over her history.

Today, who has authority over Polish history is greatly contested. Though now overturned, a bill passed by the far-right government in 2018 outlawed use of the expression ‘Polish death camps’, and discussion of Poland’s role in the Holocaust was punishable by imprisonment. More recently, anticipation of Poland’s day of independence was tense, as the event has been raucously celebrated in Warsaw by the country’s far-right activists, and there were fears of what might come to a head. As such, Lipska’s show at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw comes at a crucial and provocative time, though the curator inclusion a vast multiplicity of voices at times undermines the potential for (political) depth and specificity.


  • As mentioned by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Pierre Macherey provides the following formula for the interpretation of ideology: ‘What is important in a work is what it does not say. This is not the same as the careless notion “what it refuses to say”, although that would in itself be interesting: a method might be built on it, with the task of measuring silences, whether acknowledged or unacknowledged. But rather this, what the work cannot say is important, because there the elaboration of utterance is carried out, in a sort of journey to silence.'” Pierre Macherey, A Theory of Literary Production, trans. Geoffrey Wall, Routledge: London, 1978, p. 87, quoted in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Cary Nelson and Lawrence Grossberg (eds.), Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Urbana: University of Illinois Press: Urbana 1988, p. 286.
  • Translated from the Polish in the exhibition text.