Group exhibition curated by Agnieszka Rayzacher at lokal30 in Warsaw.
POGANKI | HEATHENS
Artists: Karolina Breguła • Marta Bogdańska • Maria Kniaginin-Ciszewska • Katarzyna Górna • Kinga Michalska • Katarzyna Perlak • Liliana Piskorska (Zeic) • Aleka Polis • Karolina Sobel
Curator: Agnieszka Rayzacher, Curatorial collaboration: Kinga Cieplińsk
April 24 - June 5, 2021
Having graduated years ago from Narcyza Żmichowska High School in Warsaw, I have now returned to the school’s patroness figure.
Back then, I considered her a “spinster” with a penchant for the French language and work for the sake of girls’ education, engaged in
the cause of the country’s independence. That biography did not appear particularly appealing to me as a teenager. Now that I am
older, I’m discovering Narcyza’s different face – a writer whom I would now call an activist, who gathered around her a circle of women,
the first feminists, called the Enthusiasts or “Radownice”, authors of the term posiestrzenie (“sisterhood”), which stood for female
collective action, empathy, but also emotional relationships. It was that Żmichowska who wrote to her companions letters full of
passion, tenderness and engagement. It was that Zmichowska who became filled with deep sadness after the end of her relationship
with Paulina Zbyszewska, who had previously written to her: “Listen Narcyssa, your Mother, had she been alive, would execrate your
love – or else sorrowfully bemoan our relationship…”. Finally, it was that Żmichowska who ultimately chose to publish The Heathen,
her romantic novel, whose protagonist, Beniamin, is in fact the author herself. Gabryella (her nom de plume) was an ambiguous figure,
and quite eccentric considering the reality of the mid-19th century: she smoked cigars, did horse riding and defied the rigid rules that
expected a woman to marry and lead the respectable life of a wife and a mother. A promoter of women’s intellectual and personal
development, Żmichowska was also an engaged conspirator, which cost her two years of imprisonment and another three under police
One of the figures who wrote about her work and life was Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, whose mother, Wanda Grabowska, belonged to the
Enthusiasts’ circle as a young woman. His writings paint a picture of Gabryella as a person who sought passion, but was also able to
offer passion herself. Full of care for her companions, for whom she was a mother, a sister and a partner in one. The circle formed by
Żmichowska brings to mind thassos, the group of young creative women revolving around the poetess Sappho in the 6th century BC
on the island of Lesbos.
The exhibition is directly inspired by The Heathen, considered the first Polish novel to address love and passion between women.
Boy-Żeleński wrote: “sisterhood, that most perfect form of friendship, could lead to genuine love tragedies – and powerfully
impregnate souls with suffering. Because The Heathen comes into being one year after those incidents.” The “incidents” in question
refer to the relationship with Paulina Zbyszewska, and its eventual end. The exhibition features Żmichowska’s portrait by Liliana
Piskorska (Zeic), who turned the writer into one of the main characters in her project Sourcebook, devoted to the first Polish feminists,
who formed romantic, sisterly or friendly relationships with other women.
While Liliana Piskorska (Zeic) evokes Polish female writers from the 19th and the early 20th centuries in Sourcebook, Marta
Bogdańska, inspired by the figure of Selma Lagerlöf, addresses the queer roots of world literature. The romantic relationships of the
Swedish Nobel Prize laureate emerged from obscurity only in the 1990s, fifty years after her death (according to her own will), but are
still not common knowledge in liberal Sweden today. Also erased or glossed over in silence are the real herstories of Maria Konopnicka,
Maria Rodziewiczówna and Narcyza Żmichowska. Boy-Żeleński described Gabryella’s relations with the Enthusiasts as strong
emotional ties, but also deep friendship, while the husband of one of them would compain to his wife: “Because when you’ve given so
much love to your female friends, you’ve got none left for your husbands.” The relationships addressed in the exhibition are not always
downright romantic. Close ties between women, mutual understanding and empathy have a long history and manifest themselves in
women’s circles reactivated today, among other phenomena. Such connection is the topic of Katarzyna Górna’s photographic series
Kasie-Threads(Kasie-niteczki), created with Katarzyna Kozyra while the artist was still a student in the 1990s. Mutual care and
tenderness is addressed in the work of Karolina Sobel, the artist behind the large-scale photographs on fabric from the series If You Are
Ok, I Am Ok.
An imaginary queer community also features in Katarzyna Perlak’s film Niolam ja se kochaneczke, where women in traditional folk
attires and decorative balaclavas sing regional songs, recite poems and quote old proverbs. The artist seeks to introduce motifs of
female non-heteronormativity in traditional folk culture. A modern-day queer community can be seen in photographs and videos by
Kinga Michalska, who lives in Canada. Their works offer an intimate insight into the life of her community formed of queer, trans,
non-binary and intersex folks, and drag queens, who spend their lives surrounding each other with love and care, giving birth to
children and bringing them up, engaging in rituals of the everyday.
The show also features works by artists who explore the presence of non-heteronormative couples in public space: Karolina Breguła in
her famous series Let Them See Us(Niech nas zobaczą) and Aleka Polis in her short video works that portray her walk around Warsaw in
the company of her female partner. Their being together, and the exhibition as a whole, can be summarised with the following quote
from letters exchanged between the Russian poetess Sophia Parnok and Nina Vedeneyeva: “Let’s be happy come what may.”
Photo: Marcin Liminowicz