WROCŁAW, Poland — A little over 200 miles southeast of Warsaw, in the city of Wrocław, the exhibition States of Focus at the Wrocław Contemporary Museum unites five decades of feminist art from across Eastern Europe with a focus on Polish artists. Curated by Małgorzata Miśniakiewicz, works by 45 artists take up two floors in the former air raid shelter. The bunker’s cylindrical shape allows for a viewing experience that weaves the heterogenous group of works into a seamless narrative that, in the words of the curator, “raises questions about performance of the self, strategies of representation, and constructing and de-constructing the image of [the] woman.”
The title States of Focus is borrowed from a work by Natalia LL who is the undisputed godmother of Polish feminist art. Her work also receives a considerable amount of attention in the exhibition, solidifying her status as icon of post-war Polish art. States of Focus is a powerful testimony to contemporary women artists who have endured and continue to endure assaults on their self-determination. They are targeted by institutional, governmental, and religious bodies as well as by deeply patriarchal cultures — both in Eastern Europe and elsewhere. What distinguishes this exhibition from the context of Western European feminism is that some of the more seasoned artists included here, like Natalia LL, Dóra Maurer, Sanja Iveković, Jolanta Marcolla, and Anna Kutera, were simultaneously fighting on two fronts: a male-dominated art scene and the highly restrictive doctrine of the Communist Party set by the Soviet Union with the intention of controlling all cultural production in the former Eastern Bloc countries.
Anna Kutera’s performance “Feminist Painting” from 1973 is an example of this twofold engagement. In her performance, Kutera spread out a large sheet of paper in a studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław. Using a broom that was dipped in black paint, she started to “sweep” the paper in the same way one sweeps the floor to clear it of debris and dust. Her ironic gesture hinted at the societal expectation that women should unconditionally embrace their domestic role. At the same time, as the title gives away, this performance was a critique of modernist painting and Abstract Expressionism in particular. What comes to mind are the sweeping gestures of masculine bravado demonstrated by the likes of Jackson Pollock. To complicate the meaning of Kutera’s “Feminist Painting” even more, she risked and possibly welcomed being rejected by Poland’s male avant-garde artists who regarded Abstract Expressionism as the culmination of artistic freedom: the right of the individual to express oneself without fear of government attempts to censor or instrumentalize the work. Of course, Anna Kutera was very well aware how Western contemporary art was cherished by the Polish avant-garde while its spirit was publicly denounced as “decadent” by the Communist Party. Her defiance of the male-dominated Polish avant-garde and her ironic siding with the Communist regime turns her performance into an act of courage that reveals one thing: The only rules she is willing to follow are the rules she determines herself.
Defiance and courage form a thread throughout this exhibition and at times these characteristics take on a more personal, intimate tone. In Katarzyna Kozyra’s 1996 photograph “Olimpia,” we see the artist assuming a pose similar to Manet’s model in his 1863 painting “Olympia”. Kozyra is lying nude on her side, propped up on a pillow on top of a hospital bed. Unlike Manet’s Olympia, Kozyra is not covering her hairless pubic area, choosing dignity and defiance. Her head is hairless too, as is the rest of her body. Her eyes meet our gaze and her look is steadfast, asking us to keep looking. Right behind her, a nurse with an IV bag administers chemotherapy drugs to Kozyra, who was diagnosed with cancer in 1992. Kozyra’s work suggests that the female body should not be shamed or pitied. Instead, there is strength in vulnerability.
The list of remarkable works goes on: a tongue-in-cheek meditation on being an artist in Ewa Zarzycka’s video “Hand” from 2011, an excerpt from Jana Shostak’s and Jakub Jasiukiewicz’s ongoing film “Miss Polonia” in which a beauty pageant contender poses in the middle of a pro-LGBTQ demonstration, or the explicit and highly evocative series of photographs entitled “Discharging” by Alicija Żebrowska from 1995 in which we see a superimposed image of the artist defecating in front of an image of her mother, a fragment of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” and lastly a black cat referred to as “Satan” — all memorable ways to thumb your nose at any attempt to discipline artists and set boundaries for them.
States of Focus is a survey exhibition that outlines overlooked contributions by women artists from several Eastern European countries and across multiple generations. States of Focus also offers a shift in focus: Marina Abramovich, a permanent fixture in the global art world, is only represented with a single work. Miśniakiewicz has created an eye-opening show with moments of joy, laughter, shock, wonder, and a sense of artistic vigor. In the same way that each society, whether during the Cold War or in our times of misinformation and the rise of the far right, attempts to rein in artistic expression, artists draw from their resistance to censorship to push the limits of art. And they continue to do so.