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Writing the Untold Stories of Polish Women Artists

Polish art historian Marika Kuźmicz has begun a project to research the biographies of overlooked female artists, locate their archives, and make the information and images available in a free online database.

Jadwiga Singer, “Untitled performance” (c. 1978), courtesy the Arton Foundation

Some people who knew the late Polish artist Jadwiga Singer say there is no archive of her experimental video and performance artworks. They don’t think Singer kept records, and even if she had, they assume the information probably didn’t survive after her death in 2008. We know traces of Singer did survive in a few brochures and catalogues related to the avant-garde group she started as a student in the southern Polish city of Katowice — Laboratorium Technik Prezentacyjnych (Presentation Techniques Laboratory).

Art historian Marika Kuźmicz maintained hope that she’d be able to find Singer’s records though, despite the odds stacked against her: Singer was a woman, the works she created were ephemeral, and artists working behind the Iron Curtain didn’t get the same mainstream attention as Western European artists. Still, Kuźmicz was optimistic. She wrote about her search for Singer on the website of the Arton Foundation, a Warsaw-based nonprofit organization she founded in 2010 to research and exhibit 1970s Polish art. Singer’s family saw the article, and reached out to the researcher. They had thousands of negatives and hundreds of prints, films, and videocassettes.

Ema Kugler, “Mancurt 2 performance” (1992), courtesy of SCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Ljubljana

The find encouraged Kuźmicz that there were more archives of experimental female artists out there; they just needed to be found and then shared. She began a project called Not Yet Written Stories: Women Artists’ Archives Online to research the biographies of overlooked female artists, locate archives of their work, and make information and images available in a free online database.

“We were working on a previous long-term project supported by the Creative Europe program, Forgotten Heritage, and realized how deeply art by women artists is underestimated,” Kuźmicz told Hyperallergic. Forgotten Heritage is a web-based repository for information about Polish, Croatian, Belgian and Estonian artists of the 1960s and ’70s. “We naturally came to the idea of the new project devoted only to research in women artists’ archives.”

Not Yet Written Stories is a collaboration between the Arton Foundation, the Croatian Office for Photography, SCCA Center for Contemporary Art in Ljubljana and the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art. The project aims to expand the Forgotten Heritage database and organize a series of exhibitions and workshops. A conference about female European artists is tentatively scheduled for spring 2021 and will culminate in a publication.

Erika Šmider, from the “Face of the City” series (1976), courtesy the Office for Photography, Croatia

The project is similar to others that have emerged in recent years, including AWARE which is devoted to 20th century women artists, the Canadian Women Artists History Initiative, and the forthcoming A Space of Their Own database which compiles information on female artists active in the United States and Europe between the 15th and 19th centuries.

And so Kuźmicz’s research continues, as she collects stories from people who knew these artists, before traces of them are lost. She says:

I try to talk to artists, ask them as much as possible. I have hours of recorded interviews, and this is the main source of information about forgotten artists: their memories and mentions of friends, colleagues, and collaborators from many years before. Now we have a queue of artists whose archives should be developed and published.

Mudīte Gaiševska, video still from “Mudīte” (1972), courtesy the artist and the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art

At the moment she’s working on a large archive of work by Bożena and Alicja Wahl, twin sisters who created expressive figurative paintings and opened their own gallery in Warsaw. She’s also looking for records related to Liliana Lewicka, a radical performance artist from Wroclaw who died in the late 1980s. “We have only a few photos of her performances in the 1960s. But I believe I will find her archive someday,” notes Kuźmicz. “Identifying artists, finding material, is a process requiring time, patience, knowledge and luck.”

When all of these archives are found, digitized, and catalogued, Kuźmicz hopes that the Not Yet Written Stories database becomes an important source of information for everyone, including scholars, researchers, art historians, and future generations of artists.

“We have a small team, and it’s always a race against time,” Kuźmicz says. “We really cannot afford to lose these stories.”

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