My Start to Life
For me, life began in a small village in Poland in the late 1970s. Much of what I know about Polish political history came through my interest in photography. The 1980s – my childhood – was a significant time for Poland. Our culture had been pushed underground. In 1981, Martial Law was imposed by the authoritarian Communist government as a means to control political opposition. Although there was activist resistance, Martial Law placed great restrictions on everyday life, not least for photographers and artists.
Polish Photography in Political History
Photography holds an important place in the history of Polish art. Photographers played a key role in the Polish artistic movement ‘art in the vestibule’, in which groups of artists staged exhibitions in churches in the major cities, in opposition to Martial Law. Many of these photographers, who were unknown at that time, now hold great significance in Polish art institutions. Other underground movements in photography, documented by photographic art historians, similarly originated from a desire to resist the oppression of Martial Law.
Just how much Polish photography has influenced me, I do not know. But the upheaval after the war, and the conflict I witnessed, has shaped my view of the world. As a child I was aware of the power my camera or mind might hold. Because I had a powerful imagination, I could cope with what was going on around me. Though I hadn’t yet seen the work of those Polish photographers that I now admire, I knew of the experiences they were documenting, because I had shared these experiences myself.
In 1989, with the end of communism, things started to change in Poland. And yet, my teenage years were very different to the stories I hear my Australian friends tell. I wasn’t often going to parties with other kids my age. My parents, to keep me safe at home, enrolled me in piano accordion lessons on Friday afternoons. My teenage rebellion began when I removed my bed from my room and replaced it with a yoga mat on the floor. Knowing there was a big world beyond my village, I wanted to travel and learn English. So, after plugging the TV antenna into the radio, I lay on my yoga mat, trying to learn English by listening to BBC radio.
When I was young, photographs were precious and rare. The only photographs I ever saw were those my Grandmother kept hidden in her handbag. Every day I would ask her to show me one of these photographs, and tell me the story behind it. Unlike the kids in capitalist countries, we didn’t have fashion magazines, newspapers or billboards, so we didn’t see photographs in everyday life. There wasn’t any money for magazines or newspapers at home. The images we saw, and the songs we learned, were mostly communist propaganda. Even if I had been able to access them, there weren’t many photography journals that existed in Poland at that time.
My Art in the Vestibule
At home I had a Smena 8M – a Russian lomography camera – that had one or two rolls go through it. No one else in my family was creative or artistic, so I was the odd one out. I always knew I was destined for a creative life. I read a lot of books and kept journals of poetry. Using my imagination to escape, it’s how I started out and how I ended up. I now realise that the world of my ‘Dreamscapes’ series was the world I escaped to when growing up. This is my art in the vestibule: my resistance to the grief around me.
My Work on The Block
I’ve come a long way from the Eastern Bloc. A work from my Dreamscape series, ‘Unicorns Are Real’, is now featured on this season’s The Block on Channel Nine, chosen by Jesse Raeburn and Mel Manson, The Block contestants. To know that my work decorates the walls of the historic Oslo Hotel, on Grey Street in St Kilda, makes me smile.