Warsaw Report: the Ongoing Threat to LGBTQ+ Rights to Self-Expression

Ahead of this year’s parliamentary elections, recent cases of censorship and aggression suggest a worrying trend

‘How can I tell you, how can I convince you, brother, sister, that your life is in danger […] You, brother, as an alive and functioning queer, are basically a revolution.’ With these ominous words begins Liliana Piskorska’s Strong Sisters Told the Brothers (2019), a new film by the Polish artist featuring a mash-up of three historical texts for the lesbian movement, including The Lesbian Avengers’ infamous Dyke Manifesto (1993). Piskorska is exhibiting the work as part of her nomination for Views 2019 - Deutsche Bank Award, a biennial prize co-organized since 2003 by Warsaw’s Zachęta National Gallery of Art and the German bank. This year’s edition sees Piskorska share space with other young artists (they must all be under 36 years to be nominated), including Tomasz Kowalski, Gizela Mickiewicz, Dominika Olszowy, and the queer, feminist collective Kem. The winner, who will be announced tonight, 6 June, receives zł60,000 (around GB£12,000). 

 On the award exhibition’s opening night, Friday 17 May (the international day against homophobia, transphobia and biphobia), Warsaw City Police received an anonymous threat about explosives at Zachęta. The gallery was evacuated and closed for the rest of the evening. This included the cancellation of the third and last iteration of Kem’s new performance Dear Reader (2019). A live reading of a collectively-written script, the piece is a hybrid manifesto, poem and documentary touching on the experiences of minorities in Poland in the context of hate speech and queer and feminist forms of protest and resistance. After the evacuation, the building was searched by a team of specialist pyrotechnics, though no explosive device was found.

Lilliana Piskorska with her work Strong Sister Told the Brothers, 2019, 

Liliana Piskorska with her work Strong Sister Told the Brothers, 2019, Views 2019 - Deutsche Bank Award, Zachȩta - National Gallery of Art. Courtesy: Marek Sadowski

‘When we were told to evacuate the building due to a possible bomb it was clear to us that it was a fake alarm, but nevertheless intended as an interruption and a threat,’ says Kem, whose membership is made up of Alex Baczyński-Jenkins, Krzysztof Bagiński, Aleksandra Knychalska and Anna Miczko. Kem’s suspicion of the bomb’s inexistence is based on their understanding that aggressions are, nevertheless, always imminent. ‘This event is only a small part of an increasingly hostile environment for all of minorities in Poland. The LGBTQ+ community has been rendered the enemy of the unity of the country, which is itself embodied by the Catholic, white, patriarchal, heterosexual nuclear notion of the family.’  

Kem’s statement is made manifest in the context of rising right wing ideologies under the rule of Law and Justice (PiS), the national-conservative, Christian democratic, populist party that currently has the largest share of seats in the Polish parliament. For Kem and other Polish queer groups and artists, such as Karol Radziszewski, the rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community has become commonplace as a form of social cleansing. Local politicians are even proclaiming ‘spaces free from LGBTQ+ ideology’ says Radziszewski, who was nominated for the Deustche Bank Award in 2007. ‘It’s a similar situation to when the current government issued their campaign targeting immigrants and refugees. They incited the public to spread hate speech – essentially to be racist – and to conduct acts of violence.’

On the day of the Zachęta opening, the LGBTQ+ NGO Stonewall released via their Facebook page the news of the suicide of Warsaw-native Milo Mazurkiewicz, a trans non-binary woman whose online presence has left a trail of her suffering through accounts of the street abuse and violence she experienced. A week later, at Mazurkiewicz’s memorial service, a group of her friends were attacked by two passers-by and, in a separate attack, the rainbow flag was ripped down by other men on bikes.  

Radziszewski – who in 2005 presented an exhibition in a private apartment titled Fags, since referred to as the first openly queer exhibition in Poland – indicates a disparity between the discourse that the art world has been able to put forward versus what artists and activists are able to do in the streets and online. ‘Visual arts institutions in Poland have, for many years, been largely seen as elitist and lacking any real impact’ says Radziszewski. ‘There are still, however, not many explicitly queer shows in public institutions in Poland.’ For Piskorska, it is a question of institutions applying their own self-censorship over fear of budget cuts. ‘It is one of the most efficient types of forcing censorship,’ she says. ‘I hope my work continues to be shown, but I’m afraid that fewer institutions will decide to address queer and feminist issues.’ 

Kem, Dear Reader, 2019, performed by Agata Grabowska, Sebastian Slowiński, Aaron Ratajczyk, Filipka Rutkowska and Lisa Suh, as part of the exhibition Views 2019 - Deutsche Bank Award, Zachȩta - National Gallery of Art. Courtesy: Marek Sadowski 

Kem, Dear Reader, 2019, performed by Agata Grabowska, Sebastian Slowiński, Aaron Ratajczyk, Filipka Rutkowska and Lisa Suh, as part of the exhibition Views 2019 - Deutsche Bank Award, Zachȩta - National Gallery of Art. Courtesy: Marek Sadowski 

In late April, avant-garde Polish artist Natalia LL’s seminal work Consumer Art (1972–75) – which sees a model suggestively eating a banana in a video and accompanying series of photographs as a comment on the hyper-sexualization of women in the media – was censored by Warsaw’s National Museum after the institution’s director, Jerzy Miziołek, was summoned by the country’s ministry of culture. Natalia LL’s works were taken down alongside two other pieces by female artists. ‘Certain topics related to gender shouldn’t be explicitly shown,’ explained Miziołek – who was appointed into his position by the right-wing government – in the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza. There was an immediate and widespread backlash of protests by artists, cultural works and members of the general public in Poland and internationally, many of whom replicated Natalia LL’s playful banana gesture as part of street demonstrations and on social media. Following the large response from the public, Warsaw’s National Museum eventually reinstated the work – but not for long: on 6 May, the entire modern art wing was de-installed for a rehang. 

That same day, the Polish interior minister, Joachim Brudziński, announced on Twitter that a 51-year old Polish woman, Elzbieta Podlesna, had been arrested for ‘carrying out a profanation of the Virgin Mary of Częstochowa’. Posters of the Virgin with her halo painted in the colours of the rainbow flag had appeared in the city of Płock in central Poland in response to an Easter display that featured slogans about crimes or sins, in which ‘gender’ and ‘LGBT’ featured prominently. If convicted, Podlesna could face a prison sentence of up to two years under the Polish penal code, which states that ‘offending religious beliefs’ is a crime. 

Back in Warsaw, Zachęta National Gallery of Art reopened its doors on 18 May with normal operations. ‘We are determined to take necessary steps in order to find the perpetrator,’ says a representative of the institution. Kem have been offered the possibility of restaging their work on another date and will go ahead with their plans to run a reading group looking at some of the issues raised by the performance. The paradox of wishing to engage with a broader general public, while knowing that some will take issue with their presence and actions, is a question for the collective and their close collaborators to consider. ‘We will continue to create safe and supportive spaces for queer and feminist practices, discourses, experiences and community,’ says Kem. ‘The challenge is for institutions to think about how they enact protection from interventions from the government, while simultaneously wholly supporting communities who have been made enemies of the state.’

Radziszewski shares a similar sentiment. He is currently preparing for a major survey exhibition of his work at Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, due to open shortly after the national parliamentary elections in Autumn. ‘My exhibition will be explicitly queer and I can’t imagine any compromises on that […] If censorship strikes again, we need to react and organize ourselves, together.’

‘Views 2019 – Deutsche Bank Award’ continues at Zachęta – National Gallery of Art until 30 June. 

Main image: Representatives of queer-feminist group Kem, Gizela Micklewicz and Dominika Olszowy - participants of the exhibition 'Views 2019 - Deutsche Bank Award, Zachȩta - National Gallery of Art, 2019. Originally featured in-print and online by the national newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, distributed widely on the opening day of the exhibition, 17 May. Courtesy: Gazeta Wyborcza; photograph: Adam Stȩpien (Agencja Gazeta) 

Eliel Jones is a writer and curator based in London, UK. 

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