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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.1 (2005) 1-20

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Feminist Art and Democratic Culture

Debates on the New Poland

A quarter of a century ago, in 1978, a young artist known as Natalia LL— considered Poland's pioneer feminist artist—organized in Wroclaw the first significant exhibit of Polish women artists, entitled simply "Women's Art." Two years later another artist, Izabella Gustowska, presented a second group show in her Poznan gallery under the same unpretentious title, and organized three more women's exhibits there between 1987 and 1994: Presence I, II, III. Today one can talk about a solid tradition of group shows by women, with a roster of more than a dozen major exhibits throughout Poland, augmented by numerous presentations abroad, the most recent one, entitled "Architectures of Gender: Contemporary Women's Art in Poland," at The Sculpture Center, Queens, New York, April 11-June 8, 2003. It was curated by Aneta Szylak, one of the best-known Polish curators of the younger generation.

However, despite the fact that some of the exhibits were presented by Poland's main national museums and galleries, this new wave of women's art has not been accompanied by serious critical analysis and, until recently, has been virtually ignored by the mainstream media. No doubt part of the reason has been the well-known, sharply gender-contentious cultural context which has cultivated an allergy to anything suspected of having an association with feminism.1 This context was freshly reinvigorated by the kind of patriarchal discourse that is often characteristic of societies driven by rapid change: in the case of Poland, by radical systemic transformation after 1989. For many who were new to party politics, the most politically-rewarding behavior in the early post-communist years was that which focused on eradicating all remnants of the previous system, including, ironically, its never-fulfilled commitments to human rights, in general, and to women's rights, in particular. Paradoxically, one of its early fruits was the passing of a very strict anti-abortion bill, prepared by the last communist parliament in 1989 and voted into law by a democratically-elected one in 1993. It took a decade of persistent work by women's NGOs, feminist scholars, and activists for the issues of gender to be presented free of derogatory terms in the mainstream press, for senior scholars or public figures to dare to identify themselves as feminists on national TV, for feminist writers to be invited to publish their weekly columns in high-circulation newspapers [End Page 1] and magazines, for feminist books to be considered for major awards, and for modest gender programs to be launched at the universities.

Almost parallel in time, in the late 1990s, a major and fairly dramatic entry of women artists and their art into the public life of the country took place. It coincided with the eruption of major corruption scandals, a widespread loss of societal trust in new democratic institutions, and a general fear that an uprooting and dissolving of national identity would result from joining the European Union. This visible emergence of women's art could be only partially explained by the surge of information about the successes abroad of works by Polish women artists, or by the gradual mainstreaming of a public debate on women's issues at home.

I think there is a further explanation to be foundin the extent to which part of this public debate was generated by artists and by the very artworks themselves, especially as the debate transcended art itself, revealing tensions between democracy and culture, and posing the challenge of establishing a new public space for addressing these tensions. More than a decade after Poles successfully negotiated their transition to a democratic order, art by women, especially conceptual art, has become a major field—as well as an instrument—of contestationin the astonishing struggle to save and sustain a barely re-established public sphere. And it is above all the women artists, through their dialogical and often unsettling art...


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