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Photo by Kuba Dabrowski
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Karol Radziszewski »Hiacynt«, BWA Warszawa, Warsaw, 2020. Photo by Bartosz Górka
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Karol Radziszewski »Zatrzymanie Margot« (Detention of Margot), 2020, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 160 cm. Courtesy of the artist
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Karol Radziszewski »Ewa ›Harda‹ Hołuszko«, 2019. Courtesy of JR Collection, Gdańsk
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Karol Radziszewski »Margot«, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 55 x 46 cm. Courtesy of the artist
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Karol Radziszewski »The Power of Secrets«, Ujazdowski Castle, Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, 2019. Photo by Bartosz Górka

Karol Radziszewski: Hacking Heteronormative History

December 23, 2020
Text by Kasia Jaroch
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Photo by Kuba Dabrowski

History is written by the victors, but artists like Karol Radziszewski are here to challenge it, filling the gaps of the historical narrative with queer content.

Karol Radziszewski’s archive-based methodology lets him infiltrate the great narratives with the queer ones. His recent »Poczet« series represents one of his (signature) artistic strategies, so-called appropriation art, which takes over the style of white, heterosexual, cis artists and translates it into queer aesthetics. He painted several dozen non-heteronormative historical figures from the 16th century to contemporary history, happening now on many Polish cities’ streets.

One of his latest additions is Margot, a LGBTQ+ activist from the radical feminist and queer collective Stop Bzdurom, who was recently arrested for sticking a rainbow flag into a statue of Christ in the center of Warsaw and became an icon of the fight for equality. By giving visuality and visibility to these heroic characters, Radziszewski helps LGBTQ+ people identify with their own country’s history and oppose the nationalist narrative.

Most recently Karol Radziszewski has been exhibited at Kunst(Zeug)Haus, Rapperswil, at the Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova, Ljubljana and at the Center for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, among others.

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Karol Radziszewski »Hiacynt«, BWA Warszawa, Warsaw, 2020. Photo by Bartosz Górka

While telling the story of queer people in Central and Eastern Europe, you combine different artistic media with journalistic or archaeological techniques. The lack of documentation of these stories, due to the repression of homosexuals in former socialist countries, makes this task even more difficult. Your archives may be one of the most essential sources of queer history in our region, right?

My reporting activity is probably best illustrated by my longest-running project and my beloved child, DIK Fagazine. That was the beginning of my artistic activity; I had released it long before I started doing archival research. Talking to people has become a basic way for me to explore non-heteronormative stories. DIK Fagazine focused on art, masculinity, homosexuality, Eastern Europe. Still, it primarily described the contemporary scene and only afterwards I started to be interested in the past. The archive was created through oral history, thanks to conversations with the oldest people who had an experience of queering. Working on the archive became itself a research practice, and, simultaneously, it went on to be the basis for my various artistic projects. As a method, historical research is coded into what I do…

I define myself as an activist and archivist-artist. My archives operate on many different levels. Things I did fifteen years ago have become an archive in and of themselves and provide the material I am now working on artistically. Therefore, archival work is an integral part of my artistic practice. When creating exhibitions, I often juxtapose the source materials in display cases with the reinterpretation of them, which takes the form of photography or painting. Or my starting point is a performative one, with a specific history that takes a fresh look at the past, not only the communist times but also the 19th or even the 16th century, for example, when I recall the times and figure of Henryk III Walezy (Henry III of France).

So, are you completing history?

I always say that history is literature. It is written by whoever has the opportunity, strength and dominant narrative. As an artist, my task is to supplement the record with those fragments that people don’t know about, don’t want to know or which they have cut out on purpose. It’s not a question of which historical figure was a faggot or a dyke, but I feel that it’s crucial for those who identify themselves as LGBTQ+ to make the elements of that identity resound. My story opposes the Polish nationalist narrative, which states that a heterosexual, catholic and cis identity is the only real one in Poland, and everything else »came from the West«.

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Karol Radziszewski »Zatrzymanie Margot« (Detention of Margot), 2020, acrylic on canvas, 160 x 160 cm. Courtesy of the artist

From your perspective, what is most interesting in the queer history of Central and Eastern Europe?

Well, on the one hand these are moving, intimate stories, and on the other hand they touch on issues that are really significant and have been recognized as such, like the Solidarity movement in Poland or the lives of great poets. For instance, the leader of Solidarity in Mazovia, Ewa Hołuszko, is a transgender person. For this reason, there have been attempts to erase her from Polish history. I want to give visuality and visibility to such heroines. In 2017, I created »Poczet« in which I portrayed important non-heteronormative people in Polish culture and politics, including a portrait of Zofia Sadowska. She was the first openly gay person in Polish history. I knew that much back then, but I only started to learn the whole story from a recently published biography. It is fascinating that people continue their research and expand on these narratives.

Do you feel that gay and lesbian content has been erased from the biographies of people important to us, and thus also that Polish history is distorted?

Sometimes, academics or historians do know about these stories, but they may render them superfluous or think of them as not that influential. So, it is not as if I was such an explorer who swept through tons of documents and am the first to know about everything. It is fascinating that most of these stories lie somewhere out there, but nobody thought of retelling/preserving them. It’s much like the case of the recent rereading of Chopin’s letters, which alludes to Chopin’s homoerotic tendencies. What sets me apart from these researchers is that I give the historical figures some visibility by painting or photographing them. I show how this history could really look like. That is what I call inclusive thinking. And it helps some people to find themselves in the history of their own country. When I paint Konopnicka and Dulembianka in the same colors next to each other, suddenly, people automatically conclude that these two characters were a couple. In other cases, you have black and white, fuzzy photos and mainly of Konopnicka herself. I operate on the visuality, which may help to understand these stories differently.

It’s not as if you couldn’t get any of these reports or documents before, but I have my own particular methods. As opposed to nationalism, I am increasingly interested in telling these stories supranationalistically, and I try to look for points of contact between the whole region, the so-called »global east« and »global south«. I include Brazil and Colombia, for example. I do not simply want to limit myself to Poland.

The series of »Poczet« portraits was concerned with Poland in particular though, and they were arranged chronologically. That kind of method worked well in that specific case, but the series that I have now started to work on is open and deals with queer characters from the whole region. There are sometimes also links between the portrayed people that transcend national narratives. Unlike researchers, I always try to mix different forms and look for unusual sources – I travel a lot and my focus is on conversations and interviews.

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Karol Radziszewski »Ewa ›Harda‹ Hołuszko«, 2019. Courtesy of JR Collection, Gdańsk

Do the stories of the people you present influence the way you see today’s reality?

Ewa Hołuszko is fascinating to me because she is the heroine of Poland and its broader history and, at the same time, of the LGBTQ+ community. Ewa shows that narratives of heroism and being queer can go hand in hand. It does not have to be just about sexuality. Her story is one of a significant politician and activist who, by the way, speaks publicly about her transition. It is beautiful to see that she is still active and involved in protests. At the famous first Pride in Białystok, where stones were thrown at the participants, Ewa was at the head of the march. The underground or resistance strategies that were used back then, such as those Ryszard Kisiel made use of, who was publishing and distributing one of the first gay zines at the time of the Polish People’s Republic, can now be used as alternative DIY ways of creating banners and distributing information. These heroines and heroes’ actions, the way they fought the authoritarian system, are an inspiration to many and have triggered reactions to what is happening on Polish streets right now.

You recently organized an exhibition in response to the detention of Warsaw’s non-binary LGBTQ+ activist Margot Szutowicz. What emotions were involved in making this exhibition?

This was an important event that touched me deeply. Her appearance was bold and gang-driven, which changed the perspective of many people and led to action and opened the way for a new type of activism. What is happening now on the streets of Polish cities, the blockades and the major strikes of women, is a direct result of Margot and the Stop Bzdurom’s team’s actions. At that time, the police responded very brutally. Margot’s detention made me think about my archives. Every day, I try to give visibility to these events and the people who were influential in queer history, but recently I have asked myself: Who is supposed to immortalize important events that happen today? After all, I can paint events that happened a week or two weeks earlier in the same style. I painted a portrait of the detention of Margot, which is now on display in Switzerland and will eventually be included in the collection of the Queer Archives Institute. Many people have decided that simply capturing her image in a painting is of such import that it adds meaning to that figure and acts as a symbol.

I also wanted to preserve something for posterity other than the photos and press coverage.

And if »Detention of Margot« will eventually be included in the institution’s collection, which is the general idea, it will also contribute to the transformation of our culture. I want to change what people will read about in books in 10 years’ time, which characters will be hanging on museums’ walls, and what events we will learn about in secondary school.

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Karol Radziszewski »Margot«, 2020, acrylic on canvas, 55 x 46 cm. Courtesy of the artist

Did Margot have something to say about the exhibition herself?

No, she doesn’t give a shit about things like that. She is not an opportunist. She does her job…

It’s not the first time in Polish history that the government campaigns against LGBTQ+ people. Homosexuals were also repressed by authorities of the Polish People’s Republic, as documented by the »hyacinth« action papers. Do you think that these events may be linked?

Hyacinth was operating between 1985–87, when the police came to the homes or offices of (alleged) homosexuals to collect their data. Men had to sign a homosexual charter, where they declared that they were homosexual and had sex with adult men. The register was made. It was open repression. And then many of them were forced to cooperate with the Security Services, threatened that the files might go public. That was the first time the members of the gay community could take a look at themselves. They could see that there were more of them, that they had something to fight for.

Margot’s situation is of a different scale and nature, it involves a larger group, and has been met with brutal police violence that was not even used by the communist police.

For me, both of these events are a question of what kind of queer story we want to tell. Was either of them really »our Stonewall«? Is it happening now? And do such comparisons to American history make sense at all?

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Karol Radziszewski »The Power of Secrets«, Ujazdowski Castle, Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, 2019. Photo by Bartosz Górka

Why is it that your paintings are often reinterpretations of paintings by the world’s most famous painters, such as Pablo Picasso?

This is one of the strategies, the so-called appropriation art, which, in my opinion, makes it very queer by adding this kind of twist. If you take over the style of white, heterosexual, cis artists, translate it into queer aesthetics and thus expand the field of non-heteronormative art, people will automatically identify with the era, with the style and unintentionally succumb to other, queer content that they had not previously thought about in this context. Picasso was such a total macho. He portrayed his muses, women, pussies, consecutive lovers. He was an eminent painter, but let us be honest, his biography is not a glorious story, so to introduce queer themes or racial motifs to his aesthetics is a subversive strategy for me.

Do you also choose these artists according to era or style, depending on what you want to show?

I am trying to imagine how a particular event in a non-normative history would look like if presented by an artist who is most characteristic of the period, whether it is the period of the great wars or the 80s. This way, I’m introducing these niche narratives to the great narratives and, at the same time, I’m confusing the audience, and they don’t quite know what they are looking at, and because of that they must make an effort to learn about these stories.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.