The Black Monday Protests in Polish Women’s Art
Black Monday protest, Warsaw, October 2016. Photograph by Grzegorz Żukowski via Flickr (cc)
A dozen women sitting on the streets in Warsaw were surrounded by middle-aged male protestors wearing ‘football hooligan’ red-and-white scarves. There were insults, kicking and prodding – the women were treated with contempt and hatred, as a foreign element in this display of masculine, macho white supremacy. A seven-metre banner unfurled by the protesters proclaimed: ‘Women against fascism’.
In the pictures that circulated globally, the Polish capital burned with flaming torches and firecrackers under the red-and-white flag. Against the cloudy autumn backdrop, the white lights of the bright city contrasted with the red smoke. The women on the street – embroiled in the red-and-white symbolism, entangled in the snares of masculine right-wing patriotism, the ‘hooligan’ scarf tightening around their necks – seemed to allude to the exhibition, ‘Poles, patriots, rebels, women’,on display at the Arsenał City Gallery in Poznań. It opened in September 2017 to celebrate the nationwide Congress of Women (currently the largest social movement in Poland!), and was dedicated to the Black Monday Protests in Polish women’s art. The works on display show the desperation and ambiguity of contemporary Polish women’s relation to Polishness. The female sabotage of national symbols on the streets of Warsaw was like a political and civic project that had moved from the gallery walls to the street.
The desperation of the female protagonists of these protests, transformed into a strong political symbol, catches the attention in the same way as the new generation of female Polish artists displayed at the exhibition in Poznań. Karolina Mełnicka’s white-and-red burka at the stadium (‘Polish burka’, 2013), Lilianna Piskorska’s photograph of sleeping with a ‘real Pole’ in bedding decorated with the national emblem (‘Self-portrait with a borrowed man, a.k.a. I’m Polish so I have Polish duties’, 2016), Agata Zbylut’s ball gown made from football scarves (‘Caviar patriot’, 2015), Iwona Demko’s dream of the Black Monday Protests, made from raised skirts with vagina manikins outside the Cloth Hall in Kraków (the banner reading ‘408,223 skirt lifts, or My dream of the Black Monday Protests’, 2016), Marta Frej’s memes affirming women’s patriotic activism (‘I took part in the Black Monday Protests because…’, 2017), and the Poznań Witches’ Choir (a women’s performative and musical group) chanting about revolution – these are the symbolic elements of the political project of women’s activism, which also sounded loud and clear during the fascist Independence Day March. We have deliberately listed them in a particular gradation – from a description of depression to one of rebellion – to emphasize the revolutionary tension which is harboured here.
The subject of the Polish–Polish war against women was a key theme, and the works displayed at the exhibition were surprisingly coherent. For the most part, they concerned identity – questioning the imaginary derivatives of the fundamental model of the Polish woman anchored in the family and relationships, whose prototype is the basic national model of Polish femininity, the ‘Polish Mother’. This is a woman who is not free, because she has placed her subjectivity, her senses and her bodily integrity on the altar of the homeland. Even if the contemporary Polish woman is freeing herself, there is a whole subconscious matrix pulling her into a net of these entanglements.