EVERYTHING IS GETTING BETTER. Unknown Knowns of Polish (Post)Colonialism

Savvy Contemporary, Berlin, Germany
28 Apr 2017 - 04 Jun 2017

Colonial and Maritime League demonstrating in support of Polish colonies, Poznan, July 1938 From the archive of Janek Simon

Colonial and Maritime League demonstrating in support of Polish colonies, Poznan, July 1938 From the archive of Janek Simon

In light of recent developments in Poland, you might have asked yourself what is in fact going on? Why the government-fueled rhetoric of ‘rising up from the knees’; alienation from the EU; have an obstinate refusal of any critical self-examination and fear of the ‘other’ gone mainstream?

The exhibition Everything is Getting Better. Unknown Knowns of Polish (Post) Colonialism and the accompanying symposium propose to reverse the trope of permanent Polish exceptionalism and victimhood (always torn between Germany and Russia) by casting a light on how colonial and postcolonial forces have navigated the territories of Eastern-Europe. As a hegemon of its own history, Poland pictures its expansionary reveries both in its immediate vicinity (Ukraine and Lithuania) as well as overseas, echoes of which can be found in the current right-wing political rhetoric. The backbone of the show is the timeline/chronic of the Maritime and Colonial League performatively staged by artist-cum-traveller Janek Simon, including a selection of worksfrom his exploration of cultural geographies of the country’s colonial legacy. In fact, Liga Morska – The Maritime League, created in 1930 to implement the colonies in Cameroon or Madagascar, continues to exist in its present guise as a Maritime and River organization.

A choice of works presented in the show expands, contextualizes, and footnotes the timeline. Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa engage with the history of Polish refugees evacuated to Iran during World War II, from where some fled onwards to Uganda, where they were housed in refugee camps.The collective Slavs and Tatars features a body of works on other orientalisms, led by an antimodernist trope of facing backwards, towards history, but moving into the future. A new film by Agnieszka Polska refers to Slavdom as analyzed by renowned scholar Maria Janion: a concept which on the one hand inadvertently brings Poles closer to Russia, while at the same time sharpening their aspirations towards Western universalism at the price of self-colonisation. Karol Radziszewski depicts the life of August Agbola O’Brown, a Nigerian-born jazz musician and combatant of the Warsaw Uprising; Zbigniew Libera imagines a moment of Polish troops cheerfully joining the US missions in Iraq in 2003; in a new film commission, Kiev-based artist Oleksiy Radinsky reveals the current mechanisms of Polish infrastructural protectionism towards Ukraine while Vilnus-based Linas Jablonskis drafts an imaginable scenario for Lithuania once dominated by Poland. Zorka Wollny creates a sound extension of paintings by El Hadji Sy about distress and death of migrants at sea. Marek Raczkowski and the Berlin ‘Polish Loser Club’– Klub der Polnischen Versager diagnose the current madness of a country, where political elites are again dreaming of Intermarium – a geopolitical federation of Eastern-European bloc led by Poland from Baltic Sea to Black Sea. The exhibition tells a story of the nurturing of the (post)colonial psyche of a neurotic country, superior and inferior both to the east and the west, where “everything today is changing for the better.”

With: Agnieszka Polska, Emma Wolukau-Wanambwa, Janek Simon, Karol Radziszewski, Linas Jablonskis, Marek Raczkowski, Oleksiy Radynski, Slavs and Tatars, Zbigniew Libera, Zorka Wollny (on El Hadji Sy) and the Club of Polish Losers.

Curated by Joanna Warsza


Opening April 27, 2017 | 7PM 


‘PERVERTED DECOLONIZATION’ of Central-Eastern Europe. Poland for example.
Symposium curated by Jan Sowa | April 28, 2017 | 3 PM

Monika Bobako, Ekaterina Degot, Andrzej Leder, Oleksiy Radinsky, Agnieszka Polska, Janek Simon in conversation with Ana Teixeira Pinto

Lecture-performance by Slavs and Tatars

‘Your map of Africa is really quite nice. But my map of Africa lies in Europe. Here is Russia, and here… is France, and we’re in the middle — that’s my map of Africa.’ – Otto von Bismarck (in: Eugen Wolf: Vom Fürsten Bismarck und seinem Haus. Tagebuchblätter. Berlin 1904)

According to some thinkers, there’s an etymological link between the words “Slav” and “slave”. Scholars such as Fernand Braudel and Immanuel Wallerstein have shown that the part of the European continent East of the river Elbe and inhabited mostly by Slavs was the first peripheral zone of capitalist world-economy in early modern times. The whole block of countries – the Polish-Lithuanian Union being the most prominent example in the area – was pushed into a state of dependency and underdevelopment, forcing its rural populations into serfdom. Thus Central and Eastern Europe could be seen historically as the first “periphery”. In parallel, the erstwhile kingdom of Poland and its nobility played a key role in extending the enslavement of peasants deep into South-Eastern Europe in its attempt to build its own colonial empire by dominating Lithuania and annexing vast areas of Ukraine in the 16th century. These colonial aspirations reached their apex in the 19th and 20th century with the establishment of the Colonial Maritime League. Today it continues to inspire a post-colonial attitude in Poland, hampering a much-needed critical reflection over the country’s past as well as prolonging confusion over its present status.

This complicated picture has just gone through an interesting turn in recent years. The critical tools of post-colonial theory have been often appropriated in Central and Eastern Europe by the nationalist right and in turn used to reaffirm “traditional identities” and “cultural heritage”: both allegedly colonized and dominated by foreign, liberal ideology. It has led to a form of peculiar “perverted decolonization” to use Ekaterina Degot’s expression, where obscurantist attitudes and religious fundamentalism are presented as attempts to preserve one’s unique and endangered way of life. Perhaps even more interesting is that the twisted, anti-critical use of critical concepts has provided a platform for widespread populist uprising. Contrary to the prognoses of 20th century theorists of modernity from Daniel Lerner to Francis Fukuyama, the peripheries seem to be coming out ahead of the populist curve, thereby demonstrating to the center their miserable future. Yet another perversion which we may call “de-modernization” as it directly opposes the relation between the center and the (semi)peripheries. Perhaps the futures of the United Kingdom, France and other developed nations are to be found in Poland, Hungary or Russia, not the other way around.




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