Exhibition: London Creatives Polish Roots
Museum of London
1st October – 1st November 2009
by Guy Sangster Adams
Londoners listening to travel news on the capital’s local radio stations will be overtly familiar with hearing that rush hour traffic is stretching back past the Polish War Memorial on the A40; one of the main routes into London. But in that familiarity how often do listeners hearing the name, or those using it to give directions, actually specifically register the words they are hearing or saying – that it is Polish and that it is a war memorial – or, for the post war generations particularly, the significance of those words, such is the degree that this West London landmark has been assimilated into the city. But in fact the memorial does more than commemorate the specificities of its name it also bears witness to all the political upheavals and changes of the last seventy years of Polish history, and many of the different routes and reasons that have brought Poles to live in London.
The Polish War Memorial, which commemorates the 1902 Polish airmen who lost their lives in World War II fighting as part of the Polish Air Forces in France and Great Britain, was not government sponsored, rather it was erected with the help of contributions from the British public by officers from the Polish Air Force Association, who were among those that had been evacuated from Poland in 1939 following the Nazi-Soviet invasions of Poland, and who could not return to their homeland post-war due to the Soviet occupation. It was designed by the sculptor Mieczyslaw Lubelski who had survived internment in a concentration camp following his role in the Warsaw Uprising. It was not until after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989 and the subsequent fall of the communist regime in Poland and the birth of the democratic Third Polish Republic that a Polish president, Lech Walesa in 1991, visited the memorial, whilst the second presidential visit, by Aleksander Kwaśniewsk in 2004, was in the same year that Poland joined the European Union. As a coda, the British Government’s official memorial to the 500,000 Polish military personnel that fought under British command in World War II and constituted the fourth largest allied army in the fight against Nazi Germany was unveiled on 19th September this year.
The dichotomy inherent in the Polish War Memorial, of being both an intrinsic part of the fabric of London whilst also tacitly representing successive layers of Polish national and cultural identity is at the heart of the exhibition London Creatives: Polish Roots. Conceived by the London based Polish creative practitioners photographer Grzegorz Lepiarz and filmmaker Bartek Dziadosz, and Anna Tryc-Bromley the Deputy Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London, the exhibition is presented in conjunction with the Museum of London where it runs from 1st October to 1st November 2009. The exhibition features black and white portraits and accompanying video interviews with the growing number of Londoners of Polish origin, or Poles living in London, who play a key role in the cultural identity of the city, and explores how London and their Polish identity have affected their creativity and approaches to life and work in the capital. As Wanda Koscia Rostowska, a BBC producer and director specializing in history and current affairs who was born in London to Polish parents says in the trailer for the exhibition,”it’s this culture of tolerance and art, of living alongside each other and compromise, that sets the tone for London and the parameters in which all this variety can thrive and survive.”
The process of being photographed and interviewed for the exhibition also lead the subjects to question their identities. As Adam Ficek, drummer with Babyshambles, who has just released the first album from his solo project Roses Kings Castles, writes in his blog, “it’s quite odd, I’m not Polish, or am I? How do you know? Blood? Place of birth? Parents? I have never considered myself Polish to an extent but I have always had a healthy interest in where my grandparents were born and raised.” Whilst composer Michael Nyman, who was born in the East End and whose grandparents on both sides were Polish Jews who had left Poland for London at the turn of the last century, says in the trailer, “I don’t know how Polish I feel, I don’t know how Jewish I feel, I don’t know how English I feel.”
Featuring three generations, the exhibition also by extension reflects the changes that have brought the subjects to London, be it fleeing persecution by the Nazi’s and the Soviets, the search for freedom of creative expression during the Cold War, or the freedom to study, live, work and collaborate with different nationalities across the member states that accession to the EU has brought.
Zbigniew Pelczynski, emeritus Professor of Political Science at Oxford University who taught the future US President Bill Clinton, was as a teenage volunteer in the Polish Home Army and fought in the Warsaw Uprising, but as a result of the members of the Home Army being demonised by the Soviet Union was not welcome in post-war Poland. Whilst Mira Hamermesh, the award-winning documentary film-maker, writer and artist, was one a group of Jewish teenagers who managed to escape Wilno-Vilnius in World War II for Palestine before coming to London to study at the Slade School of Arts; both her parents died in the Holocaust.
The representatives of the baby boomer generation born in London to Polish parents include Iwona Blazwick, the director of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, art critic Waldemar Januszczak, and Andrew Czezowski who ran the infamous Punk club The Roxy, before going on to create The Fridge in Brixton.
Whilst artist Slawa Harasymowicz is indicative of a new generation, as are Lepiarz and Dziadosz themselves. Harasymowicz grew up in Krakow, before coming to London to study at Royal College of Art, from where she graduated in 2006, and has continued to live and work in London. Lepiarz moved to London in 2002 and has since worked with BBC3, Royksopp, Gotan Project, Emiliana Torrini, Storm model agency, and LMVH. With the exhibition he was equally interested in stripping away the layers people project around themselves, as he says, “In the creative fields of music and visual arts, the branding of the person, their ‘image’, becomes an integral part of their life. I wanted to capture the essence of a person’s individuality, within the soulful moments of their silence. I believe that these moments, the ones behind the glamour, are the portraits worth registering.”
Illuminating, intriguing, reflective, and moving, London Creatives: Polish Roots is also both a wonderful celebration of the enduring dynamism and openness of London’s cultural identity but also the resurgence of Polish creative expression that has followed the birth of the new Polish republic, and of course the excitement and innovation of the coalescence of the two; entirely fitting in the build up to the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
London Creatives Polish Roots runs from 1st October to 1st November at Museum of London, London Wall, London EC2
The exhibition is part of Polska Year, running from Spring 2009 to Spring 2010 featuring over 200 projects which showcase contemporary Polish film, theatre, architecture, design, music & fashion.
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London Creatives Polish Roots www.polishcreatives.org
Grzegorz Lepiarz www.photogl.com
Museum of London www.museumoflondon.org.uk
Polish Cultural Institute www.polishculture.org.uk
Polska Year www.polskayear.pl