Agnieszka Brzeżańska is widely recognised as a painter, being known for her allusive abstractions and quasi-scientific series revealing secret cosmic phenomena. Here, though – in a show that was the most surprising, unobvious and yet coherently sublime presentation during the recent Warsaw Gallery Weekend – we learn that she is also a sculptor, a maker of spectacular ceramic vases and a very keen user of clay in general, perversely repeating the primeval gesture of potting. This extensive show combines Brzeżańska’s most recent Informel clay paintings and drawings (such as Jawia, all works 2014), photographic inkjet prints on cotton paper (the Honomeia series) and female breastpots (all untitled) – each making references to Slavic, Pre-Slavic and prehistoric mythologies, and especially to Lusatian culture (kultura łużycka). This culture, dating earlier than 1500 BC, still causes controversy among archaeologists: its existence, for example, subverts the hypothesis of the indigenous descent of the Slavs in Polish territories.
For years, Brzeżańska has conducted her own research on patriarchal-matriarchal aspects of prehistoric cultures, focused on female imagery and Mother Earth-related iconography, following projects such as Max Dashu’s Restoring Women to Cultural Memory (2008), referencing sources in her Suppressed Histories Archives or participating in her course, ‘The Secret History of the Witches’. Brzeżańska superimposes such alternative archaeologies onto Polish and Slavic prehistories – revealing the lesser-known face of the ‘unheimlich’ Slavdom. Moreover, she plays with Slavic stereotypes, fake theses and faked scientific sources for Slavic history (delivered by both German / Western and Eastern European scholars through the last two centuries), proposing her own determinedly ‘vague’ (artistic) interpretation, which forms the core of the show.
One of the constellations on the wall in the middle gallery consists of abstract-realistic works: the photo series Honomeia, depicting microscopic views and magnifications of various grounds / soils from different places, is juxtaposed with expressionistic abstract ‘clay-portraits’ of Domowoj and Nawia – figures from Slavic mythology, now barely known. (Domowoj was a spirit-guard of the house; Nawie were daemons of dead people.) In every room of the gallery, the works hanging on the walls are watched and guarded by big ceramic vases featuring female breasts, recalling ceremonial breast-pots found in various ancient cultures in all continents, but particularly those found in the Lusatia region.
The title of the exhibition features a Brzeżańska neologism, Ma Terra, suggestive of ‘matter’, ‘my land’ and ‘my ground’ – her own playful equivalent of the Polish term for the ‘motherland’ or ‘family land’ (ziemia rodzinna). As such, it directly references one of the most famous, highly idealised and aestheticised propaganda album publications in Poland: Ziemia rodzinna (1955), published at the end of the Social Realist era and edited by two famous figures from postwar literature – Tadeusz Kubiak and Artur Miedzyrzecki – with photographs by a legend of Polish photography, Edward Hartwig, and including his choice of other photographers’ images. The book consisted of photography and poems by the main Polish poets (eg, Antoni Słonimski, Leopold Staff, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński, Jaroslaw Iwaszkiewicz, Władysław Broniewski). At that time, Miedzyrzecki was an author of propaganda poetry and Kubiak an author of military and popular propaganda songs. Hartwig chose some prewar ‘impressionistic’ landscapes, and many samples of so-called motherland photography, accompanied by poetry praising ‘high, smoky chimneys’. Deliberately mocking of all this, the view of the motherland proposed by Brzeżańska is more realistic, more unheimlich, less scary. Unlike the interpretation of ziemia rodzinna from the 1950s, where the motherland’s real roots are lost and hidden, and landscapes are subject to ideology, Ma Terra operates in ironic and direct relation to earth, ghosts and matter.
This article was first published in the December 2014 issue.