When I was asked to come to Poland I began to research the typical role of women in the country. I realized very quickly that this was a very undefined, debated area. I would like to talk about my research conducted within Poznan, as well as briefly illustrating performances, workshops and the exhibition that was completed as part of this research.
The Polish Communist State promoted women’s emancipation in both family and work. Propaganda advocated equality of sexes and encouraged a massive participation of women in industrial production and farming.
Marx writes: “Differences of age and sex have no longer and distinctive social validity. All are instruments of labour”. It was taken as given that women worked, however these strong images of working women were always underpinned with this notion of cultural and religious historical stereotypes which enforced their role of motherhood and the importance of beauty. This displays a mixed picture, with pretty feminine skirts and headscarves being worn on masculine strong bodies.
During the early years of the first five year plan, there were about six million housewives in the towns. All the local Communist organisations received orders to call up these reserves and attach them to production, and so women were essentially forced into this idea of emancipation. Due to the overworked and overburdened status of women who were given a place in the workplace but not lifted out of their duties within the private realms of the household, women came to resent this idea of ‘women’s rights’. It became seen as exploitative and ideologically biased. After the collapse of the communist regime in 1989, traditional female roles were pushed back into the political sphere. In times of crisis and anxiety, people tend to lean towards a more traditional arrangement within gender roles. Women are associated with familiar traditional values, stability and nurture. As communism collapsed, female workforce participation fell from 90% to 68% in Poland. It now stands at 45%. Western feminism is identified with prior Communist values, and for that reason has often been regarded as suspect.
I began to research communist depictions of women within posters and propaganda. I conducted this in the Poster Department in the Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu. I took several strong images and used them within my first workshop on 6th November 2011. This workshop involved discussing the roles put forward by these images and looking at the writings of Iris Marion Young and Augusto Boal to question women in space, and feminine bodily motility.
This workshop raised a few questions for me as the women involved seemed much more comfortable talking about their role within society rather than using their bodies to question this. It would be fair to say that this could be considered an embarrassing thing to do. It is not easy coming into a space and being asked to throw your body around. But I want to question why this isn’t easy for women. What stops women from fully engaging with their body? Why are so many women detached from it? I also found it interesting that this workshop was promoted as being for women only. I initially wanted it to be open to both genders, however I am happy that it ended up being female orientated. This meant that participants all had an equal platform to speak from. I do think however that not involving males is problematic, and I would like to see this workshop done again with males involved so that I can see the difference between outcomes.
I began to develop these ideas of gendered space and about taking up social ‘room’. I started to look again at the notion of appetite and the idea of consumption materially and through food. I went into a second hand clothes shop in Poznan and put on as many jumpers as I could before they stopped me. As I got bigger I got slower and sweatier and the shop assistants got more and more suspicious. Eventually they accused me of wanting to steal the jumpers.
Women are an object of consumption as well as a consumer, controlled by the norms of this newly emerging consumer culture. After the fall of the Communist dictatorship Western Globalisation introduced the concept of capitalism and consumerism.
Gendered space and women’s motility is very heavily tied up with food.
One of the first images of Poznan I found came from the 1956 riots. The story really stuck with me, especially the phrase that was used on many of the signs: ‘We demand bread’. These people died fighting for what we could consider as a basic need. I went to the 1956 protest museum in the Zamek and found a copy of the demands from the riot. One of the demands states that women want one day a month to catch up with washing. This image of the ‘Mother Pole’ as a cleaner and cook is strong within society and I began to develop my ideas on this further.
I went to a spaghetti bar in Stary Rynek named Avanti and was completely absorbed in watching the difference between the eating styles of men and women. Men would thrust the food in their mouths, talking and eating at the same time, seemingly not caring about appearances or manners. Women would sit cross- legged, twisting the spaghetti round their forks, covering their mouths, using their napkins. I decided to go back to the place and eat ‘like a pig’.
This (re)action served to illustrate the problems of gendered eating rules. Women are discouraged to show an unrestrained appetite in public whereas men seem to escape these rules. My research turned towards this idea of social eating, and the rules and rituals that we associate with food.
I wanted to look at this idea of women making and eating together, and the stories that are connected to family and food. I discovered the traditional Polish cake entitled ‘Babka’ which translates as ‘grandmother’. It takes its name from and it takes this name from the fact that its shape resembles ‘twirling skirts’. I decided to make a Polish Babka cake with my friends grandmother. She couldn’t speak any English and my Polish leaves a lot to be desired but together we fumbled our way through the recipe and produced a beautiful cake. She passed on the knowledge of making this to me, knowledge that can now be passed on to others in my family. This sharing of time and knowledge to me is fundamental in understanding Polish women in culture.
When I was a young girl my mother used to make salt dough with me. To make salt dough you will need:
2 cups of flour
1 cup of salt
and 1 cup of water.
Leave to dry or cook.
On the 20th November 2011 I facilitated a salt dough workshop with local children at the Muzeum Narodowe w Poznaniu. It was important for me to engage children within a tactile workshop. I wanted to play with the phrase ‘do’t play with your food’, where they used their hands and simpled materials to create and get messy. It was interesting watching the different shapes and objects that the children made in the workshop. Most girls made butterflies and animals, most boys made cars or thumped the dough really hard. It was fascinating to watch these subconscious nods towards a difference in gender.
I began to think about whether objects, shapes and colours really do have a gender. Artefacts embody social relations, thereby representing a sort of materialization; a calcification of these relations. We tend to see objects as socially neutral. Of course this makes them all the more powerful in maintaining the social relations they embody. I organised a performance workshop in Galeria Razcej and encouraged people to bring in objects that they could describe as masculine and feminine in order to question whether this gender could be manipulated or changed.
The object I brought as being a feminine object was a bag of flour. Women have such a connection with bread and baking. Yet also this phrase breadwinner exists. The breadwinner is defined as the person who provides for the family, however this is usually seen as the man. I wanted to create a raffle that played with the pun of ‘breadwinner’ and so using this idea of literally winning bread. I also wanted to use bread that was taken away from this idea of cooking and baking at home. Cheap, commercial bread in plastic packaging was used.
As part of my exhibition ‘Babka’ in Galeria Razcej I also performed a performance entitled ‘Becoming Babka’. This performance illustrated my research from the residency in Poznan. The body became a recipe, ingredients were inscribed and smeared onto the female body.
Culture is written on the body and the female body is a text which may tell us about how women are seen. In order to question the nature of the body in culture, it is necessary to utilise this body. The performance was influenced by Deleuze’s conception of ‘becoming animal’ as well as notions of waste, guilt and traditional roles. It was also initially a reaction to a self proclaimed feminist organisation called CAKE, who organised ‘postmodern feminist parties’. These parties involved stripping and sex and were named as the future of feminism. The reason the group was called CAKE, was because women are ‘gooey and sticky and sweet, just like cake’. I wanted to question this idea of women as sweet, and as an adornment, and feminism as an adornment to culture.
Being a woman and being an artist is a relation with the self; perpetually asking yourself a question of self identity. As Central Eastern European feminism is presently in the state of socio- political turmoil it is very fascinating for me to question this idea of self- identity within the country. This residency was exceptional for me in the sense that it opened up my practice and provided me with excellent opportunities to work within galleries and museums all over the city. I would like to thank everyone from M-PRA for making this experience possible for me.