Examining exile: Polonia’s photo history

The Renaissance Society’s new exhibit featuring Polish artist Allan Sekula focuses on nearly all aspects of the Polish identity.

By Ben Rossi

“As to the action which is about to begin, it takes place in Poland—that is to say nowhere.” It comes as no surprise that in his new exhibit at the Renaissance Society, Polish artist Allan Sekula takes these words as one of his central “epigraphs.” The basic nowhereness of Poland in the 20th century—its lack of a national identity, economic backwardness, and dependence on two of the world’s superpowers—forms the central theme of Polonia and Other Fables, a joint commission by the Renaissance Society and the Zacheta National Gallery in Warsaw.

But if Poland’s anxiety as a country defined by conquest and occupation is vividly rendered by Sekula’s photographs, so too is the role of Chicago in providing Poles with a diasporic identity. The word “Polonia” refers to Poles residing outside Poland, and the importance of Chicago as the city of exile for Poles is emphasized by Sekula’s use of Simone de Beauvoir’s quote, “This town is made of thick dough, without the leavening.” In the context of an exhibit about Polish identity, including the unanswered question of their role in the Holocaust, this quote can only be read as a meditation on the story of Exodus.

The exhibit consists of over 40 photographs accompanied by various quotations. Thematically, it is incredibly ambitious, covering everything from post-communist Polish–U.S. relations and the perils of a free market economy for contemporary Poland and America to Chicago’s Polish community. The text is displayed on plaques circling the walls of the gallery and includes quotations from Rousseau, Leo Strauss, Nelson Algren, and even the Jewish Armed Resistance in Warsaw.

Sekula offers a wide-reaching array of photos in a variety of styles depicting everything from the artist’s mother to University of Chicago students and from air force bases to pig farms in Poland. The accompanying text doesn’t play the role of glorified title or description; instead it connects the pictures to a broader social and political context. Some of the best photos include shipyard workers in Warsaw, a full-length portrait of a young female day trader, and eerie pictures of alleged CIA “black sites” in Poland. In a similar vein, students will (sometimes literally) recognize themselves in the images of crowds near Pick Hall during May Day celebrations.

The pictures also vary greatly in the formality of their composition. Some shots, such as the beautiful photograph of the Ladies Auxiliary Polish Army Veterans of World War II marching in Chicago’s Polish Constitution Day Parade, have a monumentality conveyed not only by the size of the photograph, but by the dramatic posing of its subjects.

By contrast, a photo of passersby on the streets of Warsaw and the Polish “metalhead” in Chicago have a casual, offhand quality. Portraits of the artist’s mother and the priest who gave last rites to his father are carefully lit and almost sfumato in style, while the shots of his father and brothers look like point-and-clicks.

Underlying these stylistic distinctions is a concern with, at least exploring, if not bridging, the gap between photography as documentary and photography as art form. Maybe, as the exhibit’s title suggests, it is between documentary and art where Fables are formed.

Ben Rossi occaisionally volunteers for the Renaissance Society.