14 Jun 2019

The art of showing unseen abuse -- an interview with artist Zuzanna Janin

Psychological violence is the essence of powerlessness. You want things to change, to end. You dream of change, not through destruction, but by repair.

Wysokie Obcasy
Ewa Rogala Wysokie Obcasy, Global
The art of showing unseen abuse -- an interview with artist Zuzanna Janin - NewsMavens
Zuzanna Janin, pictures provided by artist

--The following selections from Ewa Rogala’s interview with artist and film maker, Zuzanna Janin, originally appeared in the Polish weekly Wysokie Obcasy in November 2018.

Ewa Rogala: A black toque with a veil, a dark dress with a lace neckline, white gloves, elegant pince-nez in your hand -- that is how I saw you on the set of the film Woman Power (Siłaczki, lit. “The Strong Women,” released January 2019), directed by Marta Dzido and Piotr Śliwowski. We were both extras, but your character was powerfully visible.

Zuzanna Janin: In Woman Power, I portrayed my great-grandmother, Natalia Rosińska-Egiersdorff. She established a private school for women on Smolna Street in Warsaw.

The institution functioned until her death in 1920. Not much is known about the school itself or about Natalia Rosińska’s work, but for us, her family, and for me, she has always been a role model, a true unconquerable suffragette. Regardless of political conditions or life circumstances, she always stood by her beliefs.

Incredibly, when we were renovating our family home in Warsaw, I found a little spoon with the engraved initials “N.R.” under a plank in the floor—a souvenir from Great-Grandma Natalia. It is now part of my exhibition at the Foksal Gallery in Warsaw -- a found object from the renovation next to an electrical switch and a teddy bear with keys to my grandparents’ linen chest. My grandmother’s bamboo cigarette holder and an empty pack of “Sport” cigarettes from my mother are also there. They are symbols of emancipation. Our mothers and grandmothers didn’t call themselves “feminists,” but they led feminist lives, went to the university, played sports, wore pants before the war and trendy miniskirts after the war—and they smoked.

ER: Now I understand why you wanted to immortalize the figure of your great-grandmother in a film about Polish suffragettes.

I think that Woman Power is the most important film of this century -- a topic completely ignored by Polish directors. Why don’t we learn about Kazimiera Bujwidowa, Maria Dulębianka, and the other women who fought for our rights? Why has no one told the story of our suffragettes?

ER: How do you explain it?

Because male directors have always made films about the nineteenth-century male myth. Andrzej Wajda ultimately erased women from his stories. His film Afterimage (Powidoki, 2017) is about the painter, Władysław Strzemiński, but his wife, the sculptor Katarzyna Kobro, is brutally omitted. In his film about Lech Wałęsa, one of the re-enactments leaves out Ewa Ossowska, who agitated for the continuation of the Gdańsk shipyard strike. There is even proof of her role in archival photographs, which I used in my work, “Wajda. Wałęsa. Ossowska,” in the exhibition entitled “Niepodległe: Women, Independence, and the National Discourse” at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw.

ER: It’s remarkable how stubbornly this male-centered narrative persists.

It is indestructible. Where are the women? In biographical films, strong, important female figures are eliminated. In Polish museum collections, less than 20-30 percent of the work is by women. Even in the Warsaw Museum of Modern Art, it is not much more. And I ask, where are their emotions, their worlds, struggles with life, fascinations, and discoveries, which art analyzes and considers? I am tired of a world “explained by men.” I prefer that the world be explained to men, because there is a lot they don’t see.

ER: Do you consider yourself a “strong woman”?

I am often regarded and treated that way, but I am a person of extreme contradictions. On the one hand, I am very sensitive, thin skinned and easily wounded. On the other, I am strong, and instinctively turn all my losses into gains, and from these losses and other things, I make my art. I grew up in a home rebuilt from bombed-out ruins, and I know that rubble can be turned into a beautiful building again.

Everything that I encounter in life, even the bad, I collect and transform into what is good for me.

ER: So you transform pain into art?

Pain is a kind of resource, an experience that makes one think, survive, and defend oneself in the future. I work with themes along borders. I fill empty, nondescript spaces. This year I prepared a performance piece for my exhibition, “The Story of a Certain Betrayal” (Historia pewnej zdrady), as part of my video installation, “ROOMS/POKOJE.”

At a certain moment in this performance, one can hear the following text: “Yes, it is incomprehensible what Mrs. B. did, but Mrs. B had a choice: to kill herself or to kill the love inside her, which is why she drove to the rooms in which her lover, the esteemed professor, betrayed her with his assistant […] She was looking for a sign, some help, a signal, to understand her own despair, pain, and to set them aside.” And later, “Mrs. B. read the thinkers and philosophers, but what philosopher considered and described what Mrs. B was feeling -- betrayed by the person dearest to her with a girl the age of her daughter?” And after a long silence: “Not one of them.”

And this is precisely the key to understanding my method in art: to show things that are not shown, feelings that are undescribed. Such experiences allow me to create something new and valuable, not to squander the courage to speak about what is difficult.

Pain and despair are part of it, but there are still too few works with which women and girls can identify and that describe the world as it is for us, and as we see ourselves—works in which we find the diversity of our vision and experience, and not merely our appearance which is often limited to one dimension.

The artist in her studio

ER: In the ‘70s and ‘80s, you were the idol of your teenage peers. How did it happen that Zuzanna became the main character “Majka” in the Polish television series, The Madness of Majka Skowron?

I went to ballet school then, and we all read book by Aleksander Minkowski (1933-2016) that the series was based on. When Anna Bohdziewicz came to pick out young people for screen tests, she asked me at the last minute, as an afterthought. And it worked out that I got the main role.

But I was no actor.

ER: But people still accost you on the street as Majka Skowron.

I don’t wear this popularity well. When people approach me, I don’t feel good about it. I used to say they were mistaken, that I’m no Majka. But when I started making art, I realized that this character could help me to popularize contemporary art. Ten years ago, I started a project called Majka from the Movie (Majka z filmu, 2008-2012, shown at the 54th Venice Biennale in the Romanian pavillion).

At your exhibition at the Foksal Gallery, you show not only small mementos of everyday life, but also… the waste products of the renovation. These are things that in other circumstances would have ended up in the dump.

Waste, trash, refuse. I embedded these items in resin to create columns, hemispheres, cubes, and other forms. The titles of these works were formulas for the volumes of geometric shapes, such as “Home transformed into a sphere (4/3 πr3)”. They are partially transparent, so that all the items I embedded can be seen from different sides.

It is very complex work, based on the history of this house, built in the 1920s. In the twentieth century in the “Journalist’s Quarter” of Warsaw, regular visitors to the house included avantgarde novelist, artist, and dramatist, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (“Witkacy”), who was a friend of my mother’s cousin.

During the war, around September 13-15, 1944, the house was bombed. After the war, my grandparents rebuilt it, and we lived there all together, three generations in one house. Mama expanded the house in the ‘70s, and I am renovating it now, thinking that in the future it may become an art space open to the public.

These sculptures are the submerged memory of the history of a city, a home, the people living and residing there. These fragments submerged in resin carry these stories, which are not symbolic, but real.It is a work about trash, about a culture discarded—not only things, but people as well.

ER: Does the art world have a gender? Many have spoken of the unequal access of women and men to places in art schools. Academies of fine arts are remarkably masculinized work places. You’ve surely felt this in your own case.

We are present-and-absent -- alien.

In the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts, there is no independent atelier of visual arts run by a woman, a lack of auteur studios teaching the foundations and methods of creating art, and not only technology and working techniques. There are too few women in the higher levels of administration. When I defended my doctoral dissertation, the department council consisted of eighteen people, only one of them a woman.

I believe that fields such as contemporary art should maintain standards of democracy and parity. The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw today should really announce searches for women to run the studios. There are so many men there that the proportion of men to women employed is 9:1, and it should be 5:5.

But I would note that I don’t fight with men. I’ve never fought. I would like us to be partners. I am an egalitarian feminist. I stand for the weak, the excluded, the absent women in the higher ranks of the Academy.

I recall that my project, Walka (Fight, 2001—a video filmed in a boxing ring depicting a fictional boxing match between a female artist and the professional heavyweight boxer Przemysław Saleta), was understood as an image of the battle of the sexes, but for me it was something more.

Fight is a visualization of the struggle with the medium of art, of going beyond the image. As Frank Stella cast aside the square canvas, I am moving beyond the medium of painting. But this is also a visualization of the endless struggle with the self, with adversity, with one’s own weaknesses. I’ve been asked: “Who won?” Now it is obvious that this is a metaphor for the continuous struggle of life, of relationships, without a winner or a loser.

ER: If life is a continuous struggle, then what is life in a relationship in which there is violence? Is it possible to live like that at all?

Unfortunately, yes. One can live like that for years.

In a violent relationship there is ongoing compensation and hope for improvement alongside acts of violence. Compensation attracts a person and makes them dependent so that they develop defensive feelings. Step by step, these feelings are tamped down and pacified, then suddenly there is another blow, more humiliation and pain. It is a perverse game with a victim who is often not aware of being a victim. But if the victim fights for him or herself, for change, to stop the mistreatment, the violence may be suppressed for months or years, and then it simmers until it boils over when least expected. This kind of relationship is like the suppression of a recurring illness, with the psychological destruction of the other through the abuse of the laws of love and devotion to family.

ER: How could someone not be aware of something like that?

It is a strange mixture of integrity, loyalty, love, and discord. Displacement. In the home, in everyday active working life, the limit is creeping and unreachable. In various of my works there is trauma, a feeling of threat encoded into a certain concealed level of interpretation. It is even in my work A Volvo V70 Transformed Into 6 Drones, because it transforms a feeling of safety into a threat -- a safe family car into into a group of deadly unsafe flying machines.

The work Fight also concealed the trauma of domestic violence, though I never admitted the possibility of such an interpretation. I was a loyal, loving partner, and I was afraid of being exposed, so I protected myself, my family, and the children.

Today I have lost this sense of security. I was very much in love and committed. I wanted to give the family everything that seemed important for artists -- quiet and a place to work, practically unlimited freedom, safety.

I made this life for us together, but “incidents” started to occur. That is what I call them today, because I was in denial of the fact that they may have been a red flag signaling what kind of relationship I was in.

I didn’t want to ruin the family. I looked for help, but quietly, so that I could fix things up from the inside, so I could “manage on my own”…

ER: Can one manage without external help?

I thought that a strong person could. But psychological violence is the essence of powerlessness. You want things to change, to end. You dream of change, not through destruction, but by repair. You don’t want to leave someone you love, because how could someone in love want to lose the person they love? You miss your own happiness. You try to control the “incidents.” You don’t give up, don’t run away, try not to be a coward. You always show that you don’t consent, and then it becomes clear that you are hurting, so that the game you’re in goes further, the wounds become worse.

You are harried, but every moment of harm fights with memory, hope, and love.

I had no tools to help myself. I did not know then that this was a passive-aggressive game of refusal that breaks you down into little pieces and leaves you powerless. Pleading, resistance—nothing helps.

ER: When did you feel that you could no longer draw on your own resources?

My situation weighed on me so heavily that I started to recognize symptoms of long-term stress from bearing this psychological violence alone. The symptoms were simply physical, such as dizziness, impaired vision, lack of sleep, or uncontrolled quixotic behavior in the face of rudeness or aggression. Finally I started to reproach myself for this as a self-defense reflex.

I started to seek help. For years I would go to the Blue Line, the organization that works to prevent domestic violence. I wanted to repair the family -- that was my duty -- before the children found out.I wanted real repair and not merely an escape. I was completely alone, isolated, without any assistance.

Finally I was advised to get individual therapy and later group therapy. Therapy helped me to give a name to my situation and to see what I could do to protect myself.

Group therapy was completely exhausting to me, when these ladies started to talk about themselves. Instead of making myself stronger, I would go home and spend half the day crying.

ER: What did the women who were in abusive relationships like you talk about? How honestly did they share their traumas?

We spoke about everything. About aggression and refusal. One, a beautiful girl, said that her husband treated her like a rag. He humiliated her right in front of their child.

Another said that her husband would point his fingers like he wanted to shoot her, or would raise a knife behind her back.

Another said that her partner threw things at her.

Another, almost seventy years old, fled from her husband who harassed her. She rented a spare room and tried to start her life over again.

One was raped by her partner, and others were forced incessantly to engage in practices that they did not consent to.

Another was “punished” for years with contempt and denial of sex, at the same time as her husband called her a whore and cheated on her, claiming it was his right, “because they weren’t sleeping together.”

ER: These are overwhelming, horrible stories.

There are lots of them. Women endure sexual, economic, psychological, and physical violence. We are connected by the approaches we have taken.

The first is the approach of destruction, which I know well. A victim of violence is destroyed and falls apart, sometimes through self-destruction, for example by addiction to alcohol.

The second approach is the continuous struggle with oppression. I took both. I’m a fighter who doesn’t know how to be indifferent in the face of injustice. I react, rebel, fight for what is good and against what is bad, against humiliation and acts of aggression, against violence and rudeness. If I couldn’t succeed at home, I would try to fix things outside.

ER: Why do the people closest to the situation not react when something bad happens in the family?

They may not know that something is happening. It is even concealed from the children. If the children know, they are paralyzed with fear, often experiencing a secondary Stockholm syndrome—subconsciously fearing rejection, harassment, beatings, and they take the side of the abuser. Friends, children of friends, and relatives also feel discomfort. They sense something, so they break off contact. These are unclear, embarrassing, ambiguous situations, so people stay away.

No one knows how to behave or react. No one expects it, and how do you prove it? They don’t believe it, because the abusers are in general very much in control outside the home. They work on their own image, so as not to reveal anything.

It is paradoxical that this affected me, because I am not in fact a weak person.

ER: So this can also happen to strong women?

I think it happens primarily to the strong ones, because they tend to be oppositional, to criticize, ask for things to be corrected, and demand partnership.

I don’t go along with domination, manipulation, violent egoistic behavior, control over me, or lack of respect. I articulate my feelings, and that triggers violence.

Creative, psychologically and intellectually independent women bring out their partners’ aggression. Look at how Tina Turner and Nina Simone were victims of domestic violence.

ER: We also have examples in Poland…

In my opinion, domestic violence here is also related to one’s education and career. Some people are spoiled by fame, money, and power, and think that they are above the law, because success, even for example in the art world, gives them such a feeling of envy that they can’t allow themselves pleasure in the professional and artistic lives of their wives or female partners. The women in relationships with artists, writers, painters, musicians, and other creative people are often violently abused. And it is very difficult for them to speak about it. They have their own images, and their communities don’t want to hear their painful stories, unless they are at a distance and “don’t concern us.” The system defends the abusers but not the victims. And this happens in various fields. One can hear, for instance, in court, that a case was dismissed, because “a [male] artist cannot be exposed to psychological distress and loss of creative inspiration…”

ER: What does “inspiration” have to do with the law? And how are feelings and impressions harmed?

Exactly. You don’t believe it? I also find it hard to believe, but it’s a fact in the Polish courts.

It happened to me too, when I was criticized for practicing boxing and the alleged aggression associated with it. There was no explaining that I wasn’t in fact learning to box, but preparing for my film Fight. It’s like saying a rape victim wearing a short skirt was asking for it. Obviously these are classic cases of blaming the victim.

Or another example: A judge ruling in a case affirmed that a woman is “resourceful,” “earns a living,” and “is not afraid of her husband” in a relationship, and therefore she cannot be a victim of harassment. Does that mean that it is possible to harass a woman with impunity, so long as she is educated and has her own income?

More than 80 percent of domestic violence cases are systematically dismissed on any absurd pretext. Psychological violence is equated with primitive physical violence: so as long as there is no blood or broken bones, everything is okay. The courts do not analyze the specifics of violence and harassment, passive aggression often connected with prodigious intelligence and manipulation invisible to the blind people who believe the abusers—not taking into consideration the long-term effects on the health and the life of the victim.

ER: What would you recommend to women who are or were, like you, victims of domestic violence? How can they save themselves?

I am part of an initiative to create a group called “The Survivors,” an association of women who have survived domestic violence. We are all connected by something very intimate playing out behind closed doors. Some are not yet aware that it affects them, because they are in love and idolize their partner.

I was the same. I was warned, but I didn’t listen.

My triptych, Sleeping Blue. Red with Shame. Black like Me (In bed with M.) [Śpiąca Niebieska. Czerwonaze wstydu. Czarna jak ja (W łóżku z M.)] shows the three pillars of domestic violence: the expectation of women to be submissive, silent, and ashamed, and to remain in the shadows, excluded, nameless. My art serves to fill these blank spaces of invisibility, so that women are not “alien,” “absent,” but are co-creators of culture in their own voices, which are clear and important for everyone.

Silence isn’t golden, but rather makes you fold in. One cannot be silent, but must protest and stand in the light. In my art I am experimenting with showing what cannot be seen. I visualize what “cannot be said.” That is what is most important to me.

ER: What’s next?

I am mainly involved with something that is very positive and constructive. The foundation I created, Miejsce Sztuki (Art Space), has announced a prize named for two wonderful but unfortunately forgotten artists, Maria Anto [a successful painter and the mother of Zuzanna Janin] and Elsa von Freytag. This will be a very important distinction not only for artistic achievement, but also for their connections to social positions, for commitment to equality, civil rights, and for promoting conservation of the planet. We will announce the winners of the award shortly. 


Zuzanna Janin’s photographic installation, Wajda, Wałęsa, Ossowska (Solidarność) (2016), was shown as part of the exhibition, Niepodległe. Kobiety a dyskursnarodow” at the Museum of Modern Art. In Warsaw through 3 February 2019.

Translated by David A. Goldfarb


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