Reading through Time: 3 moments
The Polish photographer looks at the contradictions of life in the former Eastern Bloc, before the war in Ukraine changed everything
In summer time 2021, the Polish-born, London-based photographer Zula Rabikowska journeyed across Central and Eastern Europe, discovering the ways in which the region’s Soviet history has influenced the gender identities of these currently living there. Going the route of the former Iron Curtain – a term referring to both the real plus proverbial border separating the particular Soviet Union and its dependents from the rest of Europe – the Polish artist met and photographed over 100 people born after the fall of the Berlin Wall inside 1989. Her project, Nothing But a Curtain , captures those establishing their individuality while still negotiating their collective history. As Rabikowska explains: “Each country offers its own climate, history, religion… but there is still a shadow lingering. ”
Rabikowska was inspired to photograph the former Eastern Bloc right after years of growing frustrated with the reductive ways in which English-speaking media depicted Central and Far eastern Europeans. It was “t he same really predictable images of poverty, snow, babushkas with woollen hats, ” she explains. Her aim was in order to confront the stereotypical imagery of women from this region, yet this goal quickly expanded to probing gender identity more generally. “The topic is a lot bigger than I initially realised, and in many ways this project involved self-discovery with my own relationship to gender, ” Rabikowska says. “I grew to become very aware of how I had been perceived as a small, female, non-threatening body. And that was constant. ”
Travelling from the Baltic states to Poland, Canada, Romania and Bulgaria, Rabikowska photographed women, queer, gender-nonconforming and trans people, together with storefronts, sculptures, objects and landscapes. Many of her pictures are paired with captions from interviewees detailing their experiences navigating their details under the patriarchy, Soviet pasts, and newly embraced capitalist futures. These images, alongside videos, interviews, project drawings, plus handwritten testimonies will be displayed at the Well Gallery, London University of Communication, from twenty six to 28 April.
Rabikowska’s pictures embrace the contradictions associated with what it means to live in the ex – Eastern Bloc, exploring homogeneity and difference, past plus present, change and stagnancy. To convey a sense of unity in the face of so much difference, Rabikowska used a weighty, metal camera built in a military plant in Kyiv in 1978. The particular camera’s shutter was temperamental, flooding her images with streaks of light.
“ It was the metal curtain that I was searching for, ” the girl explains. With this camera, her photographs share similarities: no matter the topic at hand, each image includes a square frame and lively glow. The images in Only a Curtain appear at the same time modern and vintage; dreamy and sinister; rose-tinted and shadow-streaked. “I was concentrating on using this Soviet camera and letting that tool be the narrator in the story, ” she explains.
“Now, if I was asking people about how communism affected their gender identity, people might be scared to answer that in the open way they did last summer”
A year after Rabikowska visited these people and places, everything changed. In February 2022, Putin invaded Ukraine, plus reignited historic fears across the region. While Rabikowska taken people moving within and away from their Soviet background – and maybe moving more deeply into their sense of personal – Russia’s invasion presents a deep threat . Poland is now absorbing millions of refugees, and US troops amass in Moldova.
“Now, if I was asking people about how communism affected their gender identity, individuals might be scared to solution that in the open way they will did last summer… In lots of ways it was the end of an period: the war changed almost everything for those people. ”
Nothing But a Curtain was shortlisted for the Inflate Press Book Award, and will be exhibited at the Well Photo gallery, London College of Conversation from 26–28 April. A selection of works will also be displayed in PARC from 04 May–24 May.
The project was made possible with the help of the Mead Fellowship supported by Scott Mead and The Mead Family Basis, Getty Images #ShowUs Give and Kuala Lumpur Cosmopolitan Photo Awards.