In 2014 Karol Radziszewski presented a series of portraits of Ryszard Cieślak as part of the exhibition "In the Shadow of the Flame" at BWA Warszawa. A portrait of the most celebrated actor of the Jerzy Grotowski’s theatre is replicated as a Warholesque screenprint. In 2015 the artist began his “Ali” project, based around the sole Black participant of the Warsaw Uprising of World War 2 -August Agbola O’Brown. For this work, Radziszewski made a direct reference to the aesthetics of Pablo Picasso.
Transcript of Karol Radziszewski in conversation with Justyna Kowalska and Michał Suchora of BWA Warszawa
Justyna Kowalska and Michał Suchora (Q): “Ali” is a series inspired by the figure of August Agbola O’Brown, a Nigerian who fought in the Warsaw Uprising. What do we know about him?
Karol Radziszewski (A): He was born in Nigeria in 1895. He arrived in Warsaw in 1922. He was a jazz musician – he played the drums in some of Warsaw’s best venues. In September 1939 he took an active part in defending the Polish capital. During the German occupation he distributed the underground press and helped those who were in hiding, while making a living selling electrical equipment. He fought in the Warsaw Uprising, going by the nickname “Ali” and serving in the “Iwo” battalion in the South-Central district of the city. In 1949 he began working for the Culture and Arts Department of the Municipal Board of Warsaw. By the end of the 1940s and in the 1950s he returned to the stages of Warsaw. In the late 1950s he moved to the United Kingdom.
Q: This isn’t the first time you’re taking up the subject of the Warsaw Uprising.
A: I made an attempt to tackle it a few years ago, when the Warsaw Uprising Museum invited me to create a mural for them. Unfortunately, the project was rejected and the whole thing ended up in a pointless scandal. The narrative around this subject continues to be quite one-dimensional and cemented in its perspective.
Q:The painterly style of the “Ali” portraits refer to Pablo Picasso and his fascination with African culture. Why did you choose this aesthetic?
A: In Poland there is hardly any kind of Black imagery. We have a few sculptures, such as the “Head of a Negro” by Olga Niewska. In painting it’s a rare subject. Picasso, on the one hand, appropriated traditional African art, and on the other, he served as its greatest promoter and drove it into the realm of what is considered “high art”. His visit to post-war Warsaw in 1948 adds another layer of context.
Q: You weren’t afraid of accusations that you had “tropicalized” the figure of Ali?
A: Any depiction of the “other” is tired to the risk of exoticizing that individual. This is quite an unusual story, but it is a true one. I did my best to find the right form for it.
Q: This is another instance of your taking on another artist’s aesthetic strategy. Warhol, Picasso, Natalia LL, Grotowski, Krasiński… How do you go about making such choices?
A: My choices are very subjective, what is key is a shift in context. Paraphrasing the aesthetics of a particular artist is an impetus for changing the perspective on established visual codes and history itself.
Karol Radziszewski (born 1980), filmmaker, photographer, installation artist and interdisciplinary artist. Publisher and Editor-in-chief ofqueer-oriented “DIK Fagazine”. Founder of the “Queer Archives Institute”. Winner of Polityka magazine’s Passport award (2009). His works have been exhibited at the Zachęta National Gallery (Warsaw), Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, Centre for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle (Warsaw), Muzeum Sztuki in Lódź, Kunsthalle Wien, New Museum (New York), VideoBrasil (Sao Paulo), Cobra Museum (Amsterdam). He has taken part in the 13th PERFORMA biennial in New York , 7th Göteborg Biennale, 4th Prague Biennale, New York Photo Festival (2009) and the 15th WRO Media Art Biennial in Wroclaw.