Reminiscing The Medusa, Intergenerational Art Traditions, and the Unique Cultural History of Polish Women

Feb 7, 2023 | Art Insights

By Sara Beth Woods

Małgorzata Markiewicz, Medusa, 2020. Digital print on fabric. 450 x 300 cm

I had the pleasure of meeting Marta Kowalewska, Chief curator at the Central Museum of Textile, Łódź, Poland during the summer of 2021. I was visiting the  country for two distinct purposes; to visit my Great-Grandparent’s homeland,  previously West Pomerania, Prussia, a great source of pride to the maternal side  of my family known as Vorpommern. My Grandmother kept close ties with our family in Berlin, and without these important family connections much of our  history would have been lost. This history informs my socially engaged project, Land by the Sea. My second reason for visiting Poland was to visit Małgorzata Markiewicz, the artist whose work, Medusa, I had exhibited July 15- Oct.31,  2021 at Triangle, my project space located on the outskirts of Chicago, in  Riverside, IL. 

Krakow is beautiful and has remained unscathed after many world wars. It feels like an ancient city, the Jewish Quarter lonely and exploited for the enjoyment  of tourists. My stay in Krakow was short, and I was looking to head back north to Warsaw. Kowalewska graciously offered me a ride, under the precursor that I  was not bothered by her large, elderly Polish Greyhound; exhausted, yet regal  and poised, like an ancient Egyptian statue, occupying most of the back seat of  her newer model Honda. It rained heavily for most of the day and into the  evening. When we were not on back roads, traveling slowly through idyllic,  pastoral villages, we were on the highway. Large portions of the sound barriers  looked to be constructed of glass or clear plastic and in truly Polish fashion, the  windows in these barriers were affixed with large vinyl stickers in the shape of a  bird, as to ward off any potential collisions. Polish Culture understands the  inherent value of nature.  

The following day, Kowalewska picked me up from the Communist-era high rise where I had been staying in Warsaw, and gave me a tour of the Central Museum of Textile in Łódź (pronounced Wooot-ch). The English translation of Łódź means boat, and the city is known as a prewar textile-manufacturing hub.  Markiewicz was one of the guest co-curators for the exhibition Open Departments/Closed Departments (2020-2021), and I was able to see Medusa in all her hand-made splendor, constructed from green, black, white, and grey  sheep wool, as well as linen, hemp, and wool yarn that was hand-dyed at the  Central Museum of Textiles. Basia Śliwińska, co-curator and author of the text  written for the Medusa exhibition at Triangle, Riverside, IL writes, “Slowly,  persistently, intentionally, from March 15, 2020 and over the seven months of  the Covid-19 health emergency, Medusa’s crocheted body emerged, spreading  with its fifteen metres long tentacles into the space, first Markiewicz’s home in  Kraków, Poland, and then into her studio. Markiewicz-similarly to Penelope  waiting for her husband, Odysseus, to return, and by day, weaving a burial  shroud for her father-in-law, Laertes, which she unraveled by night-created not a  cloth but her-story narrativized by the motion of her hands and released into  versatile private and public spaces.

She took time to interlock carefully selected  yarn in a process of slow labour at a steady pace. Time was passing yet standing  still as the making was sometimes disrupted by the necessity to unravel the  crochet stitch and repeat the process, imbuing the emerging Medusa’s body with  the circumstances of its creation. Markiewicz’s Medusa enacts Donna Haraway’s ‘tentacular thinking,’ mutually beneficial relationships and symbiotic  solidarity across species and spaces, insisting on responsibility and response ability to all living bodies. Her masked face allows for any woman, every  woman, to become Medusa. Masks are often strategic devices in activist artistic and guerrilla groups such as Guerilla Girls or Pussy Riot, they amplify the wearer’s  anonymity and articulate metaphorical invisible positions and silencing in society. They also enable the collective subject to emerge via a multitude in solidarity and cultivate responsibility and response-ability. Medusa becomes a plural body, limitless and moving away from centralized patriarchal narratives.”  Śliwińska goes on to quote Haraway and the ways in which “tentacular arachnid create interlaced trails,” Medusa is physically and conceptually connected to all living things, the embodied concept of Haraway’s ‘Chthulucene: ‘becoming with’, evidenced in Markiewicz’s accompanying film where she walks through the grass and forest, her body constructed from natural fibers: wool, hemp, and  linen. Śliwińska (2021); Haraway (2016).

Markiewicz’s most recent work, Pimoa, is the collaborative knitting and  crocheting of a web-like form, being created remotely with Polish weavers who were solicited through a Facebook page called ‘The Visible Hand,’ established  during the pandemic to provide work for stay-at-home mothers and elderly  women, or Pajeczyc Grandmothers, an endearing term related to the kinds of crafts they produce. There are several different types of webs and nets at play  here, through the structure of the artwork, the internet, and the connectedness of  communal making.  

Pimoa, like much of Markiewicz’s work, is inspired by two historically  important Polish textile artists, Eleonora Plutyńska, and her internationally renowned student, Magdalena Abakanowicz. Plutyńska is highly regarded for bringing the ancient Polish double-warp technique into the vernacular and onto  artist’s looms, with a contemporary element added, using embedded cultural meaning and knowledge in unparalleled and revolutionary ways. “Plutyńska  searched for and found peasant weavers who were familiar with the ancient  weaving technique, and employed them to teach young generations, also at the  Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw.” 

Małgorzata Markiewicz, Pimoa, 2021. Collaborative crocheted and knitted wool 

Plutyńska bridged the gap between folk artists and young artists studying at the  academy (Kowalewska 2018). “She cherished a strong belief that folk culture is truly fundamental, infused with genuine values, and consequently enduring  enough to withstand turbulences both in arts and even on the political and social scene” (Frackiewicz 1998). “She did not limit herself to the expertise and experience she gained at the school; she went much further, looking for non academic sources of knowledge, seeking beauty in nature and in ever-green folk culture” (Frackiewicz 1998). Much of Plutyńska’s work brought her to remote villages in North-Eastern  Poland, one being the region of Podlasie, to study woolen Janów rugs (Kowalewska 2018).

This rich cultural region borders current day Russia, Lithuania, and Belarus, strongly influenced by the presence of Jews, Russians,  Ukrainians, and Tatars. The tight-knit communities of folk weavers in the  Podlasie region embed their well preserved, multicultural folklore into the patterns of Janów rugs, often referencing the last remaining parts of the primeval Białowieża Forest, sharing stories that illuminate the forests as autonomous,  living, breathing beings. 

Important multicultural legacies and values are made visible through Eleonora Plutyńska’s research, textiles, and teachings, Małgorzata Markiewicz’s  processes and artworks as well as, Marta Kowalewska and Basia Śliwińska’s curation and writing. Through their works we see a beautiful cultural lineage at work, highlighting inherently Polish cultural values found in beauty, nature, connection, and acts of reciprocity, legacies that have helped shape the  trajectories of textiles and fiber art within global, contemporary, and post modern art worlds and beyond. 

Works Cited

Frackiewicz, A.(ed), ‘Spółdzielnia Artvstów” ŁAD 1926-1996, Warsaw 1998  p 2018, pp. 396-411.  

Haraway, D. Staying with The Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene.  Durham: Duke University Press 2016  Kowalewska, Marta. “The Makers of Success.” TEXTILE, Volume 16, Issue 4:  Magdalena Abakanowicz: Recollections, Informa UK Limited, trading as Taylor  & Francis GrouKowalewska (2018).

Śliwińska, Basia. “Medusa: Sensing-With and Thinking-With The World.”  Triangle, Riverside, IL, July 15- Oct.31, 2021.