Poland Week: Anita Andrzejewska: Outside In
Stepping inside the imagery of Polish artist, Anita Andrzejewska, is a visual roller coaster ride through time, space and the imagination. Each of the images in her project, “Outside In” is an immediate jolt to the eye prompting the viewer to pause, reflect and question what one sees. Ghostly images in dark hues, animal skeletons in strange configurations and human figures with mysterious gazes pervade the work and pique one’s curiosity. Just when one finds a possible answer to a question provoked by her images, Andrzejewska presents another scenario that forces one to repeat the process of interpretation and understanding, if at all. Her work is a visual buffet that leaves one hungry for more.
According to Andrzejewska, “Outside In” is a project consisting of a series of photographs taken at a distance from each other in time and space. It was created over the course of several years and on four continents: Europe, Asia, South America and Africa. The images form a nonlinear sequence of events, removed from their original contexts and placed in a personal, internal narrative, woven from transposed motifs of the external world.
The series begins with a view from a window that symbolically connects the outside and the inside and then proceeds to wander through open spaces, encountering along the way motifs of disappearance, death, presence and absence, freedom and mystery. A detail or a motif leads us from one photo to the next in a way reminiscent of memory or dreams: one leads to another though a detail or a mood though these connections are not often obvious.
“Outside In” is an exploration of the Self, which, according to Jung, consists of the conscious personality, the Shadow and the collective unconscious. Inner thoughts, experiences, dreams and daydreams contain elements of both old and recent memories. The series, however, is more than a simple patchwork of memories: through the interweaving of memory elements of similar themes, emotions and images, new content is synthesized, which results in experiences, replete with objects, events and narrative structures, never actually encountered in the real world. It is these that create the inner landscape of the individual.
Anita Andrzejewska is a Polish photographer, children’s book illustrator, traveler and graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, Poland. For many years she has been involved in art and social projects connecting Europe and Asia. Among other things, she has led art workshops for children in Ahmedabad, India and has collaborated in various photographic-literary projects in Iran, Turkey and Italy. She won a Polish Ministry of Culture scholarship as well as many other national and international prizes, among them: the Project Competition at the Santa Fe Center for Visual Arts in the USA and the children’s illustration competition “Figures Futur “in France. Her work has been exhibited in Japan, the USA, Iran, Turkey, Canada, Germany, Czech Republic, France, Greece, Spain, Iceland, Hungary and Slovakia. She specializes in analog photography and silver printing. She also runs photography workshops for children and adults.
It is difficult to distinguish the four continents in which your project was shot, with a few exceptions. Is your intention to focus on the universality of the human experience by so doing?
Yes, I guess you could say so. There is a nomad part of me which loves moving from place to place, questioning my own identity, looking for alternative ways of living and thinking, longing to get out of the small box of my own conditioning and to strive for a connection with others despite physical and mental boundaries. I see my photographic work as an ongoing life experience. It’s like wandering with a good tool with which you can explore and contemplate the world, drawing closer to places, objects and people. To contemplate means to forget concepts or opinions and to open up to direct experience, which leads to a crossing over of the opposition between “me” and “everything else”. I believe that the deeper you reveal the truth of your own personal experience, the more universal your message becomes.
Your use of animals as symbols is apparent throughout your photographic work. How did this theme evolve and what are its origins?
I’m glad you picked up on this motif. I never focused on it intentionally although for some time I’ve been thinking about developing the subject more consciously.
This is a theme that came to me of its own accord. It could have its origins in the fact that my father was a biologist who specialised in reptiles. I grew up surrounded by exotic animals, both dead and alive: bucketfuls of lizards collected during my dad’s weekend field trips, a wounded owl brought home for treatment, a lesser jerboa (small African rodent) borrowed as a pet from his university or stuffed mice and formalin-fixed snakes which I used to play with in his office. In my photographic work animals inhabit the landscape on the same terms as humans do. Their very presence and the fact that they spot me long before I notice them often astonishes me. I catch their vigilant gaze in a Burmese slaughterhouse, where they hunt for leftovers. They accompany from afar my wanderings through the Rajasthan desert, emerge suddenly from behind Patagonian hills, hide in the dark labyrinth of the streets of Varanasi and on the stone reliefs of Thai temples. They observe intently, their body ready to escape, attack or establish contact. They sneak out, turn their heads away or gaze calmly into space. They communicate directly using body language, on a level that is instinctive and unconscious. This is the key aspect of photographing all motifs. The relationship between the photographer and the subject starts from presence, body language, gesture, gaze and even from the exchange of energy which both sides emanate. Words, thinking, acting, everything else comes later. Through observing animals I’m reminded of the human primal reptilian brain which controls our automatic survival behavioral patterns.
There is a dark cast and an extensive use of negative space in your photographic work that creates a definite sombre and contemplative mood. Could you comment on your rationale for this mode of expression?
Certain means of expression I derive from etching as graphics was my first medium. In my photographic images light often etches out individual elements from the darkness. The light reveals the motif, while the shadow area is the domain of a mystery in which so much is hidden: it can be metaphysical or mysterious, a temptation we desire to discover, but it can also be everything that is unwanted, rejected and suppressed. By observing the constant, fascinating dance of light and shadow, photography can remind us of the shadow part of ourselves that we shun, dispel the illusion that we know everything and can control everything. The negative space is akin to a stage for the motif to perform on, letting it breathe and reveal its potential.
Your project statement states that many of the objects, events and narrative structures are synthesized into new contexts. That may be true but, nonetheless, they are realistic images of scenes that you observed and recorded. What new contexts do you anticipate from the viewer?
When I go with the flow, one place leads to the other, the closing of one chapter is the introduction to the next. Sometimes I do stop and focus on specific topics in a kind of documentary manner as in my “Butterfly Soul” project, but I also find it very interesting to allow my intuition and images to lead me to the story they want to tell. In that way, images conceived at a distance from each other in time and space start speaking to each other and they form a new body of work, independent of their original context. When I was working on the selection and sequence of “Outside In” I came across many images associated with the notions of death, absence, mystery, nostalgia, freedom and loneliness so I built the narrative around those. I consider the last image a kind of a “happy ending” to the story I would like viewers to let the images touch them and make up their own story. But the rest is not up to me.
I noticed that you conduct art workshops for children internationally. Could you describe how you started this effort and what you have discovered in the process?
These were followed by my long-term volunteering for the Viennese based NGO, XChange Culture and Science, which used to organize cultural events connecting the West with the East. My first great and life-changing event with them was The European Literature Children’s Literary Festival in Iran in 2004 where I conducted workshops for hundreds of children in a magnificent culture centre in Tehran in cooperation with European and Iranian writers and illustrators. After that, we cooperated on three more projects in Iran, one in Istanbul and one in Ahmedabad, India. Working with local children from a whole range of social backgrounds: public and private schools, charity organizations for disabled kids from poor families and slums, was a tremendously insightful experience. I remember a boarding school in India for children who had no arms or legs but who were so adapted to life with their limitations and so skillful that I felt awkwardly strange moving among them with all my four limbs intact. It turns out that art is a universal language that can communicate beyond age, culture and social boundaries. Add the element of play to the creative act, engagement, attention, childlike freshness and imagination, and we can free our spirit and find a deep connection with others.
How do you feel that your work demonstrates a Polish sensibility, if at all?
Not an easy question! I’m Polish so it’s hard to really see where my “Polishness” is. When my partner, who is English, sometimes points it out to me, the Polishness, I mean, I get mad because I like to think of myself as a person with a cosmopolitan mindset and there are so many things in the Polish mentality and current reality of life in Poland that I really dislike. Having said that, when I think of the roots of my way of expression and the tradition which has influenced my inner landscape, I feel a strong resonance with certain forms of Polish art: cinematography (especially the work of Jerzy Hass, early movies by Roman Polański, Andrzej Wajda, just to name some of the most famous ones), Polish experimental animation, literature (Bruno Shulz, the author of “The Street of Crocodiles), and theatre (Jerzy Szajna, Tadeusz Kantor, Krystian Lupa). I can see some similar qualities in my work: the mood and atmosphere, the preference for metaphor and open-ended symbols as opposed to literalness, the tendency to reduce and simplify the means of expression as well as relying on intuition and improvisation in the creative process.
What’s on the horizon for your work as an artist?
The pandemic has postponed the development of my long-term project “Butterfly Soul” about the Nat cult in Myanmar and disrupted my research into spiritual rituals in West Africa. These are the topics I want to come back to as soon as possible, hopefully with a fresh eye and a new approach. I’m researching them so that I can deepen my intellectual knowledge and understanding in order to build a base for a personal, direct experience. At the moment my priority is to focus on a personal photo book project. I also intent to complete a children’s book I’ve been working on about pre-Christian Slavic deities and spirits, which are intimately bound up with the forces of nature. The idea involves the combination of images of Polish landscapes within the cycle of seasons with photographs representing the deities in the form of mannequins made by children during art workshops. Shooting for this book and traveling through the country in a car stuffed with human sized figures of deities, werewolves and goblins has been a very invigorating and fairy-tale like experience.
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