Visual Arts & Architecture

Dr Marta de Zuniga in Conversation with Iwona Blazwick OBE

Article by:

MdZ: Iwona, the Whitechapel Gallery is renowned for its groundbreaking exhibitions of modern and contemporary art. It was founded in 1901 with the mission to celebrate and unite communities who spoke different languages, held different religious beliefs and hailed from different backgrounds.  For over 120 years,  the Gallery’s pioneering exhibitions and public programmes have offered the opportunity to engage with international creative practitioners, often debiting the work of world-class artists from modern masters such as Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, Frida Kahlo and Hannah Höch. Also, the Whitechapel Gallery was one of the first to show contemporary art from China, Japan, India, as well as Islamic and African countries.  How does the Whitechapel Gallery continue its original mission today, and what are the ethos and the ideas of this beloved London gallery?

IB: Through my two decades at the Whitechapel Gallery we worked from the principle that there have been multiple modernisms and that contemporary art is a global phenomenon – something the West has been slow to acknowledge. But we are facing huge economic, logistical and environmental challenges in maintaining a truly international perspective. These led to the founding of Artists’ Film International (AFI). It’s a consortium of public spaces around the world that can present artists’ films.  Each institution nominates an outstanding moving image artist from their region – and everyone in the consortium screens that work. With 22 partners in locations ranging from Mumbai to Los Angeles, Warsaw to Hong Kong, we can offer world as well as local audiences a truly global view of artists’ film. In February 2023 I open my final exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery; Action, Gesture, Paint: Women and Global Abstraction 1940-70 shows how the story of Abstract Expressionism has been entirely dominated by white American males. Yet it was a global phenomenon with women playing an equal role. We will show how women around the world contributed to making painting modern. In my role as curatorial lead for land art commissions and a new museum of 21st-century art in AlUla in northwest Saudi Arabia, I am continuing that dual mission – of celebrating women artists and asserting the global nature of art – particularly those artists under the radar of the western art market.

MdZ: The first Whitechapel exhibition of art from Poland called The Polish Art took place in 1921. In 1970s artists such as  Magdalena Abakanowicz, Franciszka Themerson and Tadeusz Kantor had their UK debuts. Since you became the director a huge body of Polish contemporary art has been showcased at the Gallery. There’s probably no one to whom the Polish art world is more indebted to in the UK. Art shows  from Wilhelm Sasnal, Alicja Kwade to Paulina Ołowska, not to mention the inclusion of Katarzyna Kobro and Władysław Strzemiński in the critically acclaimed exhibition Adventures of the Black Square: Abstract Art and Society 1915–2015 (2015). Could you tell us a little about those shows and Polish artists whose works most inspire you?

IB: For some reason Poland has produced a disproportionate number of great modern and contemporary artists – someone needs to do a PhD on how, despite the economic and political constraints of the last 50 years, that came to be! In 2022 we invited the painter and performer Paulina Ołowska to curate a collection of paintings from Norway; and in our historic survey A Century of the Artist’s Studio: 1920-2020 (2022) we were thrilled to include installations by conceptual pioneer Edward Krasiński, pop artist Alina Szapocznikow and contemporary sculptor Mirosław Bałka. Action, Gesture, Paint will include the work of the great Polish abstract painter Franciszka Themerson. In AlUla we have just acquired a remarkable outdoor sculpture by Monika Sosnowska. I was also blown away by the Polish Pavilion this year at the Venice Biennale and will be following the work of Małgorzata Mirga-Taś . I must say that there is no special pleading involved here – I was born in London and regard myself as a European so I haven’t set out to champion Polish art. Its significance just seems incontrovertible.

MdZ: Magdalena Abakanowicz’s long-awaited and exciting exhibition, including some of her iconic woven sculptures Abakans, opened on 17 November. As a former curator and head of exhibitions at Tate Modern what impact do you think this exhibition may have both for Abakanowicz’s recognition and Polish contemporary art in the UK and globally? And also, what other female Polish artists would you like to see showcased on such a scale?
IB: The Abakanowicz show has been a revelation. She is an extraordinary sculptor, and her pioneering use of textiles feels very relevant at a moment when young artists are revelling in its artisanal, tactile and symbolic qualities. I think this exhibition positions her alongside other figures such as Robert Morris or Jannis Kounellis as pivotal in the story of post-war sculpture. Regarding other such figures, although Szapocznikow was featured in the Tate’s The World Goes Pop (2015-2016) show, it would be great to see a retrospective in the UK. I have also recently discovered the work of Barbara Levittoux- Świderska. Younger artists like Joanna Piotrowska or indeed Paulina Ołowska alongside male practitioners such as Mirosław Bałka or Paweł Althamer could also benefit from a major survey.

MdZ: Shortly after lockdown the Whitechapel Gallery commissioned a work of art and a small workshop by Yoko Ono, MEND PIECE for London (2021-2022). It consisted of mending pieces of broken fragments of ceramic cups and saucers by using repair materials like rope or tape. The message it conveyed was brilliant –it’s time to mend – ourselves, our relationships, environment and communities by using the simplest means. How would you define the meaning of contemporary art in today’s global and yet profoundly polarized world?

IB: Now I am working in the Middle East I am learning not only about the art but also the lives of 20th and 21st-century artists across the region and beyond. The odds they have faced are extraordinary – colonialism, civil war, displacement, censorship and the environmental fallout from climate change. And yet for them, the making of art has not been a choice but an imperative. The courage required by any artist to establish and sustain a practice is awe-inspiring. And although all art emerges from, and in some ways is a symptom of specific cultural, social and political contexts – when it is great, and when it truly represents diverse voices, it transcends time and place, speaking to us all. Art is both an affirmation and a counterpoint to the zeitgeist. Some artists pioneer digital technologies while offering a complex critique of them; others have used the internet’s infinite archive of images to reinvigorate painting; some have counterpointed the digital by diving into the materiality of clay or fabric.  The politics of identity has driven a surge of new artistic strategies that not only heighten consciousness but also push aesthetic boundaries. The proliferation of biennales in non-western locations – such as Dhaka, Kochi, Gwangju, Istanbul, Riyadh, São Paolo – or regional cities such as Folkestone, Liverpool, Lyon, New Orleans, Montreal – assert both the global vitality of art and its local significance. We are living in a dark time. As well as the invasion of Ukraine, there is a general rise of populism, of suspicion of the democratic process, intolerance and environmental destruction. For me art is not an escape from this but rather a utopian assertion of what can be the best of being human.

MdZ: The pandemic highlighted the importance of art in our life and mental health but also the importance of art for communities in making their voice heard. The Granville-Skarbek Anglo-Polish Cultural Exchange is there to highlight and celebrate the various forms of Polish contributions to British culture. Is there anything in particular about Polish culture which you’d like to see better known and celebrated here in the UK? 

IB: I’m a huge fan of film makers like Paweł Pawlikowski and mini-series like The Queen – also of avant-garde Polish animation – maybe a Polish film festival is in order?

MdZ: Thank you very much.

Iwona Blazwick OBE is currently the Chair of the Royal Commission for AIUIa’s Public Art Expert Panel. She was Director of the Whitechapel Gallery, London (2001-2022). Previously Head of Exhibitions and Displays at Tate Modern, she has also worked as an independent curator in Europe and Japan. She has curated several major surveys of contemporary art, including performance art. A critic, art historian, lecturer and broadcaster, she is a regular contributor to art journals and magazines. Publications include: Century City: Arts and Culture in the Modern Metropolis, published to accompany an exhibition which took place in London’s Tate Modern in early 2001.

Dr Marta de Zuniga is Director of the Polish Cultural Institute in London. She studied in Warsaw, Munich, Moscow and London and lectured at the Department of Journalism and Political Science at University of Warsaw. During her five years as Director of the PCI, Marta’s work has focussed on developing partnerships and projects that highlight close cultural links between Poland and the UK.