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Waterfront Festival

Exhibition Review: Karol Radziszewski, QAI-GB-NGM at Bonington

4 March 22 words: Marta Tavares

Archives and Queer histories are reflected compassionately in Karol Radziszewski's latest incarnation of his Queer Archives Institute project, as the Polish-born artist brings together Queer stories from Eastern Europe and Nottingham...

QAI/GB-NGM, 2022. Installation view at Bonington Gallery. Photo: Jules Lister. Courtesy the artist.

Karol Radziszewski’s exhibition of queer history and culture, QAI/GB-NGM, brings an abundance of life to Bonington Gallery. Presenting archival materials from the Queer Archives Institute, an organisation founded Polish-born Radziszewski in 2015, Central and Eastern European queer lives are presented alongside Nottingham’s own queer history and culture.

QAI/GB-NGM is an exhibition that takes you on a roller-coaster ride into the past, filling you with emotions and knowledge through each station: from photography to film recordings, posters and intense visuals, and names and cities. In his research and archives, Radziszewski collaborates with different people, all from a variety of backgrounds, to obtain materials that provide him a deeper insight into the story and culture of queer community.

There is a strong influence of Communist Central and Eastern Europe’s queer history, uncovering how it was hidden by governments and society. Large red letters written in Polish are painted directly onto the wall. “In 2000 everyone will be homo… do you want to be the last one?” Taken from a page in the first Polish gay magazine, Filo, the quote reflects the changing times at the end of the 1980’s. It also seems to project the idea that in the 2000’s everyone will be free; a utopia in which everyone will openly embrace their sexuality.

QAI/GB-NGM, 2022. Installation view at Bonington Gallery. Photo: Jules Lister. Courtesy the artist.

Also included in the exhibition are fourteen photographs taken in Bucharest by Ryszard Kisiel, the founder of Filo magazine.They portray mainly homosexual men in public spaces, known as “cruising spots”, showing how discrete gay men had to be not only in Romania, but across the Eastern Bloc.

Spread around the space are televisions and headphones that allow people to engage with human stories, queer stories that have suffered, witnessed, grown and experienced love and hate all in one. One of the films shows an interview with Romana Bantic, a fashion designer, activist and founder of NGO TransAid. In the film she talks about her experience as a trans woman, saying: “they really condemned us then. I was really young at the time. It was a taboo, you weren’t allowed to talk about it. And I always talked about everything.” 

By taking us back in time to the 70s and 80s, Radziszewski reflects on a time where queer people were not made visible. Artist Szymon Adamczak found a direct connection between Warsaw and Nottingham through Bob Mellors, a gay rights activist who worked with the Gay Liberation Front and travelled from New York to the UK, and then to Warsaw, where he was murdered in his flat in 1996. 

...Radziszewski collaborates with different people, all from a variety of backgrounds, to obtain materials that provide him a deeper insight into the story and culture of queer community.

QAI/GB-NGM enables the viewer to connect with different places, to be involved in the lives of others and included through an educational experience about the past. Display tables located across the exhibition contain issues of queer magazines. On one side documents from Nottinghamshire and Britain are collected together; on the other side, Central and Eastern European magazines and photographs are displayed.

Comparing how queer life was experienced in the west and the east, bringing attention to the struggle between freedom and rights, and communism and fear. Was it a fight for all, or a one-sided fight?

QAI/GB-NGM, 2022. Installation view at Bonington Gallery. Photo: Jules Lister. Courtesy the artist.

Nudity. Controversy. Exposure. Crime. Freedom.

These words are visibly seen when looking at the pictures and magazine issues in the vitrines. One may feel surprised by how open and free people seemed to be, even despite all the hatred and homophobia there was during the 70s and 80s. It is truly beautiful how unique and authentic people were fighting to be themselves. 

Compared to the Central and Eastern European magazines, Nottingham’s own lesbian and gay magazines were ahead of them culturally. Yet, each magazine and publication presents the desire to seek happiness and society’s acceptance. 

It is almost as if Radziszewski is trying to reverse the narration, showing that queer people always existed in the East and not only in the West...

One of the big contrasts of the exhibition is the right wall of the gallery, where Radziszewski exhibits his ongoing work The Gallery of Portraits. An educational experience, Radziszewski connects old fashioned paintings to a form that can be printed and sent everywhere.

It is an education on queer history and culture, with the paintings representing twenty historically important figures. Marija Leiko, a Latvian stage and silent actress is displayed alongside Estonian poet Kristian Jaak Peterson and Polish revolutionary Kazimierz Pulaski.

All these figures are a way of showing how queer society has always been present in the world. Radziszewski’s installation here gives a voice to figures from the past, authenticating who they are and who they wanted to be among secret passions, lovers and desires. It is almost as if Radziszewski is trying to reverse the narration, showing that queer people always existed in the East and not only in the West, through an educational experience of learning about famous people who are studied and heard about but never completely known. 

QAI/GB-NGM, 2022. Installation view at Bonington Gallery. Photo: Jules Lister. Courtesy the artist.

There is also a wall dedicated to the AIDS crisis and how it was a massive part of queer history, especially in the 80s and 90s. On the wallpaper are adverts from local magazines, showing the services available to those affected and concerned about the disease. 

Ultimately this exhibition is a walk into the past that brings us to the present, a place where queer people are still fighting for their rights each day. Radziszewski portrays different lives and experiences, enabling the viewer to travel with them and to connect with others. It reminds people that there’s a home for everyone and that the right to simply be belongs to each, no matter where you were born or what you were taught.

Karol Radziszewski: QAI/GB-NGM is available to view until 12 March.

boningtongallery.co.uk

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