Portraits of Polonia: Allan Sekula explores Polish identity at the Renaissance Society

Juxtaposing images of fighter jets, CIA black sites, and industrial factory farms with family portraits and shots of Polish-Americans at ethnic festivals, the forty photographs and wall-mount quotations that comprise “Polonia and Other Tales,” Allan Sekula’s current exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society, vacillate between depicting “a romantic role of Poland and Poland’s actual geo-politics,” according to curator Hamza Walker. Taken as a whole, the show works to tell not only the story of Poland and Polonia, a term for the Polish expatriate community, but also the way that each narrative is embedded in geo-political issues.

The first image one sees on entering the exhibition is a life-sized photograph of a young woman in a blue suit jacket, standing in a paper-tape-littered room of a stock exchange. “Art student working on commodity futures exchange” is flanked by photographs of F-16s and no-entry signs outside of Poland-based “black sites,” secret CIA-run prisons where the U.S. government has held suspected terrorists. Ripped from the headlines, the photos force the viewer to question their context: what is the woman doing there, what is she looking at, and why does she seem lost? What’s the relation between the barbed wire, Poland, Polonia, globalization, poverty, and immigration?

This initial encounter prepares the viewer for the rest of the exhibition, which tells the story of Polish identity less than it questions its existence. In a way, Sekula’s work explores the possibility of telling such a story objectively and in isolation, and questions the ability of documentary photography to witness a complete narrative without context or elaboration.
Sekula, whose family emigrated from Poland at the turn of the twentieth century, uses photography and textual quotes to form complex narratives that raise questions regarding the social, cultural, and political impact of globalization as well as about the practice of photography itself. The impossibility of telling one story without examining a vast number of others is a theme throughout the exhibit. For instance, a distorted photograph of a painting of Polish immigrant and Revolutionary War hero Casimir Pulaski’s battlefield injury is placed beside an image of “I heart Kielbasa” T-shirts being sold at a Chicago street festival, comparing the commercialization of modern national identity with historical myth. Quotes on Keynesian economics, the Versailles treaty, and mid-twentieth-century European political maneuvering stand opposite a blown-up filmstrip of University of Chicago students waiting for the hammer and sickle-shaped shadow cast by the campus Virginio Ferrari sculpture on May Day. The juxtaposition connects Poland’s national identity to its occupation by European powers, and global politics to the Chicago School of Economics.

Sekula universalizes the story of Polish immigrants by including photographs of other ethnic minorities; he implicates the global in the personal by placing military images near sentimental family portraits. Just as individual photographs are enriched through their interaction with other photographs in the exhibition, they also interact with supplementary texts. These range from Polish jokes to quotes by Rousseau and de Beauvoir, as well as Polish and American politicians. Not only do the texts and titles provide useful explanations, but they also provide an emotive and theoretical context for viewing the artwork.
Walker explains that though Sekula’s works are political, they are “different from blatantly political works of traditional documentary photographers, where photographs give a complete, direct narrative of the case at hand.” Rather, he suggests, “you can think of [the pieces] as cinema, as the story board of a film….[Sekula] talked about it in terms of montage…a train of thoughts that would connect these points.”
Renaissance Society, room 418, Cobb Hall, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Through December 13. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm. renaissancesociety.org