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The art of fighting

"The Pole Daniel Rycharski protests with the means of art, without ever losing the ability for dialogue."

29. December 2020
Magazine > Interview > The art of fighting

Daniel Rycharski’s work takes a stand against the homophobia and the power of the Catholic Church in Poland.

Daniel Rycharski is not taking it easy. Neither he nor his work is accommodating, and he is definitely not out to please. The Pole, 34 years old, tense and intense, is channeling all his energy into his fight against the homophobia, the Catholic Church und the eroding democracy in his country. Consequently, his art is not destined to decorate the walls of a home. His art is – true to Picasso’s dictum – fight, a tool to attack and to defend. Rycharski is determined: “Poland is right in the middle of a deep crisis. We need to spur on change.”

His work reveals a political standpoint and an urgency that is not to be found in Austrian art right now. The curator Katarzyna Uszynska-Matt, artistic director of the Kahan Art Space Vienna enthuses: “In our space, we want to show meaningful political art, and therefore we had to look across the border.” She found what she was looking for in Poland, where a restrictive political situation leads to more activism and subsequently to more originality. “How Daniel Rycharski infuses his work with political and peaceful activism feels really special to me.”

Alas, everything he does is encumbered by adverse circumstances. Since the PiS – the party for Law and Justice – came into power, these same norms do not seem to apply to Rycharski anymore. He is the target of death threats and mobbing in the Social Media, planned exhibitions are being cancelled, and even his tenure at the College of Education at the University of Cracow is in jeopardy. “The way I create my art is along the intersections of my identity. These are the LGBT issues, my faith and my rural upbringing.” Which is how he rips right into the heart of his fellow Poles.

This controversy has made Rycharski quite famous in his homeland. “His exhibition last year at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw – the most important museum of Contemporary Art in Poland – was a huge success, notwithstanding the political hostilities”, explains Uszynska-Matt. The artist therefore perfectly embodies the ideological division in Poland; it is through people like him that the gradual political reorganization and erosion of democracy can be described best.

Daniel Rycharski grew up in the countryside, in Kurowko, a village in central Poland. He studied art in Cracow but returned to his community afterwards. “I had the feeling that if I stayed in the big town, it would be as if I went into the forest with a tree. There are so many artists there, and so much has been already said.” And something else bothered him: “Artistic institutions in Poland do not even consider the villages anymore. They are present only in the big towns, and they set up exhibitions for an elite.”

His concept was a more revolutionary one: to return to the countryside as a homosexual artist and be inspired by the “problems, fears and dreams” of its community. His open support of the LGBT culture is not only an artistic position in this environment, but also a stark political one.

Regarding the past presidential election in July 2020, Rycharski says: “Whoever is homophobic and against the rights of the LGBT voted for Duda. Whoever is liberal, voted for Trzaskowski.” The mayor of Warsaw and presidential challenger Rafal Trzaskowski signed the so-called “LGBT-Charta” in February 2019, in which he conceded more rights to the people concerned. At the other end of the spectrum, President Andrzej Duda drafted the “Family Charta”, which aims to impede the possibility of abortions, to dial down the sexual education of children and to cut the rights of LGBT people. This is what he says about them: “They want to convince you that they are humans. But this is an ideology.”

This is how one wins votes in Poland today. As a backlash to the “LGBT-Charta”, five of 16 voivodeships (government districts) voluntarily installed so called “LGBT-free zones”. Those may have no legal effect, but they are highly symbolic as they highlight the tear ripping through the country. The activist Jakub Gawron visually presented the split in his geographic “atlas of hate”. It is a blueprint for the results of the latest presidential election: in all these districts, Duda prevailed, with a win of 51,03 percent of the vote in total.

Rycharski cannot help wondering: “Even though the whole state apparatus, the public TV stations, the Polish Post Office and the government backed him, Duda’s lead was still minimal.” He himself supported Trzaskowski. The latter’s party did file a complaint at the Polish High Court against the voting results because of counting irregularities and biased media coverage. However, the Court confirmed the validity of the presidential election back in August 2020.

Since the PiS took power in Poland, the country is frequently at the receiving end of warnings from the European Commission. At the end of July this year, the Commission removed six Polish towns, which had identified themselves as “LGBT-free zones”, from its EU-wide twinning program. Coupled with financial relief, its aim is it to reinforce institutions and administrations. The European Council on the other hand criticized Poland’s planned withdrawal from the Istanbul treaty, which criminalizes any violence against women. However, the Polish foreign minister has already characterized the pact as a “feminist creation to justify the homosexual ideology”. And lately, the European Commission started its fourth treaty violation proceedings against Poland, because a new law there is jeopardizing the independence of the Polish judges.

For all their legal reforms, the PiS party can count on President Duda’s support. The new, old President goes by the nickname “dlugopis”, a word that is not only a play on the party’s name PiS but means “pen” in Polish. Duda’s reputation means he is reliably signing off everything that the PiS-controlled parliament is putting in front of him.

Rycharski is frequently reflecting on the divided Polish society: “Many people living in the cities and the elite are trying to cut themselves off from the provinces. After the recent political changes, the differences have become even more pronounced.” In his opinion, initiatives are needed to bring people together again. The artist leads by example by having founded a healing and helping project in which he pays farmers to take care of LGBT people. “It is a sort of social service. Working together and living together on the farm becomes a kind of therapy, through which the farmers heal our country from hate and homophobia.” It is in moments like these that one feels the deep love Rycharski has for the countryside and his profound belief that the rural community can and should play a crucial part in the cultural development of Poland.

This project is even more astonishing because most farmers are staunch PiS-voters. “But they are able to understand the whole scope of the situation. When I ask farmers if they are ready to help a LGBT person, their curiosity is much stronger than their fear or rejection.” The artist’s thinking is messianic: „I am searching for a way to make human beings accept one another. I am building a bridge between the LGBT people, the farmers, and the conservatives. This is my very personal answer to the President and his so-called LGBT ideology.” Rycharski’s eyes are flashing.

Religious zeal is of course in any Poles’ blood. The Church plays a crucial role in a country in which 86% of the population are baptized Roman Catholics (according to a 2019 survey from Eurobarometer). “Church is important. During Communism, they were the ‘good ones’, keeping persecuted people safe and defending democracy,” Rycharski explains.

How times have changed. The archbishop of Cracow, Marek Jedraszewski, spoke of the Church having fought the “red plague”, but went on to say: “This does not mean that there is not a new plague… not in Red this time, but in the colors of the Rainbow.” In a pastoral letter in 2019, he eventually identified the so-called “LGBT ideology” as a threat for the freedom of all Catholics. The reason, according to the archbishop, is the LGBT culture’s radical rejection of God.

It is against this background that Rycharski’s work becomes so relevant. Case in point: his sculpture “Crucifix”, representing two figures of Christ in an embrace. To an uninvolved observer, it might stand for affectionate closeness rather than criticism towards the Church. However, its subtitle “Homage to Dieter Bönhoffer” is referring to the philosophy of non-religious Christendom taught by the German pastor and WWII resistance fighter, a belief that Rycharski has adopted. Another affront to conservative Poles is the subtle intimation of this sculpture, namely placing Jesus close to same-gender love – because the Son of God is holy to the Poles. Accordingly, the highest statue of Jesus worldwide, measuring 36 meters, is located in the Polish town of Swiebodzin.

Rycharski is convinced: “The main problem is the Catholic Church – the conservative Catholic Church, to be exact”. The artist is fighting it also through another strong work showing a Ku Klux Klan hat floating on top of a liturgical habit instead of the traditional Mitra. “To me, the conservative Catholic Church is like the Ku Klux Klan in the USA.” The Church has supported Duda during his presidential campaign; in exchange there will be money donations and the advent of new laws pushing very conservative religious values. For instance, there is a law waiting to pass forbidding homosexual couples from adopting children at a constitutional level. Another example is the abortion law, which is expected to be tightened considerably, among much protest in the population.

About his work “Ku Klux Klan”, Rycharski says: “Religion is like a costume. Sometimes an incredibly beautiful costume, but only what lies beneath is truly important.” In this case, the cloak is veiling the hate of the Catholic Church against anybody not conforming to their values, shrouded in its traditional pomp. Another of Rycharski’s sculptures, titled “The drop digs the rock”, circles around the same issue. Curator Uszynska-Matt: „The Churches resting on debris… they are small and abandoned, they show us the emptiness of a Church that has forgotten about its content and has lost touch with its people. In short, a Church that has discriminated and excluded Daniel Rycharski and people like him. “

However: “I am a Pole, and I cannot repudiate the roots of the Catholic Church”, Rycharski emphasizes. So, he first tried to find answers within the Church, to initiate a shift from the inside. “I thought I could change the Catholic Church. For a long time, four or five years, I used to work with a Catholic group, we called ourselves the Rainbow Catholics.” But he found his efforts to be fruitless, and now does reject the traditional religious Christendom.

Another aspect of Rycharki’s critique of Church and society is their handling of WWII. PiS’ nationalistic rhetoric is barring any reevaluation of that time. To that goal, they put a special „censorship law“ into effect, which penalizes any insinuation that Poland might share some responsibility for the Crimes of the Third Reich. PiS justified the law by hinting at possible blackmailing to get reparation payments, part of an alleged international conspiracy against the country.

Rycharski’s reaction was his project “Island”. On a small island near his hometown, he installed Jewish tombstones, in this case requisites from the movie “Poklosie”, which is dealing with Polish guilt during WWII. In front of the stones, Rycharski planted flowers in all the colors of the rainbow, their number corresponding to the number of the Jewish inhabitants of the town in 1939. “Through this work, I compared antisemitism to homophobia”. These flowers stand for remembrance and against hate: “I believe in a gradualistic policy; in that we have to start a slow change. I do not want any violence.”

This attitude is distinguishing todays artists’ generation from the one of the 80ies and 90-ies, Uszynska-Matt points out. “The generation today is less political at first sight. There is a lot of irony and skepticism. Daniel Rycharski is trying to live a calm, long term kind of actionism. He protests with the means of art, without ever losing the ability for dialogue”.

The artist is asking relevant questions that reach far across Poland’s borders. He is speaking to any human being who has lost a spiritual home, cannot live free or is politically oppressed. Rycharski nods: “It might not be easy – but ultimately it is the job of the artist to look behind the curtain and to question what people are believing in.”

Original in German. First published in September 2020 in DATUM.
Translation into English by Alexandra Markl

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Cover picture: Daniel Rycharski during the interview in Vienna. Photo: © Markus Krottendorfer