2020 Splinter, Wizytujaca Gallery, Warsaw

Africa; on Dorota Podlaska’s ‘Splinter/Zadra’

In ‘Splinter’ Dorota Podlaska utilises painting as a travel vehicle. What is her destination? The artist travels to Africa of the nineteen eighties. It is also the phantasm and a memory, a territory in which the artist restages the episodes of her own biography, looking for both deeper understanding and universal sense in reliving the past.

The narrative and journeys, telling your own story, listening to other people’s voices, discovering different images, flavours and narratives – these are Dorota Podlaska’s two parallel passions and two intertwining leitmotifs of her works.

In ‘Splinter’ both discourses intertwine tighter than in any of the artist’s previous projects.

Is it possible to create art that does not have a personal touch to it? A rhetoric question, especially in the context of Podlaska’s practise which is a long history of playing with her own biography and image. Her painting cycles coming from the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty first century, e.g., ‘Requests and Complaints/Prośby i skargi’ (1998), ‘Pictures for the Good and the Naughty/Obrazki dla grzecznych i niegrzecznych’ (1998), ‘Love Stories/Historie miłosne’ (1998-2000), ‘I Cry in the Movies/Płaczę w kinie’ (2000), ‘All the Best, Dorotka/Wszystkiego najlepszego, Dorotko’ (2000) or ‘Dorotka’s Library/Biblioteka Dorotki" (2002) – are not really painting series but rather visual stories, with each work being yet another frame-sentence in the narrative. In all these stories we can see Dorotka, a red-haired woman, a porte-parole of the author. To what extent should we identify Dorotka with Dorota? The game with the autobiography is based on facts, but we can by no means forget that it is still a game. The artist played with the language, with diminutives (not only of her name; perversely calling her works in small formats ‘obrazki’ which is a Polish diminutive of paintings). And, of course, she played with conventions: comic strips, posters, grotesque, magic realism, allegory – Podlaska incorporated phrases from these discourses into her own pictorial one, deliberately choosing a light, nearly illustrative tone of imaging. At the same time, she played a different game with narrative conventions, especially melodrama, soap opera, love story or tragedy. The transformation of her own life into a plot, and herself into a fictional character, an avatar, a figure depicted in paintings, into ‘Dorotka’ allows the author to get access to her own experience on the level which is unattainable ‘live’. Isn’t this access the reason why people create art, paint pictures or make movies? The latter have always been very close to Podlaska’s heart; many of her endeavours, e.g., ‘Pictorial Movies/Kino obrazkowe’ (2012), ‘A Hundred Views into the Market/Sto widoków w głąb targu" (2013), ‘I Steal from Every Movie Ever Made/Kradnę z każdego filmu, jaki powstał" (2014), are painterly dialogues with the cinematographic imaging and narratives, retelling films she has seen, creating alternative versions of existing movies, but also stills from films that have never been made.

In ‘Splinter’ films are replaced with memories. This story also features a red-haired girl who we have got used to identifying with Dorota Podlaska. But in the foreground, we can see a different character taken from real life – a man who is modelled on the artist’s father.

Following his steps, we find our way to Africa – just like Dorota Podlaska who in the nineteen eighties together with her mother visited her father who was on a long-term contract in Nigeria. And here we have the dramatis personae of the story: the Father, the Mother, and the Daughter. What play do they star in? Yet another melodrama? A family movie? A psychoanalytic séance? A horror film? Before coming closer to answering the question, we are absorbed by the scenery. A tropical storm over a flatland filled with people. Tropical plants. Blood and corpses, observed from the window of a car, somewhere on a road on which an accident has just taken place. The night, and people dancing in the dark or maybe taking part in a riot? Faces of Africans in Podlaska’s paintings are strange in the deepest meaning of the word: they belong to strange representatives of a strange culture; these faces are not understandable but how could they be understood several decades ago by a young girl from Poland? Culture shock? But what does it mean in the Polish context, given such an ambiguous attitude to postcolonial discourse in our country? We are the participants of the discourse, but do we actually listen? And what does the culture shock mean to Dorota Podlaska – an artist who executed so many of her projects – performative, participative, conceptually-culinary – on the verge of different cultures, both in the dialogue with minorities in Poland, and during her trips when she was a one-person minority in far countries?

Some ‘Splinter’ paintings could be taken for children of souvenir photos commemorating the Nigerian episode in the artist’s life: her father with his Nigerian associates, her father against the trees or against a smoking factory chimney; after all he is the agent of modernisation, the engineer of changes.
But other paintings are definitely not inspired by any photos. A cut plait? Cut heads? Heads lying by tree roots, palms growing over volcanos covered with lava? A soup plate filled with pure blood – and a naked scull of a person sitting at a table who that bloody soup is poured for? What is happening here? In this story that seems to be devoted to the Father it is the Mother that plays the key role, and it all does not necessarily have to be taking place in Africa.

Landscapes, flora, the sky – just like in old paintings – all have their allegorical potential in ‘Splinter’, and there are certain levels of these allegories that we who are not the dramatis personae, will never reach. If we see cut heads, none of them has been cut by Judith, Salome, or another mythological persona that would give us the key opening the doors to events echoing in these paintings. This mythology is private. But does that mean that we are excluded from ‘Splinter’ in which the artist critically revises her own biography, her family relations, experience of a girl who is represented in paintings by the red-haired character? Well, just like any mythology, also the private one has its universal dimension which we all participate in. Who has not played the leading role in a horror of interpersonal relations? Who has not drunk their loved ones’ blood at a table, in the kitchen, at home? Who has never decapitated anyone and who has never been decapitated themselves? Who is totally free from post-colonial fantasies, fears, prejudices and inhibitions? Who has never been to a foreign land – and who did not have the strongest need for self-discovery then?

Stach Szabłowski, 2020