“Post-German/Recovered” Photographic Exhibition
Landscapes, similarly to architecture and the urban layout are subject to cultural influences. The way in which the fields and meadows are separated, the choice of trees growing around fields and lining the roads and avenues, the paths meandering around the meadows and forests, the fencing around the land plots and homes—these are the points of contact between nature and human action.
Nature is lasting, regardless of the state borders it formally finds itself in.
Nationalism, as a concept, is a very young phenomenon in the history of humankind and nationhood. It emerged during the process of industrialisation and was driven by the resulting greater mobility of people. With the popularisation of the steam engine and the expansion of the rail network, people started to cover greater distances in a shorter time scale. This influenced a person’s sense of belonging. Those travelling in modes different to walking or horse-drawn carts started to identify themselves with a greater geographical area, not just with their small homeland (Heimat in the German language).
Today, in the age of globalisation, opposite directions come to the fore of a reviving nationalism, globetrotting as a way of self-cognizance or self-promotion in social media, slow living and flight shaming, right up to the Europe of Regions and fostering local, subsidiary and transboundary actions.
The policy and concept of the European Union allow one to identify with a region that goes beyond the divides into state borders which, in a certain sense, takes us back to the past—to the times before the emergence of the concept of a nation and its allocation to a specific country. Today, the Heimat can, once again, become the sanctuary of a sense of identity in terms of belongingness.
The artist about the exhibition:
Through my Masurian landscapes I want to bring everything that lies beneath the first cognitive surface to the viewer’s attention. I am also reaching back to the past, revealing the regions where my family came from, only seemingly remaining outside the human context as the photographs do not depict people but landscapes and architectural motives. Leaving the human aspect out is, however, misleading because both architecture and the topography of the landscapes are works of art and, as such, have been formed by a human person. The rural areas of Warmia and Masuria largely refer to the Prussian past or are even to its image. This approach to photographing Masuria allows me to emphasise the timeless nature of the region. It is as though the motives on the photographs have been taken out of their geopolitical context and are difficult to attribute to a specific period in history because the pastures, forests, lakes, and even buildings presented by me could have also existed in the same shape and form a century ago.
This is our common cultural platform. Today, these regions are inhabited by the citizens of the Republic of Poland—but it was the Prussians who lived here 100 years ago. What a peculiar situation where the scenery and backdrop have remained the same but the actresses and actors have changed.
Poland’s membership in the European Union allows those who were born in these areas to not only freely move around the places of their childhood but also to return and settle there. Indeed, the concept of the Europe of Regions gains a whole new dimension in Warmia and Masuria as this is a region, albeit Polish-German, that territorially does not border with the Federal Republic of Germany.
The national minority still inhabiting the lands of Warmia and Masuria has become assimilated and… invisible. In Germany likewise but in a converse configuration. The book of Emilia Smechowski has sparked a conversation on successful but invisible migrants—Polish women and men who have assimilated so well and seamlessly with the German culture that they are no longer perceived as foreigners.
I too was such a successful but invisible migrant. In 1990, I emigrated with my parents to the Federal Republic of Germany where I completed school and got a degree. The term post-German in the context of the nature present in my home region also has a very personal dimension for me. My life in my home town of Idzbark after my return from emigration is precisely post-German and, sure enough, I no longer have access to pure Polishness (whatever it would be). My personality, my way of looking at the world, the nature present in my home region, my views, my knowledge of two languages on a mother tongue level are indeed an amalgam of Polish-German experiences.
Wandering around with a camera and exploring the lakes and forests of Warmia and Masuria one cannot but allow the mind to be imbued with the cultural influences of the earlier inhabitants of the region. Oblivious of this, those who were brought up in the area after the War concurrently absorb the culture of their families as well as of the people who established these very towns, villages, and settlements hundreds of years ago, yet who formally represent a different cultural region. These influences constantly intertwine and permeate each other, creating a new quality that is closely linked to the region but not to nationality or nationhood.
Through these works of mine I endeavour to bring to the surface everything that seems so very ordinary and natural to us, almost to the point of being unworthy of our attention, but which nevertheless affects our sense of home/heimat and what the persons driven out of the areas of the former East Prussia often refer to as an element of their nostalgia and longing for the past. This is our common ground—it is amidst these landscapes that German children were brought up 100 years ago and where Polish children play and are growing up today. Their senses are partaking in and sharing these experiences.
Up to 1990, thus, up to the age of 8, I was growing up in the village of Idzbark in western Masuria. This former East Prussian territory became known as the Recovered Lands after the Second World War. For a small girl living in Masuria, this enigmatic term was simply a part of everyday life. The houses – and the furniture and equipment that they contained – were referred to as post-German. The urban layout in Masurian villages and towns was and still is post-German, and the cultural landscape of this region remains just this. The manner in which fields are separated from each other, the maple and linden avenues, and even the old fruit bearing apple trees amidst spruce monocultures bear witness to the existence of settlements here… these are the relicts of the inhabitants of Masuria who came before me and shaped these places.
In my photographs, I want to draw attention to the fact that nature lives its own life regardless of the many twists and turns of human history. Yes, it is subject to the influence of culture, and the way in which nature is perceived and approached do result from the distinct characteristics of socialisation in a given culture. Even so, camomile and yarrow will continue to grow on the wastelands here, regardless of the names we give them, the language the persons around them, and the boundaries of the countries where they grow in.
For me, however, the post-German adjective and neologism has a much deeper meaning. When in 1990 my parents and I emigrated to Meerbusch-Büderich in the FRG, I was overwhelmed by the sadness of having lost my Masurian home. I was accompanied by a strong resolution to return to this region and make it my home as an adult. Thus, I was anticipating my personal post-German period, when I would return from Germany to Poland.
The photographs making up the exhibition are witnesses of the period of personal transformation lasting several years that in the years 2015-2019 accompanied my return to Idzbark after 23 years in emigration. Having settled down in Idzbark, thus, successfully fulfilling perhaps my greatest goal so far, I came face to face with the emerging emptiness of my unplanned future. An emptiness that meant freedom of choice and a new beginning. During this time, photography turned out to be an invaluable remedy to the disquieting feeling of being suspended in spacetime.
The term recovered concerns not only my family village as a new/old place of residence. Upon my settling there, I also recovered the Polish language as my mother tongue, in which I had not previously created or published anything on my own, since I acquired almost all of my education in Germany. Once I made Idzbark my home for good, in 2015, I started writing a personal blog called Zdrowy Wieśniak [Healthy Villager], where I wrote about my rural day-to-day living, illustrating it with photographs from my lengthy, solitary walks through Idzbark and the surrounding villages.
However, as is usually the case, the adjective recovered also concerns me, this post-German woman, who has to create herself anew in Poland, drawing from the experience of life and socialisation in Germany. After years of being ‘split’ between socialisation in communism and socialisation in capitalism, between village and city life, between Poland and Germany, the circle was closed. As a result, I found myself in a new place where I had (re)gained my freedom of choice of the features, interests, skills and abilities from which I will draw, harnessing them in the future to become myself.
What is post-German here and what is recovered?
I am searching for the answer to this question through my camera lens.