Although the direct focus of American photographer Allan Sekula’s latest series is the life of the Polish community in America, the radical insights he brings are also relevant to immigrant communities and their host society everywhere, including Hungary. For ‘Polonia and its Fables’, the artist spent three years in Chicago photographing the largest community of Poles outside of Warsaw and placed them next to images of the lost motherland, in an effort to locate an imaginary Poland that he cryptically states ‘is everywhere and nowhere at the same time.’
Alongside pictures of everything from cultural festivals and May Day parades in Chicago, to rural scenes of Polish village life, Sekula places quotes from politicians, historians and writers that probe the complex themes of immigration, nationalism and the experience of working life. The dark side of Poland’s close relationship with the United States is also explored in a series of images that document the peripheries of the notorious CIA black sites in the Polish countryside, the clandestine camps used to torture and interrogate prisoners of war from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Sekula has a special interest in labour radicalism, so it’s no surprise to see images of workers occupying a hardware factory in Chicago, or a portrait of a young Polish woman who is both an art student and trader on the Chicago commodities market. Crossing back to Poland and the theme of globalisation, a former collective pig farm turns out to be owned by an American food corporation. Just as in his highly-regarded project Fish Story (1989-95), which looked at the effect of globalisation on people in the fishing and maritime industries, with Sekula there’s always an underlying concern to plot what he calls ‘the imaginary and material geographies of the advanced capitalist world.’
There’s a lighter touch too in the artist’s examination of the iconography of Polonia through shots of everyday life in Chicago’s Polish neighbourhoods, from a kiosk selling T-shirts in Polish national colours that reads ‘Kiss me, I’m Polish’ to the stark symbolism of fused identities in an image of a child holding a Polish flag in one hand, and an American flag in the other. There’s also an autobiographical twist in the artist’s decision to interweave photos of his own family, who are also of Polish origin but live in California, a move which through its overt subjectivity stretches the boundaries of the documentary form.
Seeing a show about Polish immigrants and their relation to their home country in Budapest may open up a number of interesting parallels and questions. If the same approach were taken to the Hungarian minority abroad, what would it look like? Or what about the new immigrant communities in Eastern Europe, do they have the same passionate relationship to the Motherland as the Chicago Poles? More widely, changes in communication and increased possibilities for travel have reduced the distance between immigrant communities and their home country, closing the gap between the myth and reality of national identities. Wandering around this open-ended photo documentary show in the LUMU is an ideal place to ponder the mysterious depths of national feeling in today’s global village.
(Maja and Reuben Fowkes)