Nov 27-29, 2015, Conference “Visualizing the Nation: Post-Socialist ImagiNations,” Budapest

Paper delivered at the conference organized by Institute of Art History, Research Centre for the Humanities, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Municipal Gallery – Kiscell Museum, Budapest History Museum, and ERSTE Foundation. Official website of the conference here.


Halka/Haiti, the project exhibited at Poland’s national pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale (2015), brought one of the most canonical, solidified and unquestionable representations of Polish national culture, the opera Halka by Stanisław Moniuszko, to the descendants of the Polish soldiers who fought in the Haitian revolutionary war. By presenting the image of Polish national culture from the time when the Haitian forefathers were still deeply intertwined with it, the gesture seemingly accepts the level of representation inherent in this 19th-century work as providing the authentic image of Old Poland with its upper and lower classes, social relationships, and distinctive customs and traditions. On the other hand, however, the very presentation of an opera to an audience unaccustomed to this art form reveals the arbitrariness the medium and, together with it, also the constructed character of the world that it was supposed to represent. This multi-layered, ambiguous project complicates the understanding of Polish national identity, and the traditional visual and musical codes that are used to describe it, by placing both in a postcolonial context. This complication is particularly crucial since Poland has never seen itself as a country or nation that was involved in colonialism and preferred to identify itself only as a victim of imperialist oppression. This paper juxtaposes the identities of two very different imagined communities: the Polish nation, as it envisioned itself in the 19th-century art forms, still deeply rooted in the historical sensibility developed under imperialist occupations; and the Haitian “Le Polone”, the community whose connection to Poland has manifested itself predominantly in visual terms. The paper will discuss how the exposure to the community of Haitian “Le Polone” can problematize Poles’ understanding of their national identity today, with both its promise for greater diversity and its threat of strengthening nationalist heroic mythology.

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