How Polish Women Reclaimed Folk Art by Giving It an Urban Twist
Ever seen a flowery, hand-painted bathroom? How about a crocheted G-String? Centuries of Polish folk art gains new shape in the hands of female street artists and lingerie-makers. Open your ears to folk art’s most feminine scream straight out of Poland!
The Floral Charm of Zalipie
Among the most interesting architectural folk art phenomena in Poland, the decorated façades and interiors of rural homes in the south-eastern village of Zalipie can’t go unnoticed with their floral charm and their inspiring contemporary variations of traditional handicrafts.
Located in the municipality of Olesno, 68km east of the regional capital Kraków, the village of Zalipie is known as an open-air museum for its wonderfully painted huts and cottages. Some of these homes have been turned into public museums, including local decorative artist Felicja Curyłowa’s farmhouse, which was purchased from the family after her death and opened to the public as part of the Regional Museum in Tarnów. The year 2013 marked the 110th birthday of Curyłowa and the 50th anniversary of the “Painted Cottage” annual regional event – the longest-running folk art competition in Poland. Since its first edition in 1948, the competition has aimed to promote the fundamentals of Polish folk art on a global scale. Dom Malarek is another well-known community centre, promoting Zalipian traditional works via educational programmes.
People in the countryside used to cook on stoves, with the smoke escaping through a hole in the ceiling. Women started painting over these blackened spots on the ceilings and walls - a basic cleaning method which over time led to floral ornamentation and inspirational interior décor. Many Zalipian houses today display floral forms, but early ornamentation included geometric patterns with dots, curves, circles and wavy lines. Brushes were composed of horse hair or leather, and some of these authentic brushes were still used up until recently.
It may seem like an odd connection to move from old women’s decorative pastime to illegal street art, but two artists – NeSpoon and Olek – produce works that throw out all preconceptions about the rather male-dominated street art scene. Their works are all about the lady-like details, including yarn and lace.
With a witty play on the traditional lace work, or koronka in Polish, NeSpoon embroiders the urban landscape of numerous cities with what she calls “public jewellery”. The Warsaw-based artist uses ornate lace patterns in her unique brand of street art that translates into ceramics, stencils, paintings, and crocheted webbing installed in public spaces ranging from simple pedestrian pathways to Old Town market squares and churches, as well as beaches and parks. With NeSpoon’s illegally spray-painted lace stencils, the act of decorating turns into the beautification of abandoned public spaces into aesthetically pleasing environments.
Another Polish street and performance artist, New York-based Agata Oleksiak, known as Olek, uses her crocheting to cover public spaces and objects in an activist guerilla fashion. Olek uses crochet as an alternative to other mediums; her woven fabrics provide, as she calls it, a metaphor for the interconnectedness of humanity through new layers of history and culture. Despite frequent connotations of her work with yarn bombing – a recently popular form of street art that emerged in the US – Olek prefers to associate her creative output with gallery art (as opposed to amateur practice):
Lots of people have aunts or grandmas who paint [...] Do you want to see that work in the galleries? No. The street is an extension of the gallery. Not everyone’s work deserves to be in public. (From Graffiti's Cozy, Feminine Side on NYT)
Lace Lingerie From the Mountains
The little village of Koniaków in the Beskid Mountains region is famous worldwide for its lacework. Koniaków gained media attention back in 2006 thanks to controversial attempts by a local company to turn traditional lacework into sexy lingerie. The incident hit international news with headlines like “Grannies Crochet G-Strings,” spurring tension between conservative supporters of traditional folk arts and the more innovative enthusiasts of its contemporary revival.
The Koniaków-based company presents a variety of products, all custom tailored to order, including their famous début product, crocheted Koniaków thongs, bra and panty sets, crocheted women's boxer shorts, lace tops, beach wear and other lace accessories like gloves and belts. Products are handmade of cotton threads, using motifs inspired from the mountains. The collection was exhibited in 2005 at the Museum für Angewandte Kunst (The Museum of Applied Art) in Frankfurt, Germany, as part of the "Polish Cultural Days" event under the “New Tradition” category.
Natural parks, forests and excellent ski slopes combined with the handicrafts by local women in Koniaków provide major tourist attractions. The village was at the height of its popularity around the beginning of the 20th century, when its lacework was exported to aristocrat buyers both inside and out of the Polish Kingdom in the form of pillowcases, shirts and most commonly, tablecloths. Koniaków lingerie is now rebranding the name worldwide.
Contrary to misleading images abroad, Polish folk art blends tradition with innovation, turning historical methods of folk painting, crocheting and lace-making into the most surprising ways of reflecting upon everyday spaces and consumer goods. As regional folk artists continue to inspire with their mastery over the craft, younger generation artists and entrepreneurs create a metaphor for the complexity of Poland’s psychological and cultural processes. Reviving the theme of traditional handicrafts, Poles explore sexuality and emotions through greater conceptual grounds, colours and meticulous attention to detail.