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Zula Rabikowska, “Norvina”, Nothing But a Curtain
Zula Rabikowska, “Norvina”, Nothing But a CurtainPhotography Zula Rabikowska

These photos explore gender identity in the ‘shadow of communism’

Zula Rabikowska spent 100 days travelling through former-Soviet countries meeting young people born since the fall of the Berlin Wall

In July 2021, Polish artist Zula Rabikowska set off on a 5,000-mile journey across Central and Eastern Europe, documenting experiences of gender identity among young people living along the former Iron Curtain – the literal and symbolic boundary that separated the Soviet Union and its satellite states from Western Europe during the Cold War. 

Over 100 days, she interviewed and photographed 104 women, gender-nonconforming, and transgender people who were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, “living and breathing” their stories as she went. Consisting of film portraits, video interviews, sculpture, and archival documents, her multimedia project, Nothing But A Curtain, gives voice to a generation intent on carving out their own identities while navigating the hangover of their collective past.

“As a Polish immigrant who grew up in the UK, there was this difference that I carried around inside me, influenced by my family’s Soviet history and all the complicated emotions that went with it,” Rabikowska tells Dazed. “I wondered whether the shadow of communism was something that shaped my own gender and my own identity, and I was curious to see whether there were others in post-communist countries who had similar struggles.”

“When communism collapsed, there was a real void and a fear of the unknown. People are still processing that” – Zula Rabikowska

Travelling by public transport, Rabikowska journeyed from the Baltic states to Poland and former East Germany, and on to Romania and Bulgaria in the Balkans. She selected participants born in the aftermath of communism, who, like her, grew up during a period of social and political upheaval. Some subjects were friends of friends, or members of the Red Zenith Collective, a network of womxn and non-binary creatives from Central and Eastern Europe that she co-founded in lockdown. Others she approached on the street.

In a metro station in Sofia, she spoke to Gigi and Kimi, queer women who say their shaved heads frequently make them a police target at protests. In Bucharest, she met Norvina, a trans woman whose dad still refuses to refer to her as a woman, and who spoke about the lack of support for those transitioning. In Estonia, Maria Izabella, a non-binary person, explained how they’re learning to articulate their identity in a society of entrenched gender norms.

Reflecting on her findings, Rabikowska emphasises the complex mix of social currents shaping these former border countries; from nostalgia for the past, to the rush towards capitalism; from protest movements for progressive politics, to patriarchal ideas of family and the rise of right-wing populism. Rabikowska has a lightning bolt tattooed on her wrist, a symbol of resistance in her native Poland against the government’s repressive abortion laws today.

“What communism did to a lot of these countries was to create really rigid paths, not just in terms of gender, but also in terms of employment and education. Your whole life was laid out for you and there was no obvious room for questioning,” Rabikowska explains. “But when communism collapsed, there was a real void and a fear of the unknown. People are still processing that.”

By using an analogue camera built in a military factory in Kyiv in 1978, tensions between past and present become visible in the photos themselves. Heavy enough to be a “self-defence mechanism”, Rabikowska’s camera has a temperamental metal shutter that floods her contemporary portraits with light leaks: “The metal shutter gives the camera its own ‘Iron Curtain’, and with these light leaks or ‘light curtains’, communist history is being printed onto my images.”

Fascinated by the symbolism of the curtain, Rabikowska asked all of her interviewees to donate a scrap of fabric, which she sewed together into a real curtain on public transport. “I’d ask strangers on buses and trains to film me while I was sewing, and I was thinking about gender as a performance in that sense.” Throughout her travels, the artist delved into her own relationship to gender: “Though I use she/her pronouns, I’m someone who identifies as in-between genders, which was definitely an outcome of the conversations I was engaging with so intensely.” 

Rabikowska’s desire to photograph the former “Eastern Bloc” was also influenced by depictions of it as a “homogenous mass” in English-speaking media, and by her frustration with a general ignorance towards these countries. “A friend in London recently asked me if there’s internet in Poland,” she says with an exasperated laugh. “My project explores a collective history, but I want to show the variety of communities that reside in these countries, and the complexity of their experiences. There are so many voices to be heard and stories to be told.”

Check out the gallery above for a closer look at Rabikowska’s images, and visit her website here.

Nothing but a Curtain has been made possible with the help of the Mead Fellowship, supported by Scott Mead and The Mead Family Foundation, Getty Images, and Kuala Lumpur Photo Awards.⁠ It will be exhibited at the Stanley Picker Gallery in London from January 24-28 and at Belfast Exposed Photography Gallery in Northern Ireland from February 2 to March 25 2023.

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