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Zurnal Zine Polish creatives LGBTQ
Courtesy of Zurnal Zine

The Polish fashion zine fighting queerphobia with creativity

Zurnal Zine champions the voices of Poland's LGBTQ+ community, offering a platform to sound-off in the face of an increasingly oppressive government

In a recently-released report measuring the level of equality of the LGBTQ+ community in Europe, an advocacy group ILGA-Europe has once again ranked Poland as the least friendly place for queer people. Sadly, this news comes as no surprise. For the past year, the country has been making headlines internationally due to the homophobic and anti-abortion rhetoric of the government, the initiation of the ‘LGBT-free’ zones around the country, and clashes between activists and police that resulted in violent arrests.

At this time of turmoil in the country, joyous queer representation has been more vital than ever. Enter Zurnal Zine – a publication launched by Nico Carmandaye, Anna Maria Koronkiewicz and Emilia Bocianowska in 2017 in Bialystok, a city in northeastern Poland infamously known for its brutal reaction to the Pride march in 2019.

The founders decided to initially start the zine as a response to the lack of queer art in their hometown. Over the years, they’ve established a signature language of DIY glam and wildly eccentric humour. With each instalment, the zine, which is now run from London, gives a platform to Polish artists, photographers, and stylists based in the country and abroad, and celebrates a wide variety of perspectives on modern queer identities. 

Influenced by the isolation breakdowns and creative fiascos of the past year, Carmandaye, Koronkiewicz, and Bocianowska decided to embrace their weaknesses and create the latest issue around the concept of ‘Identity Crisis’. The publication features a delirious shoot by sex worker and LGBTQ+ rights activist Aleksandra Kluczyk, a cybersex-inspired editorial by director Dawid Nickel, a camp ode to a once-lived career as a teenage talent show star by Miguel Dare, or a variation on a human sculpture by Milena Liebe.

We chatted with the founders and contributors of Zurnal about the ideas behind the stories in the latest issue, the ways in which the situation in Poland is affecting their creativity, and how they use their work as a way of fighting back against their oppressors.

NICO CARMANDAYE, ANNA MARIA KORONKIEWICZ, AND EMILIA BOCIANOWSKA

Nico, Anna Maria, and Emilia grew up in Bialystok, a city in northeastern Poland, and currently live in London. They are the founders of Zurnal Zine.

What was your initial idea behind starting Zurnal? What was the message that you wanted to spread and how has it evolved over the years?

Emilia Bocianowska: It started as a direct response to the sad lack of queer art in our hometown, Białystok. In the summer of 2017, we decided to put our fun little patch on that gaping hole! Simultaneously, it was a perfect excuse to organise a party at our fave local techno club, as we’re all about mixing business with pleasure. After the launch, the word started to spread quickly.  

Nico Carmandaye: One day, Emilia’s mum overheard her colleagues saying that her daughter is ‘promoting some disturbing gay shit on the internet’. That made us realise just how controversial our humble creative endeavours were – all because we are a little bit gay (and in Poland)! Recently, someone DM’d us saying that they see our zine as a queer safe space and it made us feel quite nice.  

How do you go about choosing contributors for each issue and topics that you are covering?

Anna Maria Koronkiewicz: Each zine is an indicator of what is happening in our lives at the time. It is personal, sometimes embarrassingly autobiographical. We work with friends because it’s easy and it’s fun. We work with people that inspire us and we are jealous of because we hope that they can teach us something. But really, there’s no system, the main perk of running a zine is that you can do whatever you want.

“Because of its queerness, the zine is perceived as political and controversial in Poland. So our stand is very clear: we support the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for basic rights. For us, it goes hand-in-hand with supporting legal access to abortion and the destigmatisation of sex work” – Zurnal Zine founders

What’s the leading idea behind the latest issue?

Nico Carmandaye: Well, I think we all had quite a rough time over the past 14 months. The COVID crisis really affected our creative work. For quite a while we had a hard time coming up with anything good – we felt uninspired and it seemed like every project was doomed to be a total failure. So, after many creative fiascos and breakdowns, we decided to embrace how we felt. This is how the ‘Identity Crisis’ issue was born. 

How is the situation in Poland affecting your creative work?

Emilia Bocianowska: Poland has quite a history of artists emigrating, maybe because from a distance, the state of our country seems easier to digest. It breaks our hearts, but now that we are in London, we are in a much more privileged position. We use the platform we’ve created so far to engage with queer Polish artists so that we can share their creative take on the current political situation. Zurnal is a bridge between the reality of our hometown and our life in London. Every issue has a good balance between creative voices from Poland and the UK. 

How are you standing up for LGBTQ+ and women’s rights with your publication? 

Anna Maria Koronkiewicz: Because of its queerness, the zine is perceived as political and controversial in Poland. So our stand is very clear: we support the LGBTQ+ community’s fight for basic rights. For us, it goes hand-in-hand with supporting legal access to abortion and the destigmatisation of sex work. Every story in our latest issue can be a conversation starter. We’ve also recently collaborated with Tolerado, a non-profit LGBTQ+ organisation, on a sculpture for an exhibition at a major art gallery in Gdansk to raise funds to help local queer communities. 

DAWID NICKEL

Dawid Nickel grew up in Kedzierzyn-Kozle, a town in southern Poland, and currently lives in Warsaw. His newly released film Love Tasting, an astute portrait of the Polish Gen Z, received an award for best micro-budget movie at last year's Polish Film Festival in Gdynia.

What are the main themes that you wanted to explore with your new film?

Dawid Nickel: I wanted Love Tasting to be a multi-thread atlas of what it means nowadays to be a teenager in Poland. My goal was to bring attention to their problems, such as finding their identity, sense of belonging and connection with their peers. From my experience, many of these issues are caused by the lack of proper sexual education in schools and open dialogue about these matters with their parents.

How is the situation in Poland affecting your creativity? Do you want your films to be acts of rebellion against the homophobic and transphobic attitudes in the country?

Dawid Nickel: It might be slightly utopian to think that my films can make a big change in politics or society because I don't think that homophobic or transphobic people would want to watch them (even though I wish I could somehow persuade them to do it). That said, my films are a way to showcase my point of view and I'm hoping that they will make the viewers act with more empathy towards others. I also believe that it's important for me to be open about my own sexual identity – to this day, I'm the only out film director in the Polish industry. I want to use the platform that I have and make sure that queer representation is visible in the public sphere.

What's the story behind your editorial for Zurnal?

Dawid Nickel: I was staying at my family home in Kedzierzyn-Kozle during the summer and I wanted to shoot something using webcams. I was inspired by being in my teenage bedroom and thinking about my first attempts at online dating back in the day. So I decided to reach out to a few friends that I knew have moved towards cybersex during the pandemic and would be comfortable shooting in this setting.

What's next for you?

Dawid Nickel: I'm currently beginning to work on a new film that will be a continuation of one of the threads I started to talk about in Love Tasting – a story set in a small town's wrestling community, with which I want to explore the notion of toxic masculinity in its Polish variation.

“Art gives back justice towards those who are excluded, marginalised, and deprived of rights. It’s a tool in the hand of rebellion and makes reality a little bit more bearable” – Aleksandra Kluczyk

MILENA LIEBE

Milena is a photographer and stylist based in Warsaw. She designed costumes for Dawid Nickel’s film Love Tasting and was one of the founders of Polski Paradise, the first Polish non-binary vintage clothing platform.

How is the situation in the country affecting the themes that you are exploring in your work?

Milena Liebe: Whenever I’m feeling angry or stressed, my defence mechanism is to laugh. That is also the case with my photography – the photos are usually humorous comments on the reality around us or a surreal vision of an alternative world in which I would like to live.

In what ways do you believe art can be a tool for change in Polish society?

Milena Liebe: I think the message that I want to spread with my work is, ‘Hey, this is who we are, this is how we live, deal with it.’ During the recent strikes and the infamous ‘rainbow night’ when the LGBTQ+ activists were arrested by the police, photography became a key tool in the fight – the images captured by our friends were quickly shared around the world.  After these events of rainbow ‘repressions’, there was a lot of exhibitions around the country devoted to showcasing the situation of the queer community – I believe that this is a good way to educate the wider society on who we are. As LGBTQ+ creators, we must unite and act together – no one else is going to change the state of affairs for us.

What was the concept behind your shoot in the latest issue of Zurnal?

Milena Liebe: I decided to make a sofa out of my friends. At first, we laughed that ‘girls’ will sit on ‘boys’ – we wanted  ‘girls’ to wear pink and ‘boys’ to wear blue, just like in the heterosexual matrix. The idea was quickly cancelled because it was difficult to divide people into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’, and secondly, no one had blue outfits (laughs). In the end, the people who imitated the sofa were dressed in black and people on top wore pastel shades – it ended up looking a bit like an S&M scenario. I love these photos, I put them in a crystal frame and hung them above my sofa.

ALEKSANDRA KLUCZYK

Aleksandra grew up in a small village in eastern Poland and currently lives in Warsaw. She’s a full-service escort, activist, and host of a podcast about sex work called dwie dupy o dupie.

What are the main goals that you are striving for with your activism?

Aleksandra Kluczyk: Fighting for the rights of people who do sex work. My aim is to lead to decriminalisation and destigmatisation of the profession in Poland, as well as make sure that it gets the recognition it deserves. I’m also focusing on standing up for equality of the queer community, women’s rights, and more specifically, pro-abortion rights.

What projects are you currently working on?

Aleksandra Kluczyk: I’m working on a book that will contain a series of conversations with sex workers from different sectors of the industry. I’m also planning an exhibition – it will be an attempt to create a collection of visual representations of people who do sex work, portrayed on our own terms.

In what ways can art be a good tool in fighting for a change of the current situation in Poland?

Aleksandra Kluczyk: Art gives back justice towards those who are excluded, marginalised, and deprived of rights. It’s a tool in the hand of rebellion and makes reality a little bit more bearable.

How did you come up with your idea for the editorial for Zurnal?

Aleksandra Kluczyk: The pictures were taken at a time when I first started living alone, which meant more or less that I wasn’t sober for the first three months or so. Despite the easing of lockdown restrictions at that time in Poland, I spent the whole summer locked in my four walls – the living room and sofa were my main socialising spots. It was a time of house parties, long conversations, and blackouts, two of which I captured for Zurnal.

“I have to say that since the beginning of the pandemic and the events that took place in Poland last year, I have been feeling really patriotic. Seeing people stand up to the government and protest in such a powerful way made me think about how I can get involved” – Miguel Dare

MIGUEL DARE 

Miguel is a London-based DJ. He grew up in Slupca, a town in central Poland, and moved to the UK over 14 years ago.

How is the political situation in Poland affecting the way you think about your creativity?

Miguel Dare: I have to say that since the beginning of the pandemic and the events that took place in Poland last year, I have been feeling really patriotic. Seeing people stand up to the government and protest in such a powerful way made me think about how I can get involved. As soon as it’s possible, I want to go to Poland for a bit and organise a series of DJ gigs where all the proceeds will go towards supporting LGBTQ+ charities in the country. My goal is to create nights that celebrate the feeling of togetherness, where everyone that comes in feels supported.

In what ways can art be a tool for change in Polish society?

Miguel Dare: I think art, and different forms of creativity in general, play a massive role in creating visibility for our community. It’s a great way to be vocal about the big issues in the country – not only when it comes to LGBTQ+ rights, but also women’s rights and racial discrimination that people of colour face in their day-to-day lives in Poland. The more awareness we bring to these forms of oppression, the more seeds we plant in people’s minds. It’s also important to stand against all the forms of hate – even the little homophobic, transphobic, or racist jokes that people make daily. Speech often conditions people’s actions, so we’ve got to use our platform and boldly say stop whenever we see it happening.

What’s the story behind your editorial for Zurnal?

Miguel Dare: Nico, Anna, and Emilia came over for a barbecue at my house a while ago and I showed them my ‘sentimental box’ – it’s filled with pictures, clippings, and trophies that I got when I was taking part in loads of different talent shows as a teenager. They really loved them and came up with the idea of doing a retrospective on that time in my life. Even though I was from a small town, I was always very different from everyone else – I loved to experiment with looks and loved performing. And it was really great to have this process of selecting all the images to remind me about the dreams that I had as a kid and see how brave I was to be myself.

You can follow Zurnal here and buy the latest issue here.