Joanna Malinowska, assistant professor of the practice in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning (AAP), and her collaborator C.T. Jasper had an audacious idea in the early 2000s: stage a full production of Poland’s national opera, a tragic 19th-century love story, outdoors in rural Haiti.
The resulting film, “Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W” was selected for the Venice Biennale of Art Polish Pavilion in 2015, and is now showing at the Hirshhorn Museum’s first virtual exhibition, through Nov. 30.
Malinowska says they staged the opera, “Halka,” in Haiti to refer to a little-known connection between the two countries. The film investigates “the unusual, unexpected and sometimes bizarre ways in which people interpret their histories and construct their identities,” Malinowska says.
Here she shares her thoughts on culture in art practice and her approach to teaching.
“Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W” was displayed at the Venice Biennale in an immersive panoramic format. What were your initial ideas for the performance and film, and its staging and location?
Malinowska: In this and many other conversations about “Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W,” I mention Werner Herzog’s film “Fitzcarraldo” [which follows an Irish rubber baron who dreams of building an opera house in the Peruvian Amazon] as one of the conceptual “ingredients” behind the project and something that provoked us to embark on the mission of performing “Halka” in Haiti. …
Our intention was to prove that it is possible to take an opera performance out of its traditional context and housing and have it happen in the middle of a village road, without set designs, perfectly tuned instruments and the demarcation line separating performers from the audience. In a sense, we were trying to go back to the origins of the opera as a genre, to its beginnings when opera was a communal, village experience rather than a high-style and somewhat artificial form of entertainment for the elite.
We succeeded in making the performance happen against the odds of fortune, turning it into a kind of communal feast. But I must acknowledge the incredible challenges – logistical, financial, geographical, linguistic and so on – that we faced, as well as the enormous effort from everyone involved that made it possible.
Why do you think Hirshhorn curator Marina Isgro found this work to be particularly well-suited for this exhibition? Did you encounter benefits or drawbacks in translating the format from the pavilion to the personal computer screen?
Malinowska: The online exhibition, “In the Beginning: Media Art and History,” looks at how video, sound and performance are used to investigate, re-examine and re-imagine history.
Our project is based on not very well-known historical ties between Poland and Haiti. In 1802 and 1803 Polish soldiers were sent to Saint-Domingue, by Napoleon to put down a rebellion organized by enslaved people. The Poles – who had joined Napoleon to fight for the independence of their own country – ended up uniting with local insurgents, and those who survived the revolution received honorary legal status, equal to Black people, in the newly established republic.
We staged the opera in the village of Cazale, Haiti, which is largely inhabited by the descendants of these soldiers; many of the Cazaleans bear creolized last names of their Polish ancestors and identify with their historical motherland and its culture to this day. This historical backdrop of the project seems to make our piece fit perfectly in the curatorial frame of the exhibition.
The context of the exhibition is not accidental given the moment we live in, when the world seems like a boiling pot of unresolved cross-cultural, or ideological, tensions with the need to critically examine the past re-awakened.
Among several contextual layers of “Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W” was our interest in how national identities are constructed, and at the same time, how unpredictable and complex these identities could be.
While most of the works included in the exhibition were not meant to be viewed at home on a computer screen, if there is any silver lining in the current pandemic situation, it would be the online access to potentially impactful works of art that otherwise would be available only to museum visitors.
What are you working on currently?
Malinowska: Working on “Halka/Haiti 18°48’05”N 72°23’01”W” inspired my partner and me to continue investigating the unusual, unexpected and sometimes bizarre ways in which people interpret their histories and construct their identities.
One of the current works in progress is our documentary film with the working title “If One Were Only an Indian,” a title borrowed from the little-known literary miniature by Franz Kafka. The film focuses on issues of cultural appropriation and looks through a critical lens at the phenomenon of the Polish American Indian Friends Movement, an informal organization formed in the 1970s for those sharing a unique fascination with indigenous North American cultures and professing an alleged kinship between Poles and Indigenous Americans.
This alleged kinship recently led us to collaborate with a specialist in the restoration of historical paintings on a diptych of the meeting of Tadeusz Kościuszko, Polish army officer, statesman and war hero of the American Revolution, with Mihšihkinaahkwa (“Little Turtle”), a Sagamore chief of the Miami people and a famous military leader. In the diptych, the look-alike paintings of the two men in a genre scene point out the contradictory details in how this moment in history – one that may never have actually occurred – is remembered and mythologized.
You primarily teach sculpture at AAP. How do you challenge conventional notions of the medium? How do you push against cultural preconceptions and constraints in your own work and teaching?
Malinowska: I see sculpture and the tactile experience of working with all kinds of very physically present materials (and the laws of physics) as a form of refuge. I don’t think I necessarily push against formal constraints in my practice and in my teaching, but rather from the beginning approach these processes with a belief or at least an assumption that sculpture is a truly versatile medium that could cover under its umbrella almost any type of activity. I often ask my students to work in ways that defeat the common understanding of sculpture as a free-standing, solid, 3D object. I like sculptures that need to lean on something or change their shape over time.
It might be a gross oversimplification, but growing up in Poland before the collapse of the Soviet bloc, I always felt as if our culture was impossibly homogenous, filtered by the opposing narratives of the Roman Catholic Church and the Communist Party, and this is probably the ultimate reason why, as an artist, I’m attracted to investigating alternative possibilities, the entropy of cross-cultural clashes and exchanges as well as contradictions to well-trodden paths.