Nothing but a Curtain
I travelled 7325 km across the former Eastern Bloc to document post-communist gender identity.
I am a Polish photographer based in the United Kingdom since 2001. Growing up in Scotland and England I was always aware that my idea of myself, gender and womanhood was slightly different than that of my “Western” counterparts. The way my identity shaped was heavily influenced by my grandparents’ stories of the war, hardship, and poverty. As a teenager and young adult, I listened to my family members talk about food rations, Stalin and Lenin, the communist party and various events where attendance was obligatory.
I was born in 1990, three hundred and three days after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Fourteen years later, on May 1st, 2004, Poland joined the European Union. In between these dates the former Eastern Bloc changed dramatically and transitioned from a communist regime into a capitalistic system.
To this day, growing up in Eastern Europe means facing male-dominated political systems, sexist stereotypes and restrictive beauty standards. For millions, the end of communism meant the loss of former identities and the acquisition of a new sense of individuality. In Eastern Europe, the end of communism also brought on the escalation of gender-specific segregation in the labour market, contributing to a ‘feminisation of poverty’ and further economic divisions between men and women.
Using photography, I investigate to what extent this transition from communism to capitalism impacted the development of gender identity and womanhood for the generation born after 1989. In the summer of 2021, I travelled along the former Iron Curtain border, across countries which used to divide the continent to document how younger generations experience traces of the obsolete world order. My aim was to challenge stereotypes about womanhood and gender and to highlight the unique and diverse identity of the countries once behind the Iron Curtain and to show how they differ. These countries are often described as the ‘Eastern Bloc’, lumping a diverse population into a homogenous and unrecognisable mass
It was my personal frustration with the way the former Eastern Bloc is depicted in the media that led me to start this project entitled “Nothing but a Curtain.” Growing up in the UK I often heard and experienced derogatory comments, expectations and stereotypes related to the fact that I was Polish. Over 100 days in the summer of 2021 I travelled to 20 different cities across Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria and interviewed and documented 104 people. I worked with women, non-binary, genderfluid and transgender people who like myself, were born in or after 1989 following the fall of the Berlin Wall, and when socialism in these countries came to an end. It has been over 30 years since communism, yet stereotypes about Central and Eastern Europe prevail to this day and are perpetuated by Western media.
Research underpins my photographic practice, and to incorporate the divisive history between the “East” and the “West” I shot this project on a Kiev 80, a Soviet analogue camera made in 1978 in a Ukrainian military factory. The metal shutter of the camera imprints a metaphorical “curtain” within the images, echoing the way Soviet history has shaped gender identity.
Zula Rabikowska is a photographer and videographer based between London and Kraków. Zula was born in Poland, grew up in the UK and her practice is influenced by her experience of migration and in her work, she explores themes of displacement, belonging and gender identity. Zula holds an MA in Photojournalism and Documentary Photography from London College of Communication, and since then she has been largely focusing on exploring the idea of gender, her own journey of migration and the meaning of home. In May 2020 Zula co-founded the Red Zenith Collective, a platform for womxn and non-binary creatives from Central and Eastern Europe.
If you are in London you can sign up to the next Photography Foundation event on March 8th where Zula will be discussing her project in more details.
The project was funded by Getty Images, the Mead Fellowship from the University of the Arts London, and Kuala Lumpur International Photo Awards.
All photos copyright Zula Rabikowska
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