Zula Rabikowska’s luminescent images explore gender identity in the shadow of the Iron Curtain

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The Polish photographer looks at the contradictions of life in the former Eastern Bloc, before the war in Ukraine changed everything

In summer 2021, the Polish-born, London-based photographer Zula Rabikowska journeyed across Central and Eastern Europe, exploring the ways in which the region’s Soviet history has impacted the gender identities of those currently living there. Travelling the route of the former Iron Curtain – a term referring to both the real and proverbial border separating the Soviet Union and its dependents from the rest of Europe – the Polish artist met and photographed over 100 people born after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Her project, Nothing But a Curtain, captures those establishing their individuality while still negotiating their collective history. As Rabikowska explains: “Each country has its own climate, history, religion… but there is still a shadow lingering.”

Rabikowska was inspired to photograph the former Eastern Bloc after years of growing frustrated with the reductive ways in which English-speaking media depicted Central and Eastern Europeans. It was “the same very predictable images of poverty, snow, babushkas with woollen hats,” she explains. Her aim was to confront the stereotypical imagery of women from this region, but this goal quickly expanded to probing gender identity more generally. “The topic is a lot bigger than I initially realised, and in many ways this project involved self-discovery with my own relationship to gender,” Rabikowska says. “I became very aware of how I was being perceived as a small, female, non-threatening body. And that was constant.”

Travelling from the Baltic states to Poland, Germany, Romania and Bulgaria, Rabikowska photographed women, queer, gender-nonconforming and trans people, alongside storefronts, sculptures, objects and landscapes. Many of her images are paired with captions from interviewees detailing their experiences navigating their identities under the patriarchy, Soviet pasts, and newly embraced capitalist futures. These images, alongside videos, interviews, project drawings, and handwritten testimonies will be exhibited at the Well Gallery, London College of Communication, from 26 to 28 April.

Rabikowska’s images embrace the contradictions of what it means to live in the former Eastern Bloc, exploring homogeneity and difference, past and present, change and stagnancy. To convey a sense of unity in the face of so much difference, Rabikowska used a weighty, metal camera built in a military plant in Kyiv in 1978. The camera’s shutter was temperamental, flooding her images with streaks of light.

It was the metal curtain that I was searching for,” she explains. With this camera, her photographs share similarities: no matter the subject at hand, each image has a square frame and vibrant glow. The images in Nothing But a Curtain appear simultaneously modern and vintage; dreamy and sinister; rose-tinted and shadow-streaked. “I was focusing on using this Soviet camera and letting that tool be the narrator in the story,” she explains.

“Now, if I was asking people about how communism affected their gender identity, people might be scared to answer that in the open way they did last summer”

A year after Rabikowska visited these people and places, everything changed. In February 2022, Putin invaded Ukraine, and reignited historic fears across the region. While Rabikowska captured people moving within and away from their Soviet history – and maybe moving more deeply into their sense of self – Russia’s invasion poses a deep threat. Poland is now absorbing millions of refugees, and US soldiers amass in Moldova.

“Now, if I was asking people about how communism affected their gender identity, people might be scared to answer that in the open way they did last summer… In many ways it was the end of an era: the war changed everything for those people.”

Nothing But a Curtain was shortlisted for the Blow Up Press Book Award, and will be exhibited at the Well Gallery, London College of Communication from 26–28 April. A selection of works will also be displayed in PARC from 04 May–24 May. 

The project was made possible with the help of the Mead Fellowship supported by Scott Mead and The Mead Family Foundation, Getty Images #ShowUs Grant and Kuala Lumpur International Photo Awards.

zulara.co.uk

Nurit Chinn

Nurit Chinn is a playwright and freelance journalist. A recent graduate of Yale University with a degree in English Literature, Nurit has published work in Wallpaper* Magazine, Off Assignment, and the Yale Daily News.