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29 May 2020

Remapping the Polish Diaspora in South America

29 May 2020 - Written by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

Polish cousins and photographers Katarzyna and Marianne Wasowska set-off to Argentina and Brazil in search of Polish migration groups. Moved by the power of heritage, they have transformed the narratives of their descendants into a poetical multi-layered project.

© Katarzyna and Marianne Wasowska, from the series Waiting for the Snow

Waiting for the Snow is a project that looks into the Polish migration to South America during Poland’s partitions. The photographers, Katarzyna and Marianne Wasowska, focused on the Polish exodus to Brazil and Argentina, the popular destination in the Latin American region at the time. The photographers' motivation was to highlight this side of European colonisation into the Americas, which is hardly mentioned or known about. Today, we know many of the Polish migrants were farmers and that their descendants, after 100 to 150 years later, continue to practice their traditions and language despite time and distance to their homeland. In the hope of creating a multi-layered narrative, Katarzyna and Marianne have combined their photos, archival documents and family photo albums to represent a collective experience to the region.

How did you learn about the Polish migration to South America?

Poland had always had a very big emigration history. Over the centuries, reasons have varied why to escape the country. As migration to North America, Australia and West European countries was always very well known, this history of migration to South America, mostly Brazil and Argentina was never really understood. One of the reasons why we started to learn about Polish migration was the moment of a migration crisis in 2015, when the Polish government refused to welcome any refugees from Syria, saying that the people who will come from different cultures, religions, and climates will not assimilate to Poland.

For Katarzyna it was simply ridiculous, considering millions of Polish people live abroad (over 20 million). She began to investigate polish migration around the world, searching for places where poles migrated, which would be far different from their culture, religion, and climate. She wanted to see how their assimilation process went on and highlight Poland’s wide and never-ending history of migration.

In the same year, Marianne, who's lived and travelled in Latin America before, went for the first time to Argentina where she met some of our relatives who migrated to Buenos Aires and began a photographic series on her own about memory linked to migration process. Seeking a parallel angle in our respective works, but always in dialogue, our researches converged little by little to the same point: the Parana region. Maybe that's where this story formally merged as a shared project.


© Katarzyna and Marianne Wasowska, from the series Waiting for the Snow

Do you have far relatives who migrated to the area? If so, did this have any poignant influence in the narration/focus of the project?

Our family, like many Polish families, was spread around the world, the same as Marianne’s mother that migrated to France in the time of communism. In this aspect, the way geography builds stories and maps, can be seen as the start point of this project. Getting to know our Argentinian relatives maybe turned an abstract phenomenon in some close ones, since it was in some kind part of our family's history. However, we chose to focus on a different period of Polish migration in South America, which was not the wave our relatives came to Argentina.

We were interested in first arrives, who began to migrate at the end of 19th century; mostly farmers coming from a context of hunger and strong politic conflicts (Poland was under partitions in this time – basically erased from the map). The complexity of their stories and their specific profile were the reasons why their migration process was more unusual and different than what we generally know about colonisation of America as leaded by Western Europe. We were interested in what colonisation meant for those first poles, in a context of rising capitalism, which didn't know any war and was pushing out to build all its dreams. So, they prosper, new societies had to be white and European. Economical structures and ideologies were also racial ones, in some extend. We could say then, that our relatives better acted in cathartic way than as protagonists.

How did you get access to all the source photographs?

All the archival photographs are all copies of original photographs which descendants of Polish migrants were showing to us and let us to reproduce, during our meetings with them in Brazil and Argentina. They are mostly pictures from family archives, sometimes pictures from old newspapers decaying in old polish schools.

In general, the relation process is very important in our work, we try to build a dynamic of exchange and mutual trust. Many times, our meetings with Polish descendants, especially when they were old, were very emotional. For most of them it was striking to speak again a language they didn't practice since their parent's time; as our contact would be the link to a world which had vanished. They also had a strong interest in giving to know their story: due to Poland's partition many people can't seek for their polish nationality since they arrived to South America with Russian, Ukrainian, German, Austro-Hungarian passport.

In some way talking with them, asking to tell us their story and show us their photographs was a way to create a platform they could use to tell about themselves and work for some kind of recognition.


© Katarzyna and Marianne Wasowska, from the series Waiting for the Snow

How much of your own culture have you encountered in these Polish communities?

Maybe it's important to detail what means “own culture” for each one of us, since we grew up in different countries. Kasia is born in north of Poland and Marianne in France, in a popular district of Paris marked by big cultural diversity. Those different backgrounds influence the way each one of us see the same subject. Kasia was more interested about how her culture could migrate and recreate itself in a totally opposite context, since Marianne was focused on the hybrid process of culture and identity, in societies built by migration and plurality of nationalities.

Sometimes Kasia had the feeling there, that she was still in Poland. It is very popular in the regions with a big population of Polish descendants to have a folkloric polish dances groups, where they dance and sing polish traditional songs, which we didn’t even know because they are totally forgotten here. The kitchen is really fantastic, takes the best out of polish roots, but mixes it with the region's aliments, like polish dumplings filled with beans. They also use polish language which is not used here anymore, which was transmitted through generations and gain some Portuguese or Spanish influences, what is super interesting.

Marianne was rather focused on the “creolisation” aspect; how Slavonic roots integrated Latin American identities; the youth dances as well as traditional polish folklore on salsa and reggaetón, in total harmony. Concept of nationality or emotional identification to a land are totally different in regions like those ones. Maybe because Argentina and Brazil's construction of “nation state” didn't happen in the same way than in Europe.


© Katarzyna and Marianne Wasowska, from the series Waiting for the Snow

Why did you decide to work on this project as a pair?

We kind of had a perfect match to collaborate in this project. Our family, as mention before, was split by migration and Marianne was born in France, Katarzyna in Poland, we both didn’t know each other too good before becoming grown-ups, both fascinated by photography, traveling and migrations brought us together.

The collaboration merged naturally, through constant dialog and common interests. As we've been working, and at some moments had to analyse our creative process in common, we realised each one of us plays a complementary part in this project, since at some extend it is also our story. If Katarzyna would concentrate questions about origin, how polish culture and language evolved, tradition changes, adaptation, Marianne embodies problematics of the destination point. Intergenerational transition, memory telling, definition of identity in a globalised society. Maybe it would be more exact to say that this project was born from our association, from that we decided to work on it as a duo.

Are you looking to focus on other countries of Latin America as well?

For now, we are not really thinking to continue in other countries, as polish diaspora and migration in different countries of Latin America had totally different characteristics (social origins, time of migration etc), and what we've been interested in are all the specificities of this precise story. However, we discovered plenty fascinating stories there, which can be interesting to investigate.

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Katarzyna Wąsowska photographer and book artist based in Poznan, Poland. She has exhibited her work at Encontros da Imagem Festival, Braga, Portugal; TIFF festival, Wrocław, and Poznań Photo Diploma Awards, Poznań. Follow here on Instagram. Marianne Wasowska has a degree in Anthropology and Photography. Her work has been published on Le Monde and Libération, as well as exhibited in New York, Paris, Arles and Madrid. She is currently based in Mexico. Follow her on Instagram.

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo is a Venezuelan photographer and curator based in Hong Kong. In 2014, she founded Foto Féminas, a platform that promotes the works of female Latin American and Caribbean photographers. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.

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This article is part of In Focus: Latin American Female Photographers, a monthly series curated by Verónica Sanchis Bencomo focusing on the works of female visual storytellers working and living in Latin America.

Written by

Verónica Sanchis Bencomo

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