Knots in the curtain (working title)

Zula Rabikowska

2021 - Ongoing

Poland; Estonia; Latvia; Lithuania; Germany; Czech Republic; Slovakia; Hungary; Romania; Bulgaria

This is a project in progress, which explores gender identity, womanhood, and femininity in countries once behind the Iron Curtain, the former political barrier that divided the Soviet Union from the West during the Cold War. 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 the Soviet history has shaped contemporary gender identity in Central and Eastern Europe.

I work with women, non-binary and trans people who like myself, were born in or after 1989 after the Berlin Wall fell down, and when socialism in these countries came to an end. I am doing this project now because it’s been over 30 years since Communism fell, yet stereotypes about Central and Eastern Europe prevail to this day. Growing up in these regions means facing male-dominated political systems, sexist stereotypes, restrictive beauty standards, folklore traditions or religious oppression. Eastern European countries have fewer rights and worse living conditions, e.g., Bulgaria, or Latvia ban same-sex marriage, whereas some other countries violate fundamental human rights, like Poland’s or Hungary’s treatment of LGBTIQ+ people. My project drives a narrative of inclusion and diversity because I work with people of colour, female-identifying and non-binary and disabled people.

This is a project in progress, and I travel along the former Iron Curtain border to 25 different locations across Poland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria. Each person I meet with contributes a written testimony about their experience of gender, and a scrap of fabric, all of which I sew together to create a “metaphorical” Iron Curtain. The images submitted are selected from the first part of my journey (Baltic Eastern Europe), but the whole project will include almost 100 participants.

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  • Non-Iron Iron Curtain: Each participant is asked to contribute a scrap of fabric from an item of clothing they own. I later sew the pieces together to create a metaphorical curtain. I believe that in this way I can show how diverse former-communist countries are, but they remain connected because of the former communist regime.

  • Agata, 1990, Vilnius, Lithuania (she/her)

  • Maria Izabella, 1999, Tallinn, Estonia (them/they)

  • Alise, 1991, Riga, Latvia (she/her)

  • Danuta, 1991, Riga, Latvia (she/they)

  • Evija, 1997, Riga, Latvia (she/her)

  • Kornelia, 1990, Klaipeda, Lithuania (she/her)

  • Alina, 1995, Gdansk, Poland (she/her)

  • Aura, 1995, Vilnius, Lithuania (she/her)

  • Seline, 1994, (she/her) and Senuri, 1998, (she/her) Riga, Latvia

  • Magda, 1991, Gdansk, Poland (she/her)

  • Kadri, 1989, Tallinn, Estonia (she/her)

  • Hand picked strawberries, Gdansk, Poland

  • Anna, 1996, Gdansk, Poland (she/her)

  • Baltic Coast, Gdansk, Poland

  • "Being a woman is like living in a glass cage all the time. Someone is always looking to trap you or harm you" Vilnius, Lithuania

  • Gosia, 1996, Gdansk, Poland (she/her)

  • Mary with Jesus, Tartu, Estonia

  • "Women are still expected to look nice for men", Riga, Latvia

  • Local graffiti, Gdansk, Poland