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Slavs and Slavery – Spotlight on Justyna Kisielewicz

Written By Erin Parish
June 17, 2024 at 2:51 PM

Justyna Kisielewicz, Heaven on Earth, 2020, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 15 x 42 inches at Laundromat Art Space. Photo credit Erin Parish.

Justyna Kisielewicz (b. 1983, Poland) paints complex narrative work informed by her upbringing in Poland, which seduces with images of abundance. However, one will find these are not ‘Disney-esque’ but rather political paintings, meant to educate and to visit history in the hopes of avoiding its repetition.

This dual presentation echoes her recollection, from age 7, of a grade-school field trip when she ended up, not at a museum, but touring a concentration camp.

Kisielewicz grew up in a time of long food lines and unsustainable scarcity. Her family feared being sent to a Gulag, a work camp. Poles were historically sent to northern Siberia and labored often at 50 – 70 degrees below zero on insufficient calories to sustain life.

The concentration camp tour guide shared which poisonous gas was used in that genocide, adding that it made the skin very pink. You will find the reoccurrence of this significant color in Kisielewicz’s figures. For the artist, this became a color with a double interpretation: pink dead bodies and the shiny pink toys coming from the West after the Iron Curtain fell in 1991.

Justyna Kisielewicz, Las Piratas, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Photo courtesy Galería La Cometa.

Painted in 2023, Las Piratas, currently on view at Galería La Cometa, will serve here as a focal point to engage in the decoding of Kisielewicz’s work. Pastoral tropical scenery climbs the surface. The academic line quality, blue on clean white cooly recalls Delft tiles or wallpaper. Centrally, two brightly painted figures adorned in telling fabrics of Gucci, Hermes, and Vuitton, enhance the complexity of the narrative. A ship floats in the middleground. Her juxtaposition of scenes includes America’s dark past. The direct, cartoon-like paint handling adds to tension through its dispassion.

Kisielewicz has been challenged in her utilization of images of colonization and slavery. A visitor to La Cometa questioned her right, as a Caucasian, to address American slavery. She points out the etymology of her racial group. She is a Slav, which came from the word slave. Her people were enslaved for centuries by the Russians. The visitor inquired about her skin color, perhaps wondering if she had “street cred” to make this work. She is bringing her personal history and translating it to a language that resonates within the United States.

Installation view at Galerie La Cometa, Justyna Kisielewicz. Photo courtesy Galería La Cometa.

For Kisielewicz, Miami is little Poland. She intuits a real-life commonality with factions of the Latino community, the alignment in formative experiences, to standing in line for hours for valuable toilet paper.

Her working process is direct. After making a sketch, she pencils it in on the canvas and proceeds to transmute this to paint, taking care as mistakes can ruin the entire undertaking. She follows this with the coloration of the primary image.

The decoding of her messages is imperative. Perhaps her skill of coded messages is from living with oppression and surveillance? This can be likened to Cuba’s many musical double entendres; it is not what is exactly said but what people are able to understand through nuance and imagery.

Justyna Kisielewicz, El Pirata, 2024, Oil and 3D embroidered flames on canvas, 60 x 60 inches. Photo courtesy Galería La Cometa.

One scene seamlessly morphs into the next. The details continue to offer more information and pose questions. Why is there a chicken on perfectly green grass? What does the cat and its imitated patterning on the clothing have to do with anything? Based on the aim of her work, one will find the answers.

She holds a mirror up to our culture to reflect her own experiences.

Currently, her work can be found in two group exhibitions, at Galería La Cometa through June 23, and at the Laundromat Art Space through July 27.

WHAT: Two group exhibitions including Justyna Kisielewicz. “What’s Mine is Yours” at Galería La Cometa and “Everyone I know is Growing Old Too Quickly” at Laundromat Art Space, curated by Ross Karlan and Sophia Ballesteros

WHERE: Galería La Cometa is located at 1015 NW 23rd Street, Unit 2, Miami
Laundromat Art Space is at 185 NE 59th Street Miami

WHEN: Galería La Cometa: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Monday to Friday, 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday, through June 23; Laundromat Art Space: 12 p.m. – 4 p.m., Wednesday – Saturday, by appointment, Sunday – Tuesday, through July 27

COST: Free

INFORMATION: Galería La Cometa: (754) 277-6298 or galerialacometa.com/the-galery/la-cometa-miami; The Laundromat Art Space: laundromatartspace.com

ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com.

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