A shared history

By Aleksandra Kozłowska

A shared History of tangled threads. A Gdańsk tapestry woven out of various cultures. Someone comes to us from another culture – how should we welcome them? How should we behave? The international project 'Shared History' at the Baltic Sea Culture Centre (BSCC) is one such answer.
'He put his fingers into my bowl! I won't be eating that! – Michał firmly cries out and puts aside his lunchbox containing his morning snack.
He is sitting together with his friend Jagna and Marat. Marat is 'the foreigner', the new boy in the class, a refugee from some country, speaking the language 'ka'. He had just shared his rolls with his friends and without so much as a beg your pardon – according to Polish customs – helped himself to Michał's food.

A thunderclap! A wave of thunderous clapping resounds. This is how the audience reacts when there is a proposal to take the action further, comment on what is taking place. The audience is a group of Year Seven pupils from Primary School no. 45 in Wrzeszcz. The stage is one of the classrooms on the ground floor (a piano by the window and beyond the playing field) and the actors are youngsters from the Teatr Gdynia Główna (TGG) theatre. One of the pupils says that Marat should not have taken Michał's snack just like that - without asking. Gosia, playing the role of the 'emcee', that is the stage director says: 'And how should he know that is not the custom?
Audience: 'He could have checked it on the Internet – he's got a smartphone'.
Gosia: 'Michał could have also calmly explained this and not take offence just like that. He preferred to wait until Jagna introduces him to Marat. But he could have taken the initiative, offer his hand to his new friend. Why didn't he do this?'
The audience: 'For a man has his pride'.
Then someone suggests that Michal, seeing how Marat is reaching out for his food, should take his hand, making him understand that this is not what you do in Poland. 'When someone is new, you have to show him his place', explains one of the pupils in Year Seven.

But the greatest reaction comes from the scene with Michal's father. The home tyrant type, violent and xenophobic, shouting ready-made 'labels' about shutting the borders, keeping out the unclean and their diseases, preventing the rape and murder that these shall bestow upon us if we let them in. Outraged by the fact that Michał as the best pupil greeted Marat in the class, he shouts at his son 'As long as you live in my home you have to obey me! Follow what I say!
The audience protests at once:
'A father has no right to shout at his son'.
'Michal has the right to his own opinion'.
'People running away from war should be helped'.

In line with the theatre forum, Melchior – one of the pupils – seconds Michal on stage and playing his role, bravely holds his ground against his furious father. A moment later, Aneta plays Michal. In a quiet but ungiving voice she speaks with the father, not losing her self-assurance despite the father's increasing aggression. Returning to the audience, we can see that she has truly been through the wringer in this confrontation.
Her friend Patryk comments that xenophobia always comes from home and that the young take their example from their parents. And that words can wound just as deeply as physical violence does.
Finishing the performance, Gosia asked the audience for advice for Michał. The answer in fact is one: fight for your right to your own opinion and don't bow to the pressure of others.

A glaring cultural shock

The idea of a staging a performance on refugees, dedicated to children, was born in the head of Przemek Jurewicz - actor, dancer and choreographer at the TGG theatre. He explained this: 'I wished to show a play on xenophobia and the threat of nationalism. But we didn't have any contact with refugees, especially those fleeing from the Middle East. It was only a meeting with
Ibrahim Mouhanna that presented an occasion to meet one. Ibrahim told me a lot about himself and what really hit me the most were his drastic pictures of war and mental state before leaving Syria. And then the shock of cultural and climate when he came to Sweden – where he was always cold.

The European customs of eating turned out to be a glaring sign of the differences of culture for Ibrahim: 'When we met for supper in town, he noted how funny Polish people are, being so protective of their meals', relates Przemek. 'In our country – Poland - this is my territory, my property – keep your distance. In their country – Syria - food is a communal act. There it's obvious that when it comes to eating, everybody shares'.

Ibrahim Mouhanna is a Syrian filmmaker and as a journalist and creator of documentaries, he worked for the opposition television in Damascus. When the revolution broke out he tried to continue working for the same television station in Dubai. At present, he lives in Sweden and came to Gdańsk in March 2018 so as to make the film 'UnderWeAre' at the 'Shared History' exhibition presented in May 2018, St John's Centre (co-creator of the exhibition is the Tri-City visual artist Agnieszka Wołodźko). As fate would have it, Ibrahim needed several children and a dancer for the film, and in this way met Przemek.

Be our guest and sit on the carpet and rest

This is the Gothic church of St John in Gdańsk, one of the most treasured relics here. In the right nave, on the floor, an unusual sight: several patterned carpets, one alongside the other, with coloured cushions on top. And a notice – so that there will be no uncertainty – inviting to sit, rest and use. On the brick wall, under which the carpets were laid out, an outline of former stairs and on the wall an oblong piece of yellow material with the inscription: 'Waiting for Paolo Dall’Oglio'. Below, a TV showing a documentary on Dall’Oglio. And a little bit further a screen and chairs, where it's possible to view the film 'UnderWeAre'.

Who are we waiting for? An Italian Jesuit who admits that he is in love with Islam. At the turn of the 1990s he restored a stone Monastery established in the sixth century dedicated to Mojżesz Abisyński (Deir Mar Musa al-Habashi), about 80 km from Damascus. It is there that he established the al-Khalil community, where Christians and Muslims met. In a discussion with
Jakub Gałęziowski, Father Paolo explained the establishment of the community: 'It is a reference to the local tradition, where monastic life was part of the symbolic world of Islam, where the prophet Mahomet and his devotees respected and protected Christian monasteries. That is why we take this road, noting how great a meaning making a pilgrimage to our Monastery has for the locals, Christians and Muslims'. For 30 years he conducted a dialogue between the Cross and the Crescent, propagating not only tolerance but first and foremost, friendship. When in 2011 demonstrations broke out against the dictator Baszar al-Asad, he supported the protesters. In response in 2012 the authorities forced the Jesuit to leave Syria. He travelled therefore round the world, relating the nightmare of war. Several times, however, he returned to Syria and in July 2013 in Raqqa, disappeared – most likely abducted by Islamic extremists.

The question of how nationalism is inculcated into people, how the seeds of intolerance are sown, shows the film by Ibrahim Mouhanny at St. John's Centre.
'Many people do not have any choice as to who they have become today', notes the filmmaker. And in a symbolic way shows the brainwashing that Syrians had to go through from their early school years under the Asad regime. Education, tradition, religion and politicians have all left their scars in the minds of society, imposing the one and only 'true' values – denying people pluralism.

In his striking images, Mouhanna asks who has control over us, who influences us. And whether we are aware of this. It is difficult to find a more universal question in the times of the Internet, social media and Twitter politicians.

During the making of the film, the director's assistant Anna Domańska, a Gdańsk person, recipient of the Migration Media Award, had met and spoken with refugees many a time. When they began to migrate in great numbers to Europe, she travelled to the Balkans and to Greece so as to document their troublesome journeys. On the mediumpubliczne.pl site she describes one such meeting with an Iranian family in Athens in 2016: '(…) I've come from Poland and am a voluntary worker, distributing many teas in winter in Serbia and now try to better understand the fate of refugees and tell their story – I make films. (…) They are tired and conditions in the camp are bad; there is nowhere to wash. They went to see whether it would be better in
Idomeni, on the Greek Macedonian border, but quickly returned, for the situation turned out to be even worse – apart from the lack of washing facilities – just mud and isolation'.

Paolo Dall’Oglio also travelled to the refugees. 'During the Syrian conflict he travelled to one of these camps in Lebanon', says Agnieszka Wołodźko. 'Ibrahim show me his documentary films on Father Paolo. In this Lebanese camp people lived in extremely difficult conditions and began to mutiny. Dall’Oglio therefore went there as a mediator. The first thing that I noticed in this scene was the arrangement of space between the two sides of the conflict, carpets directly laid out on sand and overhead, a tent ceiling lay open. In a very simple way a place was set up that favoured discussion.

Paolo Dall’Oglio himself was such an embodiment of dialogue. Wołodźko: 'He knew how to build bridges between Christians and Muslims. Today such people are needed. In Europe we have a great exchange between these two cultures, but we know so little about Islam'.

And so as to bring about this climate of dialogue, the climate of the unique Syrian Monastery, she laid out carpets and cushions in the Catholic church. 'Our body behaves in a different way in such a space. On a carpet it can relax and settle itself in the most comfortable way possible. In church pews or on chairs we would become stiff, which brings out completely different reactions and a different reception of the environment', says the artist.
In her work there is a poignant longing for our openness, hospitality - one that we have for centuries become famous for and ability to work with others from other cultures. There is also the hope that even if not Paolo Dall’Oglio himself, then someone similar will appear in our neck of the woods and in times of dramatic social fracture undertake a dialogue between communities. For after all, we have experience on our side. In particular Gdańsk is a place where for centuries languages and religion, and cultures and customs have rubbed shoulders.
'The city that we are so proud of was built by those of Gdańsk, sometimes born far and wide, with immigrants and refugees from the Netherlands, Scotland, Germany, France and in the case of World War II, those repatriated from the borderlands', reminds Magdalena Zakrzewska-Duda from the BSCC, co-author of the 'Shared History' project. 'It is enough to go out onto the street to see the very proof of their presence'.

The stuff of multiculturism

in fact, even a short walk along the Old Town is at the same time akin to a winding road along a map of Europe. There is Brama Wyżynna (Tall Gate), raised by Hans Kramer from Dresno, its design the work of the Fleming, Willem van den Blocke. And Brama Złota (Golden Gate), the work of Abraham van den Blocke, son of Willem. And Most Zielony (Green Bridge), the first version a building by Dirk Daniels from Danish Zelandia. Not to mention Wielka Zbrojownia (Great Armoury), the child of another architect from the Netherlands – Antoni van Obberghen, who also designed the Ratusz Staromiejski (Old Town Hall)– the nerve centre of the NCK (Baltic Sea Culture Centre). Moreover, St John's Centre for the past dozen or more years has been promoting international dialogue. It would be hard to imagine otherwise, since its director is Larry Ugwu, a Nigerian by birth and a true Gdańsk person (36 years) by choice and to boot, a musician – leader of the bands Ikenga Drummers, Biafro and Dreadless Lions.

And many many more examples could be given. It is also worth to note the aforementioned St John's Church and St John's Centre, which represents its cultural heartbeat. The Church is the essence of multiculturalism; built for Catholic brethren, then for many decades used by Protestants, only to return to keeping the faith of the former. 'Yes this is a special church', emphasises Magdalena Zakrzewska. 'Many themes woven into dialogues take place there – both sacrum and profanum, that is the arts (exhibitions, concerts and dramas) as well as religious practice.

The heart of the Church is the stone altar by Abraham van den Blocke, while among the numerous relics furnishing the interior there are sculptures, gravestones and epitaphia in memory of German, Dutch and Italian clergy and its founders. One such – the merchant Zachariasz Zappio, in the 17th century was the head of the Church chapter, responsible for finances and buildings and who established a foundation for the poor. He became famous as the creator of the so-called Zappio-Johannitan Library (it's collections can be found today in the PAN Central Library). He is immortalised by the Lane Zaułek Zachariasza Zappio (so named by the NCK in 2000), which is situated at the doorstep of the church dedicated to St John.

Gdańsk for everyone

Today Gdańsk again is building its identity through multiculturalism. After all, it is here that the Integration of Migrants Model arose and was accepted in June 2016 by the town council. It is here that the Łączy Nas Gdańsk (United by Gdańsk) campaign was established for the purposes of 'promoting events, initiatives and people who prove that in an age of divisions and differences all can coexist side-by-side peacefully'. And it doesn't work in a vacuum. Regardless of how much right-wing groups like to see Poland and Gdańsk as culturally homogenic, immigrants do come. As the Łączy Nas Gdańsk (ŁNG) website informs, in our city at present there are over 20,000 foreigners from 102 countries and all the continents. In sum , there are at least 75 languages spoken. People from the Ukraine are the most numerous (about 15,000), there are also Russians, Germans, Belarussians, Italians, Swedes, Brits, Chinese and those from Vietnam. At universities in Gdańsk there study about 2,000 international students; first and foremost from Scandinavia, USA, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan. In Gdańsk more than a dozen refugee families (about 200 people) have also found shelter - from Chechenia, Syria, Armenia, Ukraine and Rwanda.

On the 30 August 2017, Gdańsk joined ICORN (International Cities of Refuge Network), which helps writers, poets and repressed journalists in their countries, offering them safe homes and the right conditions for creative work. At the beginning of 2018, came Sari Alhassanat, a Palestine poet and the first Gdańsk writer with an ICORN stipend.

Whence the fear?

At the same time, as throughout Poland and in fact all of Europe and the United States, xenophobic moods are growing. The ONR (National Radical Camp) March in April on the streets of Gdańsk showed that the matter is serious. 'We have to fight back through artistic education', Przemek Jurewicz emphasises. 'Our theatre is directed to young people, those threatened by xenophobic attitudes. I wanted the drama to lay bare nationalistic stereotypes and help people to think: where do my customs come from? Where does the fear of others comes from?

Małgorzata Polakowska and Jacek Panek (played Michał) point out that the drama shall evolve, they both wish to learn more about refugees in Poland, especially about children. In exploring important social matters they already have significant experience. Together with the TGG they have already realised forum presentations, for example on the subject of homophobia and stalking.

When I ask Magdalena Zakrzewska-Duda about her impressions of the theatre put on at Primary School no. 45, she admits straightaway: 'I am completely shaken, moved. Emotions such as these today, I have rarely experienced in a "real" theatre. What made the greatest impression on me was the reaction of the audience; here I'm mainly thinking about the scene with Michal's father. A scene about being dependent on someone who has some great power over us.
How does the performance at the TGG fit into the 'Shared History' project?
'It tells a story about someone coming to us from a foreign culture. And how we are to receive this person. And this also is part of our project – it speaks about what is happening in the present world, how as a result of wars, poverty and climate change, people are having to change the place where they live so as to survive. We wanted to remind the history of our multiculturalism, to show that it is still alive. It is in our nature that we are interested by what is closest and therefore here in our city, just round the corner, less than what is happening in Syria or Sudan. Many of us do not realise how many foreigners we have in Gdańsk – we don't notice them and don't know them'.

An occasion to meet 'new' Gdańsk people was to show the exhibition by Agnieszka Wołodźko and Ibrahim Mouhanna. The role of guides was taken up by a woman from Ukraine and another from Russia as well as a man from Italy, who all added their own personal histories to the stories presented by the artists. Further threads in this great Gdańsk tapestry woven out of the various cultures.

'I was a guide for only one evening, the Night of Museums. As it happens, I did not come across any Ukrainians interested in the exhibition, but instead there were Poles, relates Natasza Kovalyshyna, from Ukraine, in Gdańsk for the past four years. 'I told them about the St John's Centre, about the relics in this city, about the fact that this is not a typical church but one that joins the old with the new. You come here to the exhibition, you can also come to holy mass. The 'Shared History' exhibition in my opinion was very interesting. As a result I learnt about
Paolo Dall’Oglio and saw the film by Ibrahim Mouhanna. It gave me a lot to think about, to mull over what the author had to say about one thing and the other. I'm really happy that Ukrainian and Russian immigrants in Gdańsk could read about the exhibition in their native language – the BSCC having prepared a special brochure for this purpose.

The Baltic - a span across cultures

'Shared History – Splecione losy' is not only a Gdańsk project. It arose as the fruit of collaboration between the BSCC and the LCCA (Latvian Contemporary Centre of Art) from Riga as well as Fargfabriken in Stockholm. 'We first started to work together in the 'Baltic House' in 2014', says Zakrzewska-Duda. The Shared History is something that we treat as a particular type of continuation.

The 'Baltic House', broadly speaking, referred to the sense of threat and uncertainty in the contemporary, environmentally devastated world. Rescue comes as a safe shelter – here such a shelter can be the Baltic Sea region. This is a region seen as a common good, a source of identity and a goal for future development. So if this development is to occur, we need a civic society, one of collaboration and cultural exchange.

Returning to Shared History – the project was evaluated by the European commission in 2016, qualifying it to the final 12 (out of 274 applications for financing) in the creative Europe programme that supports the integration of refugees through cultural, audiovisual and inter-sector projects, supporting the integration of refugees, increasing mutual understanding, developing intercultural and inter-faith dialogue as well as tolerance and respect for other cultures.

What this dialogue looked like in Gdańsk is something we already know. It's also worth going out to Riga, where between this 22nd of September 2018 and fourth of November 2018 at the Latvian Museum of Art Riga Bourse there will be an exhibition linking contemporary and old art, which is seen as an inspiration for today's artists.

Riga Bourse in former times was known as the Museum of Foreign Art, where the major part of its collections constituted therefore exhibits from ancient Egypt, the Antique World, Chinese, Indian and Japanese art, as well as works of art from Western Europe and Russia. This treasure chest of riches and history of collections became the spark that lit the flame of creativity for contemporary artists, both Latvian and those abroad. They in turn undertook a dialogue with the masters of old, integrating their own experiences with their artistry.

In summer, however, it was possible to check how Shared History is interpreted by a pair of international artists in Stockholm, in Färgfabriken (project leader). There, up to 19 August therefore, it was possible to see an unusual forest – an installation composed of colourful carpet-pictures and sculptures made by the play of lights and shadows. The artist behind the installation – architect Hala Alnaji and artist Valeria Montti Colque – focused on a theme familiar to all of Scandinavia, contact with nature as the natural world as an environment lending itself to integration – not only for immigrants. This sylvan 'sea of immersion' calms, tempers and gives a sense of being at one with the world.

The second pair of artists, Vanja Sandell Billström and Reza Hazare, created the installation video 'Winzipped senses' (a compression of the senses). Standing before the camera they told of their experiences in life under pressure, about problems relating to migration rights and responsibilities. Taking turns they ask each other questions, taking turns they answer, now listener and now speaker – swapping roles, they experience in turn eachother's view.


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