The roundtable is aimed at discussing the recent revival of the story and image of the jazz musician and WWII resistance soldier of African descent, August Agboola Browne (1895–1976, nom de guerre ‘Ali’), in contemporary Warsaw. ‘Ali’, son of a Nigerian father and a Polish mother, is believed to have been the only black participant in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising. After he left Poland in the late 1950s, his existence was for many decades almost totally forgotten in the city. Recently, his story has returned in discussions of Warsaw’s public history, in part thanks to a series of conspicuous portraits of ‘Ali’ painted in 2015–2017 by Polish visual artist Karol Radziszewski. The conversation between Nicholas Boston (sociologist), Magdalena Wróblewska (curator), and Karol Radziszewski himself will focus on two of his paintings from the ‘Ali’ series that were purchased by the Museum of Warsaw and then exhibited sequentially in its new core exhibition “The Things of Warsaw”: one depicted a naked black man against a white-red background recalling the Polish national flag (2017–2019), the other showed a black man dressed in a Polish insurgent army uniform (2019–). Radziszewski’s portraits of ‘Ali’ helped the museum uncover hidden entanglements between the city’s wartime past and the (post)colonial imaginary, by questioning well-established patterns of collective memory focused on a homogenous, white Polish society, and challenging its military idioms. At the same time, curatorial practices surrounding both paintings, along with memory activism performed in urban space and on social media, catalyzed a pluriverse of interpretations among visitors. The symbolic meaning and social impact of the rediscovered figure of ‘Ali’ will be discussed from the perspectives of the artist, the museum curator responsible for displaying the portraits, and the media scholar who explores them with a critical queer lens.
Portraying Ali: A Queer Eye on the Black Guy
This paper explores the depiction of the black male subject in the production and exhibition of representational art, particularly portraiture, in contemporary Poland. The central case study through which this discussion will be launched is a series of portraits by the artist Karol Radziszewski that depicts an historic figure somewhat obscured in the narrative of Polish resistance, August Agboola Browne. A Nigerian-born jazz musician, Browne, through his involvement with the resistance movement, served in the Warsaw Uprising, being the only known black combatant in the Uprising. He went by the code name, “Ali.”
Mr. Radziszewski is openly gay, and has described himself as Poland’s first openly gay or queer contemporary visual artist. His practice is multimedia and he is well known for his installations challenging heteronormativity (in Polish society). Radziszewski’s archive-based methodology crosses multiple cultural, historical, religious, social and gender references. As the queer media scholar Łukasz Szulc has written, Radziszewski’s work is highly reflective of Polish history and driven by an ethos of reclamation of silenced or submerged queer Polish histories. This artistic practice has involved the exhibition of actual archives of photographs and other artefacts.
Foraying into painting, Radziszewski created the series “Ali (2015 – 2017).” One of these portraits “found his place in the permanent collection of the Museum of Warsaw that opened last night,” Radziszewski announced in a post on Instagram on May 24, 2017. The selected portrait, which depicts Ali as a shirtless young man with massive, bulging musculature, bears no resemblance, beyond race, to the archival photographs that exist of Browne. The real Ali was 49 years of age at the time of the Uprising, once married to a Polish woman and father of two children; in every photographic representation, he is slight of build and fully clad in suits and ties.
Controversy over the Ali portrait ensued, as observers remarked that Radziszewski’s portrayal is contradictory in not only its representational elements, but by consequence, its exhibition. Immediately surrounding it on the wall of the museum are, in the words of one commentator, portraits of “white Polish men looking dignified in their military uniforms.” In stark contrast, Radziszewski’s Ali is literally stripped bare, a spectacle to behold. “This is really a queer eye on the black guy,” another observer expressed. (These comments are drawn from social media and informal conversations.)
A transnational discussion took place about the hyperphysical, and what many perceived to be sexualized, depiction of this man of African descent and the extent to which Polish cultural producers undertaking representations of non-western, particularly Afro-diasporic, peoples and identities (dis)engage with a politics of difference in the conceptualization of their work.
This paper, then, is a sociology of art production that deploys analyses of race and sexuality. It first draws on interview data from an in-depth interview conducted with Mr Radziszewski, discussing issues such as artistic traditions and discourses (one strand of the debate concerned the artist’s composition of Ali in a style reminiscent of Picasso, and whether that decision uncritically replayed an appropriative, western relationship to African aesthetics and material culture).
The paper then turns to the question of intersectionality to probe whether a queer/gay aesthetic has here misarticulated racial subjectivity.