Ewa Partum (born 1945 in Grodzisk Mazowiecki, Poland) is a central artist of the Polish conceptual avant-garde and the most internationally renowned first generation feminist artist from Eastern Europe. One of Partum’s most celebrated and provocative works is her action “Self Identification” (1980) in which the artist walks stripped bare only wearing her high heals through the city of Warsaw, confronting the sanctioned public space in the Communist era with her female naked body epitomized in a photomontage where we see the artist opposing a female police officer (a scene that was in fact not possible to dare in real life but was collaged by the artist as the very allegory for the rebellious position of the modern woman in Polish society in the dramatically changing political climate in 1980).
With a highly experimental body of work that includes performance, sculpture, photography, films, visual poetry performances and mail art, Partum engages with the dichotomies of personal versus political, man versus woman, public versus private, autonomy versus control and identity versus body.
Partum studied at the State Higher School of Fine Arts in Lodz from 1963 to 1965, then from 1965-70 in the Department of Painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, where she won a diploma for her work on ‘poetry as art’. Intense experimentation with new forms of visual poetry henceforth became of pivotal interest for Ewa Partum.
Though she was academically trained as a painter, she considered “the possibilities of thought in painting to be exhausted.”¹ Partum became a pioneer of conceptual and feminist art, in addition to exploring the methodologies of public installation and mail art. Her performance pieces “Presence/Absence” (1965) were the first installations in public space ever documented within Poland.
Ewa Partum sought the possibilities of a new art form by engaging with language as form and the body as medium. Partum transforms familiarity into sign, isolating her body in an imposing context, and ruptures them beyond expectation. In the photo-collage cycle “Self Identification” Partum exposes the materiality of spliced photos; she creates a visual logic of her body that does not belong. She fragments herself deliberately and ignores and confronts expectations of invisibility and sanctioned visibility, standards of editorial female beauty with a vulnerable realness of her physical self-exposure, testing the boundaries of identity within its gendered confines. With consistent visual themes in her performances, specifically the use of her body, Ewa Partum transforms herself into an agent of language and an object of art.
In 1972, Partum organized Galerie Adress in Łódź, a locus of mail art and Fluxus activity. Partum, eager to question the boundaries of the institutional structure, considered the gallery an extension of her practice; in the typical Fluxus manner, the framing and medium of the situation becomes the artistic form. The gallery hosted international Fluxus artists to converge and share ideas, leave flyers or throw a party. Galerie Adress remained a center of activity until 1977. The Cold War politics acted hostile towards the avant-garde, and Partum faced censorship of her practice in the 60s and 70s.
Partum made a series of films between 1973 and 1974, which she called Tautological Cinema, a largely a philosophical practice concerned with the fluidity of time and non-authorship inspired by the 1960s paradigm of structural cinema. Seeing film as “non-aesthetic” and exploring it primarily as material with the capacity for communication, Partum says “it’s rather a new sort of philosophical practice that operates in the area in which the relation between the film image and the camerawork covers the whole interest in the film itself.”² She distorts time and images to produce non-narrative meaning, an idea interrupted and an artist alienated, opening herself to the scrutiny of the interpretation she refuses.
The late 1970s in Poland saw a period of organized opposition as the Stalinist economy failed, culminating in the declaration of martial law at the end of 1981. Partum was influenced by artist friends to come to West Berlin, where she has lived and worked since 1982. Before leaving Poland, Partum staged Homage to Solidarity (1981) at the Underground Gallery in Łódź, a performance of the naked artist wearing red lipstick, which she transfers to paper by mouthing the letters of “Solidarność”, the anti-Soviet trade union that challenged the Communist party and led the Polish government to declare martial law. Partum had been using impressions made by her lips to create poetic objects since 1971 in what she calls ”Poems by Ewa,” configuring her body as medium and making femininity an inseparable part of the language she forms.
In the early 1980s, Partum’s practice addressed the institution of marriage and myths of female docility with performances pieces like Wedding Dress (1981), the Stupid Woman series (1981) and Women, Marriage is Against You! (1980). Partum continued her practice of poetic objects with the piece Ost-West Shadow (1984) where she places her naked body a meter or so from the Berlin wall (west side) and holds the letters “O” and “W”, her shadow imprinting these letters merged with her body.
As a member of the post-war generation and post-war avant-garde, Ewa Partum is an artist who centrally defined a new feminist art practice. Her refusal to be shamed or disregarded by male dominant culture and hostility and her integration of female body/identity into performance became a hallmark of authority-questioning conceptual art of the period. Partum attacks on all fronts, she creates the situation, she inserts herself, she personalizes her statement but her art is patient. It places itself self-consciously in the male gaze and the dominant political gaze, knowing that it uses (and fundamentally re-purposes) the lipstick or language that frames the rigidity of the gender norm.
¹ ² Gorzodek, Ewa. “Ewa Partum.” Polish Cultural Institute of New York. Polish Cultural Institute, 1 Jan. 2004. Web. 28 Aug. 2016.