Polish Cultural Week 2011

Co-ordinator Eva Grosman on how art can strengthen ties and build friendships

You know it’s election time when the posters come out. Everywhere the parties are beginning to mark their territory, and in east Belfast, one face stands out.

SDLP candidate, Magdalena Wolska, is the first Polish immigrant to run for an assembly position in Northern Ireland. She’s young, she’s foreign and she’s female – with any luck, her, and other eager young politicians like her, represent the future of our wee country.

Many argued that the Poles would pack up and ship out after the pound lost its lustre, and perhaps their numbers here have declined. But, a stroll down any of the major supermarkets’ aisles shows that their presence continues to have a pervading influence on Northern Irish society. 

So, for anyone who remains in any doubt as to whether or not the Poles are here to stay, it might be appropriate – with Magdalena Wolska in mind – to adopt a popular slogan from America’s own symbol of political change and declare, loud and clear: yes, they are!

Polish Cultural Week is one way to acquaint ourselves with our Polish neighbours’ impressive cultural heritage, and they have their own politicians to thank for continuing to make the annual arts festival possible.

Since its entry into the EU seven years ago, the Polish government has sought to strengthen ties between Poland and Northern Ireland by providing £250,000 worth of funding for Polish Cultural Week and other Polish cultural events in Northern Ireland - £4m in total for 'Polska! Year', which enables similar festivals to occur in Scotland, England and Wales.

Eva Grosman, Polish Cultural Week Co-ordinator (and Project Manager of the Unite Against Hate campaign), hopes that this ‘strategic investment’ will help the indigenous population of Northern Ireland to ‘embrace’ and ‘enjoy’ Polish culture.

‘It’s not all about immigration – these people coming to take our jobs!’ she laughs, wryly. ‘It’s about our positive contribution to Northern Irish society, the arts and the political scene.

‘As a minority, we’re interested in how we can learn from each other. To this end, we have established exchange programmes between Northern Irish and Polish artists, and, as part of the festival, we have photographic exhibitions, workshops, film screenings and plays that everyone can enjoy, embrace and learn from.’

Grosman acknowledges that Mageldena Wolska’s candidacy is a positive step forward for the Polish population in Northern Ireland – they are now the largest ethnic minority in the country – but cites Alliance MLA, Anna Lo’s tenure in office (she was the first Chinese politician elected anywhere in Europe) as a sign that Northern Ireland is galloping, rather than limping reluctantly, towards a more inclusive, multi-cultural future.

Grosman prefers to look at the positives – of which, she argues, there are many – and, considering that Polish Cultural Week is ‘not my day job, it's more a hobby’, she is leading by example. ‘Through Polish Cultural Week we hope to show how art helped us to effect positive political change in our own country and establish an independent state,’ Grosman explains.

‘It is something that Poland and Northern Ireland have in common: we are both emerging from intensive periods of conflict, and the arts are an important part of our development. Both countries have struggled for identity. It is that creative tension that has allowed our artists to mobilise.’

This year, the festival welcomes some of Poland’s most renowned artists, such as award-winning photographer, Tomasz Tomaszewski, who, as Grosman proudly declares, is a regular contributor to National Geographic, the New York Times and Times magazine.

His exhibition in the Red Barn Gallery – which documents industrial stagnation and life after the coalmines in the Upper Silesia region of Polan – will ‘hopefully attract a lot of Northern Irish artists and debate’, says Grosman.

And there is more. Jazz from Pawel Kaczmarcyk and the Audiofeeling Band, performance art from the wonderfully named Malgosia Butterwick, documentaries, culinary treats and even Alternative City Walks in Polish for anyone keen on mastering the language.

The success of the festival is not entirely due to external assistance (from the Polish Cultural Institute in London and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw, as well as the Polish Ministry for Culture). Grosman is proud that partnerships ‘on the ground’ are strengthening year on year.

‘We are now working with the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s, the Lyric Theatre, the Mac, Queen’s Film Theatre and Arts Ekta, amongst other,’ she boasts. ‘They are all helping us with Polish Cultural Week, and we are delighted. For example, we will be there at the Lyric’s opening festival, which we’re very excited about. Polish culture is now very much a part of the scene.’