Magazine Poland

Ba Lan: the untold story of Poland’s Vietnamese diaspora

Poland is a largely mono-ethnic country whose minorities are rarely depicted in the media. In her fascinating project “Ba Lan”, which means “Poland” in Vietnamese, Polish photographer Zula Rabikowska seeks to understand how Poland’s Vietnamese diaspora reconciles their identity in a country which believes that nationality is rooted in ethnic origin.

“I drew on my experiences as a Polish immigrant the UK in my collaborative work with the Vietnamese community in Warsaw”, says Polish artist Zula Rabikowska, who also has British citizenship.

“It was the project about my family’s experience in the UK, which encouraged me to return to Poland and better understand the complexity of the country where I was born. I wanted to demonstrate that Poland isn’t this mono-ethnic homogenous Catholic mass, but a rapidly changing society with its own history of migration.”

“Ba Lan” project, by Zula Rabikowska

The Vietnamese diaspora in Poland started to form in the 1950s with a current estimated population of 50-80,000. In contrast with the Vietnamese diaspora in the US, who are often of refugee origin, the Vietnamese communities in Poland began due to student exchanges between the communist governments of Poland and Vietnam of the time.

“Poland’s Communist past is central in the project and for this reason I incorporate archival imagery into the photographs that I had taken. As a result, the “preserved” state history is intertwined with personal stories”, explains Zula.

“The juxtaposition of the colour portraits with black and white images subverts the one-dimensional narrative, and hints at a larger, more complex understanding of the Vietnamese community.”

“Ba Lan” project, by Zula Rabikowska

The Vietnamese community in Poland is the fourth-largest Vietnamese community in the European Union, after those in France, Germany and the Czech Republic. It is Poland’s largest immigrant community whose culture is not European.

Zula’s “Ba Lan” exhibition was already exposed in London last year but the Polish photographer hopes to bring it to Poland in the near future.

Zula was one of the independant filmmakers from Central Europe who were showcased at the Calvert Journal Film Festival last month. An autobiographical response to the Brexit referendum, her short experimental film “Citizens of Nowhere” delves into her experience with citizenship, nationality, and identity.

“Ba Lan” project, by Zula Rabikowska

She also co-founded the London-based Red Zenith Collective, which is an art platform for non-binary and female creatives from Central and Eastern Europe.

“Our aim is to diversify the arts scene in the UK and provide underrepresented people access and an alternative platform to engage with the industry,” she tells us. “We have a special focus for ethnic minorities, LGBTQ and artists with disabilities, due to higher discrimination against those communities in ‘home’ countries.”

Check out the rest of Zula Rabikowska’s “Ba Lan” exhibition on her website, and find out more about Zula and her many projects online and on Instagram!