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Gendered pain: Central European women and the art world

The Iron Curtain, a socio-political barrier which divided Europe during the Cold War overshadows the way former communist countries are seen in the UK. Unfortunately, to this day countries once behind the Iron Curtain are often reduced into a homogenous, unrecognisable mass and continue to be referred to as the “Eastern Bloc”.  Even though the communist regime is long gone in Europe, and autonomy of former communist states has been regained, there is still a division between the so called “Eastern” and “Western” Europe which translates to all areas of life, but particularly affects those working in creative industries.

Employers, art institutions, clients and businesses often favour graduates or prospective employees with degrees or experienced obtained in the UK, Germany or France. Prestigious European institutions, such as Charles University in Prague founded in 1348, or the Jagiellonian University in Kraków established in 1364, do not hold up in the eyes of British employers the same way as graduates from Oxford, Cambridge or the Sorbonne.

This is particularly the case in the art world. And for women, things get even tougher.

Hystera, Exhibition at Centrala Space, Birmingham, UK (2021)

Growing up in Central and Eastern Europe means facing male-dominated political systems, sexist stereotypes and restrictive beauty standards. In former communist countries, the end of communism brought on the escalation of gender-specific segregation in the labour market, contributing to a ‘feminisation of poverty ’and further economic divisions between men and women, making it even more difficult for female artists to have their skills and expertise recognised in the art world.

Kafkadesk spoke to female artists, historians, educators and curators from V4 countries who moved to the UK or Germany about the value of Central and Eastern European qualifications in the “West” and the challenges they face in the contemporary art world.

“Real artists”

Dr Alicja Pawluczuk is a Polish researcher, educator and artist who obtained her PhD in the UK and currently lives in Berlin. She suggests that it’s still important to obtain a higher education qualification in the arts in order to be recognised by galleries, art institutions or potential clients. About the challenges and obstacles she faces as a Polish artist, Pawluczuk says that “It’s hard to pinpoint exactly which part of my practice are affected by my Eastern European identity. There is one obstacle that I’ve internalised while growing up in Poland. That is the idea that the art space can only be occupied by real (read: educated) artist.”

“I had many friends whose degrees obtained in Poland were not taken seriously in the UK. Many of them decided to choose different careers or had to establish themselves as art professionals, artists or/and photographers from scratch. At the time, art in Scotland was all about finding the right networks and trying to fit into them. I manged to do through months of volunteering and burn outs, which in the led me to moving away from arts and going into academia.”

Karina Cabanikova, self-portrait (2020)

“Ticking boxes”

Karina Cabanikova is a Slovak curator and artist based in Birmingham (UK) whose practice is research-led, interdisciplinary, collaborative and focuses on social structures and the political subtext of the everyday. Cabanikova shares with us her experience of Eastern European qualifications and says that “I don’t remember whether my qualifications were not recognised in the UK as it was middle school when I moved to the UK, and I went straight to high school. However, I had another issue: my GCSEs from the UK were not recognised in Slovakia as it was way behind Slovakian curriculum.”

Cabanikova has extensive experience of the art scene in the UK and has worked as some major art institutions including, Centrala Space, Karst Gallery and Ikon Gallery and shares her disappointment with the art scene “my friends in the UK and Slovakia don’t bother with art degrees anymore. They don’t agree with arts scene in the UK, as it’s all controlled by “ticking boxes” and current trends. They feel like it’s no longer about artists and their art but about ticking boxes and fitting into Arts Council England idea of art.”

Drahoslava Machova, by Zula Rabikowska (2021)

“Xenophobia and prejudice”

Similarly, to Cabanikova, Drahoslava Machova, an interdisciplinary historian from the Czech Republic, also highlights her disillusionment with the UK education system in relation to her background. Machova currently lives in Preston (UK) and has previously worked and studied in the UK. Her academic research divides into two fields: the explorative study on the memory of Czechoslovak Communism and the local history of Lancashire.

Machova moved to the UK to study History at University of Central Lancashire and her experience and educational qualifications from the Czech Republic were overlooked in the UK: “I felt like my previous experience and education didn’t count in the UK. In academia, you can notice the disparity of what we would consider as “relevance” or measuring impact of one’s academic to another. Academics from Western Europe seemed to be considered of greater significance than the ones from Eastern Europe.” About the challenges she faced whilst living in the UK, Machova says that she didn’t face “any less challenges as other immigrants. Xenophobia and prejudice sadly feel like an omnipresent reality for all immigrants.”

WA(Y)ST(O)ED Freedom: Magorzata Drohmirecka Exhibition at Centrala Space, curated by Marta Grabowska (2021)

“A closed environment”

Marta Grabowska is a Polish curator living between London and Kraków and holds art degrees from both respective countries. After moving to the UK, Grabowska observed that her BA in Photography from Poland’s top institutions in Poland, the Cracow School of Art and Fashion Design, and did not receive the same respect and recognition in London as it did in Poland: “The art industry seems quite international, but at the same time it’s quite a closed environment. It often happens that qualifications obtained in one country, don’t seem to help advance your career in another.”

Grabowska also highlights that studying art at university is not just about acquiring knowledge, but “it is also networking, looking at trends (that are often specific to one country) learning the rules of engagement of the whole art industry. When I came to the UK from Poland, with a degree in Photography, I have found that it was virtually impossible for me to show my work or get a job, strictly on the basis of lack of connections and knowledge in these areas. This in turn pushed me to explore and pursue my love for the history of art and later to become an independent curator.”


By Zula Rabikowska

Zula Rabikowska is a Polish documentary photographer whose work explores the themes of identity, displacement and belonging. Find out more about Zula and her many projects in our interview as well as online and on Instagram!