This first panel in the storytelling journey of Somewhere to Stay represents normal family life in rural Eastern Poland before the Second World War. This was a multi-cultural part of the world, with complex ethnic and religious relations between Polish and Ukrainian communities, and significant levels of poverty and deprivation. Life was tough, and people worked hard; but they also danced, socialised, celebrated, and enjoyed practising long-standing cultural traditions with each other. The artist’s mother, Anna Sokulska Forster, lived this kind of life together with her parents and six siblings, on a small holding that her father had been given as a reward for fighting with the Polish forces against the Russians in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919 – 1921.
Diana Foster wanted to begin Somewhere to Stay with images of life before displacement, as an important reminder that refugees are ordinary people with a backstory like all of us. It is important to look at them not simply as the refugees they are forced to become, but as men, women and children with hobbies, social lives, daily routines, annual celebrations, hopeful futures and the right to make plans. If we start engaging with their stories only at the point of displacement, we can lose sight of the lives and loves that they are forced to leave behind. By picturing their interests, relationships, cultural traditions and settled life, we can humanise and empathise with them, seeing the individual rather than the crowd and putting ourselves in their place.
This panel (like the other nine) was inspired by a particular cultural tradition: the Polish craft of paper-cutting known as wycinanki. It involved people making their own pictures by folding and cutting coloured paper, traditionally using sheep shears; they then used the paper cuts to decorate their houses. It was a very domestic craft, in other words, perfect for evoking ‘home’ in art. The cut-out images also make it possible to cast shadows, both through artificial light and sunlight, and this adds another dimension to Forster’s artwork, introducing the idea of the ‘long shadow of war’. This connects up with the Visualising War and Peace project’s wider study of war’s extensive aftermath, to which the Visualising Forced Migration exhibitions make an important contribution.
To the right is an example of wycinanki made by Apolonia Nowak, a master of the craft. Forster’s particular inspiration for this panel was the beautiful paper-cutting work of Karol Klosowski (1882-1971).