Poland and AIDS

Luiza Kempińska and Paweł Leszkowicz, guided tour at the "Creative Sick States," photo: Maciej Krajewski

Introduction by Hubert Zięba

In the spring of 2018, I was in the USA on a research trip looking at AIDS cultural production, with a focus on independently produced activist film and video. As I was finishing up the trip, a mentor, scholar Alexandra Juhasz, mentioned that I should speak with her friend and often collaborator, Theodore (ted) Kerr. Through Alex’s work I had come across his name, and so I was somewhat familiar with his work. However, it was not until we had a chance to meet that I was reminded that much of the joy of research and being in the academy is not only the process of thinking and theorizing, but the opportunity to make connections, and community, to both witness and feel seen.


A few months after my trip to the USA, I got an email from Ted asking if I would like to be in conversation with two other academics, doing work about AIDS in Poland. At first, I was quite naively astonished by the fact that there were other Poles involved with the subject, but before long my initial disbelief was displaced by feelings of community and pride. Within a month, I had a chance to virtually meet Luiza Kempińska, an art historian and graphic designer, and Szymon Adamczak, a theatre artist, writer, and culture field worker. Together, we had intersecting yet somewhat disparate interests, regarding HIV/AIDS, culture, and Poland. What was interesting was that all three of us experienced growing up in the post-Soviet Poland, working on our AIDS-related projects independently and virtually unaware of each other’s work. It took an outsider, a world away, to bring us together.


Theodore (ted) Kerr: Tell us a bit about yourself and your relationship to HIV and Poland.

Luiza Kempińska: I am an art historian, a graphic designer, and a PhD student, based in Poznań. I was born in 1990, so I grew up in a time of political transformation in Poland; between the social and political remnants of the previous system and the focus on development, capital accumulation, and discourse of success that the country is struggling with now.

Szymon Adamczak: I am a theatre artist, writer, and culture field worker based in Amsterdam. Born in 1991 in Poznań, my everyday life is now anchored in Amsterdam, where I recently finished an MA course in theatre-making. Nonetheless, I maintain a vital relationship to the Polish art scene and to my peers who are largely operating from Warsaw.

Hubert Zięba: I was born in 1987, two years before the fall of communism, but I have no recollection of what was happening in Poland back then. One could say I am Polish and a researcher, but I’d rather focus on the behavioral aspect of my life and say that I can speak Polish and that I am doing research on HIV/AIDS, because I can’t ignore the processive nature of being the same way I would like to call myself queer in the performative sense that transgresses the boundaries of gender and sexual orientation. However, identifying as queer in Poland on most occasions requires an explanation and usually leads to being labelled in binary terms as gay anyway (as opposed to heterosexual).

Hubert Zięba

LK: For me, identity informs my work. Or maybe I should say, from early on, I considered subjectivity in the context of presence and absence, the affective experience of art, illness, and mourning as part of my research. Maybe this was informed by my gender, related to my personal experiences. With a supervisor [Professor Agata Jakubowska], I spoke about my participation in a research grant, concerning all-women Polish exhibitions, considered as a form of strategies and tactics of gaining space in the field of art, strongly taking into account the socio-political context. From there, at some point I became interested in HIV/AIDS in the US. In doing that work, I soon came to feel that I needed to change my location, for my research and myself. So, after some time, here I am in the US, looking at HIV/AIDS in the US as someone who has a Central European background. This shift in location was important to me. I thought I could say something more about HIV/AIDS, from here, that has been ignored so far and actually give these neglected issues a voice, restore their agency.

SA: My approach to HIV completely shifted after my diagnosis in 2017. It has been a turbulent year, as I have already resigned from a job at National Stary Theatre in Kraków, which happened to be one of the first institutions in Poland altered by the cultural war that the right-wing government has incited. Diagnosis found me right afterward in Amsterdam, when I was entering graduation year at DAS Theatre with no funding and with no insurance.

Without further ado, I aligned my artistic development with a new health condition and started to work and to reorient myself from there. Following Boris Groys’s observations in his article called “Education as Infection,” the body of an artist within art education undergoes an intrusion of bacteria new to the organism. He points to a five-step trajectory of such an event: shock to the system, weakness, resistance, adaptation, renewal. Constant (self)infection is perceived then as a chance of preserving the spirit of artistic development by embodying it, thus transmitting what is digested as a response from-within-to the outside world. I was not initially trained to be an artist. But thankfully the greenhouse-like conditions of an art school let me practice what it means and what it takes to be one, and I am talking about one infected with HIV and transformed in the consequence of it.


I had been aware only to a certain extent about the legacy of AIDS. I am thinking here of groundbreaking version of Angels in America directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, which I saw when I was 18. It had premiered while the ruling right-wing populist party Law and Justice was in power for the first time. Reagan’s America was an apt metaphor for a political climate in Poland. Still, the AIDS epidemic felt like a foreign phenomenon, somebody else’s story. I learned more about it when I was a student of liberal arts program at the University of Poznań. I could point here to Paweł Leszkowicz in the history of art department whose classes on the male body were rich with context from queer theories and from the development of queer rights worldwide, including HIV/AIDS activism in the USA.


HIV was just not part of my lived experience apart from the virtual, yet quite tangible, fear of catching it whenever I went to get tested. I mostly took a free test at a local NGO, located in a shady hospital corridor that was filled with shame and “let’s pretend that we have never seen each other here” faces.

In the Netherlands I started to forge relationships with HIV positive people, I understood that for many it was not necessary to make HIV a crucial part of their identity or/and their public persona. With welfare, accessible medication, and a progressive neoliberal society, the stigma has become rather an individual than collective issue. I mean here especially the observed attitude indicated in the phrase “one pill a day makes a problem go away.” It was not possible for me to just move on and to live with HIV as if it’s just a chronic disease. Even if it is, then it maintains to be a very charged one.

I am aware of the very low and mostly controversial presence of HIV/AIDS coverage in Polish media and in the public discourse over the last decade. For example, the public viewed the issue of HIV through stories like this one about a black man, held responsible for infecting more than a dozen women. HIV is still rarely addressed as a public health issue; it is doomed to be framed as sensational and is often captured with an underlying moral judgment. I am convinced nevertheless, recently observing efforts of many people in the field, like the three of us in this conversation, that it is possible to change the discourse.

Szymon Adamczak at the "Creative Sick States" exhibition, photo: Maciej Krajewski

HZ: I remember the story. It dates back to 2008, when I wasn’t really concerned with AIDS. The black man in question, a Cameroon-born journalist, was known in Poland under the name of Simon Mol. He died two weeks after being released from custody. His serostatus had been known to the authorities, but apparently, he refused to go into antiretroviral therapy. At least that is the official version of events presented in the media.

For myself, having returned to Poland in 2010 [after completing master’s degree in gender, sexuality, and culture at the University of Manchester], I knew I wanted to continue pursuing my academic career, and I knew wanted to focus on AIDS. However, it took four years until I finally applied for a PhD. And as I was in the middle of the recruitment process, a very dear person to me came out to me saying that they had contracted the virus. I cannot deny that they have been a motivation for me ever since. I do not want to disclose how close this person is to me because of deep-rooted prejudice about HIV and AIDS in Poland.

Now, as I am finalizing my doctoral studies, I decided to emigrate to Ireland, because I have grown tired of facing homophobia in my workplace, neighborhood, and family.

TK: Tell us about projects you are working on. What do you want people to know about your work? What are some hopes/goals that you have?

LK: I am focusing on the as yet unexamined exhibitions of art relating to HIV/AIDS, organized in the second half of the 1980s and in the 1990s in Central Europe. I am paying particular attention to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany. I am analyzing these exhibitions in connection with contexts of transformation, the fall of the Eastern Bloc, and the processes of rebuilding the existing order, as well as the emergence of various particularisms. I view transformation as the process occurring on many levels, comprised not only of the political system and the economy, but also society in its various dimensions, including culture and identity.

HZ: I am currently working on my doctoral dissertation, on the variety of ways of reacting to the epidemic in the US through the use of audiovisual media. My first goal was to explore popular ways of portraying the disease and those affected by it, because of—as I used to think—the lack of the source material in Polish cinema and television.


To the best of my knowledge, there are two feature films related to problem of AIDS, which are: Pora na czarownice (1993, dir. Piotr Łazarkiewicz) and Kto nigdy nie żył (2006, dir. Andrzej Seweryn). Moreover, for over two decades the theme of seroconversion or the risk of it have also been the themes of a considerable number of episodes of Polish soap operas (including KlanPierwsza miłość, and Samo życie) and—more recently—docu-soaps. What is more is the fact that apart from Warlikowski’s adaptation of Angels in America, there is another play addressing the disease and stigma related to HIV/AIDS. It is entitled Miss HIV, and it was written by Maciej Kowalewski and adapted into a teleplay by Krzysztof Czeczot.

Although in my academic work I focus mainly on the films made in the United States, what is striking about the contemporary portrayals of HIV-positive characters in Polish mass media is that most of them represent social groups which have hardly been affected by the disease, mostly white straight men, including a Catholic priest, and highlight the types of behavior which pose a substantially low risk of contracting the virus. While such a universalizing approach prevents Polish gay men from being scapegoated for spreading the disease, it leads to the erasure of their narratives.


Billy Mullaney, Szymon Adamczak, "An Ongoing Song," dir. Szymon Adamczak, Pawilon, photo: Maciej Zakrzewski

SA: I have created a performance called An Ongoing Song, and I released a zine contextualizing this work as my graduation project at the DAS Theatre in Amsterdam. It is a piece of visual theatre in a form of a duet between myself and American performer Billy Mullaney whom I invited to operate or to embody the metaphor of the HIV virus as I perceive it.

What I wanted to capture is the poetics of living with the virus which I understand as coming to terms with a non-human agent inside your body. In fact, it is a daily negotiated symbiosis: I won’t kill you, you won’t kill me, here we are together, and let’s make sense out of it. I think this process required a strong sense of solidarity and friendship. Billy who was a fellow student, in a way a perfect stranger to me, became an engaged and patient collaborator. I find it worth mentioning that with him being cis heteronormative and HIV negative, we constantly needed to work out our differences while maintaining a sense of separateness.

With this performance, I make my claim to become part of the heritage of HIV. I realized this on a study trip to New York, where I spent many hours reading up on the collection at Visual AIDS. I was studying the work of the artists relating to the virus over decades, and I was viewing it as a lineage that I would like to acknowledge and broadcast to the public.

However, the word “HIV” is never uttered in An Ongoing Song. I preferred to subtly mark it only with the medication bottles present in the space in which I potted hyacinths, a reference to Polish secret services gathering up files on homosexuals during the Communist regime. In this way, I am rather hoping to invite the audience to relate on their own to things that each is individually infected by, to transformations we’ve had, to all sorts of medications we take.

My performance is going to tour across Poland, and this is a new chapter for me. I will also present a video from my personal archive of me taking a Genvoya pill for the first time. It will be presented within the exhibition Creative Sick States at a public art gallery, Arsenał, in my hometown of Poznań. There hasn’t yet been a Polish artist vocal about their seropositive status. I hope that my de-dramatized approach to HIV will offer an inviting, human-scaled tone to the conversation about HIV/AIDS in Poland.

LK: In the early 1990s, in Poland HIV/AIDS was associated with a very strong stigmatization, which resulted from the lack of social awareness. Educational activities and social campaigns did not reinforce the basic knowledge about the disease immediately. Numerous public controversies arose over actions taken by the state and non-governmental organizations. For example, establishing centers for people living with HIV/AIDS often triggered protest actions of local communities.

HZ: Łazarkiewicz’s Pora na czarownice is a fictionalized account of an attempt to burn such a facility. And although such an arson has never been successful, the very efforts, which must have inspired the filmmaker, indicate deep stigma associated with AIDS in Poland in the 1990s.

"A Time for Witches," dir. Piotr Łazarkiewicz, 1993

LK: In this political and cultural atmosphere, opening art exhibitions related to HIV/AIDS was not an easy task. The first exhibition of art related to HIV/AIDS in Poland, organized, what is important, in the lobby of the Warsaw cinema, was closed after a few days, which was justified by the presence of works that were shocking to younger audiences. I think then it makes sense to me that my research interests are rooted in analyzing exhibitions related to HIV/AIDS as emancipatory practices of the queer subject. I view these practices as activities carried out within the dominant system by its users, in a completely different way than it was intended. This approach does not assume the overthrow of the current order by its rejection or negation, but by such ways of operating that are foreign to this order. It makes use of a system that undermines power and escapes it, a response to procedures that create a socio-political order. At the same time, practices are not undertaken as part of a deliberate plan, but they rather are a kind of countless and scattered transformations of law.


SA: I am actively mapping the present practices and emerging projects in the field of HIV/AIDS in Poland. There are social scientists who recently started to build an oral history project in order to tell a story of HIV in Poland (within a larger scale project called EUROPACH). The theory that being dependent of of Soviet Union “saved” Poland from epidemics does not mean that there is nothing to tell. There is also a collective of Polish academic researchers that includes artist Karol Radziszewski and his Queer Archives Institute, and they are busy with unfolding the pre-AIDS era in the framework of the international Cruising the Seventies program. There is a theatre critic working on a book about a Polish theatre director who died of AIDS in the ‘90s and obviously is not at all remembered as “our” Reza Abdoh. There is the Foundation of Social Education in Warsaw with Agata Stola, a leader in harm reduction, that offers therapies empowering HIV-positive men and those who are addicted to chemsex. She told me that there is a correlation specific to Poland of being infected with HIV and entering the chemsex scene afterwards. I also recently met Tomasz Siara, a new important voice from within the gay community, whose activist portfolio just started with a remarkable, grassroots platform aimed at promoting and popularizing the undetectable=untransmittable agenda.


As an artist, I try to navigate between the aforementioned perspectives, so I guess I would say my goal, or rather, my role is to dedicate my time to facilitating new conversations and being as generous and helpful as I can to anyone who is trying to advance awareness of HIV in the Polish context. In the coming time I am going to pay the most attention to the archives gathered at Warsaw’s Lambda Association and at Amsterdam’s IHLIA Queer Library in order to grasp the AIDS epidemics in Polish and Eastern European contexts from the historical scope to the present manifestations, voices, and practices.

LK: My goal is to examine and restore awareness of artistic activities related to HIV and AIDS, often overlooked in the historical-artistic discourse. 


HZ: One of my goals is to expose state-funded inertia in terms of HIV prevention in the Polish gay community. Since the outburst of the epidemic, the number of HIV infections has been growing increasingly, year by year. Polish gay men invariably remain at the greatest risk of contracting the virus. Since the very beginning of the epidemic in Poland, men-having-sex-with-men constitute the majority of all HIV and AIDS cases. But despite that fact, and despite the fact that both independent and state auditors have been calling on the officials responsible for fighting the disease to address the problem in the gay community, money is still being wasted mostly on campaigns targeted at the indefinite general public, no one in particular, or groups at relatively low risk of contracting HIV. To make the matter worse, the annual number of new infections has been soaring in the last few years.


A poster by Waldemar Świerzy, 1993

A poster of the Polish National Office for AIDS Prevention, 1994

TK: How would you describe the political climate in Poland right now, and how does that impact your HIV-related work and projects?


SA: Resentment, elitism, bigotry, and culture wars between the left and the right of the political spectrum make Poland quite a frustrating place to live. Democracy seems to be just a fictive framework. Massive protests are mocked with almost no answers. The urgency of climate change is barely treated seriously. Economically speaking, it feels like the process of transformation came to an end, too. Poland has become the West, especially from the perspective of Ukrainian citizens and other newcomers who migrated here in recent years.

Earlier in the conversation, I mentioned Angels in America premiering in Warsaw more than a decade ago. Ever since, none of the bills in favor of equality has passed except for the LGBTQ rights declaration signed by the president of Warsaw. The conservative party Law and Justice has learned it lessons and now dominates the political landscape, and the artistic field seems from my semi-foreign perspective to be paralyzed by these politics and its own ambitions.

HZ: …And the prospects are rather gloomy. As far as the impending AIDS crisis in Poland is concerned, the activities of the national AIDS agency, under the rule of previous governments, have been audited at least twice, in 2004 and 2015. The need for shifting the focus of educational campaigns to sexual minorities most severely affected by the disease is expressed in both documents very clearly. It seems no one in charge of the agency has read and/or taken the reports seriously. What is continuously being promoted in the state-funded educational campaigns about HIV and AIDS are highly enigmatic symbols, such as the red ribbon, the promotion of which is an official part of the agency’s policy. Yes, the promotion of a symbol, which in combination with a three- or four-letter acronym, can be considered an example of prison slang rather than a message about safer sex practices.

A poster by M.A. Kwiatkowski, 1989

SA: It is hard for me to say in what way specifically this atmosphere impacts my HIV-related work. I will be exploring this in the upcoming period. The native artistic scene in Poland is definitely, gradually opening up for non-normative voices and practices. When it comes to HIV per se, there is lots of work to be done even among us, the culture field workers. From the many conversations I have had, I can report that for a surprising number of people the notions of HIV/AIDS matter little or nothing.

Imagine—a privileged middle-aged professional from a renowned theatre in a private conversation hinted that I am doing the work about HIV so I could capitalize on it. Then he admitted that he takes PrEP, and that he gets it from Sweden. I was speechless. I had just received my first undetectable result at that time. By sharing this example, I would like to stress how very important it is to work towards de-stigmatizing people living with HIV in Poland. We need not only to know who has HIV in Poland, as Jakub Janiszewski’s book states, but also who has died of AIDS in Poland to break the spell. HIV-related work is about empathy, intersectional attitude, intergenerational dialogue, and solidarity despite accumulated wealth and achieved social status. Poland was never more ready for this.

LK: The current political climate in Poland is worrying. I am particularly critical of the lack of sex education in schools, the discrimination of LGBTQ people in society, the atmosphere of exclusion, the stigmatization by the Polish church, the promotion of the traditional family model by the state, and the declining freedom, even to decide about your own body. I would like to stress that it is important to talk about it, especially in the context of such politically embedded research that we are conducting—related to HIV/AIDS. Such an atmosphere is not conducive to increasing awareness and knowledge; it does not build understanding and does not encourage cooperation. Actually, the political climate impacts my HIV/AIDS-related project, because I feel that my work is needed and its character in this context becomes more emancipatory and involved.

The whole conversation, in a slightly different version, available online at


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