About Grandpa Staszek and the Death of Little Matilda

Odłam Źdźbło Group, 2019

About a year ago, following the initiative of Zosia nierodzińska, the idea of preparing a collective exhibition that was to intertwine the worlds of magic, art and commitment began to emerge. A little later, together with Ania Siekierska and Zosia nierodzińska, we gave the exhibition the title: “Magical Engagement”, according to the thesis we proclaimed that every manifestation of deep empathy with the environment, animals, people and things is a magical process. In the summer of 2019, sitting on the bridge of Lake Lusowskie, we drew and described the plan of the exhibition, to which we invited, among others, Olga Anna Markowska and Aśka Borof together with her performance and singing group Odłam Źdźbło. A while after that, idled with the hypnotizing peace of the summer afternoon, we fell asleep on the bridge of the lake…

On March 10, 2020, 10 days before the opening of the “Magical Engagement”, I received a message from Zosia: “The exhibition was cancelled due to a virus.” Our exhibition did not take place as planned, that is, on the day of the spring equinox on 20th March 2020, for the time being, carefully, it was moved to September (18.09–1.11.2020). A week after the planned opening we meet in the virtual space to talk to my interlocutors, that is Olga Anna Markowska and Aśka Borof about magic in their art.


Paweł Błęcki: Tell me briefly about what you are doing.

Aśka Borof: I graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk. I specialise in the creative activity inspired by folk customs and the current reality. I paint, do embroidery, cut out, sew, and sing. I’m involved in the project financed by the city of Gdańsk, entitled Górki Zachodnie District. It is a pictorial inventory of people, animals, and houses of the town I live in. I also make costumes and sing in a singing-performative group Odłam Źdźbło [Break the Blade of Grass]. I’m interested in the female vocal polyphony of the Ukrainian and Siberian folk songs.

Olga Anna Markowska: I study subjects related to human nature, the intricacies of human relations, memory and longing. I reach for various media, currently I use music and photography most often.

Olga Anna Markowska, "Alicja and Aleksandra" from the series "May", 2018

Magic plays an important role in your art. Tell me when your creative activity started to co-exist with the world of rituals, magic, or superstition?

AB: I started to embroider the contents of the superstitions and rituals when I found out about the death of a tiny Matilda, my mom’s sister, who, treated by an old village lady, died in a bread oven.

OAM: One of the topics that I touch upon in my work is the nurture of memory. While exploring this theme, I began to consciously refer to magic understood as a kind of thinking and taking action in order to convey information. Being aware of the delicacy of memories, their relationship to emotions and the lack of control over them, I decided to look for a method that allows for their effective preservation with the possibility of partial recreation. An example of this is the wax imprints I make of those parts of the body that carry the touch of someone close to me. An important element of such a story about memory is the very process of preparing projects in the space where they are shown. I often make site-specific installations because I want the viewer to be able to observe, feel and become a direct participant of an ongoing event/ritual.

Aśka Borof, Wolves, 2019

Aśka Borof, ‘Turtle Charming’, 2018

Does your magical thinking come from your family’s traditions?

AB: In fact, rituals and superstitions used to make me feel angry. I rejected them. When I was pregnant, I was irritated by remarks referring to my stomach – you’ll have a boy because it has a ball shape, or – buy a blue layette for a boy, and then – tie a St. Mary holy medal on a red ribbon down to a pram. I never liked it when someone imposed their world view on me. Then, completely unconsciously, I started to uphold a ritual. So, in my family home there was a tradition of hair cutting done by my mum. My dad boasted that he hadn’t gone to a hairdresser for 45 years. When I started a family I continued the tradition of cutting my husband’s and children’s hair. I always threw the hair in the fire, because this is what we did in my family home. It was natural to me and I never thought about why I didn’t put the hair in the trash. It was only later that I learned, from my mom and from literature, that: “hair have to be burnt, to protect a child from having a hunchback, bandy legs, and from being stupid.”

OAM: It seems to me that the development of thinking about magic was more related to escaping to the imaginary world than to family traditions. Of course, I paid attention to small rituals, I observed the superstitious rules that were known to my loved ones, but it was completely natural to me, it was a part of a normal life. Truly magical were the objects I was giving meanings to. I remember a situation from my childhood when I was obsessively collecting objects that reminded me of certain people, events, and places. I believed they were enchanted and represented a link between their original source and myself. I was often taking them out of the box, twiddling them in my hands, taking them with myself, assigning them various qualities. Each of these objects was supposed to be a substitute for presence, a reminder of something, they were supposed to bring good luck.

Olga Anna Markowska, ‘6 years’, Ul Gallery, Gdańsk 2019

Olga Anna Markowska, ‘6 years’, Ul Gallery, Gdańsk 2019

Is there in your life a special event or a person related to magic you would like to talk about?

AB: Finding out about the death of a child in my mom’s family was such a strong impulse and confirmation of my art to me. An infant with a fever was, according to the custom, put inside the oven for the duration of a Hail Mary. I understood why I have this unspecified baggage of fear. I felt forced and obliged to capture superstitions and customs on canvas, or paper. I chose embroidery and cutting out, the techniques used by folk artists.

OAM: It’s a difficult question. There were many such events and each one of them is important, but when I think of them, I always remember grandpa Staszek. He is an extraordinary man, a bit mysterious, very aware and wise. He is very respectful towards the past, he believes that no energy is ever lost without a trace and nothing happens without a reason. When I was small, he used to take me for walks. He would then talk about the history of places we visited, recall legends, pay attention to little things. He taught me how to be a careful observer.

Olga Anna Markowska, ‘Heart’, Kolonia Artystów, Gdańsk 2018

Olga Anna Markowska, ‘Heart’, Kolonia Artystów, Gdańsk 2018

In everyday life we moved from magic, spells, and superstitions, towards pragmatism. Do you think we miss magic practised on a day-to-day basis?

AB: I notice small rituals in my surroundings. Sometimes I meet young moms with prams and I see red ribbons on the pillows. Often people get mad that I put my bag on the floor or I say hello in the doorway. I don’t follow these rules but I’m respectful.

OAM: A lot depends on how we understand the presence of magic in everyday life. We don’t have to believe in superstitions or suddenly start performing rituals to have an extraordinary reality. I think memories are very magical, as well as all the elements of our surroundings that help us come back to them. Small or big items, places, scents. Wishes we have for other people are also very important. We say “have a good day”, “good night”, “all the best”. We shouldn’t forget about it, I feel this are the real spells.

Aśka Borof, ‘When You Don’t Want to Have Children’, 2019

Aśka Borof – born in Gdańsk, graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk, from the Faculty of Painting and Graphics. Painter, singer, author of embroidery and tapestries. Founder of the singing and performative group Odłam Źdźbło.

Olga Anna Markowska – born in Łomża, graduate of the Faculty of Sculpture and Intermedia at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk. An interdisciplinary artist, who in her work touches upon the subject of memory and human relations with the use of music, photography and site-specific interventions.

Paweł Błęcki – born in Gdańsk, PhD student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, graduate of the Faculty of Media Art at the University of Arts in Poznań, would-be archaeologist. Photographer, author of objects and installations, by means of which he tells stories of human and non-human worlds.


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