Working Class Artist: Wiola Ujazdowska Speaks For Immigrants In Iceland

Working Class Artist: Wiola Ujazdowska Speaks For Immigrants In Iceland

Published August 14, 2020

Working Class Artist: Wiola Ujazdowska Speaks For Immigrants In Iceland
Sam O'Donnell
Photo by
Wiola Ujazdowska

Wiola Ujazdowska was born in the Polish city of Toruń, where she studied art history and painting. In 2014, she accepted an internship with the Living Art Museum and moved to Iceland. Since then, she has been active in the art scene here, engaging in a number of different projects.

These days she focuses on video, performance and installation rather than painting. Her inspirations and mentors are performance artists, namely Joseph Beuys and Mierle Laderman Ukeles.

Inspirations for the artist

Joseph Beuys was a firm believer that everyone is an artist. He said his greatest work as an artist was education, and Wiola sees him as a mentor. “His works definitely had a huge impact on me,” she says.

Mierle Laderman Ukeles was a New York based artist who created the idea of maintenance art. She worked as a janitor, cleaning museums in New York City. As a working wife and mother, she didn’t have time to create art in a conventional sense, so she made these household actions an art. “Her works have influenced me to focus on the working class immigrants and people who are usually invisible for art and society in general,” Wiola says.

“Often the voice of other groups is not heard, and very often the art world doesn’t want to hear it.”

Perhaps the biggest impact Mierle’s work has had on Wiola is ‘Touch Sanitation,’ a milestone of performance art in which she met over 8,500 employees of the New York Sanitation department, shaking hands with each of them and saying “Thank you for keeping New York City alive.”

The Scandinavian Dream

This focus on the working class spoke directly to Wiola, and inspired her to make performance art. In June, she did a performance at the Reykjavík City Library where she vacuumed up the words “Scandinavian Dream.” She says that this is a commentary on how Iceland treats the working class. “There is this idea that Scandinavia is seen as this egalitarian kind of Utopia for many people,” she says. “But the truth is that it’s not so colourful and it’s not a dream. There is a lot of xenophobia and inequality.”

Her own history is something that draws her to this topic. “I’m actually the first person in my family to have a higher education,” she says. Her parents and the people she grew up with were all working class. She has experience as a housekeeper, which she feels is integral to the tone of her art. “Often the voice of other groups is not heard, and very often the art world doesn’t want to hear it.”

Recent and upcoming stuff

In September, she will be involved in an exhibition called Common Ground, which features Icelandic artists, as well as Polish and Lithuanian artists living in Iceland. She will be displaying artwork that is inspired and based on the fire on Bræðraborgarstígur. “It shows that there are some spots in the system that allow for people to be used, especially foreign and temporary workers,” she says.

From now until the 24th of August, she is in the eastern part of the country, working as a producer-slash-curator-slash-artist of the VOR/WIOSNA festival featuring art from Polish people living in Iceland. The festival doesn’t feature art from Poles in Poland. “We present and promote and talk about Polish minorities here because I think it’s different circumstances.”

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