University of Glasgow: Intimate experience of Polish essential workers during COVID showcased in fine art exhibition

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A travelling fine art exhibition documents the intimate experiences of Polish migrant essential workers across the UK in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The exhibition, inspired by a University of Glasgow hosted study, is coming to Birmingham, London and Scotland.

Spaces of (dis)connection: Migrant essential workers exhibition documents and explores the turbulence of the past two years for migrant essential workers.

As one of the most prominent migrant groups in the UK, Polish essential workers served on the frontline of the pandemic, risking their lives to deliver critical, oftentimes lifesaving, services. Already a chronically insecure workforce in the post-Brexit political landscape, the increased personal and professional demands of the pandemic life left many in a state of uncertainty.

The exhibition combines newly commissioned photographic work by three critically-acclaimed visual artists – Małgorzata Dawidek, Paulina Korobkiewicz and Sylwia Kowalczyk – with anonymous testimonies given by Polish essential workers.

The shared dialogue between image and text offers a compelling insight into the difficulties facing this community during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the photographs explore themes of isolation, labour and hardship, they show solidarity with Polish workers, extending an offering of hope for a brighter future – one not burdened by oppressive working conditions, xenophobic stereotypes or governmental neglect.

The exhibition seeks to preserve the legacy of Polish essential workers in the UK, celebrating their strength, diversity and heroism during one of the most devastating public health crises to date.

The exhibition is inspired by ongoing UKRI-funded research conducted across the universities of Glasgow, Middlesex and Sheffield (2020-23, award ref. ES/V015877/1), which investigates how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the lives of migrant essential workers in the UK.

It is co-produced with Centrala, an internationally renowned centre for Central and Eastern European art and artists in Birmingham.

Professor Sharon Wright, the lead researcher on the study, said: “The contributions of migrant essential workers to British society and economy during the pandemic are tremendous but rarely acknowledged.”

“Our study looks at many unique challenges they face as migrants – in places of work, private lives and through separation from family and support networks. The exhibition illustrates these challenges by focusing on the spaces of uncertainty and disconnection from the previous lives, family and friends in Poland and the wider society, which relies on their work.”

Dr Anna Gawlewicz, who leads the exhibition project, said: “We collected very powerful migrant stories and felt that more traditional forms of dissemination just wouldn’t do them justice. We wanted ordinary people to be able to engage with, relate to and be touched by these stories. We are privileged to be working with three award-winning artists of Polish origin, who each brought these stories to life.”

The exhibition kicks off in Birmingham and will then travel to London and Scotland. Once it completes its journey, it will be digitised and moved online.

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