The photography project Other White developed from Polish-born Edyta Majewska’s increasing anxiety about life in post-Brexit Britain. The title Other White references Majewska’s ethnicity as determined by official documents such as the census. Like many Eastern European nationals living in the UK, she has experienced both xenophobia and the feeling of being invisible.
I’m Louise Pearson, a curator. In this interview I speak to Edyta about what the project and four works from the series which have entered the National Galleries of Scotland collection and are representative of the different stages of the project and her journey to become a British Citizen.
Louise Pearson: Your journey to become a British citizen began when your workplace was turned into a polling station for the Brexit referendum. Can you tell us how the film you made that evening started a two-year project to document the process of becoming British?
Edyta Majewska: I heard the janitor at my work say a few days before the EU referendum that they were preparing the place as a polling station and I thought, I don’t think you know the situation - the Polish cleaner, the immigrant, must make the place nice, must clean the floor to welcome people who will come to make a choice about their future!
I knew I had to do something. That was the moment when I decided to bring a camera in and secretly record myself. If the staff who worked there found me, I’d have been sacked. I did a simple film, I didn’t make any pictures because I didn’t have any time to set up the camera.
LP: I was really interested when seeing the photographs in how you felt that your identity had changed as Britain was changing around you. It felt like it wasn’t necessarily your choice to start on this journey.
EM: I didn’t come here for money or because I was in a bad situation in Poland. I really wanted to change my life and move somewhere but I didn’t want to go to Germany which would have been handy for me because I have Germany ancestry and the language would be easier for me to learn. But somebody told me their friend was in Scotland and would I like to go? I just said yes. Scotland! The kilts, the wind, the beautiful landscape!
It was such an amazing idea and when I came here I started with no language. I couldn’t say any words or understand any Scottish words. From my very first experience I was feeling so good. I never thought people at work could be that good to me and I was jumping at that time from one job to another.
There were moments where, as an immigrant, you didn’t feel good because of the language barrier and the accent. The welcome was good but there was another side of Britain as well. There were places where you were scared to speak in Polish or in English with the accent because some people are not that friendly. I don’t know what the reason was, they maybe just didn’t like immigrants, or they think it is too much for the country, or immigration should be controlled. I had an incident on the bus when I was speaking on the phone and some young guys shouted at me: ‘what are you doing here, go back to your own country’ and ‘you are stealing our jobs’ and from then I tried to avoid that sort of situation. When I went on the bus you could recognise who was friendly or not. It’s better for you not to say any words if you want to be safe, physically.
LP: I was interested that as part of the series you spoke to Polish veterans from the Second World War. People are not always aware that the Polish community has a very long history in the UK. Did they speak to you about how life in Britain has changed since the Second World War and how they were feeling in the wake of Brexit.
EM: When I came to Scotland I was aware of the Polish veterans because at that time in Poland we were not allowed to talk about them. They were the enemy of Poland. They were not allowed to go back because they never accepted the then-communist government. General Maczek was one of them. I heard that the general was living in Edinburgh, the famous general who never lost any battles. This man, aged 56, finally finished his career as a general and afterwards he did some jobs for the British government such as the demobilisation of the Polish army. He was responsible for making sure that soldiers were in the right place.
In 1948 he lost his job as a general and he was stripped by the then-communist Polish government of his Polish citizenship and that meant he couldn’t go back to his country. The British government had denied him a pension so aged 56 he needed to find a job with no English. He had a wife and three children. Finally, his ex-soldiers bought him a pub where he was a pub tender for many years. When you hear this kind of story you just want to be close with the Polish community, with the first immigrants. They were heroes, people who sacrificed their own lives to make the country free from occupation and I am proud to have these roots.
LP: I was interested that you photographed your daughter as part of the series. For me it was looking back at the past generation and looking forward to future generations and what Brexit would mean for your daughter. Have you spoken to her about how she is feeling about the future?
EM: She needs to work another five years, then she can apply to be a British citizen. I hope that this happens soon. It is too late for her to go back to Poland because she grew up here. This is her country, it is the place where she has her friends. Her boyfriend is Irish and there is just no way for her to go back to Poland. Maybe if something bad happens here, she will probably go somewhere else, another country.
LP: Could you tell me a bit about why the wallpaper is included with the photographs and the idea behind that.
EM: The wallpaper is quite important in this project. For the wallpaper I chose pictures from my family album. Not professional pictures, they were snapshots. These are of moments that were significant in my life. One is of my daughter wearing a uniform and going to high school in Scotland. Another picture is the first council flat which Glasgow City Council offered to me as a single mother.
Another picture is of my colleague who was a teacher in Lithuania. When we finished our jobs as cleaners she began secretly teaching us English because our English was that bad. We couldn’t really communicate with people. I also included a picture of a Polish veteran from Remembrance Day in George Square in Glasgow waiting for the salute.
The wallpaper shows the most important things in my life. The good thing is that you really have to go in close and interact with the artwork, take a magnifying glass to find out what is happening behind the small images. It will transport you to my world, to tell the story of my life.
LP: It is like two layers of your life shown in the photograph. The important moments all add up to the big things like the citizenship ceremony. It is a really interesting concept.
EM: I knew for this project that it would be hard to make new pictures showing something that was in the past. I knew I had to use the real pictures, no matter the quality. They show the most important times in my life being here as an immigrant.
LP: It has been fascinating to learn more about the project and the experiences which influenced it so thank you very much Edyta.
Welcoming new artists to the collection
We want to show you who lives in Scotland today and Art Fund are helping us do that.
Census year is an opportunity to think about who isn’t in our collection. We know some of you don’t see yourself in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. We want to change that.
There are lots of new acquisitions in Counted: Scotland's Census 2022. We hope they give you a sense of the wonderful range of people living in Scotland.
We’ve worked with photographers from a range of backgrounds. For many of them, it’s the first time they have had their work shown in a gallery.
We’ve got plans to do more. We’ll be commissioning new portraits over the next few years. We’re thinking about what else we can do to make it a Portrait Gallery for everyone.
We’d love to hear your views. Get in touch by emailing [email protected]org