Katarzyna Majak: Primeval Superstitions

Exploring minority religions in Poland, Katarzyna Majak’s images probe prejudice against witchery, questions of aging, and feminine divinity.

Photographer Katarzyna Majak shoots her subjects in vivid color, posing each one as a healer, a goddess, or a queen. These Polish women combine the rituals of the Cherokee, Sufis, Daoists, Wiccans, Druids, and others in search of greater spiritual meaning. With these photos, Majak looks at the prejudice against witchery, the acceptance of aging, and a growing appreciation for feminine divinity.

Majak’s photos stem from her interest in exploring minority religions in a country that is dominated by Catholicism. Through her work she has found female spiritual leaders of all ages. She has interviewed nearly all of her subjects, questioning their surroundings and relationship to their alternate spiritual findings. Each woman possesses a unique object of power, used for promoting their individual abilities and identities. They believe their spiritual work helps shift the balance between masculine and feminine forces, reclaiming power for women.

Her solo photography show, at the Porter Contemporary in Chelsea, New York City, invites viewers to bring their previous conceptions about womanhood, and the occult.

Haniya Rae for Guernica

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Guernica: How were you able to find these women?

Katarzyna Majak: My first idea was that, because I live in a very mono-religious culture, I wanted to apply for a ministry grant in Poland. It’s a very prestigious grant that artists can get. So, I started writing a proposal and it was very general, and I was interested in women as this is “the women’s time” as they say, and I wrote that I wanted to look for women who believe in other religions or follow paths. I wrote the proposal and got the grant. It turned out to be such a huge topic that I wouldn’t have been able to cover it, so I had to narrow my interests.

It was also connected with my own personal search for a spiritual path.

When you grow up in a mono-religious culture you are given one truth—most people follow what their parents give them. When I started working with the women, I thought it’d be only photographs. I traveled from one woman to another, all over Poland. But then, when I met them the meeting was amazing. I found people that I thought would never have lived in Poland. So I thought with time, the project would be a great book.

Guernica: What do you mean by “the women’s time”? From a quote with your interview with Maria Ela, one of your portrait subjects, she says she “thinks it’s a time of transformation,” that she has “to let go of the feeling of being victimized by men,” in order to gain awareness of the “cycle of the Goddess that helped me let go of thinking ‘against.’”

Katarzyna Majak: So, it is the time when more and more people, especially women, resonate with the energy of the Earth’s upheaval. They do not want to think “against” and are not interested in fighting. They would rather use their own empowerment to balance the feminine and the masculine. Another explanation may also be connected with the fact that the Goddess, and one may treat that as an equivalent of women’s power, in Judeo-Christianity, has been living “in hiding,” which is now coming to its end. There is a noticeable women’s spiritual awakening, which is aimed to balance the feminine and masculine, to raise the feminine so that they are both on the same level and neither gets excluded or diminished.

Guernica: Are these women in a network? I’m assuming they didn’t know each other beforehand.

Katarzyna Majak: It depends. It depends which ones. Pagan cultures, I didn’t even know myself. I discovered one of the pagan cultures is officially registered as a religion. They have more and more followers now; it’s a big time of change. Many people feel they want something, they want to find their own way. Pagan circles are pagan circles, some of them know each other. Then you have women who have roots in indigenous cultures.

Guernica: In your meeting with Bea [one of the photo subjects], you started off asking “how meaningful are the mountains for you?” When you shot the photos, you had them in the white cube—were their surroundings of interest for you, or did you just feel the white cube was better to showcase the woman?

Katarzyna Majak: The way I photographed them was often an issue of discussion between me and them. I wanted it strict, to look like a queen portrait. So many of them are afraid to show their faces. If you look at witch images, they are still pejorative. The image in pop culture, if you look at movies—I watched all the movies with witches in them and I collected screenshots of all the portraits with witches in them—they look awful. They are terrifying. So I wanted to present them powerful, proud like queens, with no makeup, so that they present themselves without beautifying methods that are used nowadays. I wanted a series that makes you feel you entered a circle of women when you entered the gallery–a circle of queens.

I also photographed their surroundings but I haven’t used it in the project. I used some in the video. The women of power photographs are white cubed because I didn’t want anything to disturb the contact the viewer can get with the person. I also used a very low depth of field so that the sharpness is on their eyes because they have amazing eyes. So, you get in touch with the eyes and the person and not the surrounding. With many of them I asked them to heal or work with energy. In the past, there was this belief that when you photograph someone you can steal their soul. I was interested in whether you can actually transfer energy via photograph. I asked them to heal a potential viewer, look at the lens with a potential to help, get in touch with the energy. I was curious if it is possible with a two-dimensional image–a portrait–to feel that, to transfer that, if there was any magic that could come from just looking at someone else’s image.

It’s fascinating because in photography you associate an image with the person. The women said, “Oh, I look old …” but I said, “This is no longer you, it’s a piece of art. It’s a photograph.” I noticed how much we associate the person with the image.

Guernica: Did the women choose what to wear to the photo shoot?

Katarzyna Majak: It was very personal. The majority don’t use their real names, they use their spiritual names. In a way they are someone else when they use their spiritual names. So I told them to wear their ceremonial clothing if they contact any spirits, if they pray or practice. I also asked them to think of the object of power to hold in their hands as their attribute. We talked, they brought their pieces of clothing and we talked it through: “Which do you feel is stronger;” “Which do you feel is associated with you?” I told them: “I’d love to take a picture of you,” because I knew it would work. In the end, they were asked which objects or clothing would work for them.

Sometimes I shot two items and decided which was stronger. Most of them did not wear it everyday. For a photograph, from what my mother told me from the past, it was a big event to be photographed. People would use their best clothing and try to look as beautiful as possible. And I saw that here. The women were careful about what they brought, what they selected. The project was not solely about them, it was also to see how photography works still, that it’s so powerful, in this case, the one-to-one interaction and the camera.

Guernica: There are a lot of them with flowers—is that a coincidence?

Katarzyna Majak: In the whole set, maybe forty percent have flowers. It’s also feminine. There is one who’s an intuitive herb healer, she went to a meadow and grabbed herbs and flowers for me. It was very sweet. She heals, and she also has a regular knowledge. She combines it with her intuition. She prays before someone comes and asks the spirits to help her. So it’s not just regular medical knowledge, she also combines that with the spiritual knowledge.

Guernica: You had touched on this earlier—on the gaze and the eyes of these women. What brings out the divine feminine in these photos for you? What specific thing—is it the gaze, the circle of women, or specific moments in each image that the viewer can see?

Katarzyna Majak: The goddess has three aspects: the virgin, the mother, and the crone. At first I thought they’d be crones, beautiful crones, but it turns out that they have many aspects. Some of them look like virgins; they are innocent but not innocent at the time. I didn’t know where particularly the divine would show up. I thought that crones were pushed to the subconscious. In Poland, we have the Catholic ideal of Mary, God’s mother, the ideal of the Virgin. I wanted to show elderly women who are not a popular topic of photography, because the ideal of beauty today is young, anorexic-looking women, filled with makeup. I wanted the women to be who they are. I love the beauty of the women aging. I hope it shows in some of the photographs. If I could find this aspect, this divine aspect of getting old, every aspect is divine in women. So this is the divine femininity of the women, that they have wrinkles, that they have grey hair. And you can still be beautiful.

But it’s important to bring to light the aspect that has been pushed to the subconscious. And we know what happened to women who worked with herbs and healed with energy. So many of them were persecuted. And it’s still in the subconscious. There is still this fear of them. And I don’t want people to be afraid because they’re beautiful and strong.

I come from a culture where being a strong woman has changed drastically. But now I show other women about empowerment, who live their own lives and follow their own paths, and are courageous enough to show their own faces, with the hope that this will empower them. This is a person who knows who she is: she’s a queen.

Haniya Rae

Haniya Rae is Guernica's assistant art editor. She graduated summa cum laude from the Maryland Institute College of Art where she studied Painting and Art History. Her work has been published in Art in America:Drawing and she was awarded a France-Merrick Fellowship for her work in community arts.

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