Nevertheless, she persisted

By Lærke Vinther Christiansen

“So, when asked ‘what were my political stance’ I would say it was basically a witch monarchy. I was a witch that was hungry for power and wealth and wanted to run for office, and I had no shame about that hunger. I thought, I am going to do this campaign as an act of performance art, so I am going to go full-on as a radical, transmarxist person, who is a witch.”

Almost 100 Polish municipal governments recently signed pledges embracing resolutions against so-called “LGBT propaganda”. This means that local governments has promised to stop encouraging tolerance and to stop funding NGOs that promote and support equality. This is being supported by Poland’s Law and Justice party, who are preparing for the upcoming election by running a campaign that relies heavily on marginalizing Poland’s LGBTI+ population.  

Valentine Tanz/Vala Tomasz Foltyn is a Polish artist and political activist who holds a Master’s degree in Cultural Anthropology, and has led a nomadic lifestyle studying at art schools around the world. When she returned home to Krakow, she funded Lamella – the house of queer arts, and Krakow Art House in a 110 years-old villa. She ran the queer house dedicated to art, activism and community, but after a few years, she was illegally evicted by an investor. Vala lost her house and this spurred her to run for Mayor of Krakow as a non-binary transfemme witch, talking openly and boldly about issues such as gentrification, LGBTI+ safety and the systemic oppression of queer people in Poland. 

What were your political actions in Poland and what where they grounded in?

My actions are very personal and political at the same time. My art is intertwined with my personal life, and in some ways that is a radical choice. My life in Poland was extremely political, and yet it was very queer. My experience of living there has always been a struggle, since I am a non-binary transfemme person who carries this identity in order to mark their space in the public. Running a queer house was very political, especially in a country which is very fascist and extremely radical in terrorizing queer bodies. I’ve always been very involved in urban activism, ecology, and the queer and LGBTI+ movements. However, my identity back then, and the people I were running the house with, were far too radical, even for the gay and lesbian movement in Krakow. I lived in San Francisco for a while, where I studied with Anna Halprin [choreographer and activist] and lived a very queer life. Then, coming back to Poland, things such as going out as a queer body and dating guys was simply awful. There was no space for us. Wearing eyeliner was an experience of constant battle; it became my fight and later on strategy of self-empowerment. Two years ago, I had  a conflict with a real estate investor and I was illegally evicted from my house. At the same time, my dearest friend, and producer of my shows, Aneta Żukowska, was dying of cancer. When I lost my friend and the house at the same time I thought: I have nothing more to lose. So, I decided to go full on in the political debates and let my voice be heard. It was the same time as there were local elections for the Mayor of Krakow, and I decided to run for mayor as a trans woman and a witch. I was openly talking about corruption, the city’s gentrification process, and violence against LGTBI+ people. I was one person running all of this by myself. It was crazy and intense, but I am so proud that I did it. 

Was your art then affected by your political actions and how did they interconnect?

My art was always political, yet my magic becomes another strategy of resistance. When I think about the art scene here in Denmark, it doesn’t excite me – it does not inspire me. We are living in times where art should not be entertaining anymore; on the contrary, I really think art should be disturbing and challenging. Art should be decolonizing its own structures of power. In Poland, I experienced that my shows and my performances were too radical for the gay community. But why was that? Is it because gay culture has a need to be entertained? That’s why I think that the art scene should be a little bit more sophisticated. It should be speaking from personal truths, and those personal truths are hard to digest. So, when you sit down to spend a nice Friday evening with your friends, maybe you don’t necessarily want to hear stories of trans trauma, but that’s your obligation as a privileged audience. It is imperative that we give voices to pain. I think of my art as transformative witchcraft. But why witchcraft? It is actually very simple to understand. When we lose everything, when we lose power and are hopeless, when we don’t have any more justice in our own communities and everything around us is corrupted, when our lives are being threatened – then what is left out there for you? It’s magic. It’s spirituality. It’s faith. I was raised by a very religious grandmother, who prayed a lot to the Virgin Mary and that’s what I carry in my art. My art is extremely personal, my art derives from my family history. My name, Vala, is my grandmothers name. 

What were the events leading up to you leaving Poland?

I left the country due to persecution, violence and censorship of my art by the Ministry of Culture and Foreign Affairs. When I was running my campaign I received several life threats. As a result, I was not able to work and I experienced severe mental health issues. I knew there was only one way to survive, and that was to leave the country. I became homeless, I had no work, and could not to receive any psychological support. My family was not understanding, so I knew that I had to make a move. After some consideration, I left for Denmark. I had a couple of good friends here who I knew would support me and help me find my own healing space. Now, I am offering help to people from Poland who wants to leave the country. The situation in Poland is on fire. The LGBTI+ community is being persecuted. There are people who has committed suicide this month. There are people who have been attacked in their own neighborhoods. I miss my friends and I miss my community that I have left behind. But there is nothing better right now, for people like me, than to leave this behind and get a second chance to live.

When first arriving in Denmark, how did you (re)establish yourself in Danish society?

It has been a process. Denmark has very harsh policies for newcomers. Firstly, you need to have a job contract in order to get a bank account, and then you can apply for a residency permit – even if you’re migrating from within the EU. This was very difficult to get my head around, especially when I was so exhausted from my life in Poland. But thanks to a lot of friends here, things moved easily. Now, one and half year later, here I am. I am living good, I am enrolled in graduate school at Malmö Art Academy. Recently, I was fired from my part-time cooking job because of COVID-19. However, it has made me realize this time of unemployment may be a great opportunity to go even deeper into healing, and focus on self-care and self-love. 

What has your experience been of bringing Lamella and your art with you to Denmark?

When I moved to Copenhagen, different community members moved to other countries. So, the core of Lamella sort of dispatched itself, and I thought “Okay, this can be a continuous process, it can be this rhizomatic structure that comes to new places and then hijacks them”. Back in December, I got funding from Nørrebro Neighborhood Funding for Culture. I have since run two evening events with Lamella for artists, and they were very successful. However, I have been receiving a lot of rejections from a lot of art institutions in Copenhagen. I am exhausted from explaining why I am doing Lamella and why it’s important to support. A lot of art institutions are saying: “This is not for our public. Your art is queer and belongs to a queer scene”. I have reached out to so many theatres in Copenhagen and none of them were ever interested in putting my work on their stage. Though, when I perform, the house is full. When I performed for Metropolis Copenhagen my live stream reached almost 2,000 viewers. So, what public are we talking about? There are people who follow me, there are people who want to hear these stories. I think there is something about Danish culture; it has understanding of people coming from different backgrounds, but at the same time, Danish society doesn’t want to challenge their own comfort. Oftentimes they think the struggle of others may be supported by Denmark because it is a very wealthy country, but that doesn’t mean the Danish people want to get involved or sacrifice their privileges. So, this is an interesting case. At this time of the corona crisis and in the time of Black Lives Matter, I am really calling for the institutions of art to open their doors, in order to really create homes for us and to give us visibility, so we might speak our truth.

I want to write down the queer legacy of that house in Krakow. With the story of Lamella, I aim to show the hidden politics of exclusion. On top of that, I am busy with my performance art and the trans story I am carrying. The story of a trans witch that carries the trauma of gentrification and structural violence.

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