There’s a reason why your Instagram feed is probably flooded with images of people posing with bananas, and no, it’s not because the fruit has fallen prey to an awkward fashion trend. Polish protesters have been taking to social media to share their #bananaselfies after artwork featuring bananas was deemed obscene by Poland’s authorities and removed from the National Museum in Warsaw.
The work in question is the 1973 video Consumer Art by artist Natalia LL, which depicts a woman eating a banana, as well as other foods, in a "suggestive" manner.
Although the video has been on display at the gallery for several years, it was removed last week after the new museum head, Jerzy Miziolek, was summoned to the Ministry of Culture. Suggesting there has been complaints, Mr Miziolek, who was appointed by the right-wing government last November, told Onet.pl that he was “opposed to showing works that could irritate sensitive young people.”
The move has not only prompted those in Poland, including artists and politicians, to share pictures of themselves armed with bananas, but has also stirred hundreds to gather outside the state-run museum for a collective banana-eating protest against what they consider to be a narrow-minded case of censorship.
Taking to Instagram after the protest, artist Karolina Gacke wrote alongside her selfie: “I breathe, live and feel through art, and I think it’s one of the few things left, to help us deal with this messed up world. So of course, I had to be there, together with so many others, making our voices heard outside the National Museum of Warsaw! Fighting for free speech and the freedom of art! Yes, the banana is symbolic, as it was part of the artwork that the Minister of Culture ordered to be removed from the museum.”
As well as Natalia LL’s piece, works by two other female artists were also removed, including a separate 2005 video by controversial artist, Katarzyna Kozyra, showing a woman walking two men dressed as dogs on a lead.
Since Monday’s protest Mr Miziolek announced that the works would be reinstated, but only until May 6, when the museum's 20th and 21st-century gallery is due to be reorganised. Denying any pressure from the ministry, the museum’s head said though he appreciated the role of both artists in Poland's culture, the gallery's limited space requires “creative changes” to the exhibition.
The controversy is the latest in a series of disputes surrounding art and culture under the conservative and nationalist government, which took to power last year. Most recently, Culture Minister Piotr Glinski cut funding for the European Solidarity Centre, a museum and library popular with government critics, claiming that its work went beyond its remit of teaching the history of Polish resistance movements.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Natalia LL was one of the first artists to criticise conceptual art for excessive rationalisation and avoidance of physical sensuality. Consumer Art, one of her most controversial works, critiques of the commodification of the female form in pornography and shows exactly why the artist became a pioneer of feminist art in Poland.
In the silent film, models are seen provocatively eating suggestively shaped foods as they gaze directly at the camera, but unlike pornography the women featured are given agency, their actions fluctuating between seduction and humour, as they reverse conventions of being objects of the male gaze and instead emerge as active mainstays in control and at the centre of the story.
Outraged by the open censorship of the video, board members of the ZW Foundation, which manages Natalia LL’s archive, said the museum “should not be afraid of exhibiting thought-provoking works of an existential nature. Through her art, Natalia LL was never afraid of asking difficult questions, and we certainly should not be afraid to answer them”.
From the sprawling bunch of over-ripened bananas in Giorgio de Chirico’s 1913 canvas The Uncertainty of the Poet to Andy Warhol’s 1967 cover for the Velvet Underground & Nico’s debut album (which included a sticker and the allusive instructions to “Peel slowly and see”, revealing pink flesh underneath), men in art have long toyed with the peculiarities of the fruit, politicising it and carving out meanings in their own right.
Surely, Natalia LL’s video is part and parcel of the same business; a comment not only on the patriarchal domination of female sexuality, but the issues surrounding consumption and western capitalism at a time when Poland was experiencing a highly puritan communist mass culture.
The removal of Natalia LL’s video, as well as the work of two other female artists, only reinforces the double standards and longstanding restrictions on female art that are still in play in 2019. Hope remains in those seeking to dispel outdated modes of thinking, one banana at a time.