Redefining standards – Polish artist in Tokyo
Visual artist and printmaker, Ewelina Skowronska, currently resides in Tokyo where she is mastering the art of print design and pottery while challenging cultural norms and gender roles.
In her heart, Ewelina Skowrońska always wished to pursue a creative career but her journey into the art world was not a direct one-way trip. With no prior experience in drawings and life paintings, the Wrocław native was not accepted into the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław (Akademia Sztuk Pięknych); however, her parents encouraged her to choose another direction. That led her to the University of Wrocław where she studied history and political science with a specialisation in political marketing. Although it wasn’t an art degree, it set her on the right track, providing her with a broad education about the world, especially in a social context.
With her imaginative mind and a fresh Master’s, she moved to Warsaw to work at global advertising agency Leo Burnett. Even with a career in advertising, her artistic soul was not fulfilled, therefore she attended additional classes to develop her drawing and painting skills. At one point, her art became bigger than a hobby so she decided to earn another MA in London in illustration.
“Since then I feel like everything’s right in my life and I’m finally doing what I love,” says Ewelina. “But it was a tough decision because I had a safe job and money and all the things I was used to. It’s starting to change now, but when you’re 33 the expectations are that you don’t start over in life; you continue and develop your career. So it was kind of a risky move, but I felt like I had to try because otherwise I would never be happy.”
In London, she found not only her calling but also love in the form of a Polish man, Tom, who was subsequently offered a job in Japan. She had no intentions of moving and Japan wasn’t on her radar, but during her first trip to Tokyo for an art exhibition, she wondered what it would be like to live there for some time. “Well, be careful what you wish for!” she adds.
Prior to experiencing Tokyo firsthand, Ewelina fantasized about Japan. “I imagined a place that is crazy, colourful, Zen, minimalistic and where technology is super advanced.” The reality was a bit different. Of course, there are some aspects of Japan which are uber modern, notes Ewelina. For example, the Shinkansen trains are the fastest in the world and are so reliable that people set their alarms based on the timetables. But on the other hand, Japan is old fashioned and is a cash-oriented country with so many places without card facilities. “It’s funny because now when I visit Poland for Christmas, my family doesn’t even use cards anymore. They pay with their phones,” she says. But this is starting to change because the 2020 Summer Olympics are coming to Tokyo.
English is also more common than it used to be and the country has become much more international. Ewelina recalls arriving in time for Halloween and was amazed to see the streets filled with people in full costumes. “At the time, this holiday was only beginning to be popular in Poland, but here we saw a whole group with blue face paint, dressed up as Smurfs. So for me, it was pretty crazy,” she says.
There are aspects of Japanese social culture which Ewelina is quite fond of, such as meeting friends at an ‘izakaya’, which is a small bar that only serves small dishes meant for sharing, similar to a tapas bar in Spain. People don’t usually meet at home in Japan – they spend a lot of time going out. “You can always see businessmen in their suits gathering after working long hours in the office,” says Ewelina. “It’s mostly guys, but sometimes women also meet. These places are loud and you’re actually allowed to smoke inside the bar but not on the street.”
If there’s one thing she misses, it’s European food – but she makes do. As a vegetarian, she says it’s harder to find non-meat options in restaurants compared to Western countries where there’s a growing focus on plant-based foods. One Christmas she wanted to prepare a traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner. To make pierogi (dumplings), she purchased German sauerkraut and dried mushrooms her mother sent her from Poland. To make pierogi ruskie (potato dumplings), she wasn’t able to find cottage cheese so she replaced it with tofu, which she says actually worked pretty well.
Out of paper and clay
With an artist visa, Ewelina is able to work in Japan, and her medium is printmaking and ceramics. “My art focuses on the female body, the carnality of the form, the perception of women in modern society and the way they are portrayed in art throughout history. From my own female gaze, I want to redefine those standards,” she says. Ewelina frequently uses pastel pink and blue colours in her print art and when asked why she picks those hues, she reveals that “it’s an intuitive emotional response to the subjects.” After giving it some thought, she adds, “I’m happy to use colours which are considered ‘girl colours’. When you think about art history, the great artists have mostly been men. So maybe subconsciously I’m choosing these colours on purpose to underline that I’m proud of being a female artist.”
When it comes to ceramics, Ewelina actually learned the craft after moving to Japan. She fell in love with clay, a material used by women for centuries. “Women were the main producers of pottery because they were able to make it while also taking care of the household and looking after the children,” she explains. But the material itself also has a special meaning to Ewelina. “Clay is a natural material that comes from the earth and it changes like our bodies – it shrinks, it’s fragile, it can crack. And when you think about the female body, it also goes through constant changes, especially during and after pregnancy for example. So the clay is a representation of that,” she says. She developed a series of ceramic figures titled ‘Shaving Girls’ which depict women shaving their body hair. “I was interested in this everyday ritual that we do and why we do it. Is it because of culture? Is it fashion? Is it something that we do without really thinking? Or is it really our choice? So in a sort of funny way, I wanted to touch on those subjects and have an open discussion, but I also wanted to promote a different version of the female body than we usually see in the media,” says Ewelina.
She explores the role of women in society in her art based on her own personal experiences and observations. Japan is very traditional and conservative according to Ewelina. Women are pressured into having a family and there are high expectations in that regard. Meanwhile in Poland, although family life is still very important, “Polish women are quite independent and strong even though they are mothers and wives and have all these responsibilities.” One thing that is also frustrating is the way older Japanese men treat her. “For example, if I was with my partner, they would only talk to him, as if I was invisible. That’s the situation of women in Japan.”
Despite being so far away from home, Ewelina hasn’t forgotten her roots and actually teamed up with Monika Brauntsch from The Spirit of Poland Foundation, which aims to promote Polish culture abroad to create the ‘Inner Strength: The Women of Poland and Japan’ exhibition in Tokyo. “For this show, we invited artists from Poland and Japan to elaborate on the perception and the position of women in those two countries,” says Ewelina. They then published a book which contains all the work by the artists along with texts written by them to explain the art and their inspiration behind the work.
So what does it mean to be a woman today? Well, Ewelina admits she has always been the independent type, but now there is this discussion that’s beginning to open up about the place of women in the world. “I want all women to feel that they have the power to do whatever they want and to make choices that are really their own, not based on their family, their culture or other external pressures,” she adds. “However, I would like the public conversation to focus more on human conditions regardless of sex, skin colour or religion, where we can be who we are, living the truth that we are all equal. But I know that we’re probably not there yet,” she concludes.