From the Madonna to masturbation

CN: This article contains images which are NSFW.

If you’ve ever wanted to know the deepest, darkest desires of the Polish mind, Jagoda Jago has a project for you. In Women’s Sexual Fantasies: An Illustrated Look, Jagoda explores the sexual fantasies of Polish women in a series of striking illustrations, capturing the scope of female desire in her bold, punchy style.

Jagoda spoke to me from Perth, Australia, 8.000 miles away from her native country of Poland. Following the completion of her master’s degree, she chose to leave her homeland and her parents behind to start a new life with her husband in Perth. Even one year on, the scale of the move is still clearly weighing on her mind.

“I had to make a decision,” she explains. “If I’m going to leave my head in Europe, or if I want to stay here. I had my friends. I had everything. I was living in the centre of one of the most beautiful cities in Poland and I had everyone around. Here, I need to put in some effort to find new friends, to find my social balance. It’s difficult,” she admits. “But I have my family here.”

For someone so profoundly interested in the natural world, Australia must be one of the best places to find inspiration. We spoke a little about a project she’d been working on before the lockdown kicked in; a collaboration with a marine biologist to create an animation about the effects of coral bleaching on the ocean. Many artists have been badly hit by the Covid-19 distancing measures, with galleries closing, exhibitions cancelled and projects put on hold indefinitely. Although Jagoda had been similarly affected by cancellations and delays, the forced break has also given her space to reflect on her work and think more about the future of her art.

“I want to speak loud about things that I really deeply care about”

Jagoda was keen as part of her move to understand the environment she was entering into, both culturally and socially. The severe impact of historical colonialism on indigenous peoples in Australia is immeasurable, and work to expose and explore the continuing effects on a national level is still ongoing. Museums and heritage organisations are clearly conscious of the issue; loading the homepage of the Australian Museum’s website brings up a message that it “respects and acknowledges the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the First Peoples and Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways on which the Museum stands”. A new exhibition at National Museums Australia marking the 250th anniversary of the Endeavour voyage aims to centre the voices of the First Peoples. 2019 was also the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and in Australia this celebration included the creation of six Aboriginal language dictionaries.

Jagoda was conscious of this need to educate herself about her new home country, “to know the country as it is now but also what it was before”. It surprised her how little those she spoke to knew of indigenous symbolism and how it related to the nature all around them.

When I started to learn all these stories – let’s say if you see a white cockatoo flying or singing above your head, that means you are in a good place in your life and the path you follow is a good one. I would like to know more about the Aboriginal culture. That’s my dream and I really want to do that – but I was trying to get into some groups and courses to learn the language, to know a little bit more about Bush Medicine, about their culture, about their beliefs, but the coronavirus came and everything was cancelled.

As part of this interest, Jagoda has been producing careful studies of animals in the local habitat. Her work is an attention-grabbing mix of true-to-life detail and strong, bright colours, capturing something of the essence of her subject as well as its appearance.

This particular style is also prominent in a series of illustrations that first brought her to my attention; a study of female sexuality which had formed part of her master’s degree at the Academy of Fine Arts in Gdańsk. Beginning with the image of the Madonna, Jagoda began to research how the restrictions placed on women’s lives evolved out of patriarchal religious culture. “I wanted to illustrate the problems we’re facing like rape and abortion,” she says. “I had done some social propaganda posters before and I thought: this is my thing. I want to speak loud about things that I really deeply care about.”

“That’s the thing I would really like to do – to fight a little bit for women because I was raised by women”

As she was considering what to focus her thesis on, she came across a post on the Instagram account of G’rls Room Magazine. It featured an anti-slut-shaming manifesto, championed by Kamila Raczyńska-Chomyn and discussed in an article on their site. The piece was prompted by the discovery of ‘SlutWatch’, a group sharing details of Polish women’s sex lives (captured as screenshots from the women’s Facebook accounts) in order to mock and shame them. In opposition to this spiteful slut-shaming and misogyny, Kamila collected quotes from Polish women about their sexual fantasies. These included sex in a confessional, group sex and BDSM. Jagoda reached out to Kamila to learn more, and came to create a series of illustrations which drew upon these fantasies.

Jagoda herself modelled for the photographs with the help of her husband. She wanted to bring a sense of grounded reality to them, instead of looking for deliberately posed images of strangers from the internet to work from. “It’s from my perspective and that was my piece in that,” she says. “I was reading those [other women’s] stories but I also wanted it to be a little bit mine.”

Jagoda found that as she started discussing the project with friends and family, many of the women she knew were happy to share their thoughts and feelings about their own sexuality with her. This experience became part of the project, forming part of the intended dynamic with the final pieces. “The purpose of this project was to build a place where women would be happy to share their experiences,” she explains. “So if you’re going to an exhibition like that you can take your daughter and you can take your mum and maybe that would inspire you to have a coffee after and talk about it.”

The women in her family have clearly been a huge driving factor in her career as an artist.

I also wanted this to be an ode to my family, because I was raised in a very matriarchal family. The majority are women. I owe them a lot and I really know that. That’s the thing I would really like to do – to fight a little bit for women because I was raised by women. Everything I did… it’s because of them, because they were supporting me, encouraging me. They were teaching me – even pushing me into the art world, even though none of my family members were involved in the arts in any kind of way. They were just like, “You’re talented. You should do that.”

I was also pleased to hear how much encouragement she’d received from her mentor at Gdańsk. He was totally supportive of the project from the outset, especially as the scope of his own work also often comments on social issues. “We had so much fun doing that because I was happy,” Jagoda adds. “Some of my friends were just struggling with their ideas and I had my idea. I’m not letting people force me to do anything. I was sure I wanted to do this and that’s all”.

It’s still incredibly remarkable to me how unusual it is to find female desire expressed by female artists. Despite the fact that the naked cis-female body has been a mainstay of Western art since the Aphrodite of Knidos dropped her towel some two thousand years ago, the gaze has almost always been male. Jagoda’s work aims to redress that balance, to recontextualise women’s desire as a female phenomenon.

It seems especially important then that the starting point for Jagoda’s project had been the figure of Madonna. When I asked her if the Virgin Mary held a particular significance in Polish culture, I clearly hit an issue that was troubling her. “I think the religion aspect in Poland is deeply complicated,” she says after a pause. “It’s kind of sick, you know? It’s just… it’s too much. I guess we have lots of weird people in charge now, and that’s sad because they have that super traditional point of view and they’re trying to push their ideas on every single person in the country. I can’t even … it’s just stressing me out so bad if I think about it”.

She told me about the case of Polish activist Elżbieta Podleśna, who was arrested in May last year for “carrying out a profanation of the Virgin Mary of Częstochowa”. After placing posters showing the Virgin Mary with a rainbow-coloured halo, Podleśna’s home was raided by police and she was detained for over twenty-four hours. As of November, Podleśna was still waiting for trial on a charge that carries a sentence of up to two years.

“I think [Poland] is a good place to do something rebellious but it’s also a place that you can easily get in trouble,” Jagoda says. “A rainbow in the halo and you’re going to jail for that, for 24 hours because they’re just searching through your apartment without any order? Because someone said something and some Bishop probably got angry?” She gestures with frustration. “This is Poland”.

“We were raised to judge, you know, to fit in and then when you realise, oh my god, I need to be open. I can’t judge people because they’re not living just as I do”

The right-wing populist party ‘Law and Justice’ won the 2015 election with the first outright majority in Poland since the fall of Communism. Since then they have faced condemnation for efforts to hijack the courts, erode LGBTQ rights and end sex education. Earlier this year, the government tried to take advantage of the social distancing regulations to force through a law curbing abortion rights while the public couldn’t gather to protest. “I couldn’t sleep,” Jagoda says when she brings up this particular underhand move. She was relieved to find that these rights were currently preserved in her new home, though the fight for increased access to abortion in Australia is by no means an ancient one.

If you’re pro or if you’re against, the only thing that matters is choice. I think this is something we’re struggling with: the opinion and the judgement. We’re just raised like that. That’s the basic thing and I feel that. I really feel that.

I don’t mean everybody needs to go on the street and protest, but I think the conversation should be open. We should talk with each other, especially women with women. We should help each other and support each other. I think we all were like that at some point because we were raised to judge, you know, to fit in and then when you realise, oh my god, I need to be open. I can’t judge people because they’re not living just as I do.

I think it’s a beautiful journey [towards feminism] but it’s not a good journey because… it’s not easy, I guess, because you need to question everything. You need to find your femininity again. You need to see yourself through different eyes.

It’s an often-repeated cliché that the Australian way of life is much more relaxed and open than other Western societies, but for Jagoda it seems to ring true. “In Poland my mum, my grandmother, they were always elegant, wanted to look nice and I was raised like that,” she says. “But here it was just like oh, I’m just wearing sandals, going to the beach. I live in the bush so what’s the point of dressing up, you know? What’s the point of that? I don’t need to put that much make up on”.

On these first expeditions into the Australian landscape, Jagoda was also struck by the sight and the symbolism around the Southern Cross, a constellation featured on the Australian flag. “If you’re raised in Europe you don’t have that sky,” she says. “You know what I mean? You don’t have those stars”.

There’s more information about Jagoda’s work on her website, and you can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

Cover image shows the artist standing in a gallery with three of the explicit illustrations behind her on the wall. First inset is an illustration of two white cockatoos with prominent yellow crests. The background is covered with leaves. Second inset is an illustration of a person holding their hand to their face with their tongue between the first and second fingers. The nails are brightly painted red. Third inset is an illustration of a person holding a banana above their bottom with one hand while their other clutches at their skin. The nails are brightly painted red. The final image is an illustration of a person holding another person’s feet against their naked chest, positioned to cover their breasts. The person turns to the right and sticks out their tongue to lick the big toe of the upper foot. All images are used with the kind permission of the artist.