Exhibition at Kirkcaldy Galleries to shed new light on shadows cast by war

The exhibition is at Kirkcaldy Galleries from this weekend until May.  (Pic: Diana Forster)The exhibition is at Kirkcaldy Galleries from this weekend until May.  (Pic: Diana Forster)
The exhibition is at Kirkcaldy Galleries from this weekend until May. (Pic: Diana Forster)
Haunting artworks inspired by a Polish family’s extraordinary wartime odyssey across three continents feature in a poignant exhibition opening in Kirkcaldy this weekend.

Artist Diana Forster tells the story of her mother’s ordeal, prompted by the Russian invasion of eastern Poland in 1940 using delicate, laser-cut aluminium panels.

The ten works, which will be on show at Kirkcaldy Galleries from Saturday, February 4 in the exhibition Somwhere to Stay, trace an exodus that took thousands of displaced Poles through Russia, Persia, India and Africa – then, eventually, to Britain.

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Panels capturing key stages on the journey are influenced by the traditional Polish craft of paper cutting called wycinanki. Each panel will be lit so that it casts ‘the long shadow of war’.

Template for cattle trucks (pic: Diana Forster)Template for cattle trucks (pic: Diana Forster)
Template for cattle trucks (pic: Diana Forster)

The exhibition has been commissioned by the Imperial War Museums (IWM) 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund. Somewhere to Stay is part of the Visualising War and Peace project, based at the University of St Andrews, which seeks to shed fresh light on the struggles faced by refugees during conflict.

Also included in the Oxford-based artist’s exhibition are 18 prints and a sculpture of ghostly white cabbages, etched with teeth marks, resting on spent rifle cartridge cases. The sculpture reflects the harshness of life in a Siberian labour camp. As inmates starved, guards grew vegetables that detainees were forbidden to eat. At night, children would crawl unseen under fencing to nibble cabbage leaves.

The artist’s mother and her family were among 1.7 million Poles forced from their homes by Stalin’s troops and transported to labour camps in Arkhangelsk and Siberia. Deportees were sent in cattle trucks with little food and water to logging camps where they were forced to work in temperatures as low as -40°C on a starvation diet.

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Detainees were released 18 months later when Stalin switched to the Allies, heading south to Polish Army recruitment centres in Uzbekistan, where abject conditions claimed the life of the artist’s grandfather. The family then crossed the Caspian Sea to present-day Iran before heading east across mountains to India. They sailed from Karachi to Mombasa, settling in modern-day Tanzania until the end of the war, when they were sent to a resettlement camp in Lincolnshire. Deportees were also settled in other parts of the UK.

Template for house.  (Pic: Diana Forster)Template for house.  (Pic: Diana Forster)
Template for house. (Pic: Diana Forster)

The first two panels depict a peaceful life before deportation while successive pieces illustrate where they stayed in transit. Migrants were housed in wooden barracks in Siberia’s gulags; family homes in Uzbekistan; army tents, stables and a palace in Persia; thatched rondavels in Africa; and Nissen huts in British resettlement camps.

“Somewhere to Stay focuses on an extraordinary journey and the very different kinds of shelter endured by Polish deportees,” says Visualising War director Dr Alice König. “Their story is just one of many stories of forced displacement and rupture between a settled, ordinary life and a terrifying, unknown future decided by people who don’t care.”

The IWM 14-18 NOW Legacy Fund is a UK-wide programme of 22 artist commissions inspired by the heritage of conflict.

Somewhere to Stay is supported by the cultural charity OnFife, which runs Kirkcaldy Galleries. It takes place from February 4 until May 14, 2023. Admission is free.

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