Polish curator and art historian Tomasz Kitliński is being sued by Przemysław Czarnek—the right-wing governor of Poland’s Lublin region and an incoming member of parliament—over public remarks he made about the lawmaker. The dispute is centered on an artwork honoring victims of the Holocaust, which Czarnek labelled “anti-Polish.” Kitliński commissioned the piece from artist Dorota Nieznalska for the eleventh edition of the Open City Festival, which closed on October 11.
According to the Art Newspaper, Czarnek demanded the removal of Nieznalska’s installation Judenfrei—a Nazi term that was used for areas that were “cleansed” of Jews during World War II, on state television on October 4—the state made it illegal to blame Poland for crimes committed by the Nazis and other human rights violations related to the Holocaust in 2018. Kitliński refused to take down the artist’s work, which comprises about a dozen signs with the names of the places where pogroms against the Jewish population took place.
Not long after the broadcast, Czarnek received an honorary medal from Lublin’s Marie Curie-Skłodowska University, which prompted Kitliński, a lecturer at the school, to publish an open letter accusing the politician of taking pride in “offending Ukrainians, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and women, for whom he sees no social role other than the reproduction of children.”
Czarnek responded by filling a defamation lawsuit against Kitliński, who now faces up to two years in prison for the alleged slandering of a public official. A champion of cultural expression, Kitliński has also been targeted by a religious radio program which frequently airs criticisms of him. Rising to his defense, international scholars have launched a petition in solidarity with the curator, who hopes the lawsuit will be dismissed since his comments should be protected by the Polish constitution’s article on free speech.
The petition also decries the promotion of far-right ideas by academic institutions and states that the accolade awarded to Czarnek is a “blatant attempt to normalize misogyny, homophobia, xenophobia and racism.” The document has been signed by more than 758 people including members of the university’s faculty and student body.
“Something is rotten in the state of Poland,” Kitliński told the Art Newspaper. “I’ve been made a scapegoat for all progressive causes that the far-right despise, and feel personally threatened. By accusing me they intend to send a signal of intolerance to the population at large. This represents an attempt to close down free speech and open discourse on human rights.”