Looking Behind The Corner: An Interview with Poster-Artist Ryszard Kaja


Ryszard Kaja (born 1962, Poznan, Poland) is one of his Poland’s leading poster artists and continues a long tradition of poster art in his country. His mixed-media posters – simple and striking, but subtle and always surprising – are on display for the first time in India at the Polish Institute, New Delhi, until March 11. The exhibition brings together examples of his work for the Polish theatre and a new series about Poland entitled ‘Kaja Ji: Cultural and Travel Posters From Polska.’ On the event of this debut exhibition but his seventh trip to India, the gentle, easygoing 54-year old artist spoke to The Wire about his work.

What is it about the poster form that appeals to you? Why and how did you come to choose it?

I worked for a long time as a set and costume designer in the Polish theatre. But after a while, I wanted more independence – and the older I grow, the more quietness I desire. I already used to create posters for the plays for which I was designing the sets and costumes; now I started designing posters full-time.

The poster form appeals to me because you are always addressing someone through it. You know that the poster has a long history in Poland, when it was first used for political expression during the Communist years. It is more direct than other forms in that it delivers a message to its audience or subverts a message. But it is also more subtle and symbolic, because everything is reduced to essence.

In Poland, like in India I think, the tendency now is to do all design work digitally. That is not what I do; I think that is a pity. I draw, I paint, I use the things around me. In a recent sketch in my notebook while here in Delhi, for example, I pasted little bits from the newspaper kept in front of me on my worktable, and dipped my paintbrush in my coffee mug! I take inspiration from, and use, everything around me. I like mess. The poster form allows me to be messy.


What are you trying to show or say about Poland through your series on display here in Delhi? Would you like to make posters about India?

It would be interesting to make posters about India because India is so complex and the poster requires you, in a way, to reduce and simplify. There are lots of posters already about India, especially those that tell you about ‘incredible India’! But I hate all stereotyped, touristic representations. What I want to depict through my posters is the everyday, the ordinary, the unusual.

In Poland, we have many Communist-era buildings, block-like things that most of us, most Poles, find very ugly. We would want to hide them from tourists. But I think those would be interesting for tourists to see, because of the history there. So those buildings are what I have depicted in some of my posters – not something you would expect to see as an advertisement for Poland or in a poster series called ‘Poland.’ What people generally associate with Poland is Chopin! But those buildings are also Poland.

Similarly, if I were to make a poster about India, I think I would make one about Bundi, in Rajasthan, because I love Bundi rather than Jaipur or Jaisalmer or the Taj Mahal, which is where everyone wants to go. But what I would choose to show about India would also depend on whether I was showing it to Poles or to Indians. The poster always forces you to think about who you are addressing.


I’ve read that the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal has been a big influence on your work. How so?

Yes, I love Hrabal. He wrote about small people and ordinary life, and his stories are full of surprises, because his characters are small but surprising. Hrabal taught me to look behind the corner, to look under the filth to find beauty – actually, to love filth because of the beauty to be found in it. And that is why I love India – because of the filth here [laughs], no, because of the unexpected beauty here. When I first came to India in the ’60s, I didn’t like it, but I love it now, because it is different from anywhere else and therefore so beautiful. I am an avid traveler – I spend at least five or six months in the year traveling outside Poland. Everywhere I go, I look for the different and the small, and that is what I record in my notebook.

What do you think of contemporary art in India and young artists’ work here?

I don’t know Indian contemporary art very much, but my impression is that most of it is not very modern and a lot of it is commercial. I think that is a pity. I would like to tell students of art here that imitation can never make good art, and that you can only make good art if you really know yourself. I think young people in India, like young people in Poland, are trying to imitate American culture and are trying foremost to earn a lot of money. But young Indians should be proud of the ways in which they are different and use art to express their identities.

There are so many forms of small, non-commercial art here that young artists could learn from and use for new work – for instance, I have seen hand-draw wrappings on cigarettes. I love art like that, that doesn’t belong to big corporations.

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Along with your exhibition at the Polish Institute, you also conducted a workshop for art students at Delhi University. How was that experience?

It was by far my most meaningful experience in India to date. The students here are creating all kinds of very fascinating, avant-garde work. And they are humble and eager to learn, much more so than their Polish counterparts. But still, like the Polish, and like the Europeans, I think Indians are a bit on the self-involved side and don’t learn enough from the world. For students, part of that is economic – not having enough resources – but part of it is just ethnocentrism. At my workshop at the university, I tried to tell the students to learn from the whole world. That is exactly the same thing I tell Polish students when I teach them.

Ryszard Kaja’s exhibition is open for viewing by appointment until 11th March, 9 am – 5 pm, at the Polish Institute, 67 Jor Bagh, New Delhi.