Argentinean tango with Polesie in mind

Zofia Chometowska’s photos of Pinsk and suburbs return to homeland

By Viktar Korbut

For over fifty years, the photos have been kept by Zofia Chometowska’s family. In 1947, Zofia moved to Argentina, although she was born in Belarus and lived in Poland for a long time. Eventually, in 2008, films made before WWII were brought to Warsaw from Buenos Aires, featuring Polish and Italian cities, in addition to Belarusian Polesie villages along the Pripyat River. Her native village of Parokhonsk is situated halfway between Pinsk and Luninets.

Until November 13th, the photos of Polesie will be on show at the National History Museum, almost all being exhibited for the first time. About 30 of the hundred displayed in Minsk have previously been showcased in Warsaw.

Zofia Chometowska is a new figure in the history of Belarusian art and belongs equally to Polish culture. Born to the ancient Belarusian family of Drucki-Lubecki dukes, Zofia was a member of elite photographic societies in pre-war Poland. Her passion for photography began with portraits of her friends who visited their family estate in Parokhonsk but she also loved to photograph local fairs, merchants, fishermen and hunters. These photos — which are truly close to our soul — are at the heart of the Minsk show. Visitors to the museum can easily imagine Polesie’s lost culture and daily life: a combination of the traditions of Belarusians, Ukrainians, Poles and Jews.

“Despite Zofia Chometowska’s noble origins, she managed to find a common language with many people, capturing their images in photographs. She could take shots of women washing clothes in a lake without being stylised; rather, she created precise portraits,” explains the curator of the exhibition, Karolina Puchala-Rojek, of Warsaw’s Archaeology of Photography Foundation.

Zofia settled down in Warsaw in the mid-1930s, photographing local architecture — primarily, palace interiors. Before WWII, she was asked by the President of Warsaw, Stefan Starzynski, to create the Warsaw Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow project. In 1945, she showcased photos of the worn-torn Polish capital and people who were returning to it at the Warsaw Accuses exhibition. In 1947, she took the exhibition to London and, later, moved to Argentina with her children — Gabriella and Piotr.

Ms. Chometowska has now returned to her homeland, via her priceless photos. Nadezhda Savchenko, the Head of the National History Museum’s Department for Written and Graphic Sources, admits that Zofia’s are true ‘reporting’ photos. “We’re used to seeing Polesie residents looking sad in old photos but Zofia took pictures of smiling people. In addition, many of her photos were taken from high-rise buildings — such as from the towers of the Pinsk Jesuit Collegium’s Roman Catholic Church, which no longer stands.”

Not only Minskers will be able to enjoy the photos of pre-war and post-war Warsaw and Polesie, as the exhibition is to travel on to Pinsk in late 2011. Moreover, an album has been released in Polish, English and Belarusian, featuring 200 of Zofia’s works.

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