Radek Szlaga – All the Brutes


‘Many artists obsessed with Heart of Darkness’, reads one of the word paintings by Radek Szlaga (°1979, Warsaw). Indeed, many artists have taken the novel as inspiration and Szlaga is admittedly one of them. For his ongoing series “All the Brutes”, the artist digs into the novel written by Joseph Conrad in 1902, well aware that Conrad, like Szlaga is born in Poland and mastered a second language. His was English. Szlaga’s is painting.

Conrad’s novel has become the textbook example in colonial studies of a caricatured depiction of Africa. And since it has, the European view of the so-called ‘Dark Continent’, and especially Congo, is largely affected by this piece of literature. It’s a good example of just how deeply a fictitious story can reshape and even replace a collective sense of reality. With this in mind, Szlaga embarks on a pictorial exploration of how the novel is engrained in our collective imagination, whether through literature, cinema, painting or in daily life (like the all too often quoted: “The horror! The horror!”).

The best-known adaptation of Conrad’s book is of course Francis Ford Coppola’s cinematographic masterpiece Apocalypse Now (1979), which searches for the heart of darkness in the jungles of Vietnam. The film leaves the Congro for Vietnam and the figure of Kurtz changes from a derailed ivory trader to a decorated soldier who became a sectarian war poet.

In one of his paintings, a diptych, Szlaga tries to catch the enigmatic character that could have been Kurtz, depicting an ivory trader shielded by two tusks and surrounded by his private troops. The trader’s image is painted three times in similar compositions, as if to evoke the impossibility of fully grasping the complexity of this character. Next to this, Dennis Hopper, Martin Sheen and other Coppola recruits are recognizable in an image taken from the movie. The first work might evoke a movie scene as well. It however, is based on a picture of an archetypical English colonialist, whom Szlaga imagined Kurtz might have looked like. This approach illustrates the variety of sources he brings together in this body of work: from old colonial footage, stills from the movie, external references like mug shots of Afro-American convicts in Detroit (where Szlaga’s parents emigrated to, becoming part of the large Polish community there), and the documentary that brings forward the behind the scenes ‘making of’, like Coppola holding a gun to his head. Szlaga makes it into a portrait and presents it next to those of historical figures like Leopold II and Conrad himself, but also to portraits of fictitious characters like Kurtz and the actor Robert Duvall playing Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore. It’s another way of blurring the line between reality and fiction as various layers of representation are filtered through it. […]

Szlaga takes the novel as a starting point for a journey through the Heart of Darkness, whether that lies in Africa, or deep down in ourselves, whether it is in the colonial past, or the globalised present, where some stereotypes all too often continue until the present day. Congo has always been a country on which white men projected their fantasies and fears. […]By working with fiction, Szlaga tackles reality. By plunging into the past, he reveals the present.

With his work, he evokes the reverberations of colonialism like the black man in the museum who will be more likely a guard than a director, exceptions aside. While African men in the past were fighting in foreign uniforms under the coloniser’s flag – and often used as cannon fodder –, nowadays – the lucky ones – wear the shirt of a football league, defending other people’s national pride. One might never step in the same river twice, Heraclites used to say. But would that also hold true for the Congo River?

text: Sam Steverlynck

Exhibition within the framework of the Warsaw Gallery Weekend 2015

The solo exhibition of Radek Szlaga at LETO is accompanied by the book All the Brutes. The publication consists of a selection of works from his on-going series, which digs into Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness (1902). “Szlaga goes from the heart of darkness to the dark heart of Europe” as Sam Steverlynck wrote in his text about the artist latest works.
The book complements an interview by Harlan Levey with the artist and the text on his works by Sam Steverlynck.

Format: 14,7 x 20,7 cm, 116 pp., soft cover
Publisher: Fontarte Editions, 2015

This publication has been made possible thanks to a “Young Poland” grant funded by the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage

Partners of the exhibition:
Fontarte Editions
Budner Development
Warsaw Gallery Weekend