Us and Them. An Intricate History of Otherness.

BY Jagoda Romanowska

The exhibition ends with funhouse mirrors, helping us understand just how relative Otherness actually is, and how much it depends on our perception, which can often be influenced in a number of ways

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The phenomenon of ethnocentrism is present as a form of self-identification and self-consciousness in a wide variety of social groups. Although first defined by the sociologist William Sumner at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the concept has always been a part of social life.

This view is shared by the cultural anthropologist Wojciech J. Burszta: “The conviction that the observer’s society occupies a central – and thus privileged – position in the world, while other societies and cultures remain on the outskirts of ‘our world’, has been a part of human consciousness since the dawn of time.” This conviction has given us intolerance, hostility, and the persecution of broadly-defined Otherness. It is only recently that we have begun to perceive Otherness as a equal partner in discourses of all sorts.

The struggle against ethnocentrism is one of the leading tasks of Kraków’s International Cultural Centre. It achieves this goal by entering into dialogue with the Other – the unknown, the original, and the unconventional. The latest example of this approach is the exhibition “Us and Them. An Intricate History of Otherness”, produced in collaboration with the PAU-PAN Scientific Library in Kraków. Exhibits feature European masterpieces of illustration from the PAU Print Room, and showcase the work of such artists as Albrecht Dürer, Martin Schongauer, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Hendrik Goltzius, Jacques Callot, and William Hogarth. For the purposes of the exhibition, the collection has been broadened to include illustrations from 15th and 16th century books about mythical beasts, political and social caricatures, circus posters, and comics, as well as films by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (1922) and Tod Browning (1932).

According to the anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach, the “us” and “them” dichotomy stems from the binary opposition between “human” and “non-human”. It is the reason we divide ourselves into “us” – or true people, and “them” – or false people. This division is further deepened by the difficult issue of man’s attitude towards Otherness. The exhibition in Kraków presents a wide range of often conflicting approaches to the Other: from hostile, to neutral, to full of awe and fascination as well as fear. These frequently ambiguous attitudes are expressed through different forms of art: paintings, illustrations, and films.

The exhibition is divided into four sections, each of which illustrates a particular approach to the issue of Otherness. The title of the first section, “Freak”, is described by the creators of the exhibition as a neutral name used in reference to a being that one finds interesting. The freak is a “representative of a community”, one whose defining feature is weirdness. It is thus “intended to be ogled” almost by definition. As a typical being, it must have certain universal features common to all freaks. Depicted beings include: Silenus, Pulcinella, centaurs, hermaphrodites, and other oddities. The next section presents examples of otherness that we often treat with hostility, the “Enemy”. This form of the Other may be a personification of dark forces (“evil incarnate”), or may be associated with such concept as disease, unjust suffering, or even anarchy. The third section, “Personalized Misfits”, is constructed around individual representations of the Other. The final section, “Heroes and Villains”, presents images of figures that evoke both fascination and fear. These include Dracula, Batman, a boxing champion, and the characters of Tod Browning’s Freaks. This part explains just how thin the border is between the legendary freaks of 15th century chronicles and the pop culture superheroes that also display an aura of otherness.

The exhibition ends with funhouse mirrors, helping us understand just how relative Otherness actually is, and how much it depends on our perception, which can often be influenced in a number of ways.

“Us and Them. An Intricate History of Otherness.” International Cultural Centre Gallery, Kraków. Curated by: Anna Olszewska. Designed by: Jerzy Cygankiewicz. 16 March – 5 June 2011.