The Praga Peace Treaty
How artists are fighting violence with art

The Praga neighborhood in Warsaw is known for two reasons: poverty and alternative art. The surge in artists in the neighborhood has caused tension with residents, sometimes resulting in violence. With no obvious solutions, artists are looking to their art in order to ease the strain.

The Virgin Mary statuette sits on the crowded worktable next to opened tubes of paint and a coffee can full of paint brushes. The statue only needs a few finishing touches before artist Jacek Schmidt says it’s ready to present to the people living in his building. It’s a kind of peace offering, he says, a gift so he is accepted in his Warsaw neighborhood of Praga.

A Praga shrine painted by Linas Domarackas.

Praga sits across the Vistula River from Warsaw’s city centre. It’s a place known not only for its recent cultural boom, but also for its extreme poverty, violence and deep social issues. In the last five years, the divide between artists and locals has turned violent. Locals feel artists are intruding on their neighborhood and have lashed out. With no clear solution on how to fill the gap between artist and resident, artists in the area are experimenting through their work to bring peace between the two sides.

Many cultural institutions and artists have responded to the situation by isolating themselves from locals. They work in their studios by day, but at night return to the other side of the river. Schmidt knew when he moved to Praga five years ago this wasn’t the right solution. He’s made a point of trying to connect with residents. “It’s a difficult relationship,” he admits. “I function in another way than other artists from Praga. I live here, I am integrated with the locals.”

Painting the Virgin Mary statuettes is one way to establish this connection. These shrines are an integral part of the local culture.In almost every Praga courtyard thy stand in corners or at the center of a garden, decorated with Christmas lights or with wilting bouquets at their feet. By painting the shrines, the artists connect themselves with this distinct aspect of the Praga people.

Linas Domarackas next to his angel mural.

However, this type of interaction is not always greeted kindly. As part of a district government project,Linas Domarackas, a Lithuanian artist based in Praga, painted one of these shrines as well as three angels on the wall entering the courtyard on Targowa Street. He was supposed to paint more of the inside garden walls, but had to stop because residents were too aggressive. They told him the paintings were ugly and even threatened legal action.

Kazik, who wished not to use his last name, has had a business in the courtyard fixing sewing machines for 30 years. He was angry when the angels were painted and isn’t pleased with the new art in Praga. “People who live here don’t think the angels fit in the entrance, which is still broken and needs to be fixed,” he says. “The district got 80,000 zloty (about 20,000 euros) from the government and instead of renovating the place, they’ve only done a little bit… For all this they could have done so much more.” To Kazik, money spent on culture is a waste when there are so many other problems in the neighborhood.

Praga is one of the few places in Warsaw where pre-war buildings remain. Abandoned because of war, these were taken over by the district and converted into government housing. These flats have become increasingly rundown. Some apartments don’t even have their own bathrooms and have to use shared facilities on the floor. Rents in Praga are therefore cheap and the buildings hold an architectural charm. They are attractive to creative people with large spaces and high ceilings, despite being bruised by war and shoddy renovations.

Anna Maminska shows some of the children's art work done at the culture center.

The district has noted these problems. Poverty is extreme and alcoholism is rampant, but the government says culture is part of the solution. Anna Maminska is the artistic project director for the Praga North District cultural center, where the government is trying to connect art with residents through cultural events and workshops. These include pottery classes for children and disabled adults as well as drama and animation workshops. The classes have proved successful so far, but there is still a long way to go, Maminska says. Some district programs still encounter strong animosity. “This is a reality here I cannot understand,” Maminska says. “[Residents] treat cultural events as something against them, as something that’s hostile.” One incident involved locals throwing rocks at spectators during a Spanish music concert. Some people were even sent to hospital. There have also been incidents where residents have thrown chairs through windows of local businesses and been verbally abusive.

Art therapy is an area Anna Schmidt, Jacek Schmidt’s daughter and also an artist, is exploring to combat violence. Her artwork is based on the neighborhood, depicting scenes of crime and poverty. Now she’s developing a project to use art as a way to calm the aggression and violence she sees in the neighborhood, especially in children. “The art makes people calm; there is so much aggression in them,” she says. “I have a vision where art and crisis can integrate. I want to make a play in which there will be paintings, dance and movies, where those children can feel good in it.”

Anna and Jacek Schmidt.

In past, Jacek and Anna Schmidt have tried to involve the locals in the art scene through workshops, fashion shows and the art gallery Jacek Schmidt runs across from his apartment on Zabrowska Street. However, even when Jacek Schmidt has reached out and connected his art with the locals, it isn’t always well received. One of these projects was a series of portraits called Praga Chicks (Praskie Laskie) depicting women in Praga. Most of the women weren’t from the area, but one was a sales clerk who worked close to his studio. When the photograph was presented to the public, residents ridiculed her to the point that she asked Schmidt to give her the photographs so no one could ever see them again.

Street art, however, is another avenue some artists have explored to connect with the area. This has been more successful. Another one of Domarackas’s projects was painting family portraits on the wall of a ruined building. The mural featured family portraits from a Praga family painted as if lining a kitchen wall. “They are my family,” says Andzelika, who also didn’t want to use her last name. “My grandmother, mother, father and my daughter with her friend.” Andzelika has lived in the apartment near the mural all her life as did her parents and grandparents. Domarackas approached her about including her family portraits in the mural and she thought this was a good way to improve the neighborhood atmosphere. Andzelika says the street art is helping bring the neighborhood together and believes art is helping the social situations she faces as a resident.

The mural depicts people from Andzelika's family. She thinks projects like this one help Praga.

The government is also searching for its own ways to connect the cultural surge with the locals. The European Union CreativeMetropolis project targets neighborhoods in Baltic cities with strong cultural potential, like Praga. In September 2010, a series of consultations was conducted with local businesses, artists and residents to figure out how to promote culture and bridge the social gaps. According to the report, many locals felt left out of the discussions that rapidly changed the neighborhood into a cultural incubator. “They are not happy with how the money is spent. They had different solutions to the problems,” says Maminska. The conclusion in the December report was that in order to move forward and develop Praga as a creative community, more respect needs to be paid to the local heritage, where residents are given an independent outlet to express themselves.

However, until the project is complete, many of the difficulties and conflicts artists and cultural institutions face are still imbedded in Praga. “Through culture and art this social space may disappear,” says Jacek Schmidt. “People may change in time.”

About Jenny Ford

Jenny Ford is a Canadian journalism student in her fourth year at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She’s contributed to publications such as the Winnipeg Free Press, the Ottawa Citizen online, Smart Careers magazine and produced radio broadcasts for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Jenny is an avid writer, traveler and history buff. → About us.