UNRAVELING – the dress of Jadwiga

Text by James D. Campbell

A tattered dress hanging freely in space seems less resilient than the flesh it was meant to clothe, but more enduring than human memory often is. Ewa Monika Zebrowski’s grandmother’s dress is, for her, a palpable enigma, a fragmented palimpsest of memories lost and rescued. She has said that she would have preferred that it were embroidered with a narrative braille that her fingers could read. But its enigmas have led her to create one of her finest bodies of photographic work. Literally unraveling it may well be, but the artist has transferred its enigmas over to her viewers, to unravel for ourselves, in time.

Zebrowski is an artist who has never been uncomfortable with the enigmatic. This is true of her earlier work, and the Venice images in particular. In this new work, she celebrates both her grandmother’s living memory and the enigmas her dress embodies through ceremonial observance. This lends her deeply private subject matter work an unusual pungency, a sense of the liminal, and a deeply haunting face. She navigates the borderlines of her experience, explores her own memories and commemorates her grandmother in a medium well-suited for that purpose. The rituals of photography allow for full commemoration, after all. Zebrowski knows this well. But there is something more. Distance is as important to the photographic image’s power as it is to the act of commemoration itself. She is respectful of that necessary distance. And yet she succeeds in rescuing from oblivion not just the enigma of her grandmother’s dress, but her body memory as well. She wore that dress and carried it with her throughout her life on her diasporic journey through time and circumstances harrowing and domestic. Why? Any answer must remain, of course, speculative.

Zebrowski has made a deeply private ceremonial into a meditation on memory and loss that we all can understand. Her memorabilia becomes commemorabilia, and somehow communal, as we remember along with her. She proves those commentators wrong who hold that the photographic image is mute in that it is, while perfectly adequate as a reminder, inadequate as a commemorabilium. (1) Her grandmother’s dress is an ephemeral artefact, subsequent to attrition and more than fraying at the edges – like memory itself. But, aura-laden in thoughtfulness and resonance, it is a perfectly effective and eloquent commemorabilium.

Clearly, Ewa Zebrowski, in these photographs (and video) of her grandmother’s dress and of her stepdaughter wearing a recreation of it, proves that “photography is not valued so much for capturing – transcribing – as for going beyond (or beneath) an artifact’s superficial appearance, in order to capture what is most valuable in it”. (2). Her grandmother’s dress becomes not just something worn – even though it still carries latent body memories along with it – but something thought. Something still lived, remembered, commemorated – and still capable of seizing the imagination. This photographer goes beneath and beyond the surface of images and things to secure what is most valuable and offers us her own commemorabilium.

1. Edward S. Casey, Remembering: A Phenomenological Study (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), p. 220.
2. Frederick N. Bohrer, “Photography and Archaeology: The Image as Object” in Envisioning the Past: Archaeology and the Image. Edited By Sam Smiles, Stephanie Moser (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p. 185.