“I Hate Nazis And Everything They’re Associated With, But I Don’t Want To Waste 7 Sketchbook Pages Of Development”, or “Dang, Now I Have To Write Another Proposal”

by chung swiatkowska

VISUAL DEVELOPMENT OF RODNOVERY OR THE SLAVIC PANTHEON

On this course I have learned how to visually develop a project, creating a large body of work in a short amount of time – and how not every piece needs to be perfect, clean, or detailed, as long as it gets an idea across. This, I believe, will help me create a strong sketchbook that leads to more fleshed out final works.

My own religious pursuits and beliefs have led me to migrate between religions, both established and unestablished, until I found out about Slavic paganism or old religion – also known as Rodnovery – through chance. During this course, though, the main source of inspiration for this project was “Invisible Cities” – making characters, designing a fantasy city and building my own fictional world and society was a hugely enriching and fulfilling experience for me. Lastly, the mythical and muted works of illustrator John Bauer, based on Swedish folklore and fairy tales, are part of what drew me to create of body of work reflecting my take on Polish mythos.

I intend to aim my final project at producing conceptual works based on myths and legends, or ‘established fiction’ – in this case the mostly-lost, pre-Christian Slavic mythology, paganism or folklore known as Rodnovery. This is partially as a process of my own religious journey, and otherwise, exploration of my cultural identity – but beyond limiting myself to what little established lore there is, I plan on building up this folklore, fleshing it out with my own interpretations of texts, visuals and otherwise entirely original ideas. All religion and spirituality ultimately stemmed from human word, and to me, belief has always been personal – I do not let others dictate my beliefs, or tell me God will not accept me for my identity. This will be spiritual exploration, but creative in equal measure.

I will build up a body of visual development for my ideas, through sketchbooks and otherwise loose works, as well as singled-off/larger pieces. These will explore the pantheon, stories, festivals, and other fantasy imagery with a less historically accurate basis. I plan on exploring many mediums, though digital will likely be a favoured method, especially for development.

Due to the extremely broad and rich amount of material I will need to cover due to the nature of the pantheon, I will have to organise work, themes and titles carefully – my ideal final outcome is a tarot deck based off the work I produce here, so I will have to be able to clearly categorise what I create. I will not require any materials that I don’t already have, although if my final piece is to be a tarot deck – ideally one I can reproduce and sell – I will need quality, affordable printing resources, and potentially access to a laser cutter. Luckily due to connections with my previous school’s art department, I will hopefully be able to attain these.

Due to Rodnovery mostly being folklore passed down orally, and hardly any evidence of it existing anywhere other than very isolated villages and niche blogs, my primary research may be weak; however, I may able to speak to my living native Polish relatives about folklore and fairy tales tied to their culture, along with my own memories and experiences during my childhood visits to Poland. Most of my second-hand research will likely be drawn from blogs and Slavic culture hubs on the internet, as the religion is sparsely documented anywhere else, or in ‘official’ records, due to its ancient nature and the Christian rewriting of Poland’s history.

To evaluate and record my progress, I have created both a WordPress and a Tumblr blog – I will record processes, evaluations of what I’ve made, and photos of works in progress. Alongside this to visually record my development will be my sketchbook, which I aim to fill completely, or at least bring close to completion over the course of the project.

At the initial briefing for this assignment I originally planned to base my self-directed project around world-building, developing and visualizing a long-standing fictional ‘world’, in terms of society, geography, history, culture(s), etc. I had already wanted to incorporate elements of Polish folklore into this world, but after seeing an illustration by Patrycja Podkościelny depicting some icons of Slavic folklore, however, I was inspired to change the direction of my project as a chance to learn more about my ethnic roots.

The early stages of research into modern Rodnovery practice somewhat soured my enthusiasm for this proposal.

As I was aware, many symbols originally featured in Rodnovery or Slavic native faith (swastika, kolovrat, rece boga) were appropriated at discovery by the Nazis, who were occupying Poland at the time. While I was interested in the concepts and aesthetics of the religion, as I was with Christianity, the community has disappointed me greatly.

It turns out that a large number of modern Rodnovers are neo-Nazis, despite the fact that they are Slavic (a concept I completely fail to understand, given the Nazi regime and Hitler viewed Slavs as sub-human, non-Aryan, and only suitable for slavery or extermination). Further warped in the political state of the religion is that where not associated with literal Nazism, it is still heavily linked with white supremacy, or Polish nationalism. There is a common idea around these neo-pagan communities that the religion is ethnically white, and belongs to white people – despite, for example, historical depictions of Mokosh, one of the Slavic pantheon, with dark skin.

Given world events, the rise of neo-Nazism, and the current political climate – in Poland and worldwide – I don’t feel comfortable depicting the religion in detail any longer. As a gay, mixed race, gender-neutral/confused individual, I have never been one for organised religion in general, but I assumed as a very sparsely-followed pagan nature faith, Rodnovery would not be so prejudiced as major religions. In retrospect, I don’t really know why I expected that, given how intensely racist Poland is, even if unconsciously.

I love the culture I grew up with, and always will, but after a few days intensely researching the practice of this faith and how modern Slavs are carrying this forgotten culture, not to mention the horrendous, right-wing, oppressive Polish government at present, I felt ashamed of being Polish – I wanted to dissociate myself from it. In all likelihood, it wouldn’t have been such a change – I always felt like a stranger in Poland. Admittedly, I lived in an utterly obscure, narrow-minded little town in the middle of nowhere, a three to four-hour drive deep from Krakow airport. There was ‘white power’ spray-painted on my grandparent’s flat block, and swastikas spray-painted on buildings throughout the town. It was in Poland that I initially realised I wasn’t white – coming from London, being white-passing, I’d always assumed I was. But in Poland people stared – when I finally asked my white, Polish mother why, she explained it was because I looked ‘exotic’. I love my grandmother, but I didn’t love being called China-girl, geisha, or chopsticks every time I visited – however affectionately it might have been said.

Despite all that, though, I still have faith and allegiance to the deities Veles and Mata Ziemia, and a love for other aspects of the folklore and religion (provided it’s completely isolated from modern mainstream practice of it).

As a result, I’m going to compromise, combining both ideas for my FMP. I will visualize a fantasy world, but I will draw elements of Slavic folklore to inspire and flesh it out.

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