Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Friday 6 December 2019

What Lies Beneath: Meeting of the Waters, Ula Retzlaff

Meeting of the Waters by Ula Retzlaff
Meeting of the Waters by Ula Retzlaff

Niall MacMonagle

Does a black fingerprint on a white page belong to someone Black or White? Simple question and the stupidity of racism is suddenly clear as day.

'No Irish Need Apply' once greeted Ireland's emigrants; when foreigners came our way it wasn't always a Céad Míle Fáilte.

When artist Ula Retzlaff, from Szczecin, Poland, first came to Ireland in 1979 she encountered racism Irish style. Nor has she forgotten being told that "if you want to sell your paintings here, change your name".

"Would that make my artwork better? That sentence will never leave me. I was shocked."

In London, May 1976, she had met a young man from Ballylongford. She was with Lublin University drama group, he with Sundrive Players. She spoke little English, he had no Polish but they both spoke French, the language of love.

At Lublin, Karol Wojtyla, later John Paul II, taught her philosophy but her degree "was not recognised here and I was not allowed work for five years".

She studied at NCAD and, as a young mother, "I was writing essays at 2am." Later she voluntarily represented Migrants, a Human Rights Organisation. Disillusioned, she returned to art.

One work, in Ballivor National School, celebrates the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit: Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and the Fear of the Lord using film, ceramic, paint, glass.

A practising Catholic?

"I try."

She admires how the Church in Poland defended human rights, protected Jews. On the Aran Islands she could not believe that men and women were segregated at Mass.

This painting is of Wicklow's famous Meeting of the Waters in Avoca but "it's not representative or photographic. My work is more interpretative. I wanted to capture the energy of white water, the sun, the spirit".

She loves "the Celtic belief that time is not linear".

Married 34 years and living in Terenure, "I miss Polish honesty, directness. The Irish are all polite but talk behind your back." But in her studio she is never lonely. She quotes Georges Moustaki "Je ne suis jamais seul, avec ma solitude."

Sunday Independent

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