Copperfield, London is pleased to present the exhibition Shtamah, by Polish artist Ewa Axelrad (b. 1984 Gliwice).
The Polish word sztama, pronounced shtamah, brings to mind interesting connotations. It smacks of boys’ solidarity. A dictionary of the Polish language explains it in rather innocent terms, as “a relation between friends or companions entailing mutual help.” It is derived from German der Stamm, which means tribe. However, many examples can be quoted that analyse how this seemingly positive phenomenon transforms into group aggression; from William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) in literature to the experiments of social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, known as the Robbers Cave, that were conducted that same year.
This new body of work analyses the mechanisms that prompt people to come together in displays of aggression. An important element of this study is the process of unification – losing one’s subjectivity and merging with the group – which is often achieved through body painting, putting on masks, armour or uniforms. In the military context, the subject of solidarity and renouncing individuality in favour of the common cause and the fighting spirit was analysed by Napoleon’s strategists, for example, who termed this elusive phenomenon esprit de corps. Ludwig Stomma explains this phrase as “brotherhood of arms” or “athletes’ love”, which makes it possible to “replace the mawkish conscience with a uniform.”
Axelrad, in a critical way, draws upon the deeply rooted mixture of fascination, fear and prejudice that gave rise to the western European fantasy of tribalism. A crucial thread present in the exhibition is also the notion of the sacred and enticing character of uniforms, which symbolically ties the wearer to the ranks of the army, police, gangs or paramilitary groups.