Rainbow-coloured candy, Minnie Mouse ears and Lolita sunglasses – they’re hardly the images one would expect to find coming from a former student of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. But Justyna Kisielewicz is no ordinary European artist, and this princess of pop culture is about to prove to Sydney just how rebellious the colour pink can be via her latest body of work,Growing Up Is Overrated.

Like any great artist, it seems like Kisielewicz was born to play the part. “The first painting that I did was when I was three years old on my mum’s thesis,” she laughs. “I always wanted to study art, but when the time came for me to take the exams I couldn’t because I was so sick. I had to think of something less physically heavy, because standing whilst painting all the time requires a lot of strength.”

Her need to switch trajectories, as well as a lifelong love affair with Western culture, made her next step clear.

“I liked American Studies and was interested in American culture, which you can tell by looking at my work, so it was the perfect match, I guess. It also helped me to expand my horizons, because I got to know many interesting people and read a lot. When I was finally admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, I knew what I wanted to do, what I wanted to paint and what stories I wanted to tell.”

Kisielewicz’s interest in pop culture, and its exploration in her art, was also cultivated at an incredibly young age. “In communist Poland there was a shortage of everything, so it was really difficult to get that stuff, and I wanted to have them,” she says. “There was a girl who sat next to me at elementary school and her mum was a translator in Germany, and she used to bring her cool stuff like Mickey Mouse and pink pencils, and I wanted them. But the only way of having them was to draw it. It was cool, because it meant that I could have any Disney character that I wanted.”

[Above:Minnimal Fun byJustyna Kisielewicz]

But it was far from smooth sailing for the artist as she got older. Studying art in a communist country meant that her penchant for bright colours and Western-inspired subject matter strayed far from the norm.

“The way I talk about it now makes it sound so easy-peasy, but the reality back then was a little more black than pink. The problem with the Academy in Warsaw is that they’re very conservative. They told me that I couldn’t do what I was doing because it was too bright, too colourful. They said that the greatest art is created in anguish and suffering.

“One of the professors expelled me from a drawing studio and I was also sent to the rector’s office because he said I stirred trouble, and there was a lot of controversy around my art. He asked what he should do, and I said, ‘Well, you can just expel me from the Academy and I’ll be totally grateful, because it seems like you guys don’t know anything about modern art and are so stale.’”

But not even Kisielewicz’s teachers could deny her talent for too long. They saw the potential in the artist’s brightly coloured perspective on both art and the world around her.

“One of my professors was a really well-known artist in Europe and the greatest thing he ever told me is that you have to do what you want to do. He said that I had inclinations for pinkish images and Disney deep within me, and that I had to do it. And I thought, ‘Yeah, this is in fact who I am.’ I had to discover myself or I was going to fail.”

Justyna Kisielewicz’sGrowing Up Is Overrated shows atFriends Of Leon Gallery, Thursday September 17 – Sunday October 11.

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