White Man

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acrylic, oil and paper on canvas, 180 x 423 cm

Osiowski considers the painting White Man to be his most political one. He began working on it while still in London, prepared the canvasses – almost 4.5 meters wide and 2 meters high – in Warsaw, and finished it in Copenhagen.
In his large-format work akin to a billboard, Osiowski uses the images of important British cultural figures, and operates on associations and extracts. Again, he reached for the method of collage, cutting out pages from foreign glossy magazines, including images of poets, musicians, actors and athletes, extracts from mass culture and media stereotypes, portraits of New York “street kids,” and fragments of advertisements. However, the painting’s key component is a stencilled text. In a manner which makes them hardly discernible even to English poetry enthusiasts, Osiowski juxtaposed a fragment of Rudyard Kipling’s late-nineteenth-century long poem The White Man’s Burden with verses from the song White Man by the band Queen. Kipling, an acclaimed British writer and Nobel Prize laureate, left behind a large collection of writings which caused much controversy. The Polish reader remembers him as the author of The Jungle Book. Osiowski recalled: “I came across Kipling while studying Orwell closer. I found Orwell’s opinion, which went something like this: Rudyard Kipling is aggressively imperialistic, morally insensitive and aesthetically repulsive. Later, I encountered Kipling’s poem The White Man’s Burden, which was intended to encourage Americans to colonize the Philippines. From our perspective, it is fairly disgusting and racist, but it was already controversial then.” The very notion of “the white man’s burden” predates Kipling’s turn-of-the- century poem and finds it roots in the Victorian era. It elevates governance over the non-White people of the planet Earth to the rank of a moral obligation which rests on the shoulders of the “white race.” The burden is about encouraging non-Whites to make civilizational “progress,” understood as the activity of Christian missionaries who eradicate local religions.
The song White Man clearly stands out from Queen’s discography. Osiowski wrote that it was “Queen’s song of perhaps the highest calibre; [it is] about the suffering of Native Americans at the hands of European immigrants.” He composed a complete whole out of fragments of Kipling’s poem and Queen’s song. Linguistically, the selected verses of the modern song sound “Kipling-like.” The text is the focal point, accompanied by portraits of the innocuous Kipling and of Freddie Mercury wearing a crown – his famous stage accessory. The royal headwear painted red by Osiowski no longer signifies the musician’s extravagance, but rather symbolizes the blood shed by the British Empire. Such insight into the historical context is indispensable because Osiowski intertwines Kipling’s poem with the modern rock song by starting with the words “on the Bible you swore,” which makes the textual collage so difficult to recognize. Remarkably, Freddie Mercury was born in Zanzibar, a key point on slave trade routes, which was visited by Osiowski during his many travels. Osiowski also found inspiration and suggestions on formal solutions in London. On Charing Cross Road among book and newspaper stalls, he came across an old print. The seller informed him that it was a page from The Yellow Book, a popular turn-of-the-century periodical which included prints by Aubrey Beardsley that later inspired the album cover of Revolver by The Beatles. When Osiowski drew Alan Price who sang O Lucky Man! from the musical score of Lindsay Anderson’s film of the same title, he modelled the portrait on the old print. The character of Mick Travis, who was played by Malcolm McDowell in Anderson’s trilogy, is also included by Osiowski in his painting several times. Photographs, cut-outs of Kipling, miniatures of the royal profile, and eyes cut out of Picasso reproductions and stylized to look like African art were accumulated next to Mercury’s strongly accentuated ear, as though inspiring him to write a song on moral decay and greed, prevalent not only among colonialists but also the human race as a whole. The film’s visual themes form a connection between the two narratives spun by Osiowski parallel to one another, exposing ethnic and social injustice.
The film O Lucky Man! discusses the subject of navigating the realities of the capitalist market in 1960s and 1970s Britain. The film’s opening scene is stylized after D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, showing the punishment of an oppressed worker at a coffee plantation. Both the exploited indigenous man and the young corporate worker who is the main character in the film were played by the same actor, which showed the continuity of exploitation, whether in colonies or on the mainland, whether at a plantation or in a modern office building. The universal message is suggested as early as in the first song of the score in the words: “If you’ve found the meaning of the truth in this old world / you are a lucky man / If knowledge hangs around your neck like pearls instead of chains / you are a lucky man.”