The same hand touches fruit at the market, laces shoes, squeezes another hand in a gesture of greeting, combs hair, strokes other people’s faces and bellies, browses a book, picks a tooth, counts money, holds a slice of bread […].

Karol Gromek, Marcelina Obarska, „Historie dotyku”
(Stories of the Touch)

The exhibition presents a selection of paintings by Barbara Cabaj, Helena Minginowicz, and Karolina Szwed – artists whose work assumes a perspective of bodies and identities that are challenged by the world to take strenuous efforts. The assembled paintings emphasise content that, following the feminist writer Sara Ahmed, can be described as “sweaty concepts”, i.e. experiences described from the point of view of a body that “does not feel at home in the world”[1].  “Sweaty concepts” reveal the work involved in the very process of describing/imaging these experiences.

The difficulty of accommodating identities that are rooted outside the boundaries of the dominant language lies in a gaze oriented towards corporeality which is multi-layered and detached from essentialism. Viewed in this way, the body is not an autonomous entity, but a shimmering multitude of this and that without any clear boundaries. That said, the human body is still the carrier of the meanings we use to describe reality; and it remains a mystery whether the fluids that arbitrarily seep out of it are able to dilute these meanings.

According to Stacy Alaimo, researcher and author of the concept of trans-corporeality[2], our bodies are the realm of transit and encounters with other entities. In this view, the environment is a world of interpenetrating corporeal beings which are endowed with their own will, agency and logic of action. Like Alaimo, the artists focus on areas that bear the signs of encounters. These dividing lines – fragments of the body, such as wounds, scars and bulges – are what the researcher refers to as “sharp edges”. Any anomalies that cut across the smooth surface of the skin weaken the order of meaning – in parallel, they make room for what, as a rule, slips away.

The title of the exhibition, which derives from the book “Stories of the Touch” by Karol Gromek and Marcelina Obarska, describes a simple gesture with varied meanings. A handshake may be an expression of both openness and a desire to dominate. It can be weak, tentative, stiff or painful. The moist inside of the hand exposes us when we come into contact with another body – the other hand discreetly wipes a sticky trail of sweat on a piece of clothing. In this sense, viscosity is a record of the history of contact. The American philosopher Nancy Tuana researched the category of viscosity, or more precisely “viscous porosity” [3], with which she described the tendency of a substance to flow while retaining the ability to resist. Viscosity is characterised by the fact that it “sticks” – although it does not have the permanence of a solid substance, it does not spill out disorderly, but settles freely on a surface.

In the painting “My Road to Hell”, Barbara Cabaj examines her own fear of the phlegm that comes out of the mouth of a coughing bus passenger, thus revealing the mutual entanglement of viscosity and disgust. Here, the fear of contact with a sticky substance is mixed with the remorse for feeling disgusted by a stranger. In “Forbidden Games”, on the other hand, the artist recreates the tenderness with which a child strokes the slimy body of a worm. She revisits the childhood memory of a game that was interrupted by a disciplining parent. Since then, she has identified any contact with an unfamiliar, sticky body as threatening and repulsive.

Helena Minginowicz not only looks into the nooks and crannies of the body, examining its coarsening and bizarre sections, but she also gives them a separate subjectivity, creating a surreal micro-world. The intimate relationship of the knees in the painting ‘Lovers’ or the sweaty hand with a grimace announcing silent disobedience (“What if…?”), point to the fragments of bodies as subjects functioning outside the disciplining will of the mind and expressing carefully hidden affections.

A body that resists the dictates of essentialism is a sweaty body, putting in an effort to avoid simple, binary representations of gender, as in Karolina Szwed’s painting “Sweaty in the Fitting Room”. Interpreted and controlled according to the dominant order of meanings, it “break out into heavy sweat” in order to break away from ideas about itself (“Sweaty Flower”). Immersed in a constant process of “becoming”, it describes a struggle in a world in which it does not feel at home.

The perspective of “sweaty bodies” described by the artists does not eliminate the traces of the effort put into the activity of description; on the contrary, the aim is to reveal this work, and perhaps to develop a new language for it, allowing it to illustrate what is not sufficiently visible to the privileged eye.


[2]Stacy Alaimo, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, Indiana University Press 2010

[3]Nancy Tuana, Viscous Porosity: Witnessing Katrina. In Stacy Alaimo & Susan Hekman (Eds.), Material Feminisms, Indiana University Press 2008, pp. 188–213


Sticky Handshakes (Lepkie uściski dłoni)

Art Walk Gallery, plac Europejski, Warsaw

12 January – 30 April 2024

Artists: Barbara Cabaj, Helena Minginowicz, Karolina Szwed
Curator: Ada Piekarska
Coordinator: Karolina Wlazło-Malinowska

Graphic design: Maciej Wodnik
Technical support: Gustaw Maj

Organizers: Fundacja Sztuka w Mieście, Ghelamco

Photo Documentation: Katarzyna Średnicka (Media Mafia)
Video Documentation: Krzysztof Sobierański (Media Mafia)