Juxtapoz Magazine - Agnieszka Nienartowicz' Sweet Burden

Nicodim will inaugurate its new annex gallery with Agnieszka NienartowiczSweet Burden, the artist’s first solo show in the United States. Nienartowicz’s hyper-realistic oil paintings recontextualize Old Master, Renaissance, and Catholic interpretations of bible scenes and religious tales, in many instances layering them directly onto female bodies and faces. Raised in the Catholic church, Nienartowicz acutely understands the emotional impact of religion and how belief systems and spiritual practices can leave a lasting impression on one’s psyche.

Nienartowicz draws on elements of her Polish upbringing and formative memories for inspiration. Her work points to the ways in which Catholic values continue to dictate both political and social aspects of everyday life in her homeland, citing in particular, the consistent discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community and the complete ban on abortion introduced by the Polish government in 2020. Though this landscape is changing as younger generations are becoming more mobilized through direct activism and protest, Nienartowicz’s practice explores how forms of religion and spirituality mold personal attitudes and belief systems that in turn, can have an impact on larger societal structures. 

Nienartowicz herself was raised Catholic, and into her teenage years, religion became a central part of her identity. Throughout her adolescence she participated in many Catholic youth groups and associations, traveled on pilgrimages to places like Częstochowa to view the famed “Black Madonna” (a venerated icon of the Virgin Mary), and frequented her local monastery where, for a brief, time she even considered becoming a nun. As her personal relationship with Catholicism grew, she eventually joined the Pentecostal church, describing herself as a “Charismatic Christian,” or one who emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit in everyday life (a movement which is also quite popular in the United States). 

Finally, in the artist’s words, she “reached the limit of absurdity” and eventually broke with the religion entirely. Separating herself was no easy feat––after years of participating in religious education, her exit from the Church left her confused and despondent, feeling that her worldview had become diluted and tenuous. To work through her dissolution she decided to pursue psychotherapy, and in her own assessment has come out the other side spiritually healthy, content, and agnostic. Turning to motifs from Christian and Catholic art allows her to grapple with the after-effects of religion as they manifest throughout her life. 

The idea of the tattoo is also a central component of Nienartowicz’s investigation into personhood, likening these irremovable marks to key moments in one’s history, childhood, and lived experience. The artist challenges the social perception and meaning of tattoos similarly to the way she restructures and incarnates biblical stories of sacrifice, domination, and consecration onto women’s bodies. 

Traditional social roles placed on women by the Catholic church also come under scrutiny, as Nienartowicz takes special care to draw on the subjectivity of her figures. By layering religious iconography on top of her portraits, the artist strips the stories of their biblical significance and patriarchal values. Instead, recast as tattoos, the tales become emancipatory weapons for reclaiming individual agency. Though, on a personal level, religion no longer captivates Nienartowicz, her work nonetheless investigates the deep psychological, sociological, and historical resonance of spirituality and its associated symbology.