Sylwia Kowalczyk


Sylwia Kowalczyk was born in Lublin, Poland. She now lives in Scotland, in Edinburgh.

Sylwia studied graphic design and photography at Krakow Academy of Fine Arts and the Edinburgh College of Art. Her work has recently been recognised in awards such as Fresh Faced and Wild Eyed – the Photographers’s Gallery’s pick of the most promising graduates of her year, and reGeneration 2 as one of the most promising 80 young photographers in the world, an exhibition which is touring the world and published as a book by Thames and Hudson and Aperture Foundation. Her work was also recently featured in “The Decisive Moment: Contemporary Polish Photography Since 2000” by Adam Mazur.


Sylwia’s early work such as Self Projections looked at using optical illusion to create an ambiguity about what is real and what isn’t. Later, she developed these ideas further, with Chicas (the awakening of sexual awareness of young women friends). Personal identity may be hinted at indirectly through a telling detail – a lock of hair or a mannerism with the hand, which may overcome more prominent features (a large nose perhaps).

In 2006 Sylwia suffered from a detached retina and was at risk of losing her eyesight entirely. A subsequent operation saved her sight, but introduced permanent physical deformities into the way that she sees the world – the retina – and her vision – was permanently distorted. The brain is remarkably adaptable at compensating and filtering out defects. But the fear of loss of eyesight and experience of distortion led to Nightwatching, which uses analogue trompes-l’oeils (ie. avoiding digital jiggery-pokery) to look at identity, fear, illusion and distortion.

Much of her work, and especially Temporal Portraits, references classical painting, and the way in which anonymity or, on the contrary, recognition may affect the way we perceive the subject in an image. Our society today is obsessed with celebrity culture and tends to dismiss photographs of unknown people as unworthy of attention. In classical painting we accept masterpieces despite the fact that we have little idea of the identity of the sitter.

Artist Statement – Lethe

Lethe is the river that cleanses Dante in Purgatory, the one that wipes memories of the dead as they drink from it or bathe in it. The poet Sylvia Plath steps up from ‘the black car of Lethe, Pure as a baby’. It is an escape, a relief from our own physical limitations. ‘The soul that has been rash enough to drink from the fount of Lethe… is reincarnated and again cast into the cycle of becoming’, according to Mircea Eliade.

As important recollections slip from our memory, this loss brings its own kind of grief. The past becomes a vast, blank territory where even the most important memories from childhood are erased – if we do not remember them, perhaps these might as well not have happened in the first place.

Artist Information

Artist’s Website