It’s the first day of November in Miami and there are still hints of a short-lived cold front in the air. Olek, the New York-based artist, and I are sitting at a table outside the News Café on Ocean Drive.
Outspoken, intelligent, with a strong yet sensible character accentuated by a lingering Polish accent, Agata Oleksiak, known as Olek , is the sculptor, performance and street artist that has the world hanging on a crochet hook. But just like intelligent or outspoken fall short when describing her character, so do the words sculptor and street artist when it comes to her work.
Photo Credit: Hardy Mueller
“Crochet is my language,” she says, and like any other language it illustrates a universe that goes beyond simple communication: there’s history, there’s culture, there’s time. There are moments of brilliance and others of pain; there are stories that can be followed down to the core of what it means to be a human being. “A skein of yarn became my can of paint. I reweave the world as I see fit,” she writes in a piece about yarn-bombing a locomotive train in Lodz, Poland. For Olek, crochet is a way to communicate all the things that make up a life.
Born in Poland in 1978, Olek moved to New York at twenty-two, after completing her BA in cultural studies at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Until that point, the possibility of becoming an artist had been inconceivable. “Growing up in a communist country there’s no such thing as an artist, unless you’re gonna be painting for the communist leaders,” she explains. Yet she says she owes a lot of who she has become as an artist to that experience. “I would never wish for anybody to live under a communist system, but I think I took something good out of it: working with people together and creating public pieces that are not only there to beautify the place, but pieces that mean something.”
Reexamining the past and reconstructing history are recurring themes in her work and reflect this need to create art that is meaningful. “I (we) highlight existing truths, resurrect memories, honor history and memorialize dreams,” she says about resurrecting the El Cid statue in Seville, Spain. Olek searches for those narratives that have defined who we have become, as individuals and as a society, and shines a new light on them.
Her latest project, Love Across the USA- which she’s looking to bring to Miami soon- is all of this and more. It aims to celebrate the accomplishments of underrepresented Americans whose stories are often forgotten or left out of history books, by creating and placing crocheted billboards and large objects featuring their portraits and phrases in different cities across the US. So far, these have included figures such as Susan B. Anthony, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Nina Simone, and Marian Anderson, among others.
Olek and Love Across the USA Raleigh, NC team in front of Nina Simone billboard. Photo credit: Theresa Moore
It all began before the 2016 election, when Olek and her team worked on a crochet billboard of Hillary Clinton, with the phrase #ImWithHer, to support the candidate in her race for the presidency. The idea for a nation-wide collaborative project came to life soon after Clinton’s loss to Donald Trump awakened many to the realities of women’s rights in America. “I saw the ocean of pink hats, the pussy hats that women made, and I thought ‘All these women want to do something, they’re hungry to make something, but they don’t really know what,’” she says.
Rochester, NY community and Olek in front of Harriet Tubman billboard. Photo Credit: Olek
Olek displaying Love Across the USA's Philadelphia billboard of Marian Anderson. Photo credit: Olek
Olek recognized that at the core of that hunger lay a deeper, more universally felt emptiness: a lack of real connection. “I feel like we are so separated right now, we feel so connected because with social media everybody can get in touch, but we’re lacking human contact,” she says. That disconnectedness, be it from reality, from nature, from history, or from each other, is the foundation of most of the problems we face as a society today, including gender inequality.