A girl in South Africa. Picture: Basia Meder

"My exhibitions are not about myself but about sharing my experiences," says photographer Basia Meder, author of Granny Backpacker in Africa and just one of more than 800 performers and artists of Polish heritage taking part in the PolArt Festival of Polish art and culture, which begins this Friday.

Book and exhibition chronicle in words and pictures Polish-born Meder's 14-month backpacking journey across 21 countries which began in 2002 and took in places such as Johannesburg, Madagascar, Lesotho, Malawi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Cairo, Ghana and Togo. Her journey was cut short but resumed in 2010, when she travelled to Morocco.

But in many ways Meder's first real adventure began in 1981, when she left Poland with her 12-year-old son for a backpacking tour of Australia. A few months after she arrived in Perth, martial law was imposed in Poland. For her son's sake, Meder decided to make a new life in Australia.

"So my appearance at the PolArt 2012 Festival in Perth is a very special one," says Meder, who is qualified in mechanical engineering and information technology and who now lives in Sawtell, near Coffs Harbour.

"I'll always owe a debt of gratitude to so many people in Perth, Polish and Australian, who helped start my new life in those first four years."

Meder says the friendliness of the people in Perth was in stark contrast to those in Poland. "It was beyond me," she says. "It was a miracle, having come straight from Poland and the fear that somebody is always watching you. It was such a huge contrast and I can never say thank you enough."

Meder was granted permanent residency in December 1981 and began learning English, working odd jobs before doing a postgraduate degree in Computing at the then-WA Institute of Technology, now Curtin University. She obtained a full-time position as an information technology officer in Canberra, where she lived until she retired, at the age of 55 in 2001. It was then that she decided to travel.

A keen photographer, Meder's photographs had already won her an award for visual art from the Canberra Critics' Circle. In 2011, the Polish edition of Granny Backpacker in Africa won the National Geographic Prize - Travel Book of the Year for 2010.

The photographs in her exhibition include portraits of children and women from all around Africa.

"I learnt how beautiful people were everywhere," she says.

"Women were very important for me. I didn't have to speak their language but I could communicate with them with my emotions, and my body. I always felt welcome."

PolArt is one of the largest Polish cultural festivals held outside Poland and has been celebrating Polish culture in Australia for more than 35 years. This will be the first time the triennial festival has been held in Perth.

The PolArt Festival, Friday to January 5. The festival's visual arts exhibition at Hackett Hall, Western Australian Museum, continues until January 11. For the full program visit polart2012.com.au. Book at Ticketek.

The West Australian

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