Interview with Dunja Blažević on her research in Bosnia and Herzegovina

In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?

During the socialist period in former Yugoslavia (1945-1990) two separate phases are recognizable: first, a short period (from 1945 to the beginning of the 1950s) during which socialist realism was imposed as the official ideological and aesthetic norm; and second, the period following the break-up of the USSR and the introduction of self-management as a new model of socialism in a social, political, and theoretical sense. After the “freedom of art” was proclaimed, the state and the Communist Party no longer arbitrated or interfered in “aesthetic questions.” Art was freed from political pressures except for periodical clashes or cases where political authorities perceived the presence of anti-communist discourse (“propaganda”) in certain literary works or films. Within this general process of emancipation, including an awareness of gender issues, modernism occupied the central role and represented the mainstream of culture and art. Both in art practice and in theoretical debates a primary division existed between the representatives of modernism and the neo-avant-garde.

In terms of gender, the period between the 1960s and the 1980s is negligible. This was a period during which artists followed international trends-various forms of abstract art, Informel, post-conceptual painting-and when women artists appeared almost equal to men. An original Sarajevan, exclusively male, art and media movement from the 1980s was called New Primitivism. This movement was mainly related to film (Emir Kusturica), theater (Mladen Materić), and pop culture (music, radio, and TV shows-comedian groups Nadrealisti (surrealists), or bands Zabranjeno pušenje (No Smoking)).

A new phenomenon in the visual arts was represented by the group Zvono (The Bell), named after the Zvono café which became the group’s meeting and exhibition place. Group activities such as exhibitions, actions, and performances took place in unusual locations: on the streets, stadiums, shop-windows, or in nature. The group favored these types of locations for gatherings that were outside of the traditional institutional sphere as a way of forming a new generational identity. In their individual works, the artists were aligned with the formal style of New Image Painting of the 1980s. Of the seven group members only one was a woman, Biljana Gavranović. All of them left Sarajevo when the war started. In the 1990s the emergence of national states based on nationalistic ideologies signaled a return to conservative and retrograde values in all areas of life. As a response to such prevailing policies women became active in politics and art.

After the complete rupture caused by the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the only continuity between the art of the 1980s and the current scene is represented by Jusuf Hadžifejzović, both in terms of a recognizable working method and an approach to gender issues.

You write that the war experience of 1992-1995 has severed the tie to pre-war Bosnian and Herzegovinian cultural history. The war experience has infused art with new, experiential, and gender-sensitive subjects: identity, collective experience, trauma, and memory that are approached through new media, public art, site specific projects, and performance. Could you elaborate on this change towards the new subjects and new art forms?

This very particular background (the experience of war) has determined artists’ interests and art practice in a fundamental way-which I like to describe, using Kendell Geers’s expression, as: “the realism of lived experience.” Driving such an artistic practice is certainly the need to cope with the turbulent and dominant nature of this reality. In this context, the recognition of gender became critical for both female and male artists. In actuality it concerned the need to affirm the social dimension of the artistic act, and wasn’t only about reexamining the social function or democratization of art per se.

Young artists have defined the new, post-war art scene. For them the meaning-rather than the means employed-is the most essential aspect to their works. Having grown up in the age of mass media, these postwar artists primarily reference media and the reality in which they live, not the history of art.

In addition to these general characteristics and specifics, the emergence of various generations of women artists and filmmakers is the most important phenomenon of postwar art. In addressing the world in which they live, they have focused on subjects ranging from women’s activism and feminism to subtle introspections on female “nature.” It should be emphasized here that this rich artistic production and art practice is not accompanied by feminist, gender-critical, theoretical writing or insights due to the virtual absence of these concepts in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Your research suggests that women artists who were already active during wartime (Alma Suljević, Amra Zulfikarpašić) approach the trauma of the conflict through collective memory and shared experience (Gordana Andjelić-Galić, Maja Bajević), while the younger generation that grew up during the war (Šejla Kamerić, Lala Raščić, Leila Čmajčanin) mediates it through disturbing individual and personalized narratives. Is this impression correct?

Yes, your impression is absolutely correct. In the last several years a new generation of artists has emerged both in Sarajevo and Banja Luka. Interestingly, in Sarajevo the dominant group once again consists of young women. Compared to the first group of artists you mentioned, differences in the approaches to the still hot topic of identity can be found and range from work concerned with feminist discourse (Sandra Dukić, Leila Čmajčanin) to transgender: floating identity (Ibro Hasanović) and the shifting of male-female roles (Lala Raščić, Lana Čmajčanin).

Dunja Blažević, Research Bosnia and Herzegovina

Dunja Blažević is an art historian, art critic, contemporary art and new media curator and producer. She is the director of the Sarajevo Centre for Contemporary Art. From 2004 to 2007 she supervised the multidisciplinary regional project De/construction of Monument in Bosnia and Herzegovina. From 1971 to 1980 Dunja was director and head of programming at Belgrade University’s Student Cultural Centre art gallery – the first in ex-Yugoslavia to promote conceptual art and new media. From 1980 to 1991 she was editor-in-chief of the visual arts programme at TV Belgrade.