Interview with Ivana Bago on her research in Croatia

In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity or the transformation of traditional gender roles. 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?

The socialist period in ex-Yugoslavia was marked by a gender equality that was nominal in nature: after the Second World War, women gained the right to vote, were officially recognized for their contribution to the anti-fascist struggle, and were proclaimed as equal partners in the building of a new society. Many contemporary feminist writers (Daša Duhaček, Lydia Sklevicky, etc.) have warned about the ambivalence of the paradigm of the new and liberated Yugoslav woman: nominal gender egalitarianism prevented the active questioning of the underlying, inherited patriarchal order and real existing inequalities in society. However, real changes did take effect but very slowly and, in general, society was still governed by the hegemony of patriarchy and traditionally rooted gender roles, especially in the sphere of private life (both as “lived” and represented in mass media, advertising, film, and culture in general). Since much of the high art in ex-Yugoslavia was based on moderate abstraction, the representation of gender can be better assessed from other segments of visual culture.

The 1990s, viewed against the backdrop of the 1991-1995 war, was a period during which nationalism was legitimized and celebrated-tendencies that brought to the fore the ancient division of male and female agency: man as Odysseus, the active agent, defender, and creator of the new nation and its history, and woman as Penelope, the faithful and passive persona, waiting for the battles to be won so that she could start renovating and nurturing the nation. The image of woman, as evidenced in documentary photography, film, television, poster campaigns, etc. of the time is primarily one that reflects the Catholic paradigm of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, here translated as the mother of the nation or an allegoric maternal figure. Since the mid-1990s, the younger generation of artists, such as Renata Poljak, Sandra Sterle, Neli Ružić, have made works that deal with the representation of traditional female roles in the new constellation of legitimized patriarchy. It is also very important to note that, thanks to feminist writers and activist initiatives, another important subject has emerged as a publicly discussed issue-that of violence against women, which, in contemporary art, has been dealt with extensively in the work of Sanja Iveković. The production of masculinity through the image of the soldier, patriot, and hero has been dealt with critically in the work of Slaven Tolj and Boris Šincek.

Could you briefly characterize the work of women artists in the context of the New Tendencies (1960s) and the New Art Practice (Nova umjetnička praska, 1970s) movements in Croatia between 1960 and 1980. You note that Croatian postwar art history evolves around several “manifesto” groups of male artists. This period is also marked by the development of consumer society where a woman’s body becomes the symbol of pleasure and consumption. Could you characterize how the partnership with male colleagues and the representation of women in popular culture influenced the work of Sanja Iveković and Vlasta Delimar who merged the fields of private and personal, public and political. What was the influence of feminist theories on the work of these artists?

The progressive line of postwar history of Croatian contemporary art is based on the work of several, either formal or informal, artist groups and initiatives, such as Gorgona, Exat 51, New Tendencies, Group of Six Authors (Grupe šestorice autora), or the artist-led space Podrum, etc. who promoted abstraction, new media, process-based art, and conceptual tendencies. These groups rarely included women artists: the work of Ljerka Šibenik (who also stopped practicing art at a certain point) is, in the context of the New Tendencies, a very interesting version-perhaps even subversion-of hard-core abstraction in her combined application of bright colors and spiral forms. Other women artists also participated in the New Tendencies movement who later disappeared from the scene. It would be interesting to study whether it is possible to speak of any significant differences in their approaches, i.e. in relation to their male colleagues. Women artists were, as a rule, left to evolve as “solo” protagonists, even when they were included in the activities of certain groups (very often they were also the life partners of male group members).

The work of Sanja Iveković is a brave and singular example of this sense of fully developed autonomy, not only in relation to her male colleagues or the prevailing trends in the framework of the New Art Practice but also in relation to the fact that, from the beginning, she has remained the only artist to truly and consistently deal with feminist agendas, questioning and subverting the hegemonic codification of gender, representation of women in the media, and, through her work, constructing the paradigm of woman as the political subject. On the other hand, the work of Vlasta Delimar has evolved without this type of theoretical background and, furthermore, in her interviews she regularly dismisses any relationship of her work to feminism. Her work, which is always self-referential and employs the artist’s body as the primary medium, is based more on a subjective and intimate translation of her own lived experience, including addressing general stereotypes related to women as sex-objects, partners, mothers, and housewives etc. While Sanja Iveković’s work is based primarily on a constructivist approach to feminist questioning of the socio-political reality, Vlasta Delimar’s work, dealing first and foremost with exposing taboos related to the body and female sexuality, is closer to the essentialist paradigm.

The paradigm of the artist couple would be a very interesting research topic, since the local history of art abounds in examples of these. Only rarely can we speak of autonomous artistic collaboration between couples, such as in the collaborative partnerships of Sanja Iveković and Dalibor Martinis, or Vlasta Delimar and Željko Jerman from the late 1970s and early 1980s, or later, Sanja Bachrach Krištofić and Mario Krištofić, or Slaven Tolj and Maria Grazio. The works they have produced are all exquisite examples not only of collaboration but the critical questioning of socially imposed gender roles and patterns. What is still more challenging (since this requires, once again, conducting research beyond the artifacts themselves) is researching all those women artists who belong to more conventional artistic tendencies and whose work has remained in the shadow of their male partners, who very often held prominent positions in the art world and society in general.


Ivana Bago, Research Croatia

An art historian, curator and art critic from Zagreb, Ivana Bago, born in 1979, holds a university degree in Art History and English Language and Literature from the Faculty of Arts at Zagreb University. In 2004 she attended the independent education program of the Zagreb Center for Women’s Studies and in 2005 finished the SCCA-Ljubljana program of the School for Contemporary Art. She works as a curator at the Galerija Miroslav Kraljević, an independent and non-profit contemporary art centre and gallery in Zagreb. Apart from her individual projects and collaboration with several collectives and initiatives, most of her work develops in collaboration with Antonia Majaca, with whom she recently founded DeLVe | Institute for Duration, Location and Variables, dedicated to research in the field of contemporary art, critical theory, self-education and experimental art history. Together with Antonia Majaca she curated numerous solo and group exhibitions and projects, including Stalking With Stories. The Pioneers of the Immemorable, Apexart, New York, 2007, The Salon of Revolution, HDLU, Zagreb, 2008, Igor Grubic: 366 liberation rituals, g-mk, 2008, Andreja Kuluncic: On the State of the Nation, g-mk, 2009, Where Everything Is Yet to Happen (Can You Speak of This? Yes, I Can), SPAPORT, Banja Luka, 2009, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, Kunsthalle Exnergasse, Vienna, 2009, Removed From the Crowd, ŠKUC, Ljubljana, 2009. Her texts have been published in Croatian and international art magazines and publications.