Interview with Suzana Milevska on her research in Macedonia
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?
There are two completely different issues at stake here. The first question addresses the inner contradictions between the modernist values promoted during socialist times and the traditional values of gender relations within art structures that were actually adopted and that never went completely out of fashion. It is not an easy task to answer what mechanisms allowed and enabled this contradiction to persist throughout the entire period of socialist rule, particularly because this was not the focus of my research and exceeds my expertise. This question concerns many complex movements and relationships in socialist societies that I did not explore during this research. I could add here, however, that art traditions were mostly preserved through the conservative nature of the instruction of the fine art academies so that the only time such traditional roles were transgressed by artists was when female or male artists traveled abroad, and were therefore confronted by some broader and more contemporary views of gender. In ex-Yugoslavia artists had the opportunity to spend several months abroad in artist-in-residence-like programs that often impacted their situations as artists but that had little consequence on their attitudes toward gender, mainly because the cultural and gender attitudes in the contemporary art of the other countries were quite similar. In terms of Macedonia I would point out that perhaps the late 1960s and 1970s made a significant impact on artists and that I noticed that the family values of those artists were affected who traveled abroad during this time (Ana Temkova, Milosh Kodjoman).
The second question involves an opposite move that concerns the return of traditional values in the period of transition that I think is very problematic-at least in the context of gender in the arts because “conservative agendas” were never completely abandoned in the arts and it is therefore difficult to speak of any “return.” I could even go so far as to say that in terms of gender, fewer changes were made proportionally in the arts than in socialist society at large. For example, since its founding in 1980, the Fine Art Academy in Skopje never tried to establish in Macedonia any kind of contemporary gender-oriented agenda in the arts when one considers the nature of its curriculum and minimal female faculty representation-only two female professors.
After the introduction of capitalism and the shift in how women were represented in images as a consequence of the explosion of commercialization, consumption, and the objectification of the female body, but also following a fundamentalist-oriented move in the opposite direction towards hiding the female body, several women artists recently attempted to take a critical stance toward traditional gender roles. Here I want to mention Hristina Ivanoska’s Naming the Bridge “Rosa Plaveva and Nakie Bajram”, (2004-06). The project deals with the intertwining of ethnic and gender identity and the first protests against wearing the veil in Macedonia from 1908, but it actually reflects on the contemporary return to wearing the veil among Moslem women. The artist submitted an official proposal to the Skopje’s city administration to name a newly constructed bridge after two women who protested against the veil in the period coinciding both with Stuttgart’s First Conference of Socialist Women (1907) and the start of the Young Turks Revolution in Macedonia (1908). In specific terms, her intention was to draw more attention to the return of conservative agendas among both the Christian and Moslem female population.
Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less-known subjects of local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies, or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?
I could cite one example in particular since it is extremely relevant to the revisions that occurred in both subject matter and methodology. The work Once Upon a Time in the Piazza Navona (1978) by Ana Temkova, which I tracked down in the storage facility of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje, opened up the question of how to interpret a single artist’s oeuvre. Namely all critical texts on this artist that I came across interpreted her as a woman artist who had maintained her interests within a traditional framework in painting themes and genres such as folklore, interiors, and the family. Yet the painting Once Upon a Time in the Piazza Navona depicted a family of hippies living on a street-a pure deconstruction of traditional family values. It made me research further and locate a series of Temkova paintings that deal with women who transgress family values (e.g. in religious terms such as nuns) or who belong to different minorities and different cultural traditions than Orthodox Macedonian women in times when multiculturalism was not in fashion. These facts were never mentioned in published texts about her work simply because they didn’t match the stereotypical interpretation commonly associated with Temkova’s work. Strangely enough, most of the authors who wrote about her work, besides Boris Petkovski, were women.
During the research process you discussed issues of art and gender with artists Liljana Gjuzelova, Ana Temkova, Aneta Svetieva, Žaneta Vangeli, and Hristina Ivanoska. Was there a variance in the views of the artists of different generations and what issues did they address?
Not all the women I interviewed see themselves as feminist, and their views toward other issues differ a lot as well, but I wouldn’t argue that this is necessarily due to generational differences. I was interested in their personal approach to the intermingling of gender, cultural, religious, and ethnic differences, and I found that all the artists I interviewed were interested in gender issues within the social realm but these didn’t necessarily stand out in their work. The artists who make direct references in their work to gender differences deal with issues such as feminine écriture and women involved in the political process (in the more recent work of Liljana Gjuzelova), the resistance and subversion of religious and cultural patriarchy (Ana Temkova, Žaneta Vangeli, Slavica Janešlieva, Hristina Ivanoska), and the representation of female animalistic desire (Aneta Svetieva).
Suzana Milevska, Research Macedonia
Prof. Dr. Suzana Milevska was born in 1961. She is a theorist and curator based in Skopje, and is currently teaching Art History at the Accademia Italiana Skopje and Visual Communication and Culture at the New York University Skopje, Macedonia. Her main research and theoretical interests include the history of Balkan feminism, globalisation, women warriors, visual cultures and post-Communist cultural history, historic archives, and social and cultural change in the Balkans. She has authored numerous publications on these topics, including editing the reader Capital and Gender (2001) and her book based on her Ph.D. Gender Difference in the Balkans (in print). Suzana holds a PhD from the Visual Cultures Department of Goldsmiths College, University of London (2006). In 2004 she was awarded a Fulbright Senior Research Scholarship at the Library of Congress, Washington D.C., USA.
She participated in numerous conferences including Humanities Symposium: New Directions for the Humanities, Columbia University, New York, USA (2007). She was the key-note speaker at the conference On Participation, NGBK and Akademie der Künste, Berlin (2008) and at the IKT Annual Congress of curators in Helsinki (2009).