Interview with Bojana Pejić on her research in Montenegro
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?
Montenegro became an independent state in 1878. In the last century, however, it formed part of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and later became one of six Yugoslav republics. Since the period of Turkish rule it was almost constantly engaged in wars of liberation, struggling for its own freedom and independence. Consequently, national narratives about freedom, especially those elaborated upon in literature, are constructed around warrior culture and heroic manhood. This ideal continued up to the Yugoslav anti-fascist struggle in World War II, after which new narratives about heroic partisan resistance gained currency. Even though the country borders on the Adriatic Sea, it had preserved its essentially mountain mentality and conservative and patriarchal family structures, which socialist modes of emancipation (including the emancipation of women) failed to significantly destabilize. The myth about a “strong woman” (a widow or grandmother) who copes with rural life and a harsh mountain environment is a recurring theme in several Montenegrin films and television series. However, “femininity” is, in masculine culture, associated exclusively with motherhood, whereas in socialism and in urban milieus, the mother is defined as a “working mother,” split between the work place and family.
Montenegro became an independent state again only in 2006, after separating from Serbia. As in other parts of the Balkans, nationalist euphoria has been present since the early 1990s, a phenomenon that was also countered by the mild resistance offered by a number of intellectuals and activist groups. As in other Eastern European countries, deconstructions of traditional gender roles are found in the work of women artists, who, in the case of Montenegro, started around 2000 to critically address the ideal of “new” womanhood-now shaped by “turbo-capitalism” and consumerism.
Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to less-known subjects in local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies, or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?
After World War II, art in Montenegro was predominantly modernist in form. In 1951 Petar Lubarda (1907-1974) was the first artist to break from the canon of socialist realism in painting abstract canvases referencing Montenegrin “heroic” nature as well as “heroic” history. Petar Ćuković, the leading art historian in the country, noted that Montenegrin art is essentially diasporic in nature since artists produced works outside their home country. He writes about “slow modernism” in Montenegrin art, whose protagonists were male painters.(1)
One of the local sculptors whose work has not yet been properly evaluated is Drago Djurović (b. 1923), who produced many public monuments in Montenegro and Serbia. His female figures are allegorical, like most public statuary erected after 1945, but their forms and the treatment of the material (white marble) eschew realistic representation.
My main “discovery” was that I was caught in a feminist trap: I was trying to find work by women artists active in the socialist period, when there was only one: Anka Burić (b. 1956). As a renowned painter and graphic artist she first made abstract paintings and, later in the 1990s, started producing (temporary) installations in public space, informed by the idea of universal-non-gendered-art. I later realized I had been mistaken in searching for “femininity”; instead, I should have been looking for “masculinity,” i.e. how the male artistic subjects relate to their own practice. This may include questioning the positioning of the heroic male figure, as in the performances by Ilija Šoškić, an artist who moved frequently and who had lived in Rome in the 1970s and had developed close ties to Arte Povera circles. His performances examine masculinity and the myth of male genius, albeit in a delicate manner. Work by Milija Pavićević (b. 1950)-more recently based around autobiographical narrative-manifest a degree of self-irony and Brechtian alienation. In taking such an approach he also undermines the modernist saga of the male genius-an ideal that plays a particularly crucial role in small and peripheral art communities).
Given that patriarchal structures persisted in the socialist era, what is the position of feminist theories today? Do they affect art criticism and the work of (male and female) artists?
Since the late 1990s the presence of women artists has been very strong, and I believe that this happened in the Montenegro art scene for the very first time. The main person responsible for this “boom” is the art critic and curator Svetlana Racanović, who actively promoted their art in a number of exhibitions that she organized. We have two important moments here: first, Racanović was the very first free-lance-and female-curator in the country, and second, she started to work closely with artists of her own generation. This approach helped to define the local art scene. Her projects at home were often held in public spaces (such as Chain of Discoveries, 2001) and in gallery settings (Montenegrin Beauty, 2003). In addition, she was also a curator who promoted the local scene internationally (as commissioner of the Montenegrin Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005).(2) Some of the women artists she has worked with, to name only a few, include Jelena Tomašević, Irena Lagator, Natalja Vujošević, and Ozana Brković. They have injected new themes into Montenegrin art, such as the role of the state in the manipulation of communal housing (Lagator), heterosexual gender relations and love (Vujošević), and the presence of (domestic) violence in such relationships (Tomašević). However, Racanović’s otherwise serious theoretical approach has not (yet) been informed by gender and feminist theories; what’s more, women artists do not (publicly) declare any association to feminism.
(1) See Petar Ćuković, “Monadi mediterranee” (Mediterranean Monads), in I punti dell’arte moderna montenegrina, exh.cat., Rome: Palazzo delle Esposizioni, 1996.
(2) Svetlana Racanović, “The Eros of Slight Offence,” in The Eros of Slight Offence / L’eros della piccola trasgressione / Eros malog prestupa , exh. cat., Pavilion of Serbia and Montenegro – Republic of Montenegro, 51. Biennale di Venezia, 2005.
Bojana Pejić, Research Montenegro
Dr. Bojana Pejić was born in Belgrade in 1948 and studied History of Art in the Faculty of Philosophy at Belgrade University. From 1977 to 1991 she was a curator at Belgrade University’s Student Cultural Centre and organised many exhibitions of Yugoslav and international art. In 1971 she began to write art reviews and worked as an editor for the art-theory journal Moment in Belgrade (1984 to 1991). In 1995 she organised an international symposium, The Body in Communism, at the Literaturhaus in Berlin. She was chief curator of the exhibition After the Wall – Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe, organised by the Moderna Museet, Stockholm (1999), which was also shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation Ludwig in Budapest (2000) and at Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin (2000-2001). In 1999 she was one of the co-curators of the exhibition Aspects/Positions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Foundation Ludwig in Vienna.
She was chief curator of the October Salon in Belgrade in 2008 and is currently curating the exhibition Gender Check – Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, which is shown at MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien).
Bojana has been living in Berlin since 1991.