Interview with Branislav Dimitrijević on his research in Serbia

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?

At the beginning of World War II all countries comprising the Kingdom of Yugoslavia were dominated by patriarchal social norms, yet in the major cities (primarily in Belgrade, Zagreb, and Ljubljana) modernizing cultural tendencies made it possible for emancipated bourgeois women to address issues of equality and other gender-related concerns. During the war, the National Liberation Struggle (NOB), organized and led by the Communist Party, marked a significant step in gender equality as the Yugoslav Partisan forces were among the very rare armed units that treated women in their ranks as “fighters,” exercising the spirit of gender equality in spite of traditional challenges. This ideological spirit was continued when Tito’s communists aspired to create a new socialist state on the ruins of war. Starting in 1942, women had their own organization, the Anti-Fascist Women’s Front (AFŽ-Antifašistički front žena), which sought to eradicate patriarchal structures by encouraging a more significant role for women in society. However, these structures were deeply embedded in traditional family roles. These varied according to region, but, in general, patriarchal gender patterns remained despite the actions undertaken by the Communist Party. These patterns prevailed when the country was disbanded in the early 1990s. Serbia then entered the disastrous period of Milošević’s rule, where, in terms of the social agenda, gender issues were considered secondary and were dominated by “patriotic” codes that assigned women a clear “biological” and social role. During this time in the visual arts these roles were questioned and critically examined to a far greater extent than during the officially advocated-albeit relative-equality of socialist times.

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 can’t say that my research has led to any major discoveries. The work of some of the most active women artists was acknowledged in local art history (Zora Petrović, Olga Jevrić, Marija Dragojlović, Ksenija Divjak, etc.), and some women artists were also very influential in shaping the nationalist discourse of the 1990s by maintaining a “feminine essence” that could also be readily employed for anti-communist and nationalist political purposes (e.g. Olja Ivanjicki). Only very few women took part in the anti-establishment gestures of the New Art Practice (Nova umjetnička praksa) of the 1970s (such as Katalin Ladik or Bogdanka Poznanović), but the issues they advocated cannot be considered “feminist.” The work of Sanja Iveković in Zagreb remains a rare major example of a systematic gender-related practice in the art of Yugoslavia as a whole. It is indicative of the art climate in general that the most famous artist of this generation, Marina Abramović, promoted her image of the “diva” and associated her artistic position with the standard media clichés of a “successful woman.”

My general impression from conducting this research was that while the work of some women artists was visible in the artistic mainstream during communism, these artists never received any major state commissions like their male colleagues. Generally speaking, the work produced by women did not differ greatly in artistic orientation or style. What may be noteworthy are a number of rather undeveloped artistic personalities among women who, more often than men, abandoned their artistic drives very early on, and, after one or two exhibitions, did not continue with their work, withdrawing instead to the private realms of motherhood and other traditional family roles.

Your research shows that in Serbia during the 1970s and 1980s gender-related questions in art were either posed from essentialist and experiential positions or aimed for institutional critique. The postwar situation of the mid-1990s shows another development in which feminist works acquire strong social and political meaning in facing the trauma of the war and postwar processes in society. Could you describe how political events affected the work of women artists in the 1990s?

Although the works of some of the artists you mentioned could be connected to certain feminist positions relative to the masculinization of public space during the war of the 1990s, it’s not possible to speak of a relevant articulation of the feminist position in the art of the 1990s in Serbia. Feminism as a category was eradicated somewhere between the atavistic social intolerance and the heritage of socialism, which declaratively equated the rights of men and women, thus paradoxically marginalizing feminism as a social practice. Expectedly, feminist positions were articulated in intellectual circles and were effective in social terms in some activist practices (ranging from the activities of women’s peace groups such as Women in Black (Žene u crnom) to activities specifically aimed against violence toward women-particularly domestic violence, which is present to an exceptionally high degree). But, in the realm of art, a “women’s position” was mainly understood as a form of escape into certain intimate spheres or of detachment through “sensitivity,” which is characterized by the problematic term écriture feminine.

On the other hand, the artists who showed the greatest degree of sophistication and ambition in certain areas of their work were actually women-which served as an indicator of the corrosion within the existing male-dominated order. Apart from such mutually different artists like Milica Tomić and Biljana Đurđević, who had already garnered world-wide attention-and this certainly applies to Tanja Ostojić as well-we should also mention Mirjana Đorđević, who has achieved more impressive results than any of her male colleagues in the neominimalist trend, or Marija Dragojlović, whose impressive body of paintings has taken research into the painted surface, problems of perspective, and the monumentalization of the intimate sphere to the highest level of sophistication. Goranka Matić operates in an area perhaps most closely connected to feminism: trained as an art historian she took up photography in the 1980s and spent her time between promoting the social role of photography (as a documentary photographer and photography editor for the weekly magazine Vreme (Time), founded in 1990) and using photography as a medium for investigating her own female identity.

Branislav Dimitrijević, Research Serbia

Writer and curator Branislav Dimitrijević was born in 1967. He is a senior lecturer at the School for Art and Design (VSLPUb) in Belgrade, Serbia and an associate curator at Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art. He holds a BA in Art History from Belgrade University and an MA in History and Theory of Art from the University of Kent. He is working on a PhD thesis on “Consumer Culture in Socialist Yugoslavia” with Prof. Milena Dragićević Šešić at the University of Arts in Belgrade. With Branislava Andjelković and Branimir Stojanovic he co-founded and coordinated School for History and Theory of Images, an independent educational project in Belgrade, from 1999 to 2002. Since 1988 he has been publishing numerous essays on contemporary art and theory of art, film and visual culture; recent publications include: Breaking Step: Displacement, Compassion and Humour in Recent Art from Britain (2007), On Normality: Art in Serbia 1989-2001 (2005), International Exhibition of Modern art feat. A. Barr’s Museum of Modern Art (2003).