Alma Suljević – Bosančica 54. Oktobarski salon, Belgrade

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At the Zepter Expo space, across the street from SKC, the 54th Oktobarski Salon is coming to a close this weekend. The Salon, entitled No One Belongs Here More Than You, has been conceived and delivered by the curatorial collective Red Min(e)d, featuring a collective of over forty artists. Running since mid-October, the main static show occupies the whole of this large space, in addition to collateral events and evenings of video, lectures and performance.

The title of the exhibition is multi-layered. In part, it reflects the fact that this curatorial team comes from “the outside” and have quickly to establish some sense of location and belonging in this city, and in a long running cultural institution such as Oktobarski; on the other, it is a bold statement of intent, attempting to undermine what might be seen as the exclusivity and elite nature of art events such as this. This is set up as a show not just as something for a handful of insiders and those in the know, but an attempt to draw new audiences to contemporary art, through an uncompromising focus on gender, and a widening of the net of associated issues of activism, environmentalism, inclusivity, the use of public space, language and politics .

In this sense, the short and intense performance last night of Bosančica, by Sarajevo’s Alma Suljević, was a very apt selection. Suljević has a remarkable presence in front of an audience, and keeps even those who have been following her work for a long time, guessing, as to what might happen. Standing in costme, clutching two golden instruments, the artist declaimed a series of epic poems, based on the life of her grandfather Crni Dudi.

The siting of this performance was very carefully thought through. The lighting, as can be seen from the photo above, obscured Suljević’s face completely, and foregrounded instead her torso and the objects she was carrying as props. Projected onto her was a series of letters in mediavel Bosnian script; these letters, changing continuously, played across her body as she read. In that sense, then, Suljević was presented as a creator of text, but her body becoems that opf “everywoman” in the region; a canvas on which the scripts of others are continually written and re-written.

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This is not just the work of a performer, but also of a poet and a diligent historical researcher. The poems read in this performance date from the artist’s own collection about her grandfather, published a few months before the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991. As such the poems can be seen as another in the endless landscape of historical fragments in the post-Yugoslav present, yet something much firmer and more emotionally immediate than the commodified,, de-politicised symbols of the former state. The focus on langauge in the performance is also very acute, politically and culturally, in our times.

In her remarks after finishing her piece, Suljević made the point that, in mediaevel times, the language of women was Bosančica ; writing in this langauge was akin to communicating in a secret code, inaccessible to men more used to communicated in Arabic, Latin or early Turkish. This careful research into the origins of the contemporary language locates the performance as an hommage to those anonymous mediaevel women who played such a key role in developing an alphabet and grammar of private communication.

Rather subtly, Suljević shows that the politics of language were just as important in mediavel times as they are in our present, and underlines the overlooked importance of gender coding in these historical trajectories. In this performance, what may appear at first glance to be a rather dry and academic subject, becomes a living, deeply personal series of echoes from distant history, which still resonate critically in the contemporary soundscape. Addressing the issues of the origins of language in such a setting is in itself politically bold and contentious. This final reflection on the significance of such a performance in Belgrade really does bring us back to the central core of this Oktobarski salon- no one belongs here, more than all of us.

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Jon Blackwood

Photographs accompanying the article are by Dusko Jelen. His full album of images can be found on the Red Min(e)d facebook page. The 54. Oktobarski Salon, curated by Red Min(e)d, concludes on Sunday evening. We will be providing updates, interviews and reviews tomorrow and Saturday of the main exhibition, and of the closing performances. Many, many thanks to the Salon’s organisers for inviting SCB to cover the end of the show.

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