On “Performativity” in Sarajevo

Sarajevo’s art “scene”, for decades now, has been constantly shifting, resistant to definition, and hard to grasp, particularly for the outsider. As in most of the former socialist, newly neo-liberal countries of the region, art no longer occupies any significant public space or attention; rather, starved of any state funding or recognition, it has since the early 1990s adopted the mode of a subculture; accessible to a few, misunderstood by many, existing at the margins of the mainstream media’s field of vision. It is a sad paradox that, in the hyper-visual, narcissistic, consumerist era of social media, the visibility of art, at least in the home field, has shrunk dramatically.

How is an artist to build and maintain an audience in such circumstances? Whilst recent critiques of art production in BiH have identified a lack of funding and functioning cultural infrastructure as the key problem facing contemporary art’s development, fewer have focused on the position that the artist occupies in contemporary BiH society.

In this short essay, I would like to suggest the “performative” as a key element of that relationship between the Sarajevo artist and their public; in the visually saturated society, performing challenging or alternative viewpoints is a vital part of building an artistic profile. It should also be noted that I am not speaking of “performance” in the narrow sense of “performance art”, but rather identifying performative elements in a much broader portfolio of artistic production. Specifically, I would like to highlight performativity as a communication strategy; as a biographical and confessional intervention, in which the artist offers implicit comparison between personal stories and those of the audience; and, the use of performativity in the construction of socio-political critique.

Perhaps the best example of using performativity as a communication strategy can be found in the practice of Jusuf Hadžifejzović, as artist, curator, and advocate for contemporary art in wider BiH. As one of the curatorial team which delivered two of the most significant exhbitions of contemporary art in former Yugoslavia- Jugoslovensko Dokumenta, in 1987 and 1989, Jusuf’s experience as an organiser and constantly evolving practice as an artist feed into his contemporary artistic practice, and his work in maintaining the artist-run Galerija Čarlama, in the city’s Skenderija shopping centre.

Jusuf’s practice of “depotography”; the recycling of installations and performances in different locations, a swell as the collection of a vast range of objects from high art to mass produced kitsch, is an all-encompassing practice that has been developing since the late 1970s. In a series of developmental performances, performed on a solo basis and together with others (in recent times, Dzenan “Cviki” Hadžihasanović and Emir “Mute” Mutevelić), Jusuf examines recent historical events, contemporary politics and aesthetics through a range of satire, absurdist humour and Dadaist contrasts. Steeped in the history of performativity, this is an artist who manipulates a spectrum of performative possibilities to challenge and make his audience think again.

A parallel strategy can be found in the work of Damir Nikšić. Like Jusuf, Damir is a performative artist who intervenes in a wide variety of disciplines; from performance and video (If I Wasn’t Muslim of 2005), through painting (Richard Burton as Tito 2011), and art historical installations (Bosnian and Herzegovinian Historical Painting-Tradition of Nonexistence of 2013-14). Damir’s work harnesses the possibilities of social media to grow and develop his profile as an artist. Uploading a new video on youtube almost daily, Damir adopts the persona of an idiot-savant, a playful fool, to comment upon misconceptions, misunderstandings and the absurdities of daily life in the Bosnian capital. In so doing, he has achieved a much higher profile than most of his contemporaries, with his work regularly trending and being discussed on Bosnia news portals and messageboards. In achieving a much larger audience and reception for his work, beyond the traditional gallery exhibition, Nikšić’s on-line interventions offer one possible strategy to grow new audiences for contemporary art.

Maja Bajević’s video Art Must be National is an example of performative art offering a sharp socio-political critique. Taking Marina Abramović’s Art Must be Beautiful (1975), Maja changes the word “beautiful” to the word “national” and repeats the original performance. In so doing, the emphasis of the whole performance shifts to one of horrifying self-destruction. A parallel is drawn between male-defined notions of “beauty” and the way these definitions are written as scripts on womens’ bodies, and the arbitrary and often downright untrue scripts of nationhood and national identity that have visited the Western Balkans since the dissolution of Yugoslavia at the beginning of the 1990s. The real impact that the myths and phantom half-truths of ethnic nationalism have on real people’s lives are laid bare, here. There is also a bitter recognition of the fact that the “international” art audience expects work from this part of the world to contain messages either of war or of national identity, placing a further burden on the artist who may have no wish to communicate such messages or develop a practice involving these issues. Caught between the hammer of expectation at home, and the anvil of the international art market, this video very subtly shows how the Yugoslav legacy has mutated in a post-socialist present.

The artist’s collective CRVENA (Red) has played a major role in developing a cutting critical edge to performative art in recent years. Artists associated with CRVENA, such as Adela Jušić, Lana Čmajčanin, Lala Raščić and Nela Hasanbegović have all developed practices that hold up, through the lens of gender and politics, a mirror to the myriad dysfunctionalities of contemporary society in BiH. Lala Raščić’s performances reach both those engaged in these discourses, and those who have no knowledge of them, but who come to enjoy a captivating stories and to compare the fates of its protagonists with their own. In her installation Tailoring and Sewing, Lana Čmajčanin impresses on the viewer the absurdity of easy nationalist polities, and presents the idea of a “nation” as a complex mosaic of interacting, constantly changing individual subjectivities.

“Performative” art also offers the possibility of building a relationship with the audience, through the confessional and the biographical. Adela Jušić’s photographical installation Memory Lane is one such example. The work focuses on the destruction of family photographs during the siege of Sarajevo in 1992-

95, and the attempt to reconstruct priceless personal memories through discussion with family members in other locations, and friends. The destruction of personal memories and the family unit is exemplified by the framed statement by Adela’s sister, now serving in the Bosnian army, of her father, who was killed on active service in the siege; the familiar figure of the dead serviceman takes its place alongside other lost photographs recovered and preserved, from the maternal line of the family. In the candid revelation of her own family history, the artist immediately begins to build a link with the anonymous viewer, who is invited to consider their own family history, and how much of it they actually remember, in viewing Memory Lane.

Šejla Kamerić’s Sorrow of 2005 adds another layer to our consideration of performativity. Šejla’s inserting of her own figure into her work in the first years of her career was something of a leitmotif, and in this photograph she dramatises herself in a re-creation of a van Gogh drawing entitled Sorrow, of 1882. In this way the original nineteenth century context is mutated into a densely layered twenty first century narrative; “sorrow” for events lived through by the artist in the 1990s, but also an attempt at re-establishing the link between BiH visuality and the European tradition, a cultural link denied by those who sought to destroy the country in that recent conflict. This is a drama, therefore, of introspection, reflection, and re-invigoration.

Sarajevo is a city rich in performative tradition, across popular music, theatre, and film. For the artists who live and work here, as I have shown, a broad definition of the “performative” plays an important role in both established and emerging practices. It is this “performative” element that is vital in reaching out to both existing, and new audiences for art, both in the city and beyond. In this sense, perhaps the struggle that art has to be seen in a visually saturated and self obsessed culture is a blessing in disguise. For the basis of any human relationship is mutual respect and exchange of feelings and ideas. This communication of feelings and perceptions by these artists, on a deeply human level ensures that, despite everything, art in this city will continue to grow and develop, whatever the future might hold.

Jon Blackwood

Jon Blackwood is now based between Aberdeen, Scotland and Sarajevo. He is continuing to edit SCB, and his book “Contemporary Art in BiH” will be launched at duplex 100m2 in November. 2014.

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