Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 03 Jun 15 Patriarchal Bosnia Turns Blind Eye to Feminist Art

A handful of artists struggle to spread feminist visions of art in Bosnia, but many find it easier to win fame abroad than at home. 

Amina Hamzic
Ina Cano, artist from Sarajevo recently had her first exhibition at the EU info centre | by Amina Hamzic

At the Sarajevo European Union info centre, a group exhibition opened on March 9 under the topic “Women in the Art World”.

Typically for a show by feminist artists in Sarajevo, the show took place without much media promotion and with an audience comprised mostly of family and friends of the ten participating artists.  

The paintings, sculptures, digital photos and designs addressing women’s bodies, rights and ideas were largely ignored by Bosnia’s own art scene.

Sculptures of female bodies made of wood, women’s shoes and pictures of naked bodies looking like the Venus of Willendorf drew little discussion among the small audience, or questions among the handful of journalists.

Until the show closed on March 18, only a handful of visitors came to see it.

Among the works that thus remained unknown to the public are the digital photographs by Ina Cano, a young multimedia artist for whom this was her first exhibition.

She tried to take a feminist view of biomechanics, the manufacture of artificial body parts. Her collection of digital photos put on show at the exhibition, called “Arise”, presented a naked woman, intertwined and wrapped in a strange, fantastic oblong shape.

The idea was that a woman’s body is always connected with fantastic extensions in the form of hair or mechanical appliances.

“Arise”, as its name indicates, represents the rise, development and triumph of the female body.

But she cannot do much to raise awareness of her work because neither the home audience nor the authorities have much interest in feminist issues, which means that opportunities to exhibit and funds for production are short.

“No official would say publicly that he is not interested in feminist issues but he would not show up for such an exhibition, nor will a part of the budget be set aside for an exhibition like this,” Cano says.

She is one of several members of the Bosnian art scene who persistently deal with gender issues but whose work passes largely unnoticed in their own environment.

Artists like her and one artistic group struggle in Bosnia against the odds not only to live from their art but to win society’s recognition for their mission – to a change the position and perception of women in the country.  

Stony ground for feminism:

Women in Bosnia

Women make up 51.1 per cent of the total population and 51.8 per cent of the working age population in Bosnia and Herzegovina.Some 37.3 per cent of women in Bosnia have jobs, while half of all women have been exposed to violence at least once in their life, according to surveys.

A quarter of all women suffered some form from physical violence.Women make up only 15.7 per cent of management structures and are also not entirely equal to men on the labour market.A discouraging fact is that 15.8 per cent of unemployed women are women with highest educational levels and that this number has steadily risen since 2012.

The annual report on discrimination for 2013 states that only 23 per cent of organizations have internal regulations which regulate workplace bullying, while most employees are not aware about the rights and the laws that protect them.

Data drawn from the Annual Report on rights of women in Bosnia and Herzegovina 2014, Annual Report about the State of Women’s Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina published in 2013 by the Sarajevo Open Centre – Soc, the Study About the Prevalence and Characteristics of Violence Against Women in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2014 published by Agency for gender equality of Bosnia and Herzegovina

The most resilient fighter for the feminist cause in Bosnia is the Association for Culture and Art "Crvena" (Red).

Founded in 2010, it has achieved international success and affirmation abroad. But its members still share the same problems as Cano does when it comes to organizing exhibitions at home.

Adela Jusic, a member of Crvena’s operational team, says domestic audiences are more drawn to commercial events or to those that are connected to questions of national identity.

“Folk festivals, calligraphy exhibitions and other cultural activities associated with ethnicity, religion and nationality, which in our country are still the most important after the war, now present the Bosnian mainstream, while non-commercial independent art cannot get the support of institutions or the media,” she complains.

Although they applied for funding before, this year for the first time, Jusic says Crvena will receive 3,000 euro from the state.

But this sum is not nearly enough to have any real impact on addressing the problems of feminist artists.  

In 2011, the association applied for funding from the Federation entity’s Ministry of Culture and Sport for an EU project, Feria de Fronteras. In the end, it was fully funded by the EU with Crvena as one of the partner organizations.

Jusic says obtaining state funding is not only problem.  Independent artists, who like her are not employed in art institutions and live from fees or sales have no pensions, health insurance or official work experience. They are counted as unemployed.

There is a list of about 100 individual artists, for whom the state pays health, work experience benefits and pensions.

This list has recently become the object of scandal because some artists were on the state budget whose artistic activity in past few years has been negligible.

To survive from her art, Jusic has to take part in international exhibitions where she gets fees for participation.

Crvena 

Crvena (Red) is an association for culture and art, which aims to connect and spreads a network of artists, curators and theorists gathered around the idea that art and culture provide an open platform for social change.

The association was established in March 2010 when 10 female artists recognized the need to act as a group to find creative ways to talk about problems affecting people in Bosnia.

Crvena promotes artists who work for and with feminist ideas, and the translation of their name symbolizes power and energy of working together. For them, red is “the colour of blood and fire, strong emotions, love and colour of alarm“.

Material taken from Crvena’s official Facebook page

One topic that she focuses on is the relation between women’s position in the Socialist era and nowadays.  

Several of Jusic’s works have taken her across former Yugoslavia as well as to Albania, to examine the rights of women in the Socialist era.

The work “Tell us something about your new life,” talks about how Albanian women under Communism started to be involved in the public sphere and labour market. They were encouraged to work and were present in almost all spheres of society.

The work aims to explore the real effects these changes had on women while questioning the official political representation of the “progress” and “emancipation” of women in Socialist Albania.

Other works by Adela, such as “Dignity Defiance Fear Desperation” and “What has our struggle given us?”, represent women in the Socialist era and the Second World War, when they were encouraged to join the anti-fascist front and work in industry.

It was a golden age for women rights in Yugoslavia compared to nowadays, she claims.

“I produce these big collages that are not expensive. I make and produce them by myself. I promote works by myself. It is only in rare situations when some special projects are commissioned that I can get more money for production and assistants,” Jusic explains, recalling the opening of the show “Tell us something about your new life”, in Sao Paolo, Brazil, last October.  

Such success is unimaginable at home, no matter how big a name one has abroad. This prevents artists like Jusic from expressing their feminist point in their own country, where perhaps it is most needed.

“Recently, the New York Times published an article about my most recent work (an art video named “When I Die, you can do what you want,”) but our media outlets did not convey any information about it. Even when we invite them to exhibitions, they rarely come to actually report about them,” she says.

Hard to build a career in Bosnia:

When even an affirmed artist like Jusic has such problems, one can only imagine what a newbie like Ina Cano has to cope with. But that does not make her give up. She paints every day and her day “begins and ends with an easel and a brush”, she says.

“From early morning I am in the workshop and I try to do as much as I can to have a richer offering,” she adds.

“But I seldom exhibit my works as there is no way to obtain the money for production and materials and it’s also difficult to find a space where I can express myself,” Cano says.

“I would love to sell my works successfully and be able to live off it but few people in my country would spend money on that.

“I will have to reach the international market, as this is the only way to exhibit and find a way to do better business,” she adds.

She says the reason is not only that people do not have money to spend on art but is also because feminism is unpopular in Bosnia.

“My country is too patriarchal and its social consciousness lags behind Western Europe,” Cano claims, adding that this makes it difficult to gain the attention of the audience in her country for feminist issues.

Other artists agree and have the same problem in displaying their works, especially when it comes to individual exhibitions, which are more expensive to organize than group ones.

Nela Hasanbegovic, 31, also a member of the “Crvena “ platform, and a new media artist, is one of the few feminist artists in Bosnia to have had a solo exhibition.

 

 “Speech of Whiteness” (2013) consisted of nine pieces that compared the closure of cultural institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina to the hatred of women generally.

However, the exhibition at the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina (which in the meantime has closed along with six other cultural institutions ) also displayed Hasanbegovic’s works from earlier group exhibitions, as this made it easier and cheaper to organize.

Another project, “Under the Veil,” sheds light on the problems facing women in Bosnian society and the prostitution racket.

“I will constantly speak to and remind the public about current problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina because it will take a lot more to changed patriarchal code in our society,” she insists.

She says that despite all the adopted laws, gender discrimination still exists in every sphere, from employment to politics and aspects of education.

Hasanbegovic’s CV as well as Jusic’s and those of other feminist artists is full of participations at international exhibitions in Europe and the world, with only occasional appearances in Bosnia, mostly at group exhibitions.

Even if they get the chance to have a solo exhibition, this will not mean much for their affirmation, Jusic says.

“Even if someone offered space for a solo exhibition for free, I would have to turn it down because I would have to finance the production by myself,” she explains, “while only some 30 of my friends would turn up at the opening and no one else.”

Group exhibitions are not much easier to organize than solo ones, when it comes to funding, she adds.  

Group exhibitions in Bosnia are sometimes funded by foreign foundations like the Heinrich Boll or Friedrich Ebert, which recognize the importance of feminism and art for the development of society - but competition for grants is fierce.

The biggest problem is that the cost of an individual exhibition is almost equal to that of a group exhibition, so it pays for those who finance such exhibitions to have works by several authors at a joint show rather than just one.

Also, while the production costs are sometimes covered completely, the funds rarely extend to all the materials, the assistants and salaries.

Feminism’s path was always thorny:

Major exhibitions by Bosnian feminists  

ADELA JUŠIĆ “Labor of love”, solo exhibition, 2015, St Petersburg, Russia

“Frestas-Trienal de Artes”, solo exhibition, 2014, Sao Paolo, Brasil

“I will never talk about war again,” group exhibition, 2011, Stockholm, Sweden 

NELA HASANBEGOVIĆ 

“Du bist mein Spigel”, group exhibition, 2013, Leipzig, Germany

“Lost identities,” solo exhibition, 2013, Zagreb, Croatia

“Under the veil,” solo performance, 2010, Sarajevo, BiH

 

Ajla Demiragic, theorist of gender studies, says incorporation of a perspective on gender in all social activities is important because it focuses on the ways certain groups are being marginalized.

“In a post-war traditional society such as ours, common practices are a neglect of the legacy of the women’s artistic production and lack of opportunities for women to act in the public, cultural or political sphere,” she says.

However, although Demiragic agrees that feminist action in Bosnia faces many problems, with no solution at sight, she notes that feminism always had to make progress on a “thorny path” in every society in the past.

“For every generation, feminism means something else. For some women it was their whole life, and many of them gave it away for the idea of feminism,” she recalls.

For Bosnia’s invisible feminist artists, the struggle is about being recognized, living from one’s own work and achieving a social impact in an environment that remains largely deaf and blind to their ideas.

“Our worry is not only whether we are invisible or not, but whether we are recognized and appreciated and how seriously our commitment is respected in our own country,” Jusic says.

In order to succeed, they need to work and create.

Body art performance by Nela Hasanbegovic named “Postscriptum”, 2008 | Courtesy of the author

While Jusic had her works exhibited on April 24 at the international Biennale of Contemporary Art in Konjic in Bosnia, along with colleagues from Germany, Austria, Britain, Italy as well as countries of the region, Cano builds her future by creating new works and seeking opportunities for new exhibitions.

Cano says giving up is not an option: “I’m struggling to exhibit as much as possible and it’s important for me to gradually conquer the public space,” she says.

“I want to try to make my modest contribution to art in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and draw the attention of a society that still has no sympathy for feminist issues,” she concludes.

This article is funded under the Invisible Art project, supported by the Prince Claus Fund.

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