Irfan Hošić ⎥ 11.5.2021.
Selma Selman. The Most Dangerous Woman
The first solo exhibition of Selma Selman in Bihać1 welcomes the artist to the city of her youth, but also sets several theoretical frameworks for a possible discussion. The first, of course, is the contextualization of her work and the general understanding of the layers of the "Roma issue". The "Roma issue" refers to the unwritten history of discrimination at all levels of society and the systematic determination of the "other" as is the case with the Roma in this area. The second framework offers a set of interpretive tools with the aim of understanding "what" the artist does and "how" she achieves it.
The artist's origins and the cultural pattern of the Roma community – the context from which they come from – are an indisputable source of power for the creation of her art. The last but not least important in this series is the framework that speaks of the demarcation of the space intended for culture. The problem created by the devaluation of social standards in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina has particularly affected culture and made it vulnerable. This exhibition is changing that. Selma Selman’s exhibition The Most Dangerous Woman outlines a new geography of cultural policies and affirms an artistic model that is clearly defined as resistance to drowning in capitalist realism and its calculative strategies. Therefore, Selma Selman's first solo exhibition in Bihać, in addition to conceptual and aesthetic, also contains political implications because she works very consciously in the direction of reshaping the stagnant reality.
Selma Selman grew up in Bihać neighborhood Ružica, which in the local urban context is also seen as a Roma ghetto or "gypsy neighborhood". She attended primary and secondary school in Bihać and felt systemic discrimination that was not part of official policy but a generally accepted code of isolation, humiliation, degradation, classification and denunciation of the "other" and the "different". In her personal experience and personal memory, there are numerous events and situations in which she was forced to reluctantly take on the role of a second-class person, implying that she truly is that.
It is a general fact that Roma children are exposed to latent segregation and isolation. Traditionally, in school classrooms they are positioned in the back rows; games that require physical contact (handshake, hug or kiss) "spontaneously" but humbly bypass them; teacher assessment is accompanied by prejudices and misjudgments; any opportunity for advancement and creative prominence is simply not reserved for them. It is a matter of generally accepted racial profiling and domination according to the model of the neocolonial matrix, which in socialist Yugoslavia was nurtured by both the proletariat and the bourgeoisie. This latent racist model – as an integral part of many Yugoslav cities, was inherited in the new political framework created by the disintegration of Yugoslavia. The Roma were simply Gypsies whose way of life – including the economy, politics and culture – was constantly condemned and exposed to non-Roma attacks.
Bosnia and Herzegovina, after gaining its independence, faced formal permutations. Systemic discrimination gained importance through the institutions of Dayton Bosnia and Herzegovina, culminating in 2006 in a lawsuit against the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina in a case known as "Sejdić-Finci".2 While in a specific socio-political context, systemic discrimination gained in importance, discrimination on the street or in the neighborhood has weakened and there has been an intensification of intercultural exchange and a kind of assimilation of Roma into local cultural flows. Here "assimilation" is understood as a wrong model of drowning which implies misunderstanding and lack of interest of the "first" in the customs, characteristics and culture of the "other" – as opposed to "integration" which would, while fully respecting all the cultural specifics of the "other", accept the "first".
In the case of Roma as the largest minority group in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the process of interaction and exchange with majority and dominant ethnic groups has remained poor and kept to a minimum. The catalyst for "otherness" has been intensified since the 1990s as nationalisms are reactivated and the terrible conflict that followed has highlighted divisions. Such a sequence has put the Roma community in a new unfavorable situation.
The character of the relationship between the Roma as a minority people and the majority ethnic groups or nationalities, as it was called in socialist Yugoslavia, can be described as paternalistic and contains colonial elements. In its everyday application, it is possible to detect elements of segregation in this relationship and as such indicates clear tendencies to control the lives of Roma. Although marked by class and racial divisions, control of Roma was not motivated by economic interests but by cultural domination and racial superiority. The voice of the Roma did not exist and if at all, it was always quiet and inconspicuous and took place through channels of entertainment and leisure. The tendency to improve this relationship has been stimulated by the post-war international humanitarian apparatus and organizations whose focus is on the protection of human rights, the development of a democratic society and the nurturing of pluralism. Awareness transformation processes, whether institutional or extra-institutional attempts, are accompanied by poor or insufficient housing capacity strategies; lack of channels for inclusive education; poor social policies in the labor market and the lack of effective health services – which led to the collective existential insecurity of the Roma population, their poverty and traditional neglect.
Here it is useful to mention the visual representation of Roma in popular culture after the Second World War, which is a reflection of the collective image of the Roma as the "other" in this area. Examples are numerous, however, two famous films – Ko to tamo peva (English: Who's Singing Over There) by Slobodan Šijan (1980) and Dom za vješanje (English: Time of the Gypsies, literally “House for Hanging“) by Emir Kusturica (1988) summarize all the elements and seem to be representative examples. Although in one form or another they can be understood as a criticism of society, in both cases the Roma are portrayed as freed from the ambitious aspirations of the modern West with classic stereotypes about the Roma as entertainers, bohemians and wandering people. In Europe, dominated by the capitalist economy, territorial nation-states and a gender convention based on the male-female dichotomy, the aestheticization and conceptualization of the Roma as a wild, irrational and mysterious group reinforces discrepancy and emphasizes discord.
While Kusturica uses romanticizing and opposing elements, idealizing the dissolute and mystical Roma way of life in the context of Yugoslav socialist modernism, Šijan imagines the nameless Roma characters in Ko to tamo peva as antiheroes of the pre-war paradox. Cathartic and almost symbolic, Šijan's Roma, after unfounded accusations, condemnation and harassment by other characters in the film, are the only survivors of the Nazi bombing and war fiasco of civilization, which ultimately speaks of dogmas that destroy society from within and lead to its collapse. Both films are a masterpiece of complex layers of Roma social and cultural fabric, which of course offer some insights into the context of articulating the Roma position in this area – a position burdened with numerous prejudices, unfounded condemnations, violence and discrimination.
At this point, it is useful to mention Danis Tanović's 2013 documentary Epizoda u životu berača željeza (English: An Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker), which follows a Roma family in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina and documents their inability to afford basic health services. Although he is actively engaged, he seems to have a superficial understanding of the reality of Roma life at the time the film was made, so the question is what social change the film has brought.
Generally speaking, the solid standard of the citizens of SFR Yugoslavia meant better life opportunities for marginalized Roma as well. Poor economic conditions and declining standards in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina have, of course, affected the quality of life of Roma. Already poor, the Roma have become even poorer and more vulnerable. The general decline in the standards of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, unemployment and poverty, have additionally endangered the Roma minority community.
The Art of Selma Selman
Selma Selman's artistic opus, although stretched to only a few years, is quite condensed and compressed by intensive production and participation in numerous exhibitions. As a young artist who completed her formal art studies in 2014, Selman managed to articulate herself in different genres and to inscribe her artistic sensibility in almost all expressive possibilities – drawing, painting, photography, performance, video, lecture-performance, art, social practices, cultural management and social engagement (activism). If described in just a few key words, her art is based on the idea of identity, coexistence and protest. With her comprehensive approach and rather wide range of actions, Selman suggests that in her case it is really something more than talent. More precisely, it is a long-range visionary view that embraces the past, present and future so well.
The inner energy of the explosive creative charge is the driving force of her artistic ingenuity – a means by which the artist manages to reshape the layers of discriminatory attacks from childhood and youth, but also from the wider historical context, into a completely new, intact and rounded whole. Selma Selman managed to articulate her voice and shape it to be heard further than expected. Her voice is the "voice" of the subordinates and the marginalized – the voice of the three temporal realities (past, present, future) trapped in the tense framework of layered and intricate relations.
The sublimation of that voice is her play from 2016, You Have No Idea, in which the artist hysterically repeats the sentence "you have no idea" for 35 minutes. Compact and energetic performance, reduced to the repetition of the same sentence (Bosnian translation: "vi nemate pojma"), summarizes all the traumas experienced – expressive and unspeakable frustrations that arose from being a woman in a patriarchal environment, a Roma woman in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Europe , a Muslim woman in America, an artist in a backward environment, and many other intricate layers that are an integral part of her and her family's identity. Vocal performance, as the main link between artistic idea and reality, through its radicalism takes center of gravity within bodily performance and thus alludes to the readiness to involve the body to its extremes. Such an approach and expression correspond to the idea that wants to be stylized, i.e. to adapt to the language of contemporary art. The artist plucks experiences from the past and rearranges them into something new, shaped for a tense future.
The way the artist penetrates the past is not permeated with romance for past times, nor is the past an idealized source of her inspiration. The past is a tangible category that the artist brings to the present as something that lasts and has the capacity to touch with the future. In fact, the artist delves into the past in order to reshape and redesign it, in order to ultimately enable a new participatory, thoughtful and emancipated present that will give the future completely new forms and possibilities. Whether it is a collective historiography as in the work I Pissed on Your Land (2014) or intimate, i.e. her family story as in A Pink Room of Her Own (2020), the artist manages to shape history into a subject of deconstruction and thus explain patriarchal narratives regardless of whether it is a personal or collective experience of oppression, lack of freedom and violence.
Hence the conclusion that Selma Selman is a heroine of a distorted present determined by the crisis of capitalism, tensions caused by the strengthening of neo-fascism and general dissatisfaction and rebellion of marginalized individuals, living and working tuned to the frequency of anxiety. Of course, this frequency is determined by its social status and numerous identities – gender, ethnic, national, class and many others in which it is almost always in the role of "other".
Here, “otherness” is understood as a characteristic of an individual or collective entity that does not possess social exclusivity within the framework of social norms and trends – whether it is exclusion from political processes or social and cultural institutions. In the Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav context, the generation and production of the "Roma other" was also promoted through anthropogeography, through which the Roma were excluded, i.e. displaced from society through spatial strategies of dislocation of their neighborhoods to social margins. Only in such an environment could they freely be what they are, and that is to be "different" and "strange". It is an obvious construct of the "first" who, using political and socio-cultural power, consider their civilization "known" and "accepted".
Such a social milieu is a framework from- and within- which the artist sketches, creates but also performs her radical possibilities. The mentioned "visionary view" and personal or collective anxiety are two key ingredients that make up the engine of its action. Isn't anxiety the main psychological determinant of the modern precariat driven by economic uncertainty and further fueled by global class divisions, populism and xenophobia? Selma Selman has placed herself in the advanced position of defending those classes most affected by uncertainty. She is the protagonist of decolonial solidarity, which bases this practice on the emancipated truth of personal social experience. Hence the conclusion that Selma Selman's artistic activity essentially belongs to the category of those engaged individuals who "represent and support demoralized, depoliticized and disorganized members of various marginalized social groups, in order to encourage collective social action to spread freedom, democracy and individuality."3
At the same time, the intellectual desire for high-level ethics, which in turn consistently face complex and intricate topics, defined Selma Selman's more difficult path. The artist's state of the precarious gives legitimacy to the setting of the liminal space, which is, in turn, the medium that connects her artistic work with reality – whether it is a gallery performance or an artistic performance known as post-studio practice. It follows that Selma Selman is constantly concerned in her artistic reality because the "unwanted and exotic subject" arose from the fact that she was "both woman and other, as well as a Muslim and actual foreigner in the United States, Europe and even Bosnia.”4 Such a framework is an ideal starting point for designing and creating protocols and tools that will, with a clear ideological awareness, define a new performative drama fed by the contents of the political and the encounter of the “first” with the “other.”5
Participatory actions in the yard of her house, which have been gathering the most diverse audience for several years (local Roma, citizens of Bihać, interested tourists, migrants), is a new practice of meeting and intercultural exchange. The Open Screen at Selma’s, which started in 2017, is a meeting place for artists and cultural workers in which Roma culture and life dynamics are written in an emancipated way. Socializing children of different ethnic, class and worldview backgrounds and meeting in a marginalized local Roma ghetto, is an exchange in the form of an author's art event where other participants become co-authors. This proactive encounter is a new practice and marking of cocooned terrain with the manuscript of contemporary culture and participatory post-study activity. Its format is an opportunity for all parties involved to initiate mechanisms of breaking down prejudices and rapprochement in one micro-context. Through the strategies of cultivating space and time, a political form of collective belonging is formed here that nurtures the values of respect, acceptance and care.
Selman applies a similar methodology through other social actions such as the Get the Heck to School, also from 2017, which continues to this day. It is a hybrid project that takes place through several different media and protocols. However, his focus is on sensitizing the Roma public about the importance of educating primary and secondary school students, which takes place through the dictionary of the art of social practice through forging a closer connection between art and life. Considering that she herself participated in numerous formal education programs (University of Banja Luka, Central European University, Syracuse University) and as a very ambitious and successful student gained numerous scholarships that enabled her such a path – through the platform Get the Heck to School, Selman decided to "return” at least part of what she had a chance to get. In such an intention of the artist, "education is figured as art’s potential ally in an age of ever-decreasing public space, rampant privatisation and instrumen- talised bureaucracy."6
The way Selma Selman understands art excludes the exclusivity of sensory atmosphere on the one hand, and the philosophical protocols of properly posed questions on the other. Much more, her practice takes responsibility and indicates that “art has to change and challenge.”7 It is therefore easy to conclude that an important segment of Selma Selman’s art is shaping and articulating new models in the field of social life and culture, which clearly show that in the world we are in, other ways of living and acting are possible. Through her aspirations through the art forms of social practice, the artist's intention is to boldly create a collective as a political formation of new solidarity in the context of colonial capitalist violence.
The title of the Bihać exhibition, specially designed for the KRAK Center for Contemporary Culture, The Most Dangerous Woman, is a kind of autobiographical code, which directly refers to the ethnic and gender affiliation of Selma Selman. Especially Roma ethnicity and female gender position are magnets for many stereotypes, while the word "most dangerous" plays on the card of ironic intervention in centuries-old stereotypes about Roma as a source of danger to society – a belief that prevails today. The issue of ethnicity and gender is a double social differentiation that certainly perpetuates social injustice, as explained by sociologist Rafaela Eulberg.8 Interpreting the patriarchal sociocentrism of the white man, Roma culture and women's culture are perceived as "other" and thus "imitative cultures". Additionally, "In the same way that the 'gypsy' was labelled as foreign the woman was perceived as a foreign (…) The 'female gypsy' is a distilled version of the characteristics ascribed to 'gypsies' regardless of gender."9 In this direction, Selma Selman is the obvious personification of the female being. She is a "Gypsy woman" and that is why even more "Gypsies" and more "women" than usual.
When her professional identity of an artist is added to this "poisonous" combination of a Roma woman and a woman, then all of the above is further strengthened and articulated as a possibility of theatrical performativity towards the staging that the audience receives. The triangle on the relation Roma-woman-artist ignites the imagination of a white man, but also breaks down the existing stereotypes about the Roma as a wandering people full of controversy. In our society, Selma Selman and everything she represents is a social test of how to create and maintain knowledge about the "other" and the different. With his appearance and work, Selman decomposes, deconstructs and analyzes the cultural representation of the Roma "other" seen as "dangerous" and through artistic synthesis articulates a completely new image of him. The artist does this in a socio-political environment determined by antagonisms, tensions and friction.
A similar practice in a broader context, though in significantly altered historical and political constellations, is visible in the United States and the systemic discrimination of African Americans, which in art discourse is known as Afrofuturism. Both Selman and the artists of this movement envision new areas of opportunity as an urgent exercise of today with the goal of creating a future of radical freedom. For African-American artists, i.e. the African diaspora in the United States, it is about tools of survival and liberation through the memory of ancient ancestors and their diversity.
New Geography in Culture
Selma Selman's exhibition The Most Dangerous Woman in the newly established Center for Contemporary Culture KRAK in Bihać, in addition to an older one, also shows several new specially designed works of art for this exhibition. The most demanding of them is the permanent installation of a used bus in the immediate vicinity of KRAK, which, in addition to reminiscing on the artist's family tradition of earning through selection of waste, would also serve as a strong symbol in public space in Bihać, Bosnia and Herzegovina and beyond, which wants to write a new geography in culture.
The act of permanently setting up an upright bus is tied to local geography through two perspectives. The first refers to the artist's intimate and personal connection with the city of her youth from which she left for education – first to Banja Luka, then to Budapest and finally to the United States – and then returned as a formed artist. The second perspective is based on the specific position of the Center for Contemporary Culture KRAK, which is the organizer of the exhibition and which, by establishing the Center, writes a completely new history of independent, collaborative and emancipatory artistic practice in this area. Guided by the question of how to shape the future in times of corruption, nepotism, provincialism and the role of culture and art, Selma Selman's exhibition The Most Dangerous Woman is the result of joint action, efforts and aspirations to demarcate autonomous and free zones of emancipation within which contemporary art and culture plays an important role.
Mehmed Mahmutović, We Could Not, 2021
1 This text was created as part of research and collaboration with the artist Selma Selman during 2020 for the needs of the same-name exhibition and the planned publication. Although it was conceived as one of the most ambitious art projects in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2021, for which funds were fully provided by the Open Society Fund of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the exhibition remained unrealized. Due to the importance of the topic it deals with, but also the responsibility of the KRAK Center as the organizer and its desire to set up this exhibition, the text was proposed to be published and brought in full and original form at the suggestion of direct associates.
2 „Sejdić-Finci is a lawsuit initiated by the informal representatives of Roma and Jews in Bosnia and Herzegovina Dervo Sejdić and Jakob Finci who sued the state before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg because they could not be elected to the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the House of Peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
3 Žana Vukičević, “Kulturna politika različitosti na primjeru umjetničkog djelovanja Selme Selman“, in Revizor, no. 1. (Fondacija Revizor, Bihać 2018), p. 20.
4 Jasmina Tumbas, Selma Selman. (Epeka, Maribor 2016). No pagination.
5 Read more in: Katharina Pewny, Das Drama des Prekären. Über die Wiederkehr der Ethik in Theater und Performance. (Transcript, Bielefeld 2011).
6 Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells. Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. Verso, London, New York 2012, p. 242.
7 Jelena Prtoric, „Selma Selman is the Bosnian artist breaking down cars, washing machines, and the patriarchy“, in The Calvert Journal (4.11.2020). https://www.calvertjournal.com/features/show/12282/selma-selman-bosnian-roma-artist-performance-activism-painting (Last Retrieved: 13.12.2020).
8 Rafaela Eulberg, “The image of the female 'Gipsy' as a potentation of stereotypes – notes on the interrelation of gender and ethnicity“, in: Reconsidering Roma. Aspects of Roma and Sinti life in contemporary art (edited by Lith Bahlman, Matthias Reichelt). Wallstein, Göttingen 2011. Pp. 63-71.
9 Rafaela Eulberg, pp 64 i 65.