Šejla Kamerić

Writings

Burn by staying cool

In Western philosophy, poetry is often seen as ineffable – it draws out assumptions and interpretations, but it’s never truly known. It is described as if extracted from some greater consciousness existing outside of this realm, spontaneously and independently. It is free and rebellious, it knows no boundaries and it owes us nothing; it is self-sufficient, self-possessed, self-fulfilling. Yet, this view sets such unrealistic expectations of poetry. Poems belong to language, and language is in service of oppressive systems such as the patriarchy, neoliberal capitalism, the global West. We cannot escape language if we want to speak (at least not yet), just as we cannot exist outside these systems if we have already been seen and classified by them. I will cautiously use an analogy here: the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house, says Audre Lorde in her 1984 essay of the same name. As Lorde also notes: “for women, […] poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence.”
In the context of Sejla Kameric’s work, this ineffable element that I just ascribed to poetry actually relates to the contrasts and taboos that subtly define her practice
— lived realities that also recall her movement from the outskirts of Europe to its centre. As a Serbian woman born in the 1990’s, the era of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, I find it difficult to speak of the experiences that Sejla, a survivor of the Bosnian war, conveys through her work. Both personally and professionally, she has borne many categorical labels – a refugee, a woman, a model, a mother, a wife, an artist, a nomad, an expat, an immigrant – and many of them were not a choice. Šejla comes from a post-communist society that was swept away by the same forces that build and destroys worlds today. Like many of the generations who got to live through this in the Balkans, hers, too, was born of violence. In such surroundings, people start to care violently, to love violently. We learn, by intimidation or nature, to cherish, remember, envision, write and create – violently. (Camus would say, ‘to create dangerously.’)

When violence becomes embroiled with our empathy and vulnerability, a hybrid territory emerges: a place of weakness, which harbours a potential to become a place of power. This is the place to which Sejla’s works invite us. Her art comes lightly and freely in form, but the heaviness it carries is matched only by the weight of brutal honesty. So brutal, in fact, that it must come from a place less known to a civilised society, just as poetry appears to come from some irrational state of mind.

Sejla Kameric seems to recognize that it’s impossible to truthfully translate the ineffable. Her works communicate by proxy, drawing on the material, the vulgar, the spectacular. The rhetoric we encounter in the works is familiar – intentionally so – as it is found throughout capitalist societies. By adopting such language, these works gesture toward the things that stand behind, untranslatable. This is akin to the poem’s subversive power: words – or to convert this into visual means, objects, shapes, images – clear space for what’s not there. But this is not art for art’s sake in the modernist sense. This is, instead, because any mediation of an experience is essentially incomplete, all the more so when it comes to experiences that can hardly be imagined by those of us listening.

Hence we meet the absurd, glamorous, witty, self-exploiting invisible narrator of these works. She gives instructions, tells stories; she poses questions, with the purpose of underlining the things that are missing:

I really don’t care, do you?

The infamous jacket of Melania Trump that appears in Sejla’s work (SAPONIFIED JACKET OF MELANIA TRUMP) is not really about the jacket at all. It is about what’s not there: Care. It can be fickle, with caregivers shifting their focus as soon as something new comes along, a dynamic to which Šejla directs our attention. This trend threads throughout her body of work. For example, a standard aid package for those in need has a consumable physical form, but always with an expiration date. The contents of care packages received by Bosnian refugees in the ’90s were often useless, their contents expired or unsuitable. Still, there is that big word, CARE, organizsing disparate objects into the ranks of philanthropy and understanding. However, as Sejla subtly indicates, there is no understanding; and until we start to acknowledge this, our world will keep on burning.

Similarly, in ENDLOSERSOMMER, the idea of an “endless summer” as a utopian reward for hard work is undermined, taking a pejorative turn: the work reminds us that most riots and civil wars start at that time of year. Some of these struggles seem to not end, as we have seen in war-torn countries that never fully transition, and in situations where marginal groups inevitably suffer the consequences: refu- gees, asylum-seekers, outcasts. In an ongoing series of photos and visual documents, skygazing and the illusion of rest contrast images of explosions. While being superficially similar, the lightness of clouds, which could represent leisure, strongly differs from the dreadful appearance of fire-clouds, the iconography of destruction.

On the other hand – though stemming from the same root causes – our utopian summers might indeed become endless due to the effects of climate change. Endlessness, with both the negative and the utopian connotations it carries, re- curs throughout Šejla’s moving-image artworks, where stills suspensefully overlap looped footage of moving skies (SUNSET, DREAM HOUSE).

In our burning world, we rely on verbal communication, translation and words to protect us. Still, in Sejla’s art as well as in life, it is becoming painfully clear that some rules are impossible to follow, and that language gives way to exclusion. What feels like care for some is not really needed by others. Ambiguous aphorisms and memory games can bring joy to me and anxiety to you (HORIZON). Globalisation also makes global pandemics possible. Poverty is pinned on immigrants, while ecology is kept separate from politics, and all of this builds a society of passive empathy, one that waits for things to happen on their own, to fall from the sky (THE PARTY IS OVER).

It becomes clear that, this same world, which inquiries into everything it does not fundamentally understand – even poetry – is the one that offers understanding through colonisation.

All that being said, there remains a special kind of power in poetry. It can be mediated, imagined, assumed, reinvented, and even perpetually abused by semiotics, for better or worse, but its truth somehow remains untouchable. The unknown – the ineffable — constitutes its freedom: what cannot be found, can’t be taken away either. Perhaps it can only be felt in passing, like in the nuances of Sejla’s aesthetic approach: the gentleness of gauze, even when it refers to fire (KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE); or kindness, gratitude and coolness in appearance, even when confronted with violence:

STAY AWAY FROM SUN TRY NOT TO BREATHE DON’T DRINK
DON’T EAT NEVER SLEEP STAY ALERT
BE IN FASHION BE HEALTHY DON’T FLY ALWAYS RUN
WASH BEFORE USE KEEP AWAY FROM FIRE BURN BY STAYING COOL

Natalija Paunić