Šejla Kamerić – Sarajevo, mon amour
A portrait by Anselm Wagner
By 29. February 1996, when the just four-year-old siege of Sarajevo was declared officially over, the population of the city had shrunk from 430,000 at the beginning of the war to 250,000. 10,615 had been killed by sniper bullets and the grenades that hailed down in their hundreds every day; more than 50,000 had been injured, some of them severely. Thousands of residential and public buildings – including the university library with two million volumes – were now no more than burnt-out ruins, after one of the longest sieges in European history.
Through the open door of these ruins, in 1993 Milomir Kovačević photographed the shadow of a girl falling onto an abandoned city square surrounded by the bullet-ridden walls of buildings. The name of the girl was Šejla Kamerić, she was 17 years old. It was the second year of the siege; the year when her father was killed.
The shadows of people from outside the field of vision often have something ghostly about them. Their bodiless presence, the presence of their absence, evokes a strange zone between life and death, just like the blackened walls in the background of the photograph, which now carry no more than the traces of absent life. In this particular case, however, the very opposite seems to be true: the shadow is the only living thing in the photo. The light falling through the door drawing the outlines of Kamerić on the asphalt creates the brightest spot in the picture, almost a picture within a picture, framed by the door opening. It is like a projection cast onto this scene of death from a distance, an image from some other, imaginary world.
A story about a girl and her dreams
Once upon a time, but not at all that long ago, there was a little girl who dreamed beautiful dreams. In these dreams she had everything her heart desired – starting with water, bread, and electricity. In these dreams she was able to make art. The little girl grew up and became an artist. She still dreams beautiful dreams. In them, she lives happily ever after.
In Šejla Kamerić the dream and the trauma seem to be causally connected. She channels the pain in two quite different directions: into a biting, almost cynical criticism of political conditions and, at the same time, into a longing escapism, for example when she poses, as if in the picture of a saint, with a halo from an electric light and with bread and water cans in her hands (“BASICS”, 2001) or when she sticks little arrows with the label “Sarajevo” everywhere she has travelled since 2001 (“homeSICK”). These are doubtless the two poles between which Kamerić was torn back and forth during the four years of the siege: flight and resistance, powerlessness and rage. The time of life when other young people plan their future, fall in love, travel and study, was, in her case, marked by the daily fight for survival, the search for anything that could be eaten or drunk, the fear of snipers and the dreadful news of the death or mutilation of someone she loved.
After the war curators from Western galleries crowded greedily around artists in the former Yugoslavia in the hope of finding a kind of political art ennobled by the immediate experience of suffering. However: suffering does not necessarily make a person good, whether morally or aesthetically. In western art since Romanticism it has become far too much of a routine to turn personal traumata into added artistic value and then to market it accordingly. Kamerić’s specific artistic achievement is not a matter of authentically embodying a European trauma. It is rather the case that in her work we become a part of the trauma, slipping into the roles of victims and perpetrators and suddenly feeling, very precisely, what fatal mechanisms were at work here (and still are at work).
“There is no border, there is no border, there is no border,
no border, no border, no border,
In summer 2000, on the occasion of Manifesta 3 in Ljubljana, under the appropriate motto “Borderline Syndrome”, Kamerić chose for her intervention the three picturesque bridges of Josef Plečnik, which connect the Prešernov trg with the old city centre to make one common square. In the middle of each bridge she mounted overhead notices of the kind seen at airports and border checkpoints, separating EU citizens from “others”. In this case, however, each notice has the word “EU-CITIZENS” on one side and “OTHERS” on the reverse, so that you step onto a bridge as an EU citizen but have to leave it as an “other”. “For me as a citizen of Bosnia-Herzegovina there are only a few countries in the world that I can enter freely (without a visa)”, she explained at the time. “If I want to go to Slovenia I need a visa, and I can get one only if I am on a business trip or if a friend invites me to come on a visit. At the border to Slovenia I enter the country through the gate marked ‘OTHERS’. When Slovenians go to other European countries they also have to use the entrance marked ‘OTHERS’ at border crossings. Who are these ‘OTHERS’? What am I doing at the European Biennale for Contemporary Art (IN Ljubljana??) as an ‘OTHER’?”
Today we know that one of the most important factors that started the Bosnian war was the plan, supported in the West, to divide Bosnia-Herzegovina into cantons separated according to ethnicity. The virus of nationalism, which had flourished splendidly during the Yugoslavian economic crisis of the eighties and the restrictive budgetary policies demanded by the IMF were able to destroy the last remnants of citizen solidarity. Ethnic minorities were driven out of the various cantons, whose borders were, on top of all that, still disputed. Anyone might wake up one morning and discover that he had become an “OTHER” overnight.
Anyone who had the bad luck to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time could entrust himself to a gang with a removal van as an “economic refugee” or ask for a visa at a western embassy. Flight into (presumed) comfort became a lottery, depending on bribes, immigrant quotas and sheer luck. Kamerićs action “FORTUNE TELLER II” reveals, in an almost obscene manner, how lacking in human dignity this situation was: in 2001 she set up a banner in front of the Austrian Embassy in Sarajevo whose message combined the rhetorical language of neoliberal motivation seminars with that of popular astrology agony aunts, embodying the cynicism of the powerful in the escapism of the powerless: “You will never be at the end of the queue but always outstanding! Lucky numbers 9, 21, 30, 31, 32, 33.” In front of this banner a queue of emigrants waited in silence.
Merely by changing the context, Kamerićs public actions succeed in unveiling the absurdity of the dominant political discourse and its fixation on the nation as a fetish. Borders are drawn in a process of inclusion and exclusion, by which groups define themselves and distinguish between “us” and “them”. The borders are often drawn in the manner of bodily excretion: what was originally its own thing now becomes excretion, faeces. In about 1994/95 a Dutch UNPROFOR soldier scratched a racist joke onto the wall of his military barracks in Potočari (he was a part of the unit that was to become sadly famous at the unhindered massacre of Srebrenica): “No teeth …? A mustache [sic] …? Smel [sic] like shit …? Bosnian girl!” In a spectacular poster, postcard and advertising campaign Kamerić had herself portrayed as a spotless, beautiful cover-girl with the ugly graffiti from Potočari projected onto her chest, to attack western arrogance towards her compatriots (as well as the half-hearted commitment to protecting them that resulted). Here Kamerić deliberately used the stylistic elements that are traditionally used to make an icon of the female (big dark eyes with a dreamy gaze, ethereal dissolution of the body), to serve as a screen for the projection of male desire, while entangling them with the racist-misogynist projection of the soldier’s joke.
In a similar act of stylisation, in the video “UNTITLED (DAYDREAMING)” (2004) she had herself placed in an immaculate white box in the middle of a white bed, whose softly drawn edges merge into the bright light of the room. She is wearing a dark red, off-the-shoulder evening dress and sits, slides and lies in various poses on the bed, like a princess on a pea. As a background to this setting, which could easily come from an advertising clip for a luxury product, there is pleasant piano music. At the bottom of the picture sentences are displayed that could come from the speech of a western politician:
We have a great mission ahead of us!
We must help those in need.
For too long, they have lived in the midst of hopelessness and fear.
We must offer them a place in our world.
Help them become a part of our value system.
Call on them to build their society according to our model, on the foundations of tolerance and peace!
For the sake of all humanity, things must change.
If they support our goal, we will actively support their efforts.
The developed world will increase humanitarian assistance to relieve their suffering.
Without us, they are helpless.
We must not turn away and allow them to live in the darkness of poverty.
If they energetically take the path of reform, the rewards can come quickly.
The time has come for all parties of this conflict to choose peace, hope and life.
In this great conflict they must decide.
If they are not with us they are against us.
Just as this colonialism is not immediately recognisable as such, veiled as it is in good intentions and practised as it is so often today towards “victims”, “suffering people”, “developing countries” etc, in the same way the attitude of the viewer to what is shown fluctuates. At first both words and image are seen in a positive light, and we think the actor is in harmony with herself and her surroundings, until discontent gradually grows in the white box and the repressive undertone in the words becomes clearer and clearer. Obviously the day-dreamer is unable to identify with the “them” of the political jargon and the beautiful surroundings become more and more like a cell, into which she can flee, it is true, but cannot really protect herself from being defined by others. As previously in “Bosnian Girl”, Kamerić works against current clichés about victims (poor, desperate, submissively seeking help etc.), because they only serve to produce a permanent condition of dependency, so that the “helpers” can extend their position of power. At the same time, however, Kamerić does not pose in the heroic role of an angry member of the Resistance (which is just another cliché, even if it comes from a different political direction). Rather she insists on being permitted to be a dreamer, who is sometimes happy to shut her eyes to reality, who is vulnerable, who is sad, who is homesick for a Sarajevo that is more than merely a synonym for “breaking news” and for a murderous war against civilians.
Translated from German by Nelson Wattie
From: SPIKE art quarterly (Vienna), no. 03, spring 2005, pp. 56-63. Reproduced with the friendly permission of the author and the publisher.