The voice of shuttle revisited
Notes on Sejla Kameric’s exhibition NO MORE DRAMA
“And now the voyage ended, and the vessel
Was worn from travel, and they came stepping down
To their own shores, and Tereus dragged her with him
To the deep woods, to some ramshackle building
Dark in that darkness, and he shut her in there,
Pale, trembling, fearing everything, and asking
“Where was her sister?” And he told her then
What he was going to do, and straightway did it,
Raped her, a virgin all alone, and calling
For her father, for her sister, but most often
For the great gods. In vain. . . .
Philomela, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses*
It was a time before time. A time of gods and goddesses. And there was weaving. Yes, weaving. Weaving was from the beginning, even before the Word. It was the skill of a goddess that wove the sky and the stars, and the universe and life. Because life as we know it, is woven (not begotten of mud and man’s rib). With that almost invisible thread that comes from the belly…
Then there came other gods, with bigger egos. Male gods, female goddesses (but not really, they were surrogate goddesses, more like men’s fantasies of goddesses). They liked to abuse and violate and rape. Their egos big as the universe, they didn’t tolerate that humans (especially women) rebelled and denounced their evil deeds. So, they punished them, and blighted them, and tried to silence them with the fury of their anger, transforming them into speechless beings. And copying from their gods, so did men towards women…
Thus women became spiders, and they became birds. But they were not silenced, they couldn’t be silenced. They kept weaving. Of punishment, of joy. And weaving and life seemed inseparable. They wove to kill, they wove to live, but most of all, they wove to tell, to recover their silenced voice and tell their stories. The stories men didn’t want to be heard…
In the old myth with the theme of Tereus and Philomela, mostly encountered in Ovid’s Metamorphoses but originally a play by Sophocles, Aristotle records the striking phrase – the voice of the shuttle – that refers to the tapestry Philomela wove in order to tell her story of being raped by Tereus. After being raped, she (Philomela) overcomes her training to submission and vows to tell her story to anyone who will listen:
What punishment you will pay me, late or soon!
Now that I have no shame, I will proclaim it.
Given the chance, I will go where people are,
Tell everybody; if you shut me here,
I will move the very woods and rocks to the pity
The air of Heaven will hear, and any god,
If there is any god in heaven, will hear me… *
Scared by the power of her speech in public, Tereus decides to bring his violence upon Philomela to another extreme: he cuts her tongue and locks her away, hoping to have silenced her forever. But indeed she turns to art and through mastering the skill of weaving, tells her story (publicly) to her sister by denouncing her perpetrator and all his horrendous deeds.
But Tereus did not kill her; he seized her tongue
With pincers, though it cried against the outrage,
Babbled and made a sound something like “Father,”
Till the sword cut if off. The mangled root
Quivered, the severed tongue along the ground
Lay quivering, making a little murmur,
Jerking and twitching, the way a serpent does
Run over by a wheel, and with its dying movement
Came to its mistress’ feet. . . .
And a year went by
And what of Philomela? Guarded against flight,
Stone blocks around her cottage, no power of speech
To help her tell her wrongs, her grief has taught her
Sharpness of wit, and cunning comes in trouble.
She had a loom to work with, and with purple
On a white background, wove her story in,
Her story in and out, and when it was finished,
Gave it to one old woman, with signs and gestures
To take it to the queen, so it was taken,
Unrolled and understood. Procne said nothing–
What could she say?–grief choked her utterance,
Passion her sense of outrage. . . . *
Philomela’s story is a beautiful though horrible allegory of one’s inability to testify about traumatic events — in this case, the victim is literally muted after the crisis. Philomela does manage to bear witness though, not by ordinary linguistic means, but via art. The act of weaving thus becomes an act of resistance in itself. And it is here one can find a fine line of semblance between the work of Philomela, the weaver – artist – woman (not the vengeful victim as the myth would want us to see her) and Sejla Kameric’s gigantic knitted crochets and embroidered noose.
It’s appallingly amazing to observe how schemes of male violence upon women’s bodies and techniques of silencing their victims not only survived through the centuries, but are repeated and perpetuated continuously, as if someone wrote a script that should be followed literally, despite the passing of time and the advance of humanity. Men still fight and inflict violence upon each other for dominance over land, cities, and resources. Projecting and transposing their violence over women’s bodies, they use them as surrogate replacement for the object of dominance. War or no war, rape continues to be the most common form of violence against women in every society all over the globe. We’re all witnesses of the horrendous deeds during the war in Bosnia in the 90s, where Serbian soldiers and paramilitaries programmatically not only raped, but also made pregnant innumerous Bosnian women, in an act of double violence on their physical but also political body, and as a means to silence them from witnessing of their crime, by bearing the shame of their semen in their bodies, risking expulsion and eternal condemnation from their own families and society.
Sejla Kameric lived in Sarajevo through all three and a half years of the siege of the city. While in the old myth Philomela has to endure Tereus’ violence upon her body, in real life, Kameric had to experience the killing of her father, the crossing of streets running while watching people fall dead shot by sniper’s bullets, the hearing of the many stories of rape, and many other things that reminded her that the boundaries between life and death had collapsed and ruptures in reality had become the norm. And again, like Philomela who elevated her feminine domestic craft-weaving into art as a means of resistance, from early on Kameric also turned to art as her means of expression and communication with the world, where issues of individual and collective memory, traces of war but also bits and pieces of personal history and remembrance, all mix up. As Dunja Blazevic points out: “Learning about life in the cruelest way and knowing how to transform such experiences into art, is the essence of her (Kameric’s) work”**.
There’s another interesting meeting point between the women artist – Philomela and Sejla. In her text The Voice of the Shuttle is Ours, while analyzing the myth of Philomela and suggesting a new take at it, Patricia Klindienst insists in the importance of “meeting Philomela as individual female before she becomes universal (Woman)” ***. Thus, we would be able to closely pay attention to her story, before generalizing her position. This approach is typical also of Kameric’s work throughout the years: by using the image of her own body or by embodying upon herself collective experiences of (Bosnian) women surviving through the war, she individualizes general issues from a woman’s perspective, while speaking to us from the abstracted and universal position of her as Woman.
We encounter this stance at first in her axiomatic poster series Bosnian Girl, where racist, male chauvinist graffiti, left by Dutch soldiers supposed to be in charge of protecting civilians in Srebrenica, is placed upon a seductive self-portrait of the artist. “No teeth…? A moustache…?, Smell like shit…? Bosnian Girl!”. Through the combination of the misogynist graffiti and the sexualized female image, Kameric alludes to the women’s body as the political body, object and subject of violence, abuse and exchange in our unquestioned sphere of “culture”.
Graffiti is used again in her series of late, Nigel U Go, where decorative doilies are forcefully estranged and elevated into artifacts by the act of framing, while undergoing the violent intervention of the scribbling of names “George”, “Silvio”, “Nicolas”, etc. – all powerful man of our times involved in playing a mad game with the fate of humanity, imitating old gods of the past and their games with the humans.
In yet another work, Sorrow, Kameric re-appropriates and restages Van Gogh’s drawing of the naked body of his companion at the time, Clasina “Sien” M. Hoornik, a former prostitute that he had found pregnant and thoroughly desperate in the street and taken in. By taking Sien’s place, and by replacing Van Goghs unpolished and rough style with a perfect-looking, glossy image of her own naked body, Kameric borrows from advertisement aesthetics and uses again a self-referential stance to redirect us towards historical but also contemporary representations of woman’s body as object of desire.
In her new works, Hooked and Silken Rope, Kameric subverts the cozy delicacy and intimacy of the traditional doily form – they like to take up space but revel in their own insubstantiality. There is no concrete or direct story to be told through images or words. Rather the works function both by analogy and by connotation, while the aesthetic stances adopted by the artist raise issues of gender-specific perspectives with reference to real events. As Philomela uses weaving not to be silenced and testify her story, Kamerić uses the traditional craft of knitting with a twist – she enlarges the size of the doilies to unprecedented extremes. Totally estranged from their familiar decorative function, they are hard to fit even on walls or floors. Oversized in proportions, the crochets not only imitate life forms – gigantic spider webs – but they acquire an uneasy feeling of menace, which is perpetuated and enhanced even further in the embroidery of the gigantic, double-sided noose in Silken Rope, dangling from the high ceiling like a sacred punishment descended from the skies. The beauty of the silken embroidery is overpowered by the fearsome image of the embroidered object. It is not by chance that the embroidered rope ends in a noose on both ends, hinting at an inescapable loose-loose situation, in which we are all observers and participants.
In Hooked and Silken Rope it’s not only similarities but also differences that we can trace between the positions of Kameric and Philomela. In Philomela’s case, Kliendiest draws our attention to the fact that the story has been transmitted (told) to us by a male informant (the poet Ovid), who “is satisfied that it’s the male point of view that constitutes culture” ***. Therefore, depending on the reading one does to it, the myth reveals and conceals at the same time – on one hand side it reveals “how the political hierarchy built upon male sexual dominance requires the violent appropriation of the woman’s power to speak” ***, while at the same time, it tries to conceal this by including Philomela in the chain of perpetuated violence, focusing our attention in the vengeful act that she together with Procne conceive in the end of the tale, by killing Tereus’s son and serving his flesh to him as meal, in an act of revenge for what he did to Philomela.
In Kameric’s case we are already beyond this point. In her works, the voice, the intertext and the imagery are not those of a male informant (poet, artist, etc.) but her own. In the artist’s own words: “Hooked starts as a need to create something that has a purpose. As the net grows purpose becomes an obsession. Being hooked is being liberated and enslaved at the same time.”
Even though both works are born out of her own obsession developed during the years of the siege – a kind of doodling with the thread and the needle – they reflect also a collective obsession, consisting of using knitting as a means to mentally resist and escape the gruesome situation of rapes and killings. Kameric hires other women to realize the works, expanding the circle of real participants not only in the physical act of weaving, but also in the implied act of witnessing. Thus, Hooked and Silken Rope perform a double function: on one hand side they serve to recover the silenced testimony of innumerable stories about men’s cruelty and prejudice towards Bosnian women; on the other hand, the act of knitting is symbolically turned into a means of overcoming the submission and a form of resistance. As much as Philomela’s weaving of her story, Hooked and Silken Rope lead us towards the gender aspects of the piece not by the mere critique of knitting as a traditionally female craft, but rather by referring to the many untold stories of real women sitting behind the needle and the shuttle.
*Philomela, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (trans. Rolfe Humphries, 1955, pp. 146-48). Further citations appear in the text.
**To Be Continued, by Dunja Blazevic; Two Words, ed. La Baconniere
***The Voice of the Shuttle Is Ours by Patricia Klindienst; Rape and Representation, ed. Lyn A.Higgins and Brenda A. Silver (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 35-64. Further citations appear in the text.