Bringing together female artists of multiple disciplines, Among Women: Contemporary Art from Serbia presents a striking portrait of womanhood in the Balkan nation. Carolina Alamilla attended the exhibition, which was on view at 937 Gallery, and found in its works an examination of space, gender, body, and time.
The range of artworks presented in Among Women: Contemporary Art from Serbia – previously on view at 937 Gallery in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District – share a common awareness of space, body, gender, and time. Through this awareness, a commentary emerges on Serbian womanhood as well as culture and politics more generally – from how we criticize government funding, to how we experience the shifts in political economics, to a criticism of social media and the expectations of the female body, and a criticism over gender and its cultural significance within smaller communities.
Curator Rachel Klipa brought together artists across multiple mediums whose mutual understanding is that of being a woman within various spaces. The viewer can understand the language of femme, but in this exhibit, the artists are speaking the language of the Serbian woman in protest. It is each artist’s personal history that reveals itself within the works and, in doing so, the viewer enters the narrative with greater empathy.
As I walked into 937 Gallery, my instinct and curiosity led me to an embroidered alphabet tapestry; it resembles a kid’s bingo chart, even including the “free” space. I noted the different thicknesses of yarn, color, and design and quickly learned this was a work stitched by many hands. Vahida Ramujkić and Aviv Kruglanski completed Documentary Embroidery Office (DEO) in front of an administration building within the Belgrade suburb Kaludjerica of Serbia. Over a 10 to 15 day period, the activity – or protest – highlighted the lack of community facilities. Through the embroidery process, there was a sharing of stories and a form of togetherness, emphasizing shared values and the desire for a physical community space. The artists created an opportunity for people to engage with one another and create a piece that better represented the neighborhood.
Suspended in the gallery on large acrylic sheets are the images of Pattern Recognition (Deconstruction) I-V. Artist Nina Todorović speaks explicitly on Belgrade’s political-economic shift through psychogeography, documenting cityscape and architectural spaces. The hanging images allow viewers to traverse in and out, mimicking the experiences of the artist, moving through familiar streets and noting the changes of each building, and the slow shift from a socialist to a capitalist economy. The glitches in the photos act as a substitute to where a building once stood. Todorović continues this research on psychogeography in her other work, Architecture of Memory. An arrangement of wall photographs attempting to preserve specific memories and sentimentality. Sharing the tenderness of a childhood home in a particular light or a building one would frequent, it’s the feelings attached to these architectural spaces that reveal themselves within the documentation.
Tijana Radenković is another artist who catalogs change in her series Perfect Time, a collection of images that investigates varying “bodies” – living and nonliving. She specifically looks at these bodies within our consumerist capitalist society. With social media ever-present, there is a desire for immediate gratification and quick fixes to keep ourselves young. The influence of these apps strengthens the rate of consumption and the unlivable standards of beauty to the point that the “natural” is no longer acceptable. Radenković’s framed photographs are inspired by Instagram’s color-filled feed of lush foods and florals; instead, we see an arrangement of moldy fruit, wilted flowers, and rotten vegetables. A curatorial statement observes, “The irony of decay is that it denies capitalism’s ultimate goal, which is consumption; decay requires time and waiting – the rate of present-day consumption does not.” Immediate gratification versus the wait of decay asks us to look and see where we impose unnatural expectations on every type of body.
Most of these artists use themselves to delve into their personal history of womanhood in Serbia. Following the curve of the gallery, the female figure is presented in various iterations. These women have used the body to further feminist ideals, challenge gender norms and share in the physicality of a body.
As I moved into the space, the sound of swishing water beckoned me to come closer, leading me to a glowing video triptych — the same woman is in each panel, shown in a bathtub of water. Artist Anica Vučetić is the figure seen in the videos. In the left panel, she moves quickly, creating waves; in the middle, she seems still; on the right, her body is swaying slowly, back and forth. The middle figure with no hair and no movement appears lifeless. There is something rhythmic, sensual, and sad about this work as it partly confronts the viewer with the central figure’s gaze but also ignores the viewer through the movement of the other two bodies. There is a duality of fight and fate. We question whether the action, or lack of it, represents a shift in the health of the body — the desire to fight or accept particular oppression.
Adjacent to this, and in the same vein of an oppressed body, is On Dry Land 1, 2, and 3 by Maja Simić. Her triptych shows three female bodies, resembling rag dolls, concealed and wrapped tightly; the objects used to cover each body are those that would appear in a woman’s daily life, whether for beauty, duty, or diligence to fulfill a societal role. One body is slathered in beauty products such as cold creams, wax, and face masks. Another is suffocated in plastic bags, as if to represent the constant need for groceries and shopping. The last body is mummified in dish towels, exaggerating the supposed need for a clean household. The prints serve as specimen studies; with their large scale and white background, it’s overpowering yet captivating.
Most of the works critique Yugoslavian culture in an abstract, indirect way. With Bojana S. Knežević, the critique is direct and tied to the historical culture of Serbia, specifically Montenegro, which was once part of Yugoslavia but declared its independence in 2006. This Balkan state is known for its patriarchal values, and the artist comments on its misogynistic practices with a striking self-portrait. It depicts her sitting in a stolovača, a three-legged wooden chair resembling a throne reserved for male heads of household and male visitors. In her hands, she holds a gusle, the national instrument of Montenegro, only played by men. Knežević not only contradicts this presentation of chair and instrument, but she also dresses in a garment that holds a family tree, with its history of patrilineal succession. She fights against the suggested norm of Montenegro traditions and presents herself as a dignified individual, confidently reclining and smirking to the viewer. Accompanying this image is a looped audio track of Knežević misplaying the gusle. With the harsh plucking and screeches of the instrument, she’s able to at once patronize the men who play it and the restrictive culture surrounding it.
The artworks in Among Women enhance one’s awareness of the personal, the public, the virtual, and the real. They primarily use the body to demonstrate the harsh truths of the female experience. Whether in a loud, direct manner or a quieter approach, protest is evident in all the works. As viewers, we have the option to disengage with works that can seem so far away from our own experience, but one must zoom out and see the curator's intention. We realize we are multi-faceted and made up of stories, encounters, and landscapes that dictate our every move. In those personal histories and cultural identities, we relate much more to the artworks found here.
Among Women: Contemporary Art from Serbia was experienced in 937 Gallery in Downtown Pittsburgh. It has recently traveled to the Bronx River Art Center (1087 E. Tremont Ave., Bronx, NY) and will be on view January 21 - February 26, 2022
For more information on artworks please visit https://www.amongwomenserbia.org/ ▲
Carolina Alamilla is an artist, educator, and curator. She resides in Pittsburgh but continually daydreams of her summers in South Florida, filled with mango wet hands and Spanglish storytelling. You can find her online: www.carolinaalamilla.com @littlesoul__