Art and Feminism Unifying Yugoslavia

From Art Journal 81, no. 4 (Winter 2022)

Marko Ilić. A Slow Burning Fire: The Rise of the New Art Practice in Yugoslavia. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2021. 384 pp.; 55 color ills., 75 b/w ills. $39.95

Jasmina Tumbas. “I am Jugoslovenka!”: Feminist Performance Politics during and after Yugoslav Socialism. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2022. 344 pp.; 125 color ills., $125.00

Within the span of just over a year, the field of Eastern European art history has benefited from the publication of two very important studies about the development of contemporary and experimental art practices in Yugoslavia: A Slow Burning Fire: The Rise of the New Art Practice in Yugoslavia by Marko Ilić, currently a lecturer in art history at the University of York; and “I am Jugoslovenka!”: Feminist Performance Politics during and after Yugoslav Socialism by Jasmina Tumbas, associate professor of contemporary art history and performance studies in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University at Buffalo. Both scholars are uniquely positioned to examine this area, having conducted archival and primary-source research in the countries in question, often involving interviews with the artists themselves. Tumbas also provides the reader the context of her own family background with a working-class Yugoslav mother and grandmother, neither of whom identified with feminism but taught her “more about emancipatory resistance than much of [her] higher education, or many of the feminist text[s]” she has read since then (13). It is this combination of the archival and the personal, which cannot be overlooked when discussing feminist art practices, that makes Tumbas’s such a rich study.

A Slow Burning Fire is a long-overdue examination of the alternative art scene in Yugoslavia, conducted by focusing on activity in the Student Cultural Centers that were established across the country in Zagreb, Belgrade, Novi Sad, and Ljubljana, as well as other independent and informal groups of artists. Ilić examines what happened in Yugoslavia from the perspective of today’s political and economic situation on a global scale, with its widening gap between rich and poor, lack of social cohesion, and rise of far-right leaders and parties. He juxtaposes that macrosituation with the microcosm of Yugoslavia and its economic decline, descent into war, and eventual dissolution, hoping that an analysis of what happened there might have “important lessons” for us (1). At the outset, he argues that “four decades of Yugoslav socialism were far from a unilateral failure, and that mastering a balance sheet of its gains and losses is key to our understanding of global political and economic transformations in the second half of the twentieth century” (1). For Ilić, the recent rise to power of right-wing leaders globally “reveals that Yugoslavia may in fact have been an early warning sign of how political orders collapse under the international pressures of economic liberalization and austerity measures” (295). More importantly, however, “what Yugoslavia, in turn, tells us about the conflicts that are currently brewing globally is how the symptoms of this collapse very often first surface on a cultural level” (295). He probes these symptoms by focusing on the New Art Practice—a term used to describe a range of experimental artistic practices that emerged in the country in the 1970s.

While Ilić focuses on the social and political transformations occurring in the realm of politics and art in Yugoslavia, Tumbas fine-tunes her focus to examine these changes through the lens of feminism or, more specifically, the figure of “Jugoslovenka.” She conceptualizes feminist performance politics within the figure of Jugoslovenka in order to bridge temporalities tied to various stages and terminologies in the history of women’s resistance in Yugoslavia, but her text demonstrates that it does even more—that it can also act as a bridge to other locales. This is no more evident than in the current context of the spring of 2022, when one can observe numerous parallels between the experiences of women during the ongoing war in Ukraine and those of their counterparts in Yugoslavia in the wars of the 1990s. In her book, Tumbas uses the idea of Jugoslovenka “as a way to speak about womanhood as an embodied subject under a set of varying political conditions and times rather than as a present political idea of gender” (23). She demonstrates the complexities of feminism in a socialist and presumably egalitarian country, and the various strategies that women artists used to navigate that multifaceted terrain.

Both books consider similar artists, art centers, and artworks that were crucial to the development of contemporary art practices in Yugoslavia. However, while Ilić focuses on the 1970s and 1980s, the key period of experimental activity of the New Art Practice, Tumbas extends her study back to the partisan era of World War II and forward to the present day to consider a range of experiences of women and feminism at significant moments in the history of the country.

This overlap between the two texts is instructive, as it captures the key differences in scope between them, as we see from the different ways in which the authors analyze certain artworks and exhibitions. For example, both authors begin their texts with a discussion of Želimir Koščević’s 1969 exhibition at the Students’ Center (SC) Gallery in Zagreb, Exhibition of Women and Men. Simply put, this was an exhibition of “nothing” but the empty space of the gallery, wherein the curator demanded that the women and men in attendance “be the exhibition itself” (Tumbas, 26): “at this show you are the creation, you are the figuration, you are the socialistic [sic] realism” (27). These statements appeared in the SC Gallery Newspaper that was distributed at the entrance of the exhibition, and Ilić notes one attack in that text against images of nudity “imported from rotten capitalism” (38), which he interprets as an indication that the exhibition may have been more than just a conceptual experiment or “gesture of dematerialization,” but in fact “an expression of concern over Yugoslavia’s supposed neutrality, at a moment when its political and economic independence from the two dominant power blocs was becoming increasingly jeopardized” (38). This exhibition occurred at a time when Yugoslavia’s nonalignment was becoming an economic burden on the country, and outside market forces would soon come to play an increasingly greater role in the country’s future.

Tumbas persuades us to read the show as “one of the first exhibitions probing gender in the region” (26), although she acknowledges that Koščević was “not motivated by gender” in his planning. After all, at the end of the day, what makes a people’s republic but its people, and the exhibition in its title clearly references what he perceived as one of the main defining features of the identity of those people. For Tumbas, “it could be said that [the exhibition] invited participants to treat binary gender and its modes of lived embodiment as a social construction or ‘art’” (32). Moreover, the title of the exhibition “invokes the implicit performance of gender” (32). In line with the egalitarian aims of socialist Yugoslavia (regardless of whether they were achieved), Tumbas notes how the “Exhibition of Women and Men signaled that art as idea could be indiscriminate and did not have to favour male over female” (33). Of course, the way this played out in reality was quite different, and that is part of the story that Tumbas tells in her book.

Given Ilić’s focus on socioeconomic inequality across the region, it seems a missed opportunity not to have included at least some discussion of gender in his analysis. This is particularly important because, as Tumbas highlights, “Yugoslav socialism not only owed it inception to women, but the country and its unity depended on women’s leadership to persist,” further suggesting that perhaps “the country should have looked to women for emancipatory politics and not the male-centered patriarchal nationalism so pervasive and destructive in the 1980s” (33), which eventually led to war. Likewise, a consideration of class alongside gender and race might have enhanced Tumbas’s study of a range of women artists from both privileged and marginalized circumstances, especially since some of the key figures in Yugoslav experimental art came from privileged backgrounds, for example, Marina Abramovic, the daughter of two prominent partisans, and curator Dunja Blažević, whose father was the minister of culture in Croatia.

Both authors uncover much previously understudied material that will be new even to scholars of the art of this region. Perhaps the most illuminating chapter in Ilić’s book is its last, as it discusses the lesser-known art from a republic of Yugoslavia whose artistic contributions have perhaps been overshadowed by its more affluent neighbors, Croatia and Serbia, as well as by Slovenia, which benefited from greater investment in not just art but infrastructure. Little of significance has been written previously about the history of contemporary art in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in fact I was surprised to read that the first piece of performance art took place in the country in 1972. Until the 1980s, the culture of Sarajevo, its capital, “was associated with Bosnia’s social and economic inferiority” (Ilić, 253) because of a more market-based approach to economic growth in places like Slovenia, and one focused on industry and the development of raw materials in places like Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro. And while this chapter on Bosnia and Herzegovina was a welcome one alongside those covering the better-known art scenes of Ljubljana, Belgrade, and Zagreb, I would like to have read a bit more about the art in those other smaller republics.

As Ilić reminds us, Sarajevo did not have its own academy of fine art until 1972, a circumstance that also hampered the development of an alternative art scene. He provides a thoughtful discussion of the emergence of Zvono, an informal group of young artists who congregated around the Café-Gallery Zvono, which was situated midway between the art academy and the Skenderija Cultural and Sports Center, and functioned as a meeting place for youth. Artists associated with Zvono engaged in street and public performances, public exhibitions, and happenings, finding their own way within the confines of an otherwise-restrictive cultural space.

Ilić notes how Zvono, along with the work by performance and installation artist Jusuf Hadžifejzović, “paved the way” for two of the most significant exhibitions of contemporary art in Yugoslavia: Jugoslovenska dokumenta (Yugoslav documents), which took place in 1987 and 1989, and whose aims were to show “the country’s progressive trends in contemporary art” (Ilić, 282). Dokumenta was the largest exhibition of contemporary art in Yugoslavia to date, and its aims were “to give artists the opportunity to compare their works with the works of their neighbors. It sought to establish artistic cooperation among its participants, along with alternative models of cultural exchange,” and it also “attempted to offer Yugoslav artists broader visibility within the global art scene” (283). Like much of the artistic activity that Ilić discusses in his book, these grassroots initiatives not only had a great impact across the region but furthered the unifying and cooperative aims of Yugoslavia—perhaps more so than did its government.

One artistic group that has had no shortage of visibility is the Slovenian-based NSK (Neue Slowenische Kunst). In chapter 4 of her book, Tumbas provides a long-overdue feminist reading of the group and its activities, demonstrating how the alternative art scenes in Eastern Europe were just as misogynistic as the official structures, often leaving no place for women. In particular, she notes that one member of NSK stated quite plainly, “we were simply not aware that we excluded women” (201). This pattern was repeated throughout East-Central Europe, with underground, dissident, or alternative groups being given a pass for not addressing gender because, at the end of the day, they were struggling for human rights and freedom of expression. Many artists in the region, as Tumbas demonstrates, were fully committed to the socialist project—but only certain parts of it. As feminist philosopher Kate Manne and others have noted, it is unsurprising that individuals resist the dismantling of the structures that have given them their positions in life, including the patriarchy.1 And it is important to note how very bold it was for Tumbas to put forward such an analysis, given that many of the artists she writes about are still living, well established, and well respected—including by the author herself. But one hopes that those reading this thoughtful and sensitive constructive criticism will reflect on that analysis if they truly are dedicated to socialism and egalitarianism. Tumbas’s text exposes that what was actually needed was a different kind of socialism, a better socialism, one that was more inclusive and intersectional, like the feminism that she practices in her book.

While both texts provide an illuminating and in-depth look at experimental art practices in Yugoslavia, only Tumbas’s book provides the type of diverse and expansive examination the field of art history has recently come to expect, one that includes a discussion of a range of individuals from diverse backgrounds, including the contributions not just of women artists but also Roma and queer women. In fact, an entire chapter of her book is dedicated to the “Queer Jugoslovenka,” which covers work by Marina Gržinić, the alternative magazine VIKS, and the paintings of Helena Janečić, who, facing a complete lack of visual imagery of lesbian life, created her own idyllic scenes. The significance of this chapter cannot be overstated, as it brings to the fore these key yet hitherto-marginalized pieces of queer visual culture in Yugoslavia. As Tumbas argues, “it is important to establish new histories of socialism that do not brush over these significant developments: advancements for gays and lesbians that did not arise despite socialism. Rather, socialism’s complicated gender politics and general egalitarianism permitted their rise, and it was a male-centered and heteronormative political culture that dampened this progress” (170–71). In this sense, while both books contemplate the economic and political journey of Yugoslavia, a reader would benefit from consuming them in tandem for a wider view.

In his conclusion, Ilić mentions that, after Yugoslavia’s disintegration, academics tried to understand why there was never a strong sense of Yugoslav identity. His view is that “arguably, there was never a strong identification with ‘Yugoslavism’ because ruling communist elites and, more importantly, leading intellectuals never had enough cultural and political imagination to envision such a construct” (296). For him the New Art Practice was such a cohesive force because it was separate from state and cultural policies, and its proponents “did not appear as representatives of their respective nations and republics; they were either individuals or self-organized collectives” (296). Tumbas draws a similar conclusion, using the Jugoslovenka as a unifying figure that brings together a range of emancipatory feminist performance practices from the beginning of Yugoslavia through to and even after its end. Perhaps, as the authors suggest, the unifying identity of Yugoslavia lays in its art and in its feminists.

Amy Bryzgel is a teaching professor in the Department of Art and Design at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design. Previously, she was personal chair in film and visual culture at the University of Aberdeen, where she worked from 2009 to 2013. She is the author of Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland since 1960 (I. B. Tauris, 2012); Miervaldis Polis (Neputns, 2015); and Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 (Manchester University Press, 2017).

  1. Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press), 2017.