Bojana Pejić: I Tell My Students Not to Believe Me

(Born in 1948 in Belgrade)

Bojana Pejić is an art historian and curator who has lived in Berlin since 1991. Her focus is contemporary art. She has curated the exhibitions After the Wall – Art and Culture in Post-Communist Europe, Artist-Citizen, and Gender Check: Femininity and Masculinity in the Art of Eastern Europe, among many others.

Q: How did you see the world around you as a child?
A: I was born in 1948 in Belgrade, and I always felt like a Yugoslav, but because of the conflict between Serbia and the rest of Yugoslavia in the 1990s I have to call myself a Serb; that’s what’s written in my passport. I was a star pupil at school, and I always loved reading. We were a literary family, we were all avid readers. No-one in our family was a Communist, so there were no conflicts in opinion. My father was a lawyer and my mother worked in the accounting department of a firm specializing in import-export. Religion didn’t play a role in our family. We were a small bourgeois family in a sea of Communism.
I loved books, but I hated math, physics, and so on. Languages and art history were always subjects I really enjoyed. I went to an experimental school where we had two foreign languages instead of one. In contrast to other countries, Socialist Yugoslavia was calm thanks to the fact that Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, but despite the conflict, Yugoslav communists did not perceive the Soviets as enemies. In fact, the Red Army helped Yugoslav partisans liberate the northern part of the country in WW II. Like the rest of my generation, though, I still spent most of life in fear that one day the Soviets would return, particularly after 1968 and the events in Prague.
Later, because of my good performance in high school and because I had chaired a number of clubs, I was invited to become a member of the Communist Party. Of course that caused a big crash in my family. My mother was especially against it, but my father took a more pragmatic view. He said to me: “I think joining the party is the right move, because it will help your career.” It was the first time in my life that I had to make a decision that had something to do with society.
Q: How did you decide?
A: I joined the party. I was in my last year of high school, in 1967. After that I decided to study law, to continue the family tradition. I wanted to become a journalist, but there wasn’t anywhere to study journalism. Anyway, then came 1968 and that brought big changes for Yugoslavia. I am ashamed to admit that even as a member of the Communist Party I had no awareness of politics. My grandfather had gone to prison for his undesirable political beliefs, so we didn’t really discuss politics or current events at home. I didn’t understand the ‘68 demonstrations when they were happening. It was only the next year, after I had finished my first year of law school, that they made sense to me. The students had taken to the streets and had gone on hunger strike.
In 1968, the difference between Yugoslavia and, for example, France or Germany, was that the Yugoslav students weren’t seeking to under-mine the foundations of society. They were protesting the status of students in a socialist country and against the “Red Bourgeoisie” –
the Communists who had gotten wealthy, had privileges, and who could travel. They wanted a return to the earlier, more critical Marx, if not to Marxism-Leninism.
Q: Do you have any interesting recollections of that time?
A: In ‘68 a lot of rock concerts were held, and people took a lot of drugs. We used to quote this one artist who said: “The idols of our generation were Levi Strauss and Levi-Strauss” (i.e., blue jeans). There’s a story from ‘68 about a student who had put a photo of Tito, Lenin, and Marx on the facade of the Academy of Art in Belgrade and there was a joke that when reporting the event, a policeman announced: “Students have hung a picture on the academy facade of comrade Lenin, comrade Tito, and some unidentifiable hippie.” That’s the type of thing I remember from that time. I’m sure that every socialist society has its own similar absurd events and stories. I reject the idea that power in socialism totally corresponded to the pyramid structure with the president at the top, below him the party and it’s members, and at the very bottom the microscopic grains representing the lower classes of society.
Another interesting thing was the fight against abstract art and modernism in Yugoslavia. We didn’t have any anti-western propaganda like they did in East Germany, Albania, or Romania. In the late fifties, the official ideologically sanctioned art was abstraction, not socialist realism. That was one difference between us and other socialist states. In art magazines from 1951–1953, abstraction wasn’t censored by the party. A lot of influential intellectuals and modernists contributed to those publications, many of whom had been major surrealist writers and poets in the thirties and forties. When the Communists came to power, they made these writers and poets ambassadors of Yugoslavia, tasked with representing the country. Censorship didn’t occur thanks to a certain solidarity, and a conviction about the role of art in society – that it shouldn’t be interfered with or controlled, especially with regard to surrealism.
Q: How did you actually wind up studying art history, after having been law student?
A: I took all the exams at the law faculty, but very grudgingly. Moving to another school was the first act of revolt in my life. It was a scandal because the women in family didn’t want me to change universities, as losing a year of school wasn’t normal. But my father was on my side. I knew that I wanted to study the art of the 20th century. In the seventies there were still some art history professors who didn’t consider contemporary art worthy of study because they were obsessed with medieval art, Serbian frescoes, Michelangelo, and the Baroque. There was one professor of modern art, though, who the majority of us had enrolled to study with. He may have had no teaching method to speak of, but he did have a zeal for the subject, and he encouraged us to read theory. He was always saying: “When you see good art, it leaves you speechless.” When he died in the seventies, they wanted to close the department of modern art because they were still convinced that a painting made in 1965 couldn’t possibly be an important work.
In 1971 I then started working for the Student’s Cultural Center in Belgrade. Students had the building at their disposal, which was financially supported by the city and, in the case of bigger projects, by the Serbian government. There were music, film, art, and theater programs, and the foundations for conceptual art were laid there. The Center (SKC), which performed the function of an institute of contemporary art, was for me a parallel to what we had studied at university.
For my dissertation I have read almost all that was written about the fight for abstract art in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was a conflict between the “Realists” or rather Socialist Realists and the “Modernists”. Those in the first category, argued: “Art that has nothing to do with politics or ideology is effectively castrated.” The modernists, on the other hand, like critic and abstract artist Protić, the first director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, which had opened in 1965, expressed themselves using the up-to-date phrases: “Art struggle is always against the object, meaning against realistic representation”, and: “Art should be innocent regarding society.” It shouldn’t touch what Greenberg calls “first hand reality.”
When I read this opinion some ten years ago, I have realized in what way the gender issue was involved in these debates held back in the 1960s. I only realized this when I had more knowledge of feminist literature.
I’d also like to comment on feminist curating. The young Croatian art historian who was involved in the Gender Check research team, Ivana Bago, once said: “Whenever I put together an exhibition, I have a certain feminist awareness that I can’t avoid. Feminist exhibitions don’t come into being only when you put together female artists and queer themes.”
In the 1970s, in the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade, we had a rather advanced international program, particularly in April, when we had April Meetings – Expanded media festival (1972-1977). Thus I met Gina Pane in 1972, Joseph Beuys in 1974, along with Art and Language and German feminist artists like Ulrike Rosenbach and Katharina Sieverding. They wanted to know what life was like in a Communist country, and they were amazed to see that we all had jeans – after all, we weren’t supposed to look like “them.” In Yugoslavia we had already started creating a consumer culture in the 60s. We lived well; people had work, and for me it was unbelievably important to be able to travel. I always say that I don’t have a clean record – I was paid by the university, so in fact I worked for the state, and therefore for the government. The pay was never amazing, but I was able to travel, and that allowed me to get my hands on foreign literature, which I needed. I haven’t missed a Venice Biennial since 1972, nor any exhibition in the Centre Pompidou since it was opened, or documenta. When I talk about traveling, I mean traveling alone, not in a group. Many eastern countries made travel possible, but only in big, organized group trips. When I was preparing for my exams, I was able to take a bus to Italy by myself.
Q: Did that freedom also concern the export of Yugoslav art?
A: We were very Yugocentric, as I like to call it. We thought we were the center of the world, because we had important foreign politics – Tito, Nasser, and president Nehru from India founded the Non-Aligned Movement in Belgrade in 1961. The aim was to help third world countries, and Tito always thought that he would get the Nobel Prize for peace, but he never did. We had a lot of contacts with Africa, India, and other developing parts of the world. Our opinion really was that we were the center of the world – after all, we were modern, we had modern socialism, and modern art. There was even a commission formed to oversee what would Yugoslavia export as its cultural policy. During that time we sent abstract Yugoslav art all over the world – to America, Canada, France, Germany. The fantastic realist painter Mujezinović, who believed that art had a social function, and whom I included in the exhibition Gender Check, asked in 1963 why we were always sending abstract art abroad, and never figurative art. The respective apparatchik answered that figurative art could only be sent to “underdeveloped countries.”
This is an example of the aforementioned Yugocentrism. We thought that the only people who could understand figurative work were those in Africa or Asia. Today such an opinion would almost be a crime.
Q: Could you tell us if there was a particular moment in your life, which sparked your interest in gender and questions thereof in visual art? Where does your focus on this theme come from?
A: It was precisely my experience at the Cultural Center that made that happen. Working with my best friend Žarana Papić, who was a feminist, a sociologist, and an anthropologist, as well as with the director of the SKC Dunja Blažević, was the key experience. Dunja is now the director of the Center of Contemporary art in Sarajevo (former Soros’ SCCA). Those two women organized in SKC an international feminist conference “Drug-ca Žena – žensko pitanje, novi pristup?” (Comrade Woman – Women’s Question, A New Approach?) in Belgrade in 1978, at which they discussed women’s equality. It was during that time I started to be more active. I should also mention that in 1975 many western feminist artists came to visit the Center, as did the art historian Gislind Nabakowski.
I was always interested in art made by women, but I was never a real feminist. I wrote about female artists, but I didn’t have feminist convictions. I would never call my writing from that time feminist. What made me a feminist were the wars in Yugoslavia, as the only public opposition to the wars came from feminists in Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia. During the wars in the 1990s, the famous art group Women in Black, which still exists today, was also active in Belgrade at that time. They would gather in front of the Center every Wednesday, dressed in black, and they would stand there for an hour.
One can distinguish between feminism as activism and feminism as theory. What got me interested in feminist art theory in the seventies was the Croatian artist, performer, and feminist Sanja Iveković. She and her husband were the first artists to focus on video art in Croatia. They refused their academic knowledge of painting or sculpture, so in the seventies they started making objects and post-object art, and Sanja also did performances. At that time no one saw her art as feminist. The discourse was about new art in the form of video, performance, artist’s publications, recordings, and films. In other words, the focus was on non-traditional media.
In the East, though, these new forms weren’t seen as art by critics, so this “new art” was marginalized, even in my own generation. I didn’t write enough in the seventies, but I was there when things happened. I used to help the artists clean up after their performances, and I learned from that. The important thing was to show that even just one performance could be art. The Gallery (today Museum) of Contemporary Art in Zagreb played an important role in that process, as is it was the one place in the country where Yugoslav art and foreign art was presented together. A colleague at that time once said to Sanja: “I can’t propagate feminist art, because we are fighting for art in general, and that fight can only go on without regard to gender. We are fighting for all artists, whether they are male or female, to be recognized as real artists.” It was important to prove that what you were looking at was art. It may not be Michelangelo or Pollock, but it would still be a piece of art.
Whenever I wrote about Marina Abramović or Sanja Iveković, I always thought: “What more can I say?” Of course, there was always a new piece to talk about, but people change, even you do. The more you read about and get to know the work of other artists, the more ways you have of looking at art. The interviews we conducted with interesting people who came to visit Belgrade were beneficial for us, and we published them in a quarterly periodical called Moment. In the eighties, I interviewed Donald Kuspit, an American with a Ph.D. in philosophy and art history, who had absolutely no sense of humor. I always had a little trouble with people like that. I asked him if there was any privilege associated with the evaluation of art, whether philosophers or art historians had more legitimacy. He answered beautifully by saying: “You know, when it comes to piece of art, it’s sort of like with Schwarzenegger: it all depends how much weight the theory can carry.” It doesn’t matter if it’s about Lacan’s theories or about socialist realism.
Whenever I have an opportunity to teach, I tell me students not to believe me. The history of art is not a science of truth, it’s a science in which we are always trying to uncover something, but we always end up uncovering it differently. For example, I see video art in a completely different way than anyone else. If someone had told me when I was young that there were many ways of interpreting artistic works, it would have really helped me. Knowing that, helps you to develop your own methods. Mine is definitely eclectic; I take a quote from here and a quote from there, and from that I make a whole. It’s not about truth, it’s about reading, understanding, and testing. For me understanding the aim of the artist has always been of prime importance. That is to say, it can be, but if we are concerned with visual theory, then we read the art itself, not the aim of the artist necessarily.
Q: You currently live in Germany, and I’m curious to know how you found yourself there.
A: I moved to Berlin in January 1991 as art critic, at that time I was reporting for Artforum, where I’ve published a number of feature articles in the late 1980s. Then, with the “Communist iconoclasms” that hit our region in the 1990s, I started to be interested in monuments. By that time a lot of statues of Marx and Lenin had already disappeared. Also, a lot of public works were destroyed in the wars in Yugoslavia, as is always the case in war. So I started studying statues, sculptures, and monuments built in socialist Yugoslavia from 1945 onwards. I realized that a lot of them represented partisans, men, figurative motifs, battles, and so on. It was obvious that they didn’t know how to deal with the countless numbers of unknown fallen women. In university we had art courses that only examined allegories used in the Baroque period and the nineteenth century. I was therefore unable to understand and explain the female allegories used in those newer monuments. Reading the German book Versteinerte Weiblichkeit (Petrified Femininity) by German feminist art historian, Silke Wenk, helped, though. That book discusses public sculpture focusing on female allegories. Unfortunately it has never been translated into English and isn’t known by the wider public, which is a shame. In particular there is an emphasis placed on the feminist discourse in art, because, in contrast to Yugoslavia, German society was more open to the theme of feminism in general, and therefore a lot more was published on that subject. The way that German feminist (art) historians observe the period of Nazism and the Holocaust is so interesting to me. The analyses of that time as their critique of nationalism that have been done from a feminist perspective completely surprised me.
Towards the end of the eighties I started to notice just how much people in Serbia and Croatia promoted nationalism. Like a lot of people of my generation, I couldn’t believe that that phenomenon would ever lead to war. In 1991 I went to Berlin, because I had unluckily fallen in love with a German. My feelings compelled me to move to Germany, and the war started after my sixth month there. I ended up staying in Berlin, though only after a long period of wondering whether or not I should go back
to Serbia. I finally realized that moving back wouldn’t make any sense.
Q: Do you have the impression that some eastern European artists presented their work made after the fall of the Wall in a way that seemed to show that they didn’t want to be seen as from the East?
A: When I put the After the Wall exhibition together, I had problems with artists from East Germany, because they didn’t want to be shown in that context again. They didn’t even consider themselves as inhabitants of Eastern Europe. In their view, though they were from a socialist country, they weren’t from Eastern Europe, and not even from Central Europe. They were worried that I’d want them to make something socialist-realist, so I told them just to do what they were already doing, whatever they were working on.
There were ten artists from the former East Germany that I asked to take part in that exhibition. They made their work and were happy when they saw the exhibition, because they understood the context. On the other hand I had to fight for three months to get Zofia Kulik to participate. I don’t know if you know her masterpiece From Siberia to Cyberia. She photographed the television screen during her life. It’s like a diary. She took black and white pictures of whatever was on television, whether it was a parade or a documentary film. It seemed like notes from the Socialist period from Siberia. She kept going with the series until the nineties, so it ends with the beginning of cyberspace. The final installation was over 60 meters long, and as the photos were 60 x 60 cm, all together it was like one big mosaic. Anyway, Zofia did not answer my emails. That was in the beginning when she didn’t know any details. Anyway, after I had written her many times, she finally answered by saying: “Bojana, I don’t want to take part in this Eastern-European exhibition, because I think it’s time we all had solo exhibitions in Western museums.” Of course, she was right. Nowadays there are a lot more such exhibitions in the West, but not enough, if you ask me.
After that I was invited to Warsaw by Anda Rottenberg to the A.I.C.A. (the International Association of Art Critics) conference in Warsaw. She asked me to present the concept of After the Wall, even though it had yet to open. There were representatives from Japan present there, as well as others from A.I.C.A. I got back in touch with Zofia and asked her to at least come and see the talk about the show before she decided whether or not to participate. Because Zofia did end up coming, while I was presenting I didn’t concentrate on any of my colleagues besides her. I was only speaking to her, to convince her to take part. After the talk, she came to me and said: “Bojana, I understand your concept, and I’ll join in.”
You know, if you are a successful curator, all shows have something to do with violence. You have your own structure, which you build on your knowledge, thoughts, and convictions. After having chosen the works for After the Wall, I spent three days in Stockholm with David Elliot and other colleagues from Moderna Museet discussing what we would actually present in the show. It had to be structured somehow, but that structure hadn’t been predetermined – I had to think it up after I had gotten the works from the artists. I laid out photos of all the pieces on the floor of the Moderna Museet library, and only then could I start putting the exhibition together. OK, this can go here, this is one section. During that process a section that dealt with gender began to form, which we didn’t have at the beginning. I put work that was about femininity and masculinity on the floor, and when I saw portraits of men and women next to each other, I realized that the masculine and the feminine were still themes present in art.
Q: Do you see any difference between art made by women of the East and West in the sixties and seventies?
A: Do you know the work by Sanja Iveković called Double Life? It is made up of large photographs, along the sides of which are ads from fashion magazines, which were available in Yugoslavia. She combined photos from her youth, in which she is pictured as a ballerina, with ads for tampons and so on. Around 1978, the American artist Martha Rosler did a similar deconstruction of advertisements, but you wouldn’t expect someone in a socialist country to do the same. There are a lot of books by art historians about consumer culture in Eastern Europe. For example, the text by Martina Pachmanová about Běla Kolářová, who also used elements from advertising in her collages.
Another funny example occurs to me, something that Piotr Piotrowski analyzed; you know that piece with the banana by Natalie LL? That was the first time that an artist from Eastern Europe was on the cover of Flash Art, and that was sometime in the seventies. Natalie did three different versions – one with a banana, one with a hot dog, one with an ice cream. In the West that piece was interpreted as a criticism of consumerism and pornography. By contrast, in Poland it was understood differently, because there they use the phrase “banana generation” for the privileged children of the Communist bourgeois who were able buy bananas at a time when that was something truly extraordinary.
So in Poland that work wasn’t seen as a criticism, but rather as a wish. I recommend reading Piotr Piotrowski’s book In the Shadow of Yalta, in which there are many more such examples from art and culture in Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1989. The book is about how and why modernism was accepted in different Eastern countries. You should also get the catalog to the exhibition The Promises of the Past, which was in Centre Pompidou in June 2010. That’s something for those who are interested in the East.