In Their Shoes
Not so long ago, trying to describe the nature of one of my stories more closely with a subheading, I faced a dilemma – how to translate into our language the English term re-enactment? I toyed with a couple of literal renditions but was not ultimately happy with the outcome…
The “Brave Women Travel Through Time” project initiated and developed by Aleksandra Jovanić and Čarna Manojlović draws the contemporary observer's attention to the personalities and accomplishments of prominent (yet now essentially forgotten) women from the past of this country. Each of them was the FIRST ONE doing something and each of them crushed a taboo in the process and took away a piece of the space so arrogantly occupied by men.
All these extraordinary women that Aleksandra and Čarna had in mind lived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Naturally, one could go even further back into the past, but the possibilities for women’s visibility were much narrower back then: if they, for instance, belonged to higher circles, they had a chance to marry a ruler or become an ascetic and eventually be proclaimed a saint. Or even both, like Helen of Anjou or Angelina Branković, the two famous foreigners who married into Serbian medieval royal families.
The initial, preliminary list for “Brave Women” by Aleksandra Jovanić and Čarna Manojlović includes a warrior, a philosopher, an architect, a philanthropist and a film director... I am particularly attached to two persons on their list: I attended the school designed by Jelisaveta Načić (at the time the school was called „Braća Ribar“, and the fact that the building was designed by the first woman architect in Serbia was repeatedly pointed out to communist pioneer kids at the time; I also think there was her photo portrait on one of the school walls), and I remember Soja Jovanović as an acquaintance of my parents.
The photographs and the scenery evoke the persons they selected, the atmosphere of their lives and, indeed, their works. The environment was chosen so as to suit by association rather than literally, sometimes it even represented a contrast. We can also treat these as stills from an imaginary biopic.
This string of photographs taken (in accordance with the concept of the authors) by young Serbian photographers is not just a “re-enactment”, in a way it is a “reliving” experience. We might even call this a deeper identification which creates a basis for a more complex artistic work open to a larger number of participants...
We are living through a rather unexpected re-conservatising trend in Europe – women’s rights are more and more contested in the area between the Baltics and the Adriatic and there are threats that some long enjoyed freedoms might be abolished. This is why it is important to direct attention towards the women who had the courage and energy in the times difficult for them to oppose the collective views of the community, the stereotypes and limitations of professional and other opportunities. In this sense, Aleksandra Jovanić and Čarna Manojlović’s project “Brave Women Travel Through Time” is indeed meaningful, powerful and important for the future.
If we were wiser as a society, we would not need specialised curated exhibitions to learn about Soja Jovanović, Maga Magazinović, Milunka Savić or Ksenija Atanasijević – this would already be general knowledge, part of our lives and upbringing. Indeed, these (and all other) brave women, whose lives are so vividly presented in the project designed by Aleksandra Jovanić and Čarna Manojlović, wrote glorious pages of this country’s history and paved the way to those who would follow in their footsteps and leave their own traces in architecture, philosophy, dance, film art, the military, aeronautics, literature, and all other areas which remained closed to women for centuries. The courage that was needed to make these first steps, to break through all these closed doors, is the sort of courage that changes the world.
The authors of the exhibition send a particularly strong and memorable message by taking on the roles of the protagonists of this exhibition, and by time-shifting the photographs. It is at the same time a tribute to these women, many of whom have been unjustly forgotten by the official historiography, but also a message that everyone can take on the role of a pioneer, and open up some new doors to future generations.
Courage is (not) subversive
Only the subversive fantasy can still save us.
Goethe to Eckerman
The multimedia work of Čarna Manojlović and Aleksandra Jovanić is inherently alternative, avant-garde and above all subversive, as a special meta-discourse of courage.
For years now, as part of the courses I teach at art faculties in Belgrade and Podgorica, I have implemented exercises in style under the title “The artist moves into another age” – small case studies: The artist and prominent works; Presenting the artist’s age (the context of creation and popularity); Analysis of (un)changed criteria of interpretation and/or evaluation in a different historical (earlier/ later) context; A critical review, with arguments derived from an aesthetic approach (e.g. Titian in the 21st century; Alfred Hitchcock - Master of Metropolis; The Cabinet of Dr Disney; Méliès today; Agel and Ayfre in psychoanalysis...) – where the most successful outcomes of the research were concrete arguments in favour of unchanged values in a changed historical context.
When brave women – skilfully selected national heroines from different areas of dedicated engagement– travel through time, owing to some new brave women who displace them so aptly into an artistic milieu, at their own responsibility and even taking on their personalities, then one can’t help approaching this with awe.
- I tried to apply Edgar Morin: (A) a consistent cinematic approach: to suggest an atmosphere; also, the photograph contains postulates from the anthropological essay about the picture and the double; (B) “Through scenes from the lives of the arch-models of artists, scientists, peacemakers, warriors and other engaged female personalities we examine the change in the position and influence of women and their identities through the zeitgeist” – beyond Morin’s definition of zeitgeist and in favour of Baudrillard...
- I tried to apply Jean Baudrillard: the entire multimedia feature of the Project is certainly recognized within the theory of simulacra and simulation.
- I tried to apply Roman Ingarden’s value theory, from the standpoint of conventional and “new” genera/types of appreciation criteria.
- I tried to resist the temptation to follow Goddard’s: “I don't invent: I steal,” with respect to the most alluring segment of this endeavour: “With each exhibited photograph, i.e. photo remake - a personal interpretation of the original scene (the portrait)...”
Because: “There is nothing else left for us to do except observe. There is no trace left of any illusions that we can change our lives. We are confronted with the emptiness of the cosmos and with the madness of human beings. We can neither fill that emptiness nor recover human beings. But what we can do is direct our own vibrations and spasms, and occasional enthralled breathing, towards communicating to others, not expecting anything from it, but guided by the fact that we have also received communications and emanations from others, through works of art, thus engaging in a spiritual fraternity, to which we belong without any kind of subscription and payment of a membership fee; it is this fraternity and communication that we are trying to enrich, with our own voices.” Živojin Pavlović
Svetlana Bezdanov Gostimir
There’s no denying it – women’s issues are at the heart of all the issues of modern civilization. The visibility of women, their complete freedom, the efforts to free themselves from the brutal or even concealed slavery, this is the true face of every society. The Serbian society seems to be moving at the speed of a snail and with the courage of a mouse away from that arrogant despotic bigotry described in Bora Stanković’s works. Brave women still struggle, but the effect of their Promethean efforts gets over and over again dampened by parochial haughtiness and cowardice.
Now it is Aleksandra and Čarna’s turn to get onto the battlefield. They are capable of doing much more – e.g. making TV series and films about the heroines of this difficult war for freedom and equality, but in this part of the world grannies mostly comb their hair while the village is burning, so to speak… Therefore, these two Belgrade-based artists somehow managed to offer an alternative space for communication to all of us. They decided to use a very interesting language of the genre of “art directed photography”. These art directed photography artefacts, with the authors involved as performers/actors (which is undoubtedly also a kind of dialogue and flirtation with self-portrait and assuming a new identity) lead to staged scenes which incorporate the professional skills of Čarna and Aleksandra. One is a film director, and the other is an exceptional visual artist, so the scenes carry clear drama elements, beside the illustrative level.
The static figures are petrified in their compositions as if cynically censuring the society which does not want to or isn’t capable of creating feature films involving the same characters with the same costumes and scenography. Indeed, some societies have already celebrated their heroines both in black and white, colour and 3D techniques, and now, almost out of boredom, they invent the fictitious “games of thrones” thus influencing the society's trends and cementing the attained freedoms.
Meanwhile, here among the descendants of Bora’s Sofka and Koštana, our two heroines with their almost altruistic concept (which in capitalism equals courage) raise monuments to the unknown and insufficiently known heroines and thus correct the forms of socially acceptable thinking and behaviour.
By the way, thank you Čarna, thank you Aleksandra, also for being so humorous, amusing and visually playful while doing this important and socially responsible job.
“Mad or tame? Photography can be one or the other: tame if its realism remains relative, tempered by aesthetic or empirical habits; mad if this realism is absolute and, so to speak, original, obliging the loving and terrified consciousness to return to the very letter of Time: a strictly revulsive movement which reverses the course of the thing, and which I shall call, in conclusion, the photographic ecstasy.
Such are the two ways of the Photograph. The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality.”
Camera Lucida – Reflections on Photography
Čarna and Aleksandra have joined Anka, Milica, Dragica, Kasija, Nadežda, Mina, Eustahija, Zora, Mara, Katarina, Milunka, Maga, Danica, Jelena, Jelisaveta, Ksenija, Savka, Anica and Soja in an unstoppable travel through time. The time captured on these remarkable photographic records is precise yet extensible, modern yet nostalgic, utopian as much as dystopian, gentle and destructive at the same time. Because the time of all these women, even Čarna and Aleksandra, always depends on the courage to step out of it - sometimes back into the past and sometimes anticipating the distant future. Thus, these eyes, Aleksandra and Čarna’s, take us from this seemingly two-dimensional reality into the 19th century, then to the very beginning of the 20th century, to hospitals, libraries, forests, ateliers, airplanes, cinemas and classrooms, to scenes of enormous struggle for gender, personal and political emancipation, perhaps unthinkable to modern people. On their faces we can see all the pains of uncompromising actions in various segments of life, all the obstacles these women had to overcome, chiefly in order to warn us of the importance of their struggle and what would have become of us today if they had not engaged in those struggles. Also, to make us aware of the fact that the struggle still goes on and that it will probably last forever. This seemingly paused time on the photo document, absorbing past and present events, gives us an opportunity to stop for a moment in this over-accelerated pace of living. To stop and think. To remind ourselves and perhaps envisage a new reality which may seem, from this perspective, impossible and far-fetched, but for which these brave women once had the strength. Therefore, the "masking" and assuming another identity, which occurs in these photographs, is indeed at the same time the stripping of the authors themselves, Čarna and Aleksandra, who carry in themselves indestructible archetypal images. Thus, these seemingly frozen records in front of which we sometimes stand forever, and sometimes less than a minute - because we have no patience – they become stories insomuch as we really want to tell them. And our two heroines from the present, Aleksandra and Čarna, they beckon us, with their eyes, movements and attitudes, to join them in some future events after their adventures in the past, events which might change the world the way these brave women once changed it.