Šejla Kamerić discusses the status of art and women in the Balkans as well as her controversial piece “Bosnian Girl.” Inspired by the graffiti printed on the walls of the army barracks of Potočari, the piece takes on a renewed significance as 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.
If you type the words “Bosnian Girl” into Google Image Search, one result will stand apart from the rest. This image, the best-known work of Bosnian artist Šejla Kamerić, shows a woman staring defiantly at the camera in stark black and white. The text overlaid on top of the image reads “NO TEETH…? A MUSTACHE…? SMEL [sic] LIKE SHIT…? BOSNIAN GIRL!”
The woman in the image is the artist herself, and the text was written, as the fine print at the bottom of the image notes, “by an unknown Dutch soldier on the wall of the army barracks in Potočari, Srebrenica 1994/95.”
A striking indictment of the failures of the international community during the Srebrenica massacre, this image deftly blurs the lines between subject and object and forces the viewer to think critically about what victimhood looks like in the context of war.
On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre, Seila Rizvic spoke with Kamerić about her piece “Bosnian Girl,” the impact this piece had when it was first released, and the status of women and art in Bosnia today.
Can you tell us a bit about how and why you started making art? What motivated you to express yourself in this way?
From early childhood I knew I wanted to be an artist. I was not very good at socializing with other kids, I was not interested in typical children’s games. I guess I was too sensitive and probably too emotional, so I preferred spending time on my own: drawing, painting, making different objects. I did not talk much until my early teenage years so basically art was a way of communication for me then and, in a way, it still is.
One of the things that is so striking about your work is its ability to treat political subjects with a very light touch; delicate, but still highly evocative of very personal memories of war. I’m thinking specifically of “June is June Everywhere” and “If I Sleep It Will Be Double.” This is very different from the kinds of images of war that we most commonly see in the media, which are often gruesome, bloody and explicit. What is the benefit of depicting war in the way that you do?
I’m a dreamer and a maker, and I don’t hide from my fears. I like to confront and I like to be practical. I enjoy beautiful things and I want to imagine a world as a better place. War made me aware of how cruel humans are. I know how many problems we create for ourselves and how easy it is to slip into conformism. The art that I make comes from all that I am and from what I believe in.
The only benefit is that I’m honest to myself and that I will never be ashamed of what I’m doing.
Your piece “Bosnian Girl” is quite well known. What do you think when you look back on that work?
This work has a life of its own and it is still very vibrant, much as it was 10 years ago. In a way it was never entirely mine. It was conceived as a public project with street posters, postcards and magazine and newspaper adds. The aim was to have an image that will be shared. A great moment for me was when I saw that women from Srebrenica were carrying that poster and identifying with it. I am happy to see that many girls are using it as their profile picture on social networks. The influence that this work of art still has makes me very proud. I look forward seeing it in 20 – 30 years from now.
What kind of reactions did this piece receive from local and international audiences when it first came out?
When the posters of Bosnian Girl appeared on the streets of Sarajevo on 11th of July 2003, the public was very confused and for some it was shocking. Not everyone read the description, some people thought it was insulting. The Embassy of the USA in Sarajevo ordered that the posters be removed from the street near their building. At the same time, the work appeared in newspapers and magazines. Suddenly, the work provoked a discussion that was very much needed.
It is also important to mention that in 2003 the commemoration for Srebrenica victims was very modest. The subject was almost ignored. In Bosnian society, there was a trend of “not looking back,” “not remembering.” But I was surprised to see how quickly the public accepted this work, probably because it was dealing with the subject of prejudice that everyone could relate to. The same year I exhibited “Bosnian Girl” in the Netherlands and half of the professors at Rijksakademie thought that it was some kind of attack. Their opinion was that this work is just bad propaganda. In the Netherlands in 2011, I received the ECF Princess Margriet Award for Cultural Diversity for “Bosnian Girl.”
How has the status of Bosnian women changed since you first presented this piece?
Not much is different. The struggle for women’s equality isn’t over. Unfortunately all political and religious problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina are making this long process even harder.
The closing of the National Museum of Bosnia gained a lot of attention in 2012. What do you think is the status of the arts in the Balkans, and in Bosnia specifically?
In general we are ignored by political structures. This is bad because support is lacking. At the same time, it gives you the freedom and independence that is necessary. I would not like to be supported by this corrupt system. They don’t have any understanding about what I do and in general they don’t like it, and that is all good. Art exists in all kind of difficult circumstances. I can’t afford to spend time and energy complaining.
What kind of role do you see art, traditional or contemporary, playing in the cultural development of Bosnia?
Art makes history, memories, it provokes emotions. Art does have power. And when I say power, I don’t mean that artists should become politicians or pretend that they are more important than other people. We are blessed because we found the way to express ourselves, to articulate our thoughts, ideas, emotions, and hopefully help others to do the same through our works. Our role is bigger than we can imagine and that is why we have to be extra careful.