The photographer Dragana Jurišić, who is originally from Slavonski Brod in Croatia, but has been living and working in Ireland for a number of years, presented her project YU: The Lost Country as part of this year's International Photography Festival "Organ Vida" in Zagreb. Inspired by Rebecca West's famous travelogue, Dragana travelled throughout the territories of the former state, trying to make contact with her lost homeland – which, as it turned out, is much harder than expected.
Thematizing the consequences of exile and dislocation on memory and identity, with a special sensibility for women's experiences, Dragana uses photography not only as a tool for recording memories (or the impossibility of returning that which is lost), but also to deconstruct national and identity myths.
We spoke to Dragana about exile, nationalism, women's identities, and the relation man-artist/woman-muse.
On your website you say that your story as a photographer begins on the day when your family apartment got burned down together with thousands of prints and negatives your father had accumulated. At Organ Vida you are presenting a work dedicated to Yugoslavia – "the lost country". Can we say that photography is born out of loss? Why is photography such a suitable medium for researching topics such as loss, mourning or memory?
Photography contains elements such as fleetingness, which allow it to capture that sense of rootlessness and dislocation with relative ease. Both exile and photography intensify our perception of the world. In both, memory is in its underlying core. Both are characterized by melancholy.
Dragana Jurišić, YU: The Lost Country
What is the significance of Rebecca West's book for your work? She writes about Yugoslavija as a foreigner, and you as a "local" followed her trail, travelling two years throughout Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Can we see our homeland more clearly and objectively through the eyes of others, or?
I was attracted to Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as it is a vast memory repository of the country that does not exist any more. Rebecca West’s descriptions of Yugoslavia are so vivid and rich, and her language - highly descriptive and almost photographic in nature. One feels like one can really see and experience the places and the events she is describing. Compared to a metaphysical travel guide that never goes out of date by Geoff Dyer, it is curious at many stages in Black Lamb and Grey Falcon how little things have changed, and how prophetic West’s writing was. Rebecca West herself calls the book a “prenatural event in my life”, and wonders why she sacrificed five years of her life, to taking “an inventory of a country down to its last vest-button [...] a country which ceases to exist?”, but then concludes that this is exactly the reason why; she felt a great need to capture a world that was about to disappear. She is very different from many artists who wrote about Yugoslavia, especially Robert Kaplan who cite her book as an inspiration and a guide, but his language about the people and events that took place here in the 90s is one of the stereotyping and patronizing.
For many people, such as yourself, Yugoslavia is irretrievably lost. At the same time, in Croatia some strange people are trying hard to erase all its traces. How do you interpret that?
I think that trying to erase or rewrite history is extremely short-sided and stupid. You cannot build a new house on top of a gaping historical hole. I am with Dubravka Ugrešić when she says that nationalism is ideology of idiots. You do have to be a simpleton to hinge your identity onto a construct like nationality.
When I read you interviews or descriptions of your works, it is precisely Dubravka Ugrešić that comes to mind. Is exile a privileged position for understanding identity and nationalism?
Yes, there is a great freedom once you uncloak yourself from belonging to a country. What happened to Ugrešić in the 90s, the witch-hunt through the media was disgusting. It shows everything that's wrong with the culture pervaded with nationalism and misogyny. She's one of the best writers from Croatia, yet she was treated as a traitor. She summed up her attitude perfectly when she wrote:
My Croatian passport does not make me a Croatian writer. It is easiest and most profitable to be a national writer, particularly if the nation is small. I have chosen a less profitable way: I do not wish to belong to anyone, not to a people, nor a nation, nor a national literature. If I have to belong to someone, then it’s to my readers. Wherever they may be. [...] A milieu which destroys books has no mercy toward their authors either. Several years ago, my (national) cultural milieu declared me a “witch” and burned me on a media pyre with undisguised glee. [...] Today, from the perspective of my nomadic-exile, I can only be grateful to my former cultural milieu. I invested my own money in the purchase of my broom. I fly alone.”
Dragana Jurišić, My Own Unknown, ch. 1
In the project My Own Unknown you deal with women's identities and the position of the muse as a passive inspiration for the (male) artist. The project consists of several "chapters", the first of which is dedicated to your aunt Gordana Čavić, a housewife from a village in Slavonia, whose life, following her escape to Paris, is a mystery worthy of a novel or a film. What does this project mean to you, and have you learnt what happened to Gordana?
The book I am writing about Gordana is a book about women with heavy wings. Women who wanted to be free, who tried to escape oppressive systems, yet ended up further oppressed by the same oppressors they were running away from. I do not know with certainty what happened to her, but I can make a good guess. I think you will just have to wait until the new book comes out.
Referring to the muse/artist relationship, in Chapter 3 of My Own Unknown you take on the role of the artist who photographs 100 women/muses. Were your muses traditionally passive? Does the female gaze differ from the male one?
I cannot tell you what the is difference between male and female gaze with certainty. I can only speak for myself when I say that my gaze is very maternal. I feel extremely protective of all the women who participated in the project. In 100 Muses women were not passive at all. They directed themselves, they chose the image that will represent them and they also co-own the project. We became a tribe.
Dragana Jurišić, 100 Muses
Chapter 5 - Noli timere Mnemosyne consists of somewhat bizarre self-portraits in different surroundings. What can you tell us about that series?
Noli Timere Mnemosyne is a series of photographs that are mysterious even to myself. It is about not being scared to remember and to own your past with all its pain and all its beauty. Sometimes you may work with a very strong idea of what the final manifestation of the idea will be – but sometimes, like in this instance, you let the work happen and then follow it like Alice in Wonderland down a rabbit hole.
What is next? Are you working on a new project or a book?
I have a lot of exhibitions lined up. First big one is My Own Unknown in Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris (opens on 9th November). I am also planning to publish my second book (about Gordana) by March 2018. And then I want to clear my schedule and make my dream Spaghetti Western movie.
Dragana Jurišić, Noli timere Mnemosyne