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Smirna Kulenović: In the Absence, The Artist is Present

This article was previously published in Issue 19, ABSENCE (December 2018).

Bosnian artist Smirna Kulenović was born in Sarajevo in 1994 during the siege. Today she is one of the most interesting artists within the contemporary Bosnian art scene.

Smirna Kulenovic (Image: Samuel Berthet)

As a young artist working in Sarajevo, what does absence mean to you?

In the past three months, absence has been one of the most important topics in my life. My current absence within the Bosnian legal system derives from one specific event that happened in my life that I could not control. Last August, I came back home from Portugal and both my passport and ID were stolen at the airport in Sarajevo upon my arrival. Since then, I am incapable of doing anything legal within the system, since I don’t exist anymore. I am feeling my absence in my own country, but also in the rest of Europe where I was supposed to go and exhibit and where I currently can’t travel because I don’t have any documents.

What happened to your documents and why has it taken so long for the state to issue new ones?

I thought that requesting new documents was going to be a standard procedure, but it turned out to be difficult since the police discovered that there had been an attempt to forge my passport and steal my identity, most probably to enter the EU. In the last year, the refugee crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina has worsened… a large number of documents were stolen. My passport was found nine days later together with nine others, but my ID was not, so it was additionally complicated. Police believe that someone is using my ID in some EU countries which sounds so ironic - I apparently exist outside my country but not inside! I immediately applied for new documents but, since I refused to declare whether I am Bosnjaks, Croat or Serb; I stated that I am ‘nothing’. My application is still ‘in standby’, and I don’t know when I will be able to receive a new passport. In refusing to declare my nationality, I was protesting against the Bosnian ethnically-divided system which insists on strict ethnic definitions. I never consider the word ‘nothing’ to be dangerous; I could not imagine that such a tiny word would create such big problems. The government blocked the process of issuing my papers because I’m disrespecting the Bosnian constitution which recognises only three constitutive ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs. The ‘Other’ category exists, but it is usually used by ethnic minorities or those who reject being labelled by ethnicity. You can declare that you are ‘other’, if you are of Roma origins or if you are a Jew, for example. At the end, what is important is that you declare that you are ‘something’.

If you could give a different definition, how would you describe yourself?

I don’t want to be anything; I want to be nothing. I know the Bosnian system very well, and I know that whatever I declare, I will always be discriminated [against] in some forms. I grew up in the aftermath of the war in Sarajevo and since I was a kid, people would tell me how ethnic divisions within the Bosnian society impacted the conflict at the beginning of the 1990s and the atrocities that followed. I don’t want to take part in this imaginary division between people. My protest may look childish and utopian, but nationalism ruined my life as a kid. Now, as an artist, I want to protest as much as I can, even if to eventually get my documents, I will be forced to declare that I am ‘something’ in the end.

Someone Washed My Face. Smirna Kulenović, August 2018, Sarajevo

Last October you were invited to take part in the Fuori Visioni Festival in Piacenza, Italy with a performance, but you could not travel there because your documents were not ready yet. What did you decide to exhibit in the end?

When they found my passport, I discovered that the photo was bleached because of the chemical process used to forge it; only some traces of my face were left, like pupils or facial contours. When I saw my portrait had almost completely vanished, I decided to scan it and enlarge it to a B0 format poster and I called the work Someone Washed My Face. This way I discovered that there was a star over my face, underneath the passport layers, which was funny, since the Bosnian flag is a copy of the EU flag; we use the same colours, blue, yellow and white, and we also have stars to feel more European. So, it was ironic to find a star over my face! A few days after my documents were gone, I was invited to perform in Italy. The festival’s topic was ‘surveillance’ and I thought that my story was the best way to respond to the festival’s theme. My bleached portrait, exhibited in the abandoned church of Saint Augustine, is so representative of the whole feeling of ‘nothingness’ within the system; not just the absence from the system, but also the absence from the EU – Bosnia and Herzegovina is not in the EU yet – and from a larger system that tries to control people’s identity. But, by the time I was supposed to travel to Italy, my passport was not ready yet, and I could not leave Bosnia. I felt so frustrated, as I had already missed being part of two other exhibitions, one in Athens and one in Berlin, where they installed my first solo show without me being there, thanks to instructions that I gave the curators on Skype! At some point, I also thought about crossing the Bosnian border together with refugees. But in the end, I wrote a long e-mail to the organisers in Italy, explaining why I could not participate. I realised that writing that e-mail was a real performance, the only way I could be present at the festival. So I suggested that the curator place an empty chair next to my photograph instead.

Smirna Kulenović, Fuori Visioni Installation (Photo: Carlos Campos)

How did the audience react to your absence?

The audience gathered at the time when my performance was scheduled. I wanted to create a feeling of frustration. People were waiting for the artist to come and start the performance but the artist was not coming. The organisers printed out my e-mail and distributed it among the people who eventually understood why I was not there. They sent me many messages of solidarity. I was happy to receive some positive support from people from Italy, Germany and other countries. My impossibility of being abroad led to the creation of a residency program; I am inviting artists to come and see me. If I can’t leave Sarajevo, I am inviting people here. An artist from Italy responded to my call and she was here for two weeks; I’m waiting to see who will be the next!

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