Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 18, 2023
Jasmina Tumbas "I am Jugoslovenka!": Feminist performance politics during and after Yugoslav Socialism Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2022. 344 pp. Hardcover £70.00 (9781526156471)

Both embodied and conceptual, bridge and barricade, “Jugoslovenka”—the name for a Yugoslav woman—is the complex prism through which Jasmina Tumbas offers her rich transnational history of performance art from the formation through the fall of socialist Yugoslavia. The history of performative politics that Tumbas has written is structured by paradox and contradiction, as illustrated by her comparative look at two photographs of Dragana Milojević, a woman attending a demonstration against Slobodan Milošević in Belgrade on March 9, 1991. In the first photograph, Milojević appears to stand defiantly in front of a crowd, with her arm above her head and her mouth open. Showing Milojević seemingly unfazed by water cannons and police presence, the photo quickly circulated as an icon of feminine resistance. The second photograph, taken at the very same event, however, tells a different story. Here, Milojević turns backward into a man who appears to be pushing her out of the way. As Tumbas writes, the story of these two photographs “brings to the foreground incongruities that help us gauge just how difficult it is to have just one narrative of feminist resistance in Yugoslavia and its aftermath . . . ” (18). It is this recognition and working within the messy contradictions of history that makes Tumbas’s text and its methodology a unique and truly paradigm-shifting contribution.

The examination of performative practices in “I Am Jugoslovenka!”: Feminist Performance Politics During and After Yugoslav Socialism challenges long-standing divisions between so-called “high and low art,” bringing high-profile contemporary art, popular culture, folk art, and activism into a nonhierarchical constellation of what the author describes as emancipatory performance politics. Tumbas’s mapping of the histories of socialism, activism, feminist politics, art, and popular culture in, and after Yugoslavia, illuminates not just the otherwise highly understudied and unacknowledged contributions of Yugoslav artists and cultural producers within the history of art but poses a productively disruptive challenge to the discipline’s organizational logics. The interdependent developments of socialism, patriarchy, nationalism, feminist resistance, and avant-gardism that are articulated in the text put into practice a queer anticolonial methodology, the structure of which compliments the politics of the performances described therein.

The first chapter of the book, “Jugoslovenka’s body under patriarchal socialism: art and feminist performance politics in Yugoslavia,” refuses to endorse the narrative that art is produced in response to politics, as a reactionary cultural byproduct. According to Tumbas, Yugoslavia’s socialist society might be best understood through the study of female resistance that illuminated and critiqued the patriarchal underpinnings of the system while embodying the possibilities of emancipation from within it. In the first section of this chapter, the author identifies a number of crucial events within the history of art including “Drug-ca Žena” (Comrade Women), an international meeting of women held at Belgrade’s Student Cultural Center (SKC) in 1978. The conference and exhibition that resulted indexed the points of connection and departure between Yugoslav and “Western” feminist sensibilities, revealing a more open conceptualization of gender and fem-expression in the context of Yugoslavia that remains unacknowledged in canonized histories of feminism and feminist art. In what might be the most obvious example of the paradoxical nature of women’s experiences within the context of socialist Yugoslavia, Tumbas also describes the contents of a pornographic magazine titled Start, a publication that, despite its objectifying images of nude female bodies, “employed some of the most important feminists in Yugoslavia” (64). The magazine was host to debates concerning politics, pornography, feminism, and sexual liberation and its wide circulation brought a diversity of images and ideas regarding women’s identities to the public. Through an analysis of the reimagining of the bed, the Yugoslav flag, and the auditory dimensions of the authoritarian state by artists including Sanja Iveković and Marina Abramović, Tumbas skillfully weaves a story of Yugoslav feminist cultural practices that are possible both because of, and despite the liberatory promises of socialism.

Chapter two brings together three cultural producers: art-world darling Abramović, pop-icon Lepa Brena, and Romani folk star Esma Redžepova, all of whom worked both within and against race and gendered stereotypes. Here the figure of the Jugoslovenka is one that negotiates her positionality in ways that mobilize Orientalist fantasies to her advantage, forging relationships between herself and the socialist nation that celebrate its resilience and cultural diversity while also pointing to its racist patriarchal structures. Tumbas’s analysis of Abramović’s Rhythm 5 (1974) offers a new reading of this iconic performance, one wherein the artist “powerfully embodies and represents how the Communist star collided in tension with the female body” (118). The performative individualism of the works by Abramović discussed in this section is situated in relation to a socialist collectivity—a unified imaginary that has been mapped onto the body of Lepa Brena, a performer that Tumbas refers to as the “original Jugoslovenka” (126). While Brena’s popstar “socialism lite” was experienced as a welcome counter to Tito’s comparatively stern bravado, Esma Redžepova’s commercial success was the result of her status as an icon of “pan-ethnic solidarity” (143). Through nuanced readings of performances, songs, and videos produced by each of these women, Tumbas historicizes the feminist legacy of these divergent cultural producers with a clarity that exemplifies this book’s capacity to appeal to a wide variety of readers.

Chapter three, “Queer Jugoslovenka,” focuses on the period between Tito’s socialist regime and the frenzied rise of nationalism in the early 1990s. The 1980s, Tumbas argues, was “the most sexually transgressive decade of socialist Yugoslavia,” (151) an assertion made clear by the numerous examples of unapologetically erotic, binary-defying, sexually unfettered, trans-empowering artworks and events discussed in this chapter. From photography to film, comic books, paintings, magazines, and exhibitions, the modes through which Yugoslav cultural producers critiqued heteronormative patriarchal conceptions of gender and sexuality varied widely in materiality and iconography. With night clubs, the female-led ŠKUC (Ljubljana’s Student Cultural Center), and publications such as VIKS, Lesbomagazine, and Mladina, Ljubljana was a hub for much of the underground queer scene in Yugoslavia; therefore, it figures prominently throughout this chapter. Tumbas offers an analysis of images by artists Zemira Alajbegović, Marina Gržinić, and Aina Šmid as a remapping of the hetero-male nationalist body onto a queer fem-body, albeit one that is fractured, layered, and otherwise distinctively in processes of unbecoming and reimagining.

Jugoslovenkas’ ability to work both outside and within repressive structures remains central to the book in chapter four, “Jugoslovenka in a sea of avant-garde machismo,” where the author looks to the work of women who made space for themselves within the male-dominated art world. A highly influential art collective of the 1980s, Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art, NSK) was a predominantly male group known for their critical attitude towards the fascist ideologies “lurking in avant-garde and state-sanctioned art” (202). The chapter’s real star, however, is a dramaturge and frequent writer for NSK, Eda Čufer, who founded the sub-group Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater (SNST) and whose commitments to anonymity and collectivity distinguished her not only from her male colleagues but from the individualistic approaches of Abramović, Brena, and Redžepova. Tumbas analyzes how SNST employed domestic spaces for performances and argues that the group’s name indexes a desire to transform the theatre into a religious space, one of experimentation that utilized the spiritual as a mode through which feminist socialist politics might be forged.

The final chapter, “The last generation of Jugoslovenkas,” introduces feminist figures ranging from beauty queens to female snipers, activists to fashionistas. Responding to the rise of violent nationalism during the decades of the Yugoslav wars and beyond, Tumbas describes the many ways that women worked to reject ethnocentrism in favor of transnational solidarity. The activism of the group Women in Black advocated for a vision of a unified Yugoslavia that refuted the ethnocentrism made so evident in the Bosnian War. With careful consideration of the ways that the conflict was being narrated in Western discourse, Tumbas illustrates the Orientalist stereotypes that shaped global and local perceptions of life in the Balkans including the notion of Serbians as savage serial rapists and Balkan women as perpetual victims. As in the rest of the book, Tumbas looks to the ways that women created agency within these conditions and offers a brilliant analysis of fashion and beauty as modes through which agency, dignity, and self-love operated as weapons against the oppressive forces of war with as much capacity to empower as the guns they held in their well-manicured hands.

As is demonstrated by the works of contemporary artists Selma Selman and Tanja Ostojić discussed in the final pages of the book, the figure of the Jugoslovenka endures. Jugoslovenkas, as they are historicized by Tumbas, offer a model for identifying previously unrecognized forms of feminist resistance and liberation. While this book is invaluable in terms of its contributions to the history of art and performance histories in particular, its methodologies extend to any study of cultural practice that seeks to work beyond the systems of value that have long erased the contributions of marginalized peoples.

Angelique Szymanek
Associate Professor, Art + Architecture, Hobart & William Smith Colleges