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WEIRD SISTERS

Performance view of Sanja Iveković’s Whether We Were Brave, 2019, State of Concept, Athens, March 1, 2019. Photos: Alexandra Masmanidi.

WE ARE THE GREAT-GRANDDAUGHTERS OF THE WITCHES YOU WEREN’T ABLE TO BURN, declared a banner at this year’s International Women’s Day march in Zagreb, Croatia. As if to illustrate this illicit genealogy, two schoolgirls, accompanied by their mother, carried a sign proclaiming, WOMAN’S PLACE IS IN THE RESISTANCE. These slogans handily describe the expansive oeuvre of Zagreb-based artist Sanja Iveković, who, unsurprisingly, was spotted among the event’s attendees. Since the beginning of Iveković’s artistic career in the 1970s in socialist Yugoslavia, she has sought to prevent the erasure of women’s struggles, claiming a position of feminist solidarity with women of diverse social, generational, and geopolitical backgrounds. Her latest performance, Whether We Were Brave, 2019, revisits the history of the female partisans who fought against the Nazi occupiers of Greece during World War II and places it within the context of current resurgences of despotism and misogyny throughout the globe.

Whether We Were Brave was commissioned by the Athens exhibition space State of Concept as a part of Iveković’s solo show there, “RED STAR FEAR NOT,” curated by iLiana Fokianaki. The performance involved fifteen young women who recited statements based on the testimonies of fifteen Greek resistance fighters who were interviewed in Alinda Dimitriou’s 2008 documentary, Birds in the Mire. (The film itself features reports from thirty-two women.) In Birds, Dimitriou’s subjects talk in vivid detail about their experiences, which range from their fearless and successful efforts to organize with the men in the predominantly leftist Ethniko Apeleftherotiko Metopo (National Liberation Front) to their violent and humiliating persecution by Greece’s anticommunist government shortly after the German military pulled out of the country in 1944. “After the Liberation, instead of catching those who collaborated with the enemy and bringing them to trial, which was most important, the state started backwards, and went after us,” recalled Elli Nikolaou, one of the women from Birds. Using Dimitriou’s film as a launching point, Iveković’s twelve-minute performance brought the viewer into more elliptical territory—a setting wiped clean of specific historical events and locations.

Performance view of Sanja Iveković’s Whether We Were Brave, 2019, State of Concept, Athens, March 1, 2019. Photos: Alexandra Masmanidi.
 

Iveković’s performers sat in a circle, as if they were at an activist meeting. The participants wore various items of red clothing, which distinguished them from the audience and marked their fellowship in a leftist sisterhood. “We organize demonstrations,” declared the first performer, “We scatter flyers everywhere, we make announcements through loudspeakers in the evenings.” Another went on to describe how she and her colleague distributed flyers inside of a cathedral while pretending to pray. The actors’ lines corresponded to those spoken by the women in Dimitriou’s film; Iveković’s key intervention in the opening part of the performance was to make the reports appear as if they were ongoing—actions and interventions happening right now. This sense of presentness was augmented by the fact that the performers were not professionals but a group of volunteers—some activists themselves—who connected with the historical struggle that they were reenacting.

The second part of Whether We Were Brave pushed the narrative back into the past tense, as the script moved from the women’s fond memories of organizing the resistance to those of the torture and persecution they endured after the liberation. The testimonies revealed how, with the blessing of their former British allies, EAM members were arrested, beaten, and imprisoned for life on the grounds of their communist affiliation. But Iveković once again shifts gears and does not allow history to end the story. In the third and final part of the performance, she transforms the reenacted memories of collective action into a vision of the future: “During this time, one’s ego will not exist. There will be only ‘we.’ When we will demonstrate, we will not care about ourselves. At that time, one might even die. But one will live for the sake of the others.” These words may sound overly idealistic today, but the performers spoke them with excitement and conviction, intensifying the sense that Whether We Were Brave is about forming new bonds and new agendas of dissent. The artist summons both her actors and the audience to be the granddaughters of witches whose legacy has survived, against all odds.

Iveković was one of the first artists to challenge the post–Cold War consensus that socialism was a mistake best left in the dustbin of history. Her series “Gen XX,” 1997–2001, presents posters of famous supermodels emblazoned with the names of female Yugoslav World War II heroes; they served as a backdrop to her performance at State of Concept. For example, pictures of Linda Evangelista and Amber Valletta were labeled LJUBICA GEROVAC and ANKA BUTORAC, respectively. Each of the posters provided information on its fighter’s death or imprisonment. The genetic coding of this work arose at a time when both Croatia and gender were rendered in biological terms—nationality was measured by the purity of blood, and women were once again assigned to reproduce for and nurture the homeland. The “gene” that Iveković engineered (at a time when genetic engineering was widely discussed) claimed, by contrast, that a “woman’s place is in the resistance.”

I remember seeing these images reproduced as A4-size posters—originally printed in Arkzin, an alternative Croatian magazineon the walls inside the University of Zagreb during my first year of study. I was completely taken aback by Iveković’s amalgamations of pop icons with the names of women whom I had never heard of, since I belonged to the generation educated mostly during the 1990s, when Yugoslavia was destroyed in a series of violent wars and privatizations, and its socialist history was removed from school curricula and vanished from public discourse. Iveković’s work cut into that silence, and summoned me to an alternative lineage that has been nearly suffocated by anti-communist, nationalist, and patriarchal rhetoric. It also paired partisan heroines and beauty queens in a way that didn’t place them at opposite ends of an ideological spectrum, but instead reimagined them as allies working together to empower women and, of course, everyone else.

This gesture of building alliances and networks of solidarity is one of the most powerful aspects of Iveković’s art, and it is also at the crux of Whether We Were Brave, which reconnects the Yugoslav and Greek anti-fascist struggle, and thus reimagines solidarity along transnational as well as transgenerational lines. 

Ivana Bago is an independent scholar and writer based in Zagreb.