Conversation with Dragana Jurišić by Sandra Križić Roban

Exile and photography intensify our perception of the world



Inspired by her recently published book YU – The Lost Country, and the fact that she will exhibit next year at the Spot Gallery, we set up a number of questions for Dragana Jurišić.

Dragana Jurišićholds B.A. in psychology from University of Rijeka. She graduated documentary photography from University of Wales, Newport, where she obtaind her Ph.D.at the European Centre for Photographic Research.

 

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Sandra Križić Roban: In the last couple of years we have witnessed a surge in the number of publications and research which deal with the former Yugoslavia. While some focus on the legacy of post-war modernism, others on the post-90s period and the social divisions that transpired, there is also a significant number of people who deal with their own families’ histories and their pursuit of identity. I want to know about how you came to do it – why is heritage important to you; what have you found out about yourself during this research, and how did you perceive your family? Did anything change from the things you already knew?

Dragana Jurišić: I am a child of a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, from Slavonski Brod, a border-town with Bosnia and Herzegovina. Until 1990 I was registered as a Yugoslav. Since Croatia proclaimed its independence – I can only register as the ‘Other’. Yugoslavs have been written out of the history. I wondered what happened to 1.5 million Yugoslavs – where have they disappeared. I also wanted to deal with the politics of forced amnesia that many independent states who were once a part of Yugoslavia adopted. My memories and emotions about this lost country were very conflicting. I tried to engage with the meaning of identity. Is identity tied to a nation or a place, or can a person build their own metaphysical home, one that can’t so easily be annihilated and taken away?

S.K.R.: The need to determine one’s own identity by exploring the past – of one’s family, friends, immediate surroundings, state, and nation – is becoming a global trend. Is it a generational issue? At a time of mass migrations, the uncertainties in the political and the economic realm, what is actually being changed? Is this an issue of dealing with personal insecurities or the need to, despite all the instabilities, defines one’s personal identity?

D. J.: It is a reasonable presumption, in this era of globalisation, that the concept of identity, as tied to the nation state is rendered obsolete and redundant. This, unfortunately is not the case, and we can see that if we look at what happened in the former Yugoslavia. If the national identity is worth killing for… It must be important?! What I found out about myself, through experiencing war and losing my national identity, is that this experience, although traumatic, freed me. I believe that people are not trees, the importance of roots is something I left behind. I also learned that nationalism is the ideology of idiots; it points to a significant lack of confidence in yourself as an individual.

I really admire the work of Dubravka Ugrešić, and when you ask this question I am reminded of something she said in her interview with Svetlana Boym: “the identity policy is a toy; it could be benign, it could be dangerous, it could be liberating, it could be enslaving. When people realise that they were given a cheap toy identity—and that the real problems are somewhere else, maybe they will start to search for ways to be equal, not different. Because perpetuating the trauma of repressed ethnic and other identities produces a thick and manipulative ideological fog” (Ugrešić, 2002).

 

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S. K. R.: Why have you decided to base your research on Rebecca West’s book? Some of her political statements are questionable, subjective, as they all are. Are her political views important to you, or just the fact that she ventured on a journey which still provokes interest and serves as a kind of a model?

D. J.: I find Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon extraordinary. It’s a masterpiece of the 20th century writing. I look at it as a work of art, not as a history book. She said she knew that the country will disappear so she had to write about it (and it did disappear twice since its publication – first in 1941 and then in 1991). Black Lamb and Grey Falcon is a repository of memories – and we all know how factual memories are. Look at, for example, at the collective memory of our Yugoslav past. And what happened with this? I was well aware of some of the exaggerations and inconsistencies in Rebecca West’s writings. I am also well aware of her politics after the book was published. The key for me is that in this book, she never ‘others’ Yugoslavs, unlike majority of the writers who wrote about it. Some of these writers even used Black Lamb and Grey Falcon as their guide during the conflicts of the 1990s, and still ended up writing patronising and stereotyping publications such as Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan.

YU: The Lost Country is a conceptual artwork, in which I present my point of view. It is my personal history. I am not delegating for anyone else. Following the thought that this is a conceptual artwork, I could have invented a story in which Alice in Wonderland came to visit ex-Yugoslavia and instead I could have followed her fictional journey, it really would not matter. I just chose the book I loved – Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon and this book provided me with a map to follow.

 

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S. K. R.: The book begins with a photograph of a girl at the moment of her becoming a pioneer. Although you belong to a younger generation, who perhaps did not even enter the pioneers, you use this symbolism which probably has a completely different meaning to you than it has to my generation. What motivated you to “open” your book in this manner?

D. J.: Well, actually, that little girl in the photograph is me. I was 16 when the war started so I did experience that whole narrative and symbolism you speak about. I think the constructs like national identity, belief systems, core values are bestowed upon us. These are strong currents to swim in and not many people have either a strength or courage to make their own way. I chose this motive as a book starter because the photograph was all shades of wrong – it’s blurry, my pioneer hat is falling off my head, my fist is clenched. I am looking very uncomfortable with the whole scenario.

S. K. R.: You first studied psychology, and later you started studying photography. What is photography to you? Your book ends with a ‘delicate’ scene captured from a plane. Does photography provide assistance in the transition to ‘other’ states, different ways of understanding; is it a medium which makes research easier and spices it up with bits of reality?

D. J.: Photography contains elements such as fleetingness, which allow it to capture that sense of rootlessness and dislocation with relative ease. I consider myself an exile, because the country I refer to as my home does not exist anymore. There is no home to return to. Both exile and photography intensify our perception of the world. In both, the memory is in its underlying core. Both are characterised by melancholy. As Salman Rushdie said, exiles live “more comfortably in images, in ideas, than in places” (Rushdie, 1992).