Constructing an identity through the family archive / Archon of the family heritage

Iva Prosoli on  Jelene Blagović’s work


Where does the need to build an identity by reconstructing a family history come from? What is it in the past that is so strong that we could possibly rely on in an attempt to define our own existence?  Are we looking for an explanation? For reasons? Justification?  Or are we simply denying our own momentariness and attempting to fix ourselves in some kind of imaginary continuum? And where exactly is the place at which fact ends, and construction starts?

Collecting is an essential human need; it is the first degree in preservation, often unconscious and automatic, particularly when it is about family belongings, objects of emotional importance. Archiving, the next logical step, is actually nothing else but putting in order our own memories and those of our predecessors. In the meantime, the methods can be different, more or less worked out, the reasons more or less justifiable, but the result is always ultimately a system that enables definition: personal, social, political.

In both photographic series exhibited, Jelena Blagović is actually establishing a relationship with the past, aiming to define the present. Herself. She is creating her own archives, not by the organisation of records on the basis of recognised procedures, tested out in various institutions, but via aesthetic treatment in the medium of photography. These photographs are the result of a long-term process, examinations, conversation, accidental finds, rapprochements and, the whole time, of intimate confrontation.  Which does not make her archive in the slightest degree less legitimate. Or perhaps less (or more) accurate.

In the series entitled Family Silver, by the very act of titling, she emphasizes the importance of heritage and succession, she shoots family photographs, albums, postcards, books, money… laid out in the drawers of an antique chest.  In a personal sense, as she says herself, it is about “the foundation stone of the family, about memorabilia” transmitted from generation to generation.  The observer, though, will look at these seemingly accidental and yet very carefully (aesthetically and substantively) thought through archives offered to him or her as witness of a middle-class urbane life, as documents of a clearly defined cultural sphere, subsisting for more than a hundred years. A private archive accordingly turns into a general document of a given time.

The other series, entitled Before Me, is in its nature considerably more personal. It’s about photographs of love letters, which the author’s mother received from the onset of adolescence until the first years of her acquaintanceship with her husband, the artist’s father. Jelena sets up a relationship with a time and with the emotions that preceded it. She photographs the letters with just as much care as that with which they were written, awaited and read, respecting the trust that her mother showed her in deciding to share her intimacy.  The content of the letters is hidden, while the photographic interpretation not only indicates the intimate correspondence, but also talks of the subtle mother – daughter relationship. With carefully considered lighting, Jelena lets the viewer recognise occasional words from the letters ….our, wait, lost, love, life… and thus implies their subject. Stamps with dates and place names which function as signposts are also revealed.  They define a timeless emotion with time and place.

One should not forget that an archive of any kind, particularly the family kind, is primarily the outcome of unselective accumulation. And yet the presentation is the result of a given decision and is always just one of all the possible versions. The referent of these photographs of Jelena Blagović is material and tangible, but the main content is formed with personal experience, with the memories of the artist, her desires, emotional inventory and attempt to identify herself within the family story.

It makes Jelena a true archon1 of the family heritage.



1Archive and archon (ruler) both ultimately derive from the same Greek word, arkhein, to rule; archeion is the house of the magistrate, the archon, he who rules, commands. A discussion is to be found in J. Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, Chicago UP, 1998, pp. 1-2 passim.

This post is also available in: Croatian