Culture as a kilim, a tapestry that could not be obliterated

Darinka Pop-Mitić in conversation with Giulia Menegale (CuratorLab)

Giulia Menegale: The history of Didara is paradigmatic for investigating the possibilities and limits of women's emancipation in former Yugoslavia in the 20th Century. Who was Didara and how did it come that you approached her figure?

Darinka Pop-Mitić: Didara Dukađini Đorđević (1930-2006), born in Prizren, was a teacher who became a professional politician. During her career, she held numerous positions in the provincial and federal governments, including being the secretary of Kosovo's Women's Conference, a representative of Kosovo for the Prizren-Dragaš region in the Yugoslav Federal Assembly (1968-73), a member of the House of Republics in Yugoslav Federal Assembly (1987-91). She moved from Kosovo to Belgrade in 1998.

Miroslava Malešević, anthropologist at the Ethnographic Institute of the Serbian Academy of Science and Arts, and member of the association Women in Black, conducted a series of interviews with Didara in 2003. They met once a week for three months. The product of their conversations is the book Didara: Life Story of a Prizren Woman. It was translated into Albanian by Škeljzen Malići.

At first, I started reading about Didara when I was involved in a project about Yugoslav feminism. I realized that while Yugoslavia was falling apart, the connections between feminist activists were very much alive. Their stories of how they kept alive the networks that should have been dead as a series of brutal wars raged across the region inspired me to read and investigate further. Culture was still that kilim, a tapestry that could not be obliterated. Communities survived hanging on threads of this weave. That is how I came upon Didara following those loose threads.

G.M.: You engaged with her story on two other occasions, in MAXXI in 2021, and at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Metelkova, in 2022. Can you tell us more about the artworks you presented there? Was the research you did at that time somehow preliminary to the artwork you are showing now in Kosovo for Autostrada Biennale? Do different contexts affect how your work on Didara is perceived?

D.P.M.: Changing context means the final result is slightly different each time. That is why I am eager to discuss the matter and consciously adapt my way of presenting it every single time. Zdenka, the current director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb, fully understood the importance of this book from the start, as she is very knowledgeable of the history of feminism in former Yugoslavia. Thanks to her, something that was just small talk, the usual chit-chat between curator and artist, evolved in the project. As many colleagues know, this only happens occasionally in our work. Also, I have discussed this work with Jelena Vesić before - a Belgrade-based independent curator and art theoretician. But since we belong to the same generation, our conversations obviously went in a different direction than the ones I had with Zdenka. To present my work in Kosovo is now something special. This context played such a significant role in the life of Didara and was fundamental to the narrative of Malešević's book. Working on this new chapter of Didara's story was also a challenging experience because Kosovo has been mainly neglected in early XX-century scientific research.

G.M.: Didara's personal story has been investigated and retold by anthropologist Miroslava Malešević. How do you think art can engage with this history differently from anthropological research, for example? What other possibilities does artistic research disclose? How do you approach it as an artist?

D.P.M.: Scientific research doesn't have resources to present these issues through anecdotes and "small" narratives, and nor does it long to do so. As an artist, I have focused on visual storytelling connected to the local community. I have been researching how influences from the Ottoman Empire had been imprinted onto doilies and kilims and traditional costumes chronologically, leading to the abstract forms and angular shapes of modernity. As a leitmotif in my work, I address the local folklore to show how changing shapes often imply changed circumstances and changed political contexts. Something similar happened to the Yugoslav red star, an emblem of the Yugoslav communists, that finally metamorphosed itself out of existence.

G.M.: How do you see your role as an artist in engaging with histories that remained at the margins of main, official narrations and archives?

D.P.M.: Every shape tells a story. My work is to follow those changes.

G.M.: Does this exercise into digging, investigating what can be defined as "regional" collective history come about with any responsibilities to "do" or "say" something about these materials you found? What does it mean to have been born in Yugoslavian? How does this influence your worldview today?

D.P.M.: I wouldn't call it a responsibility because that would be a little bit vain. Didara's life story is an interesting one that deserves to be told for the huge relevance that it holds for us today. On one level, it can be understood as a universal story about the transformation of society and how these changes have impacted politics and aesthetics. On the other level, it is also a very local, very "ours" and, finally also, a very personal story.

Marko Ristic once wrote that being Yugoslav was our way of participating in the world in a way that is emancipatory and humane. I feel in an analogous manner. The dissolution of Yugoslavia has short-circuited "our" link to the world, and works like the one I am presenting for Autostrada Biennale are my way of trying to repair that connection.

G.M.: In the conversation we had, you stated that you are interested in investigating when "things started to fall apart" through your artistic practice. You used this expression, particularly in reference to the dissolution of former Yugoslavia and the set of values associated with it. What should we do when we, as artists, curators, and people involved in art and exhibition making, discover the point at which "things started to fall apart"?

D.P.M.: There are two visual quotations - both are pessimistic predictions of what will come. One is an exhibition opened in the 1980s in an apartment, Harbingers of Apocalypse. The other one is a visual representation of the last congress of Yugoslav Communists that could be described as a vanishing star. Similar vanishing shapes have been used in pop culture, such as on the cover of the Pink Floyd album, The Dark Side of the Moon, where a glass prism dissolves into a shining beam of light to disappear into the darkness.

G.M.: For Autostrada Biennale, you are interested in realizing one of your murals. In a past interview with Prelom Collective, dated 2009, you explained that your interest in mural painting comes from the fact that such kind of art appears in the narration of art history both as a mainstream and marginal art. Does this statement still hold true for you? And how?

D.P.M.: Working with wall paintings, I discovered that the connections between graffiti and murals, and contemporary art interventions are less obvious than someone might think. I believe there are no connections at all. The Visual form may be similar, but the content (history, politics, art) makes them totally different.

G.M.: You defined yourself as a conceptual artist. The strategies you have applied in your artistic practice are compatible with some peculiar forms of re-enactment. A reconstruction of a lost image or the repetition of an action that used to be. What is the role of such reconstructions or restaging?

D.P.M.: These actions always follow numerous procedures that develop over time. Not only do they bring innovative approaches but also new knowledge that holds the power to influence the present.

G.M.: As mural paintings, your artworks are often destined to disappear, and they do not have the character of permanence, if not only in the form of documentation. How do you relate to this temporal aspect of your artworks?

D.P.M.: Research, building a relationship with the context, and on-site production are part of every piece I do. My artworks are procedural pieces. There are numerous stages preceding the realization of the final picture, and they are important as the picture itself.

G.M.: You often also prepare some comic booklets to be distributed to the public during the exhibition. Why is having these short publications important to you?

D.P.M.: Murals in the gallery space are temporary. They are transient visual forms. To observe them is like attending a theatre opera. This comic book would be a libretto for the opera, meaning something that everybody can pick up from the gallery space and take it home. And look at it and read it afterward.

G.M.: How do you think your work for A.B. will be understood in five and fifty years? How would you wish it to be understood?

D.P.M.: Interestingly, neither Didara nor Miroslava saw the significance of their work when they sat by the table and recorded their conversations. Didara's life story was recorded as part of the family's archive and the local oral history. At that time, they did not know their conversation would grow into such an important book. From today's perspective, we see that the book Didara: Life Story of a Prizren Woman is the rare document of the connections that still exist today between women's liberation and anti-fascist struggles.

Living and working in Belgarde, Darinka Pop-Mitić is one of the most prominent figures in her generation of artists who were born and have spent part of their life in the former Yugoslavia. She took part in important international shows in Serbia and abroad. Not least, she presented her work in the group show Bigger Than Myself, Heroic Voices from ex-Yugoslavia, curated by Zdenka Badovinac, at Museo MAXXI, in Rome, Italy, in 2021; Art at Work. At the Crossroads Between Utopianism and (In)Dependence, in the special section curated by Jelena Vesić, at Museum of Contemporary Art Metelkova (+MSUM), Ljubljana, in 2022. She received the October Salon’s award twice during the 49th and 59th editions, in 2008 and 2009 - the prize of the Serbian biennial, among other prizes. Her research often reflects on minor histories that are hidden inside a complex and multilayered present. As an amateur archaeologist, she researches and digs into these interlaced traces to discover unusual entry points and comprehensions of events that signed a landmark in the temporal and causal line of history.

I first met Darinka in Belgrade at the Student Cultural Center of Belgrade (SKC), a location protagonist of the post-68 students and workers’ protests and the site of experimental art and social activism during the 60s and 70s. We started conversing in front of the wall painting she realized between 2005 and 2014, On solidarity. On that occasion, she attempted to restore a mural initially painted by the Brigada Salvador Allende, that signaled the material and political support of the people of Yugoslavia toward Chileanean resistance in the time of the military dictatorship. Our conversations developed over email in the months preceding the opening of the 4th edition of the Autostrada Biennale, curated by Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu and Joanna Warsza. In the Turkish neighborhood of Prizren, Kosovo, she will present a further stage of her long-term research on the figure of Didara, a symbol of women’s emancipation in the former Yugoslavia. GM

Giulia Menegale is a curator based in Venice, a researcher and a participant of CuratorLab 2022/23

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