WRITINGS - Lana Čmajčanin - visual artist

Works in Focus: Lana Čmajčanin Tailoring & Sewing by Jon Blackwood, 2014

Lana Čmajčanin’s Tailoring and Sewing makes another appearance in France in the Memory Lane exhibition, having first been shown as part of the If you’re trapped in the dream of the other, you’re fucked show in Škuc Gallery, Ljubljana in 2011. Finished during 2011, this is a clever and relational installation that comments on the multiple absurdities of political life in contemporary BiH, and the malign effect that badly wielded political power can have on an individual. Viewers are confronted with a map of BiH, a pattern, and several implements on a table with a working lamp; pencils, scissors, thread, and paper.

Čmajčanin utilises the format of a 1970s sewing pattern to approach the fractured and incoherent political geography of BiH. The Dayton constitution, a cumbersome amalgamation of political systems which have a history of working elsewhere (The USA, and Switzerland), has proven, in practice, to be an Anglo-Swiss word that has no ready translation in the languages of Bosnia. The Dayton system, rather than ensuring an efficient transition from war to peace, has proved a paradisaical playground for gangsterism and political corruption, played out at the expense of the population themselves. Rather than overcoming wartime divisions, Dayton has entrenched them.

One of the strengths of this installation piece is its immediacy. People are encouraged to try and grasp the byzantine complexities of the current situation in BiH through the domestic discourse of sewing. In opposition to the stereotypically masculine discourses of diplomacy and power politics, the arguments in smoky rooms and the aggressive scoring of border lines in blunt military pencil, visitors are confronted with the anachronistic forms of the sewing pattern. The pattern, a familiar sight to the last generations of Yugoslav children in the seventies and eighties, invites the gallery visitor to try and make sense of the overlapping power structures in BiH, and to think about how they operate on themselves and their families. The pattern shows the different outlines of State, ethnic entities, cantonsons, regions, counties and municipalities. Slowly, one sees the political burden that BiH’s populations of roughly 3.8 million people have to carry; in a relatively small country, there are 14 separate ministers for education, for example, part of a political and logistical logjam which ensures that whatever effort is made, nothing much changes.

But this work would not be as compelling if it were merely a political critique. Strongly implicit in the work is a questioning of where the individual fits into this diabolical puzzle. With the outlines and sewing patterns on the wall, visitors are encouraged to trace their own personal outlines of the country, to complete them, and leave them for others to consider. The work’s relational aspect then, is in the possibility of the production of limitless numbers of individual BiHs, each with their own narrative running through them.

In this sense, the work approaches the discourse of nationalism in the sense of the theorist Tom Nairn; the nation is continually made and re-made, day after day; with so many competing interpretations of the history and development of BiH, settled and fixed narratives are continually deferred; the history of BiH depends much more on the interaction of individual stories, rarely chronicled beyond immediate family circles, rather than the dimly understood “grand narrative” of generals and senior politicians. Implicitly absent, too, is the territory of mahala, or immediate neighbourhood/groups of friends; a continually shifting socio-geographical concept of much more immediate relevance to most HBi people, than any of the artificial political constructs shown in the pattern. Notions such as mahala and raja are probably not recordable in geographical terms, only as a constantly overwritten daily social reality.

Tailoring and Sewing fits into the broader themes of the Memory Lane exhibition in three particular ways. Firstly, as we have seen, it is an avowedly political response to contemporary BiH, with a look back to the consequences of the war whilst firmly rooted in the dysfunctional present. Secondly, through the invitation to construct one’s own individual BiH, it touches on the strong notion of repetition and working-in-series in the show. And, finally, it suggests that only though developing individual working practices, and collectivist solidarity, can BiH artists dig themselves out of the deep hole, dug with such insolent carelessness, by others.

Lana Čmajčanin, Tailoring and Sewing (detail), 2011

Memory Lane, curated by Pierre Courtin, opens on Friday 6 June at Galerie du jour agnes b., 44 rue Quincampoix, Paris, and runs until the end of July.

A catalogue with text by Jon Blackwood will be available at the end of the exhibition, featuring installation views and press reviews as well as a run down of all work exhibited.

Sarajevo Culture Bureau