When I met with Nela Hasanbegovic she told me a story. She was ten, and she was hungry. It was during the time of the war, Sarajevo was under siege – completely surrounded and blocked off from the rest of the world - and there were shortages throughout the city. Nela wanted fish for lunch, but there was little possibility of making that dream a reality. Instead, the future artist drew a fish, cut it out, and served it with real potatoes for lunch for her mother and grandmother. Years later, as a professional artist, she recreated this story, by having a ten-year-old child draw a fish and put it together with her dinner, while Nela recorded it on video. It is this subtle sensitivity that the artist had since childhood that seems to underscore much of Nela’s mature work.
The artist’s work responds to events in the local cultural landscape, for example, in Closed to Public (2011), she projected an image of chains on the façade of the Art Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in response to the recent closure of cultural institutions across the city, this one included. During that same year, she created an installation in the town of Počitelj: a makeshift pavilion, in lieu of an actual pavilion, installed in Venice, for artists from Bosnia and Herzegovina to represent their country. For years, the country could not agree on a method for selecting artists to send to Venice, and the artists were the true victims of the government’s inaction. Nela took matters into her own hands, and created a pavilion, although it still remained in the country – not in Italy. Later, the city of Počitelj made the pavilion into a permanent construction. Perhaps Nela’s action was a prophetic one, as just this past year, in 2013, Bosnia was represented at the Venice Biennale for the first time in years.
Nela’s work also addresses other socio-cultural issues, namely the place of women in contemporary society. Under the Veil... (2010) is a performance that treats the female body as an object onto which society projects its desires. A group of women dressed in wedding gowns stand in a circle, with chains being projected onto the white canvases of their bodies. This refers not only to the position of women throughout the world in general, many of whom cannot attend school or hold certain professional positions, but even more specifically, to the position of women in Bosnia, where families discourage inter-ethnic marriages. For Nela, it is not only women who suffer under the pressure of these chains, but artists, as well. Her 2013 installation Slavery, is a plaster cast of the artist chained to the walls of the gallery space in which it is exhibited. The cast is made after the artist, thus she herself represents the artist in society.
It is this society, and the families that form it, that come to create one’s identity. That is why in Postscriptum /P.S./ (2008), the artist draws the names of her family members on her body, the way that one would carve names of loved ones into a tree. She depicts this family tree using the color red, representing the blood line, and uses an older form of writing that is no longer used in Bosnia - Bosančica. But that writing forms part of her and her family’s past, as well as that of her country.
While her performances focus on the individual and his or her place in the world – be it a woman, an artist, or a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina – her installations are often also centered around the concept of placement and perception. For example, a series of installations entitled Between Light and Darkness, from 2010-2011, consists of a series of strings, crochet thread or cables, respectively, strung across the gallery space and lit with a light or black light. The configuration of the installation plays with our sense of scale, and ideas about interior and exterior, mass and void. Overall it is the subtlety of expression that Nela employs in all of her work that enables her to make sensitively powerful statements from unassuming and relatively minimal means.