I spent the better part of a scorching summer morning speaking with Borjana Mrdja about her work. The summer heat in Banja Luka can be excruciating, and the artist suggested that we meet early, to avoid the mid-day sun, but the conversation was so captivating that I forgot about my mind melting in the 40-degree weather.
Much of Borjana’s work is focused on gender issues. But, as the artist tells me, her overriding interest is in identity, thus she does not consider her work feminist, but rather addresses issues of body image and gender from the position of a wider interest. In fact, the artist maintains that a lot of the problems with regard to relationships between men and women are imposed by the mass media.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Borjana is so interested in identity issues is that she became sharply aware of her own at a very early age. She grew up in Kozarac, which was a city with high Bosniak population and a Serb minority. When the war started, as she recalls,
“I was called a ‘Serb’ in abusive way, and as a child I didn’t realize what it meant. At that time I thought that we are all the same as Yugoslavians. The city was directly hit by war activities and my family and me had to leave suddenly. So at a very early age I begun to realize and question those historic, national and religious differences. And these are the roots of my interest in identity issues and it is a very important biographic data.”
Years later, in 2010, she recognized that a scar she had on her hand, from being burned by an iron in 1985, had transformed into a shape resembling the current borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and captured this in a photograph where she outlined the Border in pen. She referred to this as the “burden of the border,” which is actually imprinted on her own body. It echoes the burden of the invisible border that each of us bears in the form of our own personal, individual identity, which is mapped onto our social, cultural, national and ethnic identities, in addition to the meanings of those identities that are imposed upon us from outside. In 2011, she shared this experience related to border inscriptions on the body with her audience, at the MS Dockville Festival in Hamburg. In this performative piece, entitled Border MS Dockville, the border is something that unites, instead of dividing. Borjana designed a stamp with the outline of the border of the location of Dockville, and stamped the hand of each visitor to the festival, all of whom shared the same borders both in terms of the space that they were occupying and by the border inscribed on their bodies. While the photograph Border documents the blank slate of the skin (which in this case is wounded) that is outlined, and the performance involves a design in which the border is filled in by the ink of the stamp, in Intralight, the artist has created a collage of pictures of herself, where her own figure is cut out – only the border of her shape remains – and light, from the lightboard behind, emanates through, illuminating the outline of her body. As the artist explained on her website, “Regardless of my missing identity, my presence is nonetheless amazingly strong.” All of these works underscore the arbitrary nature of border which both divides and defines us.
One border by which we are defined is our gender. Borjana has a number of works that deal not only with the representation of the gendered body in contemporary society, but the beautification thereof. Three of her video performance pieces from 2009 tackle this subject in a very visceral manner. The first of these pieces in fact bridges the subject of individual identity and gender identity, as it relates not only to female traditions of beautification, but also has a personal connection for the artist, as it relates to her childhood in Kozarec. Transfiguration actually consists of two videos: in the first, the artist’s mother braids her hair, and the artist proceeds to brush it out using a glove covered with acacia thorns. In almost a reversal of Marina Abramovic’s 1975 performance Art Must be Beautiful – Artist Must be Beautiful, the brushing, while perhaps equally painful to that of Abramovic, serves to undo the beautiful braid that the artist was wearing, serving to de-beautify her in that regard. But the brushing of the hair not only releases the artist from the constraints of her gender, but it also releases her from the traumas of her past, most notably the war and the fact that her family had to move, and break their ties with a place that was dear to them. The section instantiation of this video performance takes place on Mount Kozara. This time the artist’s braided hair is entangled in a branch on that mountain – literally tied to her childhood home. Breaking free is painful, but she is persistent and determined, and slowly she releases her hair, and the braid, from the grasp of that place.
In Almost Perfect Work, the apparatus of the glove reappears, but this time it is a worker’s glove, which the artist found at a construction site, and refashioned, so that tubes of lipstick appear through the tips. In this piece, the artist says that her face became the work surface. In the performance, the artist attempts to apply the lipstick to her lips, turning a habitual, everyday activity into something awkward and ugly. As she pushes the stick of lipstick up in the tube, the sound of a drill can be heard in the background, and as she attempts to apply the lipstick, we hear the sound of something grinding. These sounds confirm not only the fact that the act of beautification has become an act of work, and that we construct our image every day through the application of make-up, but it also speaks to the violent aspect of this type of image construction, and also feminine beauty – elements that we have also witnessed in not only the work of Abramovic, but also that of Sanja Ivekovic.
Another work that also has parallels with Ivekovic’s work is Enthroning (2009). As the artist explains, the title refers to the action of firming one’s position, through the solidification of identity. For the artist, this enthronement ritual took place over the course of one hundred days, during which she made an imprint of the make-up she had been wearing that day on a make-up removal pad. She ended up with 100 of these “self-portraits,” which thoroughly established her place as an artist. The piece comprises the video documentation of the artist removing the make-up, and the 100 self-portraits. In some ways, this recalls Ivekovic’s Diary, which was a photomontage of pictures from magazines of women wearing garish make-up, and a collection of the artist’s own cotton balls and make-up removal pads that she used to remove her make-up over the course of a period of time. This piece also reminded me of Vlasta Zanic’s video work The Three of Us, in which she, together with her two daughters, applied and removed their make-up several times. The idea of removing make-up, which is an act of deconstruction, to actually construct something is interesting, and Borjana’s work takes this idea further by then constructing a portrait of herself, from the demolition of her make-up.
Borjana’s work tackles a range of issues relating to the body, gender and identity in a highly sophisticated manner. Through subtle and minimal gestures, the artist creates thought-provoking work that can be read on many levels. The fact that it has echoes of work by other artists does not in any way detract from its effect. In fact, it points to the continued relevance of these issues and the enduring need to probe them from a variety of different angles. Borjana offers her own unique position and contribution to the ongoing dialogue on the development of individual identity in the contemporary world.