In many ways, Maja Bajevic’s work is concerned with visibility. This includes not only the treatment of subjects related to her native country of Bosnia, and, more specifically, the war, but also issues related to gender, poverty, and mental illness. Several writers have identified a connection between her own personal history and the issues that she chooses to deal with in her work. An art student in Paris when the war broke out, Maja was unable to return to her homeland during the war. As with any survivor, there comes the usual feelings of helplessness and guilt. As an exile during the war, perhaps there was also a feeling of invisibility, especially upon returning home. While many of Maja’s works deal directly with the aftermath of war, it is important to see her work not just about that specific subject, but about human suffering in general. In an interview with Angela Vettese, she stated that she is “trying to point out and critique all the aspects of our society that I feel to be rotten.”
The three-part performative project Women at Work takes as its focus the Bosnian war and the fate of the nation’s women. The first performance, Women at Work – Under Construction took place in 1999 in front of the National Gallery of Bosnia, which was, at the time, surrounded by scaffolding during its renovations. Over the course of five days, Maja and five other women, all refugees displaced from Srebrenica (the town that witnessed one of the worst massacres of Bosniaks during the war, which, incidentally, occurred over a five day period in 1995) attached their needlework to the netting that was in place over the scaffolding. The piece brings not only the everyday, domestic activity and folk tradition of needlepoint into the public sphere – making visible that which is usually not – but also exposes these women and their plight to the general public. The war affected these women in particular ways – since the bodies of many of their dead husbands couldn’t be found, they couldn’t collect their pensions, and in many cases this needlework was their only source of income. Maja shifts the position of these women from invisible and nameless victims to active subjects, literally weaving their national traditions and folkloric art into the façade of the National Museum.
In the next instantiation of the piece, Women at Work – Observers, the same women re-staged the Frans Hals painting Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse – first as a photograph and then as a painting (painted by Alma Suljevic). The performance consisted of the women being in residence at the Chateau Voltaire in France, spending their time sewing and embroidering. The choice of a Dutch Master painting is no coincidence – it was Dutch forces, as part of the UN observers, who were supposed to protect Srebrenica, but instead let it fall to the Serbs. Once again, the refugees become active subjects – they are now the observers, interrogating the viewer with their gaze.
Finally, Women at Work – Washing Up, took place in a hamam in Istanbul in 2000. Once again, this same group of women acted together, this time washing linens that they had embroidered themselves with the now empty optimistic slogans of the Tito era. The entire performance has overtures of cleansing – not only are the sayings washed out through the process, but the viewers (who can only be women, because of the rules of the bathhouse) must undergo a ritual cleansing (by entering the baths) in order to view it. As Maja has stated, they wash the pieces of cloth over and over again, so that they would “destroy a thing of their own making,” much like the citizens of Yugoslavia eventually ended up being its own demise.
A related and rather poignant performance by the artist predates this one. Dressed Up was a 7-hour performance that took place in 1999, shortly after the artist’s return to her native country. During the performance, she sewed a dress for herself using fabric onto which she had printed the map of the former Yugoslavia, and then clothed herself in it. Yvana Enzler has noted the common element of fabric in all of these performances: “something fragile that can easily be torn or cut, but also something that wraps, that protects, like home and, by extension, a homeland providing shelter and a feeling of security and warmth.” She goes on to comment that Maja’s work informs us that “this kind of home and homeland have gone forever.”
In 2004, she explored these themes in La Mina, a performance in the cultural center of the ‘troubled’ quarter of la Mina in Barcelona, an area of the city filled with cheap apartments that the were sold to citizens by the government. While on the one hand the affordability of these apartments offered inhabitants to become property owners, on the other hand, they effectively became trapped in this low-income area and thus in that economic status. During the performance, the artist and four women from the neighborhood covered a grid of barbed wire with wool squares – the grid echoing not only the light fixture on the ceiling above, but also the boxed layout of the buildings of the ghetto in question. Here, Maja took the cold and sterile home environment of the projects and turned it into something that is warm, soft and homey. Juxtaposed with her other works that deal more overtly with the war, this piece demonstrates the fact that all of Maja’s work – whether specifically about the Bosnian war, Yugoslavia or her homeland – is about much more than her individual personal narrative, or even the local national one. Her work tells the story of struggle in everyday life, the struggle that can strike us all, regardless of nationality, race or gender.