“To render women visible is the first step towards questioning the customary relations between the general and the particular in the hierarchy of relevance in the writing of history.”1
Not only is there precious little material on the political activities of women, what little we have has been neglected and is on the verge of disappearing completely. One of the ways of trying to save history from oblivion is to engage with it through art.
The art produced in the Yugoslav lands in the second half of the last century is full of painterly and sculptural depictions of scenes from World War II. The scenes predominately depict soldiers in decisive battles. In addition to the depictions celebrating the triumph over fascism, we often see artistic compositions celebrating the socialist man rebuilding the war-torn country. Depictions of men predominate; women, although often present on the canvass or relief, are rarely protagonists. When it comes to People’s Liberation Struggle (NOB) monuments, they rarely depict women exclusively. Rarer still are those depicting female historical figures. Women are usually personifications of liberty, victory, revolution, etc. “Women are depicted as bearers of tradition even as they fight shoulder to shoulder with their brothers in arms and colleagues, gun or hoe in hand, child tugging at their skirts.”2
Due to the lack of depictions of the heroic struggle and labor of women who contributed to the defence and development of socialist Yugoslavia, we reached for the stories available in the online Archive of the Anti-Fascist Struggle of Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Yugoslavia, the documents which testify to the political activities of women in this period. For this volume we decided to produce illustrations which would deal with the key topics of the Archive: women in the struggle, labor heroism, resistance, etc. Together with artists Sunita Fišić, Nardina Zubanović, Aleksandra Nina Knežević and Kasja Jerlagić we selected documents, articles and stories we thought we should try to immortalise in art.
As an artist and feminist, I have examined the topic of the participation of women in the NOB and Women’s Antifascist Front in many works produced over the last five years. The topics I engage with in my work as an artist include the representation of women in the NOB, women’s narratives and oral histories, as well as other “sub-topics” related to women’s history in this important period. As I did in some of my previous works, here, too, I am dealing with the topic of the woman in the struggle. For one of my illustrations I used a map from the book Sutjeska 1943-733 as the background. It’s a facsimile of a sketch outlining the operations of German, Italian and Bulgarian troops in the canyons or the rivers Piva and Sutjeska. On the map showing the operations of the enemy forces I repeatedly show several female silhouettes in a combat position, prone with a gun.
Another contribution of mine, in a textual form, describes a woman in combat, a soldier, prone, her gun pointing away from the enemy. She is not shooting but sleeping. Also, she is not an abstract figure, like in the abovementioned illustration, but an actual historical personage – Mitra Mitrović, a prominent anti-fascist and participant in the NOB, an important political figure in the post-war period. Instead of showing her sleeping likeness, I wrote down her frontline memories: “Cannons roaring, rifles cracking, chaos all around me, and I’m sleepy… And so I get some sleep, freshen up, and press on. That’s how I survived.”
The reproductive role of the woman is another topic I deal with. In one of the illustrations, I foreground a realistically drawn woman with three children, whilst in the background we see the great steel construction of the freshly inaugurated bridge over the river Sava and the sign which reads “FIVE-YEAR PLAN – A BRIGHTER FUTURE FOR OUR PEOPLES”. I am connecting the Five-Year Plan with the post-war policies affecting mothers and women. I am trying to point out that economic progress and the future of the country in general were closely connected with the issue of reproduction.
Sunita Fišić’s work was inspired by a document from the Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina – a memorandum by the county committee of the AFŽ Bijeljina about the heroic work of women of this county engaged in the construction of agricultural co-operative halls and lists the example of 56-year-old Blerta Hodžić, who, “[has been] working with the brick layers from day one, nimbly climbing up and down the scaffolding, fetching brick and mortar.”4
The artist uses the ink wash technique to repeat the same female silhouette working on the construction of the co-operative hall. This highlights the physical strength and endurance of the woman working heroically on the scaffold and carrying heavy construction material, which is usually considered a man’s job.
Kasja Jerlagić also illustrates the heroism of labor. Her allegorical drawing with five figures carrying a large, heavy log, represents rural women who built the country stone by stone, log by log. The artist here is not inspired by only one specific document, article or testimony; instead, she is trying to illustrate the truth: in the post-war years, women put in an enormous number of (wo)man hours of all kinds of voluntary work, from tillage to the construction of roads and bridges, shoulder to shoulder with men, playing a key role in the building of a new Yugoslavia.
Another subject Kasja Jerlagić deals with, in a very realistic pencil drawing, is resistance. Her illustration on this topic was inspired by Olga Marasović’s article titled “Stanodavka jedne ilegalke” (A Resistance Fighter’s Landlady). Olga describes the courage which the Bašagić sisters showed when the police came to their house: “Talking to the police, the Bašagić sisters displayed the experience of seasoned resisters, members of the People’s Liberation Movement (NOP).”5
Thanks to their fearlessness, the police did not spot anything suspicious, and left their home in a short while. In the illustration we see two police officers at the house door, opened by one of the sisters who gesticulates with her whole body communicating that there is nothing hidden in the house and that all their suspicions are baseless. The work points out the boldness of the rural women who played important roles in a dangerous time and selflessly risked their lives, and the lives of the members of their households, in order to help the resistance movement forces which at the time operated underground, preparing to form military fronts and liberate the country from the fascist occupiers.
Nardina Zubanović’s expressive illustrations were inspired by an event which took place in the city of Mostar early in December 1941. The main protagonists of a mass protest called “Operation Viktorija” were Mostar women who gathered en masse at Tepa, the city market, to protest against famine and privation, demanding to be given turnip of a variety known as Viktorija. Incensed, they went to the mayor’s home to call him to account and demand food. The protest continued and turned into looting and vandalising of the purchasing offices, after which the women uprooted vegetables from the farmers’ gardens in order to conceal the fact that the protest was in fact a deeply political action against the occupiers and collaborationists. The protest was finally broken up by the police.
Aleksandra Nina Knežević uses the digital drawing technique to treat the topic of International Women’s Day, or more specifically the official slogans used to celebrate this holiday. The slogans greet the women of China and express support to their struggle against fascism, celebrates the unity of the democratic women’s movement, affirm the role of people’s teachers in the upbringing of the new socialist man, as well as the role of rural women in the improvement of the economy, consolidation of the existing co-operatives and the establishment of new ones. The slogans tell us something about what women in the post-war Yugoslavia were preoccupied with on their holiday.
Through the illustrations featured in this volume, we deal with the Archive’s key topics: the heroism of labor, resistance, women in the struggle, personal narratives and memories. This gesture of post-factum illustration of never before illustrated events, performed through the subjective experience of the artists who are trying to fill the blank pages of the female side of history, is above all a token of gratitude to all the heroines known and unknown.
The stories we recount here are stories of an era, of a struggle, of a heroic age. Thus, these illustrations do not only reflect the spirit of the age or depict specific events, they do so in the present moment, from today’s perspective, not only as an historical depiction of the past, but as a contemporary political act.
|↑1||Sklevicky, Lydia. Konji, žene, ratovi. Zagreb: Ženska infoteka, 1996, p.14.|
|↑2||Knežević, Saša. ‘Sjećanje i mjesta sjećanja. Rodna perspektiva spomenika iz NOB-a’, p. 9. WAF Archive, accessed on 9 December 2016, available at: http://www.afzarhiv.org/items/show/355|
|↑3||lBelgrade: Monos, 1973.|
|↑4||Centralni Odbor AFŽ BiH, ‘Sreski odbor AFŽa u Bijeljini Glavnom odboru AFŽa – o radu žena Janje na izgradnji zadružnih domova’, Archive of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Sarajevo, Box 4, 1370/2, 1948.|
|↑5||Jasmina Musabegović et al., Žene Bosne i Hercegovine u narodnooslobodilačkoj borbi 1941-1945. godine: sjećanja učesnika. Sarajevo: History Institute, 1977. Available from: WAF Archive, accessed on 9 December 2016, http://www.afzarhiv.org/items/show/105, see: Olga Marasović, Stanodavka jedne ilegalke, p. 9.|