Una di Gallo, Žana Kozomora, Saša Rajšić, Bojana Videkanić, Tamara Vukov, and Sonja Zlatanova (bios below)
According to multiple contemporary dictionaries the verb ‘to splain’ or ‘splaining’ “is a form of condescension in which a member of a privileged group explains something to a member of a marginalised group — most particularly, explains about their marginalisation — as if the privileged person knows more about it.” Given its meaning in the current anglophone cultural and social context, it was amusing to think how a group of people coming from a country that no longer exists could share some splaining with the West. Indeed, the peoples and territories of the former Yugoslavia have had their own fair share of being splained to, especially since the 1990. We the Balkan barbarians are continually incapable of staying on the straight and narrow, always in need of corrective and paternalistic Western lessons in ‘how to,’ as. Moving away from simple paternalistic dichotomies, the question should be: Why are post-Yugoslav territories and peoples rarely understood in Western academic and political discourses? Indeed, they suffer from an imposed and highly regulated theoretical parochialism and erasure that has variably been called “balkanist” (Todorova 1997), balkanizing (Grubačić 2010), postcolonial (Videkanić 2020), neocolonial (Stiks and Horvat 2012), racializing (Boatca 2006, Arat-Koc 2009, Miškovic 2006), and/or a semiperipheral void (Blagojević 2009). Even recent attempts to connect the region to larger political debates around race and the nonaligned legacy often miss the political, economic, and geopolitical complexities that define postsocialist transition. The intensification of this parochialization combines global hypervisibility and erasure refracted through the lenses of (post)war “transition” and semiperipheral in/visibilities. Or as Alex Dajković once put it in the title of a never completed piece of writing (citing a speech of Tito’s), “the appendage of another’s politics” (privjesak nečije druge politike). The dichotomy of hypervisibility and erasure on the one hand, and of being a recipient of westernsplaining on the other, is the liminal space we in this group of artists and thinkers continually find ourselves in.
Beyond some of the typical theoretical tropes and clichés that fail to capture the specificities of post-Yugoslav diasporas, our perspective is further complicated by the diasporic existence we find ourselves in. What the six of us have is a unique perspective shared by other Yugoslavs in the diaspora and by diasporas in general. As “insiders-outsiders” we are in several places at once, a perspective that allows us to see things that those who are strictly insiders cannot. Four of us are refugees, either born in exile or growing up in exile; all of us are immigrants; some have been guestworkers; and others children or first-generation immigrants. Our lives are shot through with movement, instability, change, and continuous adaptation. In short, we embody the afterlives of what used to be known as Yugoslavia. Capitalism, imperialism, militarism, racism, xenophobia, nationalism and violence––all aspects of the current global moment––have shaped our lives and those of our families. ‘Transition’ is an oft-used term to describe the radical transformation of East European and Yugoslav countries from socialism to wild capitalism that has been ongoing since 1989 if not earlier (Suvin 2016). While the term supposedly signified a new and ‘transformed’ era of Western-style democracy and capitalist prosperity, what it wrought was a neoliberal order defined by forms of neocolonial rule (Bosnia and Kosovo being prime examples), degradation of workers’ rights, a precipitous fall in living standards across the region, degradation of women’s and LGBTQ2S+ rights, creation of criminal oligarchies, corruption, abuse of power, etc. Transition in Eastern Europe was part of a long line of post-Cold War transformations that ushered in what David Harvey calls “the new Empire” which created new forms of dominance in Yugoslavia and many other countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Syria, etc.)
However, it is only in the last ten years or so that the reach of Empire has turned toward the insiders––the privileged white middle and upper classes of the West who did not notice its rise. Our collective experience of diasporic existence allows us to see and express through our art both the ways in which the new imperial forces of the West operate, and the ways in which the impact of those forces is felt back home. Our Yugosplaining therefore comes from the experience of seeing the Empire dissolve our former country.
The Empire’s violent reach, its wanton disregard for life, nature, dignity, solidarity, and happiness, is not news to us. The strife created through Empire’s policies of systematic dismantling of humanity is not new. We have seen it all. And just as our comrades, friends, and family from the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Syria, and Iran and have noted, we have seen the Empire eat. We have witnessed protests, massive toppling of monuments, strife, ethnic violence, the breakup of social welfare systems, and capitalism’s insatiable appetites. What we can say to Yugosplain to those in the West, is simply this: The Empire is now swallowing its children. Just like the ancient myth of Cronus eating his own children for the fear of them taking his power from him, so is the Empire today eating its own for fear of losing its grip on humanity. As outsiders/insiders we see this clearly. The thirty years of slow yet also sudden moments of decay in the former Yugoslavia has taught us that.
So, what is our bit of Yugosplaining? Each of our works presented here is both a form of witnessing and a warning. Each artist offers a visual cue which serves as a reminder of histories, both recent and older, that tell a story of Yugoslavia’s afterlives. We come from different parts of what Yugoslavia used to be: Croatia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia. We are a mix of ethnicities, languages, and religions, but have equally survived the stories of our parents, our families and ancestors, along with friends, family, and comrades who continue to fight these struggles in the region. Yugosplaining in our work is meant to counter forms of westernsplaining whether the ‘splaining comes in the guise of Western academic gatekeeping and status-seeking in the fields of International Relations and other disciplinary formations, Atlanticist political actors and policy wonks, benevolent NGO actors, foundations and political tourists, media careerists, or the exoticism and ennui of much of the art world….
… We speak back to these discourses by offering our own in a visual form.
Una di Gallo 1992, animated short, 2018.
In her short animated video entitled simply 1992, Una di Gallo takes us back to the very beginning of the transition––the end of Yugoslavia. She uses bold visual language of her animation to offer a glimpse of how it was to be inside the growing maelstrom of war in the Balkans, and Sarajevo in particular. While seemingly distant, the tension between vignettes of life that di Gallo punctuates with images of violence, are echoed today in the many conflicts raging across the world (and more recently in the West as well). 1992 also reverberates the last ten years that have witnessed similar processes develop in Syria and Libya for example, as a direct result of further Western interventions.
Unlike di Gallo’s film which takes us directly into the rising conflict, Žana Kozomora’s and Saša Rajšić’s works deal more with the war’s aftermath, as each artist visualizes their personal, and also communal sense of displacement. Kozomora’s large-scale installation From the peak of my head to the ends of my arms, is a personal journey back to Sarajevo, the city where she was born, but did not live in. Growing up in exile, the artist returns to her birthplace endeavoring to make physical connection to the architecture of home that once used to be. While doing that, her installation is an attempt to somehow rebuild and renew what has been lost. The attempt to do so remains unfinished. Similarly, to Kozmora, Saša Rajšić’s work To Un-become re-traces the displacement of his family and many other families in the aftermath of the war in Croatia. In the original performance which was started in April 2017, the artist walked 400km from the place he and his family lived as refugees in Serbia back to their home in Croatia that they were forced to leave in 1995 when Croatian army forced thousands of Serbs out of the country. In retracing his own route eastward (from Croatia to Serbia), Rajšić also connects his history to the recent refugee route westward––the so-called Balkan route, that so many refugees take in order to get from the Balkans to Western Europe. Rajšić’s work in fact maps out thirty years’ worth of human movement (from the beginning of wars in the Balkans in 1990 to today) as other wars and economic violence force people to cross the region. What both Kozomora and Rajšić point to is the constant state of flux, continued traversing, throughout this region by various peoples forced to leave their homes as a result of violence.
Tamara Vukov and Bojana Videkanić’s works both deal with the other side of the narrative of the recent history of Yugoslavia. Each artist explores various aspects of the economic, political, and social impacts of the so-called transition (a process started in its full force after the wars subsided), as they highlight the conditions of life in the region that has been deeply and systematically disemboweled by various neoliberal policies. Vukov’s long-term, meticulously researched project entitled Tranzicija/Transition consists of two documentaries which deal with two different factories in Serbia. With each factory–– Jugoremedija (Zrenjanin) and Zastava (Kragujevac)–– Vukov documents the struggles of workers to salvage their livelihoods, and the production from the relentless process of dispossession and violence enacted by local and international oligarchs. Vukov’s films offer a view into the belly of the beast so to speak, as we as viewers witness the process of accelerated privatization program followed by mass layoffs, dislocation and impoverishment, all of which came on the heels of years of war, shock therapy, and hyperinflation. Similarly to Vukov, in iztranzicionisana/Transitioned Out, Videkanic is interested in the aftermath of the war, and the violent and insidious processes of transition. Her focus however, is more particularly the lives of women under the transition, and how lives of women from her generation, her mother’s, and grandmother’s generations have been completely uprooted by social, cultural and political processes. These processes have created what theorist Rade Zinaić calls a (sub)proletariat class, people who are no longer proletariat, as their lives have been disjointed from all forms of group and political action and social processes.6 Again, women have taken the brunt of this onslaught.
Tomato Territory / Le territoire des tomates, multimedia project, 2017-ongoing. Image credit: Curtesy of the artist.
Finally, Sonja Zlatanova’s multimedia project bridges the many trajectories found in this group. Zlatanova often works with food and sustenance, and in this particular work entitled Tomato Territory / Le territoire des tomates, she uses the tomato plant as an axis around which she develops a complex story of her own, and other people’s displacement. Tomato, a plant that has spread around the world is, as the artist points out, a fruit of colonization. Once it was brought back by Christopher Columbus from the Americas to Europe, it spread far and wide, eventually making its way to the Balkans, and more particularly to Macedonia where the artist’s ancestral home is. Further complicating Zlatanova’s work is the fact that the ancestral seeds her family used back home, were then taken by her father to Switzerland, where Zlatanova lived with her parents who were guest workers. Often frowned upon by the Swiss, the growing of vegetables in the garden by her father was the only way to mentally and emotionally survive the xenophobic and racist environment in which the family had to live. Zlatanova’s work therefore, connects centuries of displacement, colonization and adaptation, all of which become embodied in a tomato fruit.
Una di Gallo
1992, animated short, 2018; see above.
1992 illustrates a young family’s experience as refugees during the Yugoslavian war. Living at the epicentre of mounting ethnic and political tensions, their story is told in short vignettes punctuated by moments of violence and conflict. Based directly on family experience, 1992 aims to be a container for these moments in time
From the peak of my head to the ends of my arms, video installation, 2018.
Twenty years after displacement, the artist returns to her birth city of Sarajevo to find and document her family’s home in ruin. Four perspectives of the house are stitched together and mirrored to collapse the structure and emphasize the anthropomorphic features of the architecture; how its porous and crumbling frame suggests a kind of living being. The panoramic, enveloping, uncanny landscape extends to the brick barricade stacked on the gallery floor, which hide layered voices of conversations sourced from the artist and her father rummaging for memory, and from unexpected visitors who occupy the structure in the present day. The installation inserts the ghostly presence of the placeless into a landscape from which notions of home and the construct of identity have all but evaporated, providing only echoes of the past, present and ambiguous future.
To Un-Become is a multimedia art project which explores the concept of un-becoming through revisiting Operation Storm in Yugoslavia and its consequences over two decades later. In April 2017, I retraced the journey of over 400km from my family’s first refugee shelter in Serbia to our former home in Croatia. For over two weeks, dawn to dusk, I walked following in reverse the same route which was taken by over 200,000 other refugees two decades previously during Operation Storm. Homes in ruins surrounded by collapsing walls can still be found in Bosnia and in Herzegovina and Croatia. These images evoked in me a stream of suppressed memories and emotions and inspired elaborate visions that would otherwise have remained unprovoked. This journey merged the evidence of war with my own memories, both actual and constructed; it created a ‘visual noise’ that became my truth during the walk. I decided to walk not to test my own stamina, but rather to surrender the experience to the will of nature. I tasked myself not to merely move between two points, but to temporarily adopt a way of being in which both facts and imagination merged. In 2017, the border between Serbia and Croatia was once again a place where humanity was at its darkest. Thousands of refugees were denied entry to the European Union and were in temporary refugee camps in Serbia. Some of them were living alongside long-uprooted Serbian refugees facing over twenty years in exile.
The term transition defines a process of moving from socialist economies of the 20th century to the neoliberal capitalist economies imposed upon the Yugoslav region by the triumphalist Western ethos that came to be predominant after 1989. In this ongoing work that combines performance, installation and video I use capitalist neocolonial language of the World Bank. IMF, various NGOs and political groups in and outside Yugoslavia. While some of the earlier versions of the project mostly dealt with the phenomenon of the Export Processing Zones, I became more interested in the lives of women under the transition, and the ways in which they have been completely uprooted by the sustained dismantling of the socio-political and cultural systems in the region. As women have taken the brunt of the onslaught of this violent processes I chose to concentrate on their experiences.
A multipart documentary project to be released in 2021- (100 min film, and expanded documentary/installation), Tranzicija [Transition] sketches a portrait of daily life, political struggle and disorientation over the course of twelve years (2006-2010, 2018) in a forgotten post-war Serbia under “tranzicija” – the transition phase of a former socialist country into neoliberal “wild” capitalism. Trancizija unfolds as an economic and very political process, but also as an emotional state whose textures the film explores through its impact on everyday people in the region. The connecting thread of the project is a road trip through the country in a Yugo car, which continues to evoke collective memories of the former Yugoslavia and is the perfect vehicle (literally) to convey the history and popular cultural resonances of pre- and early transition Yugoslavia – from the days of socialist self-management to the current economic dislocation and privatization of social property. Yugo roadstops along the way capture telling moments of encounter with the realities of transition in post-Yugoslav Serbia, from the jewel of Serbia’s transition, US Steel, to interviews with some of the key architects and grassroots opponents of neoliberal transition. Two films in the project explore two factory complexes that capture different faces of an accelerated mass privatization program that has seen mass layoffs, dislocation and impoverishment following upon ten years of war, shock therapy, and hyperinflation. The first film, Tranzicija/Transition: Zrenjanin, follows the struggle of the predominantly women workers of Jugoremedija (Zrenjanin), the first factory during the Serbian transition to have its privatization overturned and returned to worker control following a nine-month factory occupation and three year strike. The second film, Tranzicija/Transition:Yugo (Kragujevac), explores the fate of the Zastava auto plant (Kragujevac) that once manufactured the celebrated Yugo, sold under a controversial strategic partnership to Fiat in 2008. Through interviews with workers, former workers, and displaced peoples, along with archival, ambient location footage, Tranzicija [Transition] adopts an essayistic, evocative style to portray the human costs, personal impacts, as well as the struggles, grassroots resistance, & dreams of post-Yugoslav transition in Serbia.
In June 2017 during an artist residency in Sarajevo I started a piece that I call Tomato Territory / Le territoire des tomates. I chose tomatoes because they are a fruit of colonization. They came from the Americas with Christopher Columbus, arrived in Spain then in Italy. Italy was under the Spanish crown in the 16th century, and from there went all over the world. I was fascinated by this idea of the territory of a seed, of its domain – a seed which adapts, propagates, and is generally considered to be toxic before it ripens. Tomatoes are a plant of colonialism, plain and simple, but also of capitalism and the way those two things are intertwined. Today one can’t get away from tomatoes. Tomato is vegetable-fruit most produced in greenhouses all around the world and China is the leader. They’re in everything from beauty cream to any kind of tomato sauces. It’s quite a journey that these little seeds have taken.
I can’t help but draw a link to economic migration, and how it has affected my own life and the lives of my parents. My parents left Yugoslavia in the 70’s to live in Switzerland. My father’s garden was exclusively composed of things which are grown in Macedonia. Tomatoes are all through the Balkans, a basic everyone saw in their garden. This garden was the one thing which kept him sane through all of his experiences. He took his ancestral seeds and dried them all over the house in order to plant them the following spring. We had a Macedonian vegetable garden in our little Swiss village. Incidentally, it was a xenophobic and racist place, too. I found it difficult to assimilate my immigrant identity in such a place.
You could take a tomato and use it to trace the contours of many different histories, as they relate to each other but also as individual phenomena. I’m questioning relationships between power structures, social constructs, abuse of power, with a metaphor of territoriality. A woman’s body, for example, functions as another kind of territory in the way it can be stolen, occupied, violated, colonized. It was happening in Yugoslavia. Women were violated in a gesture of pure disdain. Violence was done to women and girls in order to annihilate their bodies and strip them of their identities. This line of thought has added to the corporeal, feminist element of the project for me. Seeds, and their care, has always been so-called women’s work – at least in the Balkans. Women were in charge of drying and choosing seeds. It was women who knew which ones were worth replanting and which were more likely to bear fruit. The connection is natural enough as a woman is herself a seed, a transformative being, preparing, nourishing, and so this connection has been largely internalized.
Una Di Gallo is an animator, illustrator, and zine publisher from Hamilton, Ontario. A graduate of Sheridan College’s animation program, her films have been screened internationally at festivals including TIFF, Ottawa International Animation Festival, Sarajevo Film Festival, TAIS Showcase, Le Sommets Du Cinema D’Animation, and The Animattikon Project. She has received honours from OIAF for her independent film 1992, and the award for Best Student Short at the TIFF Top Ten for stop-motion film Quarters, which she co-directed with 8 other artists. Her passion lies in experimenting with media, shape, movement and colour to recreate stark moods and atmospheres in her narratives. As a filmmaker, she enjoys exploring emotions that she finds mysterious, elusive, or otherwise difficult to put into words.
Žana Kozomora is an emerging, interdisciplinary artist, curator and arts administrator based in Kitchener, ON (Canada) and originally from Sarajevo, BiH. She is a graduate of the Honours B.A. Fine Arts Studio Program at the University of Waterloo with a Professional Practice Specialization. She has completed studio residencies with the Dundas Valley School of Art and Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. She has recently exhibited her work with Open Sesame, Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery, Xpace Cultural Centre, and Factory Media Centre. Recent curatorial projects include curating a solo exhibition of the artist collective XVK at Cambridge Art Galleries, and acting as assistant to Co-curators Jane Tingley and Alain Thibault for the multi-modal exhibition INTERACTION. She is currently in the role of Curatorial Assistant at the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery. Žana Kozomora’s visual practice consists of mining archives of objects, photos, and documentation which reference migrant history and the politics of transplanted heritage. She utilizes interdisciplinary methods of printmaking, drawing, video and media installation to investigate constructed notions of space, place, and identity mediated through contemporary media.
Saša Rajšić is an independent artist and researcher. He was born in Karlovac, Croatia, and like thousands of fellow Serbs from Croatia, fled his country during the war in Yugoslavia. He lived as a refugee in Serbia before immigrating to Canada in 2005. Rajšić studied at OCAD University in Toronto and the University of the Arts Helsinki. Recently, Rajšić presented his work at the Faculty of Law of Oxford University and Khalil Sakakini Cultural Centre in Ramallah. He is a member of Displaced Peoples, a collaborative research network of the Law and Society Association, and Art and International Justice Initiative. His work has been exhibited in Italy, Sweden, Finland, Serbia, Germany, Greece, Palestine, Spain, UK, USA, and Canada, where he currently lives and works.
Bojana Videkanić is a performance artist and an art historian born in Bosnia and Herzegovina (former Yugoslavia). She became a stateless person after the fall of her native country and came to Canada as a government-sponsored refugee in 1995. Her artistic practice mines personal experiences of displacement, movement, and identity as these intersect with larger political, social and cultural questions. Her most recent work deals with the transformation of her native country into a law-free zone for the development of various neo-liberal capitalist projects and new forms of colonization. Videkanic is an assistant professor in fine arts at the University of Waterloo, and a board member of 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival in Toronto. She has presented her work at performance festivals such as Nuit Blanche Toronto, 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival Toronto, MS:T International Festival from Calgary, Hemispherica, Montreal, IPA Platform and Workshop, Bristol, IMAFestival, Serbia. Videkanic also curates.
Tamara Vukov is filmmaker, researcher, and writer based in Montreal, Quebec. She is an Associate Professor in the Department of Communication at the Université de Montréal. Her research and art are anchored in critical approaches to political communication, engaged media and art, with a focus on mobilities, borders, and the contestation of social exclusions (particularly in the domains of migration, sexuality, labour, public health and housing justice). Her work draws on media studies, engaged research, participatory methods, and research creation (particularly documentary and experimental media). She has published in such venues as the Canadian Journal of Communication, Transfers Journal of Mobility Studies, Topia, the International Journal of Cultural Studies, Public, and Social Semiotics. Her films and videos have been presented internationally in over 15 countries.
Born in Macedonia, ex-Yugoslavia, Sonja Zlatanova, at age of seven, moved to Switzerland with her parents. After further moves to France and Germany she settled in Montréal in 2012. Following 15 years of self-taught practice in painting and sculpture, she obtained a master’s degree in visual arts and photography from the École nationale supérieure d’Arts de Paris-Cergy. Zlatanova has been active with La Centrale gallery as a board member from 2013 to 2018. In 2016, she developed a cross residence between la Centrale and Sarajevo’s art and social development organization CRVENA. Since 2013 Zlatanova has been involved with Viva Art Action performance festival, she is actively participating in the development of the festival and more specifically, the kitchen residence. Since July 2019, she joined the radio show, Radio Atelier on CIBL 101.5 as Chronique, Zlatanova aims to interview artists whose Work is underrepresented in galleries and art Centers. Since 2007, She curates exhibitions for both institutional and alternative dissemination platforms. She is currently the programming coordinator at OBORO , artist-run center, based in Montreal. Zlatanova’s artwork has been shown across Europe including galleries in Lausanne, Confluence, Paris, L’abbaye de Maubuisson art Center, Paris, Triennal des écoles d’arts, Istanbul(2006), La Générale, Paris (2007, 2008, 2009) Project Room 777, Berlin (2012) as well as in Canada: at la Centrale, Montreal, Studio 303, Eastern Bloc, VIVA art action, Montréal and many more.
 See: Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997); Andrej Grubačić, Don’t Mourn, Balkanize! Essays After Yugoslavia, (Oakland: PM Press, 2010); Bojana Videkanić, Nonaligned Modernism: Socialist Postcolonial Aesthetic in Yugoslavia, 1945-1985, (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queens University Press, 2019); Igor Stiks & Srećko Horvat, “Welcome to the Desert of Transition! Post-socialism, the European Union and a New Left in the Balkans”, Monthly Review. Vol. 63, No. 10, (2012): 38-48; Manuela Boatca , “Semiperipheries in the World-System: Reflecting Eastern European and Latin American Experiences”, Journal of World-Systems Research, 12(2), (2006):321-346; Sedef Arat-Koç, “A Cultural Turn in Politics: Bourgeois Class Identity and White-Turk Discourses.” In Hegemonic Transitions, The State and Crisis in Neoliberal Capitalism, ed. Yildiz Atasoy, 209-226. Routledge Studies in Governance and Change in the Global Era. London and New York: Routledge, 2009; Maya Miskovic, “Fierce Mustache, Muddy Chaos, and Nothing Much Else: Two Cinematic Images of the Balkans”, Cultural Studies: Critical Methodologies, Vol. 6 iss.4, (2006): 440-459; Marina Hughson-Blagojević, Knowledge production at the semipheriphery: A Gender perspective, (Belgrade: Institut za kriminološka i sociološka istraživanja, 2009).
 David Harvey, The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).
 See in particular: David Harvey, “All about oil,” The New Imperialism.
 We are not including those groups and peoples in the West who live there but are not ‘insiders’, for example Black diasporas, migrants, people of colour, the poor, the marginalized, LGBTQ2S+ among many more.
 Rade Zinaić, “Twilight of the Proletariat: Reading Critical Balkanology as Liberal Ideology,” New Perspectives: Interdisciplinary Journal of Central & East European Politics and International Relations, Vol. 25, No. 1 (2017): 1-37.