THIS CONVERSATION WAS FIRST PRINTED IN ISSUE THREE MAKERS IN MARCG 2018
With every New Year, new anxieties, projects and challenges arrive. This year, I had the opportunity to talk to Dragana Jurisic. Dragana was born in Slavonski Brod, a city in the east of Croatia, part of former Yugoslavia. She took up photography after her home was destroyed during the Croatian War of Independence, then subsequently took up writing as an alternative means of expression. Her first book YU: The Lost Country, a mixture of reportage and reflection, focused on an examination of a home that is no longer acknowledged. In exhibition at the Gallery of Photography in Temple Bar, her most recent project, My Own Unknown, explores the complexities of exile, politics, and the complexities of real and imagined female identities. Twenty minutes before the exhibition opens its doors to the public, we sit facing her work. I talk with Dragana about being an immigrant, a woman, and an artist in our own no man’s land, where we would be least bothered by the borders both of us chose to cross.
Do you have any memory of the first photograph you ever clicked?
Yes, it was a self-portrait, before the era of selfie. I think it was done during the war. I had discovered there was a dark room on the campus where I was living and that no one was using it. That was the first picture I took, and it wasn’t when I took it that I thought it was something substantial, but when I developed it in the dark room later - I realised that it was powerful and something that had helped me grow as a person and in the knowledge of how I could contribute to society.
Was your father a photographer?
Yes, but an amateur photographer.
Just a hobby?
Yeah, but a bit more serious than professional photographers. We still get into fights about focusing, exposing...he never listens to anything, I tell you.
Dads are like that. [both laugh]
Yeah, but he’s proud of how much I have achieved.
Was there an instance that made you decide to mix writing with photography?
I was thinking about this only yesterday for some reason. I think I was neither a good photographer or a good writer, but I knew that I could use the combination of the two quite efficiently. I’m not sure that’s true actually…
That is true, this [exhibition] is an example of that.
I think there’s a history to that - I had learnt to read from comics, and comics utilise both image and text. For me, it was a way I could approach language, and this is a continuation of that. I used to hear photographers say, ‘I’m not a photographer- I’m an artist’. They’re total douchebags for having that approach, but I do understand in thatI don’t only use photography to express myself. I actually use anything I possibly can, just as long as it suits what I’m trying to convey; the story or the idea. Predominantly I use photography, and for me photography is easy because it’s something I’ve been around all my life. I feel quite confident about it. Writing, on the other hand, is so much more difficult, you know, but when you get it right it’s so much more satisfying. So, I like the means of expression that comes with photography; it comes as a kind of second nature to me. I’ve to work really hard on my writing.
Blank pages can be really scary…
It’s really scary. When I started writing My Own Unknown, I wasn’t really planning to turn it into a novel. I thought it’ll be like my first book; a confluence of image-text, in which the image and text are equally represented.
A photo book of sorts?
Yes, a photo book with text, though I suppose not many photo books have text.
And not many artists like text in photo books?
They don’t. I was in Antwerp recently where a well-known writer gave a talk on photography and photo books. He lashed out that no one reads text in photo books, but I think my book YU: The Lost Country disproved that statement. A lot of photo books have text, but the key is that the text in them has to be so strong for it to be effectual. In a photo book, text and image are competing, and images are much more powerful for attracting someone’s attention.
So My Own Unknown definitely doesn’t qualify as a photobook for you. Would you rather call it a graphic novel?
I don’t know. I have been thinking about it. It’s not really a graphic novel, I’m trying to find a new name for what it is. Maybe a photo-novella? That sounds really cheap and cheesy.
I’d buy a photo-novella.
I’m trying to find a place for this book. It doesn’t fit easily into the literary world, nor is it a photo book. I don’t think many photo book publishers would touch it because it has so much text, and literary publishers won’t touch it because of the cost associated with the production of something like this. I often seem to work between the worlds, between writing and photography, between Croatia, Yugoslavia, and Ireland. It’s the same in publishing- I sit between the artistic and the literary.
Self-publishing is great and you can move the book quite quickly, but if I self-publish My Own Unknown as a novella or a photo-novella, the danger lies in what happened with my first book. It sold out so quickly, in just two months. It’s very flattering, but means that the book had no shelf-life.
Do you think personally it was more engaging for you to engage yourself with My Own Unknown rather than YU:The Lost Country?
I think I enjoyed making this much more. I found making YU: The Lost Country really isolating and lonely. Everything I had set out to do with that project was a failure. Even if the project was very successful in what I had set out to do- to recreate a country from a metaphysical space where my identity can reside.
There’s a nostalgia about Yugoslavia in Balkan countries at present, do you share this sentiment as well?
What you have in Ex-Yugoslav Republics like Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia are two extremes. One is the total denial of Yugoslav identity, our common history being deleted by popular culture. The other extreme is Yugo-nostalgia and any project, book or piece of visual art is seen as a Yugo-nostalgic object, but Yugo-nostalgia has a meaning of traitorship there. It’s not going to stop. If someone says you’re not Yugo-nostalgic, they mean that you’re traitor of your own country. Yu: The Lost Country has been described as Yugo-nostalgic. It was very positively received by the media, but other comments were full of hatred.
How long has it been since you moved to Ireland?
Why did you choose Ireland?
I came here to visit friends. I didn’t plan to stay. When I landed here first, I fell prey to a cultural shock of sorts; all the buildings were really short and people looked different, but it provided me with some kind of oasis. It was a very different time for me when I moved here in ’99. I felt so angry with what had happened to me. I felt angry with the way people on borders were treated like sub-humans, and in the late 90’s there was a lot of racism there, and a lot of prejudice against White Eastern Europeans. Somehow, I found the people here to be very beautiful and I felt safe in Ireland.
Has it impacted your work as well? Having moved here and made Ireland your second home?
I was visiting a Polish friend, a writer who writes in Spanish. She writes satirical novels about writers who write in second languages, like Joseph Conrad or Samuel Beckett. We were walking and talking about the English language. I asked her why she chose to write in Spanish, considering that she speaks eight languages, working as a translator on the side. She said it was because Spanish was the language in which she became a person. She moved to Spain when she was nineteen and lived there for over ten years. Her character was shaped there. It was a beautiful thing to say. Similarly I wasn’t an artist before I came to Ireland. I became an artist here.
Do you see yourself living in Ireland in the future?
There would have to be a very special reason why I’d move. I’d never go back home. I mean, home is not an appropriate term for where I come from. I hope they never come here.
A large part of My Own Unknown is the 100 Muses project, a powerful reimagination of the female nude. To what extent do you think that 100 Muses reflects the autonomy of power that Irish women have on their bodies?
We are, according to law in this country, second class citizens who have no body autonomy. They want us to become pregnant and become the property of Irish State. I remember a video by an African American obstetrician who was really pro-life until he started considering body autonomy in terms of slavery, when black people were brought to America and had no right on their reproductive life. Thinking like that, he became pro-choice. 100 Muses has a lot to do with this. I wanted to give the women who volunteered a tool of self-representation, to choose images that represent them and also to take ownership of how their body will move and what did they want to represent with this movement.
It was a very liberating project. It completely changed my attitude towards the way I look at my body. 100 women, aged from 18 to 85 sit down and tell you the same things you feel about yourself - like a mirror. It’s amazing how destructive self-criticism is - women are told to feel bad about their bodies, that they’re never good enough, and the perfect sense of beauty is completely unattainable.
In the age of Me Too and male sexual entitlement, it very much has a western world validity. Really clever men who appear to be on our side can’t understand certain things as they are blind to their own privileges. I challenged a very successful photographer friend that you can’t support women's rights if you do nothing to show your support. Telling me in a pub that you are pro-gender equality, yet not acting on it, does nothing to dismantle inequality.
Is there male dominance in the Irish visual art scene?
I think it’s getting much better. In Ireland, as compared to the other countries where I’ve showed work, we are approaching equality in terms of numbers. People who have proper gallery representations, who have museum shows, and actually are able to make money solely out of their art practice, are mostly men, and that’s where the scene is very much still male dominated.
If you were not an artist, what would you like to have been?
A mathematician. If I could have a double life, I’d like my other self to be a mathematician.