Selma Selman (b. 1991), is an artist originally from the city of Bihać, north of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and is of Romani origin. She earned her BFA from the Academy of Arts in Banja Luka, before obtaining her MFA at Syracuse University in New York in Transmedia, Visual and Performing Arts. Her materials are far-reaching: From performances and film, to lectures, and more recently, AI technology, her expansive practice aims to effect change across scales. Early on, she began recasting traditional metal remnants of recycled homework appliances, rooted in her family’s traditional labor, taking pride in the way her art acts as a tool to question, accept and redefine her family’s labor and its value. Selman’s lived experiences act as a guide to empower and educate women. Selman is the founder of the organization “Get The Heck To School” which aims to empower Roma girls all around the world who faced ostracization from society and poverty.
In conversation with Ariana Kalliga
AK: We first met during the WCSCD curatorial program this summer, in which you gave a lecture on your practice through examples of your recent video and performance works, ‘Mercedez Matrix’ and ‘Self Portrait 1 and 2’. Both of these works comment on labor and the role of transacting value from metal waste. Can you tell me more about them?
SS: My family has depended on converting metal waste into a resource to support our well-being since I was a child. After being trained in painting, I chose to make metal waste my artistic medium in order to question the perceived value and relations between metal waste, technology and art. I was interested in the way the same material when transformed into art acquires a different kind of value. For example, in Self-Portrait 1 and 2, I destroy multiple vacuums/ a washing machine, sorting both the valuable parts from the less valuable.
The reason I reference my family in this work, and in all of my works, is that through using their image I make the labor they do accepted in society. As I mentioned, my family’s everyday survival is dependent on the process of selling the remaining metal and motors to recycling centers. My labor and the resulting objects, on the other hand, are sold as performance art and sculptural production.
AK: Naturally this is a process of transformation – can you speak to me about what other kinds of transformations take place after you translate this labor into art?
SS: These performances are a transformative process of continuous construction and deconstruction. In Mercedes Matrix, we are deconstructing a symbol of capitalism, while also constructing a new kind of labor from the piecing apart of the car and its transformation into art. With the washing machine, on the other hand, I am visually destructing a housework device that became associated with the enslavement of housewives for more than a century, but I am also constructing my own identity in a moment of catharsis, when I ease the inner tensions that both destroy and construct who I am as I dismantle these objects in a precise and surgical way.
With regards to the transformation of metal – it is interesting to mention that all of the metals on the surface of the Earth today emerged from apocalyptic meteor showers 200 million years ago. Every human tool comprised of metals today – from forks to phones – emerged from collisions and chemical reactions that would have wiped out the entire species. As an artist, I feel that there is something important in the ordering of these scale levels but I am not able to articulate exactly why. Lately I’ve been thinking of human society in terms of planetary layers of time and space, especially in light of how Corona has forced us to think at the scale of a planet.
AK: In Viva La Vida (2016) you reference oppression, eroticism, patriarchy. Can you tell me more about your interest in fighting patriarchy through your work?
SS: In Viva La Vida, I staged a performance blending art historical and international cultural tropes. Using myself for the camera specifically, I reference oppression, eroticism, patriarchy, femininity, as well as the physical and psychological abuse of the body. While I attack and eat the watermelon placed between my open legs, I weave cross cultural narratives and histories signifying rape, victimhood as well as emancipation. These issues are a very important part of my work that I am constantly working on. Whether I am discussing women’s rights in interviews, lectures, mentoring children in my village or privately.
When you are a woman fighting patriarchy, you are instantly perceived as being dangerous. I was recently featured in the cover of the Elle magazine and on the cover it says, ‘The Most Dangerous Woman of the World’. This is a reference to the way women who speak out against patriarchy are instantly perceived as dangerous. And you know, I felt so privileged to be given this title!
All of us, all women, and even men, are fighting patriarchy everyday. I have been fighting patriarchy all of my life. It is still the hardest thing to deal with starting with your own family. For example, my father is a very traditional man, and when I was growing up he didn’t allow us to wear certain things or wear red lipstick, because we always had to be good daughters. Of course, this influenced me in many ways, till I discovered the freedom we all should have to express ourselves.
It is good that I started so young in art because I learnt about how bad and cruel the art world can be. You need to find a balance and take care of yourself, because you can always be exposed or used as an artist. I think I know how to handle it but I still haven’t had the opportunity to fight those people because everything that has happened to me is on that ‘normal’ level, where I could handle it.
AK: You have often remarked that your life and art are deeply intertwined. Can you describe your creative process?
SS: All of my works come from personal experience and this is always political. Sometimes I intuitively make work and later on I discover that this work makes sense. The process for me is very natural. I actually used to dream a lot of my works up! I had this nightmare that I had this machine in my head that I had to turn. A lot of ideas came to me from that! Also, the performance, Don’t look in my Gypsy eyes, came to me in a dream. I don’t suffer when I am coming up with ideas. I suffer when I am done. It is very hard for me to display, to package it up.
I lived in a very interesting environment growing up. Living in an impoverished environment, where there are a lot of problems, sometimes the experience can be an artwork. People always used to criticize me. They used to say, ‘it is easy for you to come up with ideas because of your experiences.’ The fact is, I really had a fucked up life, I struggled and made a lot of sacrifices, but I don’t choose to talk about these experiences in this way. But, for instance, I do not like to work on a topic in short-period residencies. I can’t do work especially if you tell me what to do, I don’t know how to work on these “hot topics”.
AK: Do you believe in collaborative work?
SS: In the first few years, I couldn’t collaborate with others and mainly worked with myself. Then I kind of experimented. I’ve done a lot of work with my art partner, my ex boyfriend and a lot of performances we did were very successful. I come up with ideas, but I can be challenged in putting this into form. My art partner, he is very good with this, but he doesn’t have any ideas because he says my life is so boring! And then together we actually make really good work and I manage to learn more. Collaboration is not good for all projects, but having an art partner or group can sometimes be really productive.
AK: You’ve been moving between your two bases, the United States and Bosnia this year. How has your experience of the two sides shaped your view of this moment?
SS: I went back to New York in the summer. Things were strict, you weren’t able to go outside, museums were closed, there wasn’t any social life. I came back to Bosnia again in February and everything was kind of normal. Cities are empty at night, but other than that, everything works, even clubs. If you wear a mask, you are perceived as sick or carrying the virus and people are scared of you. This was the toughest time of the year yet there were parties, people were coming together. The entire Balcans are very affected by Covid-19 but people are more relaxed. On the other hand, I understand that it can be harmful not to see others, not to spend time with anyone but yourself.
What I’ve learnt is that you have to strategically think about how you can help people in times of crisis, because there are many people who are dying because they are hungry and not because of the virus. There is huge poverty in Bosnia, people don’t have a social security and income paid by the government. Imagine for the Roma community that doesn’t have the same rights, what can people do aside from going to the markets to sell merchandise, or sell things in order to make a living? We live in a very challenging time in times of the greatest poverty when the poor become poorer and the rich become richer.
How does this crisis vary from the crises experienced in Bosnia since the end of the war in the 1990s?
Since the end of the war there has always been a crisis in Bosnia. I can’t remember a time when people were happy in Bosnia about politics, about salaries, health, anything. This is also visible in the art market. We still don’t have an art market, we don’t have many galleries or critics. What we have is three presidents corresponding to the three territories of Bosnia. The three of them get a salary and every city has a municipality and mayor and when you think of the budget of the whole country, 50-60 percent goes to this salary. People are forced to make a living on their own and they are also helped by a large diaspora community. But this is not entirely good as the diaspora only ends up helping the government that is doing nothing. I see this in my foundation, Get the Heck to School. I know this is not my job, to give kids scholarships and help get them to school. This is the job of the government but the problem is that if you wait you lose.
When you mention the diaspora, how do you feel about your own place between the US and Bosnia. Do you feel like you are part of the diaspora community?
This boils down to the question of home. For me, home is anywhere I feel comfortable and accepted. Sometimes, even when I am in my hometown, I don’t feel good, you know. It just depends. I always say, even though it’s a bit cliché, that I am part of the universe. We are all part of the universe. We all have our own minds but we are equal. I don’t perceive myself as a nomadic artist, I wouldn’t move if I didn’t have to. But it’s part of my job, and to be honest, I begin to enjoy it as it becomes part of me – the inspiration this brings.
Moving between the US and Bosnia has given me a chance to see the world through many layers over the years. Both the US and Bosnia have their own special moments and advantages and disadvantages. I had to leave Bosnia and it was very hard because you have to do it alone, to get out of poverty and get your voice heard worldwide. In the US I had a chance to work on myself as an individual, to empower myself and to trust more to my own capacities and knowledge. In Bosnia, you are perceived as a narcissist if you say good things about yourself and in the US, if you do not do it, on the other hand, then no one would know about you. I had to balance both “worlds”.
AK: Can you tell me more about Get the Heck to School?
SS: Project “Marš u školu” / “Get the Heck back to school” aims to provide scholarship and school meals to Bihać Roma community children, however, primarily girls. Through fundraising events and sale of my artistic work, I financed the program since 2017 and it has supported over 50 students to date. By providing direct financial support to children, the project encourages them to complete primary school but also assists families that otherwise would make their children work alongside their parents. The project targets girls particularly, as traditional Roma communities would favor investment in boys’ education, as well as aims to eliminate the practice of early marriages which often prevent further education. By becoming positively accepted in the community, the project has actually affected the perception of the value of education and aims to improve the life of the collective, not only targeted children.
AK: What are the next plans we will see from you?
SS: For now I am preparing these two big solo shows in Sarajevo in the National Gallery and Kassel. With these, I am really curious to see my works on display, as a conclusion of the last ten years of my career. Next year I am heading to the Rijkacademie, I want to research and see in what ways I can take my practice, especially focusing on researching artists, reading more, and philosophy. This would be the first time in my life that I will have a large studio of 100sqm. I am really looking forward to the mentors. For instance, Adrien Piper will give a lecture and it is really important to me to hear her talk and see her work when she is there. I am also working on a 100 year plan, which incorporates AI, to help eliminate stereotypes for Roma people.
AK: What is the central conceptual premise of this project?
SS: The conceptual framework will center around the construction of a 100 year plan to solve the issues of the Roma people. The construction will take advantage of the capacities of the newest technologies to flexibly connect academics, organizers, cultural producers, community members in a non-hierarchical, but focused conversation. The 100 year plan is not simply a collection of just the present nor the past – but problems, solutions, current capacities and future affordances. This is based on the physical phenomena used by today’s quantum computers and resonates with Black Quantum Futurism’s ideas of reframing relations of time and possibility to enable new social configurations.
The materials of the 100 year plan will be made available online for constant, open feedback and discussion, from across all levels – academics, organizers, artists and community members. The parameters of the problem of a 100 year plan are open enough for all 4 levels of society to contribute a functional component of a problem or a solution.
AK: Do you think that AI can eliminate something as deep seated as a stereotype?
SS: Technology can be used as a tool but the limitation of technology is the imagination of humans. I think transdisciplinary artists will have a better chance to create ethical technology than someone trained in business and engineering alone.
AK: What advice would you give to young artists?
SS: I think that every artist has to find a way of surviving. Most of us don’t have the infrastructure of monthly payments. If you get too much into commercial art, on the other hand, you lose another side and become unsatisfied with inventing. I consider myself first and foremost an inventor, and I am more interested in this than the capital side of art. This happens, how should we say, naturally, you naturally begin selling your work, you naturally get paid for your work, which every artist should be.
Even though I am an artist my life is behind everything I do, which is intimate and real. I put my entire intimate life in public because I want people to have emotions when they see my work. I give this to people, regardless of critiques of the kind, Why is this art?
Every time I fail, and I think, there are so many things that don’t work, I try to find a way out. Even if things aren’t going the way they could, I think, maybe they will be better the next day. Everyone, each of us has doubts about their own self, do you know enough, do you speak well, is your art good enough? Questioning is good because it means you are growing. It’s very important to question yourself.