When she first heard the title of 2019’s Venice Biennale of Art, May You Live in Interesting Times, North Macedonian visual artist, Nada Prlja, thought of her childhood and adolescence in Yugoslavia. Representing the North Macedonia pavilion, Prlja didn’t want to just draw on nostalgia. Instead, she went on to explore how forgotten political ideas could provide alternative solutions for today’s socio-economic problems.
As the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Prlja was graduating from the Fine and Applied Arts High School in Skopje, then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. She had mixed feelings about the collapse of communism. “We celebrated the fall of the Wall, but we were at the same time frightened and felt unsettled about what tomorrow would bring,” Prlja told The Calvert Journal. She says that she had experienced a similar confusion when the leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, died in 1980 (she was only 10 at the time).
While in her country, like in most of Eastern Europe, the socialist era is now condemned because of its totalitarian undertones, Prlja uses her art to reference both the job security which defined the communist regime (unless, of course, you were a political dissident or stepped on the Party’s toes) and the rich culture of Yugoslavia, owed partly to the freedom the country enjoyed compared to other states in the socialist bloc. In a way, Prlja is not alone in this pursuit. Her generational peers, the conceptual artists Hristina Ivanoska and Gjorgjie Jovanovik, also make art taking a revisionist look on the transition to capitalism. But what sets Prlja apart is her commitment to exploring this troubled history by focusing on material artefacts, and the social and cultural life they sparked.
Subversion to Red, her project for North Macedonia’s pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, included three sculptures called The Collection: She does what she wants: l, ll and lll, inspired by the collection of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Skopje. Founded in 1963, the museum accrued its collection of over 7,000 artworks from donations made by 66 countries and individual artists, after Skopje was devastated by an earthquake that same year. Growing up in Skopje, the museum was the only place where Prlja could see original works of international contemporary art.
The artist sees the neglect of socialist cultural heritage, such as art archives, monuments, or Brutalist architecture in Skopje, as a loss. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain, like many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, North Macedonia wanted to break from its recent past to chase western ideals and neoclassical splendour, whilst eradicating its built heritage. “This collection matters to me from both a global and a more personal perspective. In a way, my work pays tribute to this rare example of international solidarity, which occurred during the Cold War but truly defied it,” Prlja says. Indeed, by revisiting this historical period, Prlja celebrates something more than cultural heritage; a time of unity, when humanity transgressed ideological and physical borders.
This isn’t the first time Prlja has challenged mainstream political beliefs governing her country. Her most confronting work is a 2007 video titled Glass Factory 1954-94, revisited 2007 made as a critique of the country’s transition to capitalism when state-owned factories fell into the hands of private individuals, for next to nothing. Located on the outskirts of Skopje, the glass factory in question, Staklara, employed more than 4,000 workers during its 40 years. In 1994, 800 workers were made redundant in a single day. In the video documenting the abandoned buildings of this factory through archive material, Prlja counts from one to 800 via a voiceover “in an attempt to restore a sense of dignity by assigning a number, at the very least, to every single person who had once been employed by this factory.” Eventually, she loses track of the numbers.
Prlja’s desire to reconcile ideological tensions might be linked to her own upbringing. Her mother comes from an aristocratic family who lost a factory once the communist regime took over the country after the Second World War, but her father’s parents were committed communist partisans. “My liberal parents taught me that you can overcome physical or mental borders, that differences can be respected and even bring something beautiful to the world,” Prlja says.
Living between Skopje and London, where she received an MPhil at the Royal College of Arts in 2002, Prlje also engages with the theme of migration in her practice. In 2008, she recreated the typical queue at airport passport control as one example of the harsh realities North Macedonian economic migrants face when leaving the country in search for a better life.
That same year, she also made a poster made of silk and emblazoned with the slogan: “A worker who does not speak English is no worker.” Since 1990, about half a million North Macedonians — a third of the total population — has migrated mainly to Western European countries. Like many Eastern European migrants, they have to make a tough choice to abandon their families, communities, careers, and professions, and leave for better salaries in unskilled jobs in more developed economies.
As an artist, Prlja feels a responsibility to document these experiences. Her hope is that ultimately, more empathy and solidarity — translated into policy and a different political climate — will bring change both in her native country and across the world.