This Bosnian-British artist is fighting to keep the experience of child refugees alive  

Ana Cvorovic was inspired by her own refugee experience, as well as those of communities around her. Now, these tensions are finding a release through brightly-coloured conceptual art.

9 March 2020

“Everything I make has a reference to childhood,” artist Ana Cvorovic tells me as we walk through her exhibition, Borders Unfold, at PiArtworks in central London. We are surrounded by translucent plastic spheres, each allowing a glimpse of the brightly-coloured children’s swimsuits tucked inside. They are placed on top of old single-bed mattresses, arranged in two rows, as if we were in a children’s hospital by the sea. The Darth-Vader-like sound of air being blown into the translucent double curtains which hang from the ceiling echoes the feeling of being underwater. Perhaps it’s what a baby would hear in the womb.

“All the materials I use are second hand,” Cvorovic says. “They have already had another life.” This is important to the artist. Cvorovic seems more connected to her past than others. And, just like the objects she uses, that past is still with her.

From Borders Unfold (2019) at Pi Artworks in London
From Borders Unfold (2019) at Pi Artworks in London

Born in Sarajevo in 1981, Cvorovic moved to the small Herzegovinian town of Grude as a child, before migrating with her parents to the UK aged eight when the Yugoslav regime collapsed. She says she started drawing scenes from home while watching the Yugoslav civil war on TV in London. “It became a therapeutic process, a way of reconnecting with a country and a past I had been uprooted from – where so much tragedy had happened without my physical presence being there,” Cvorovic says.

The most traumatic moment for Cvorovic and her family was the loss of her younger brother during the war. Cvorovic’s brother, who had cerebral palsy, had stayed in Bosnia in a hospital for disabled children run by one of the family’s friends. Cvorovic’s parents planned to bring him to the UK once they had found full time care. Instead, “he became trapped by the war,” Cvorovic recalls. Within a year, he died. (Two months after his death, staff fled the hospital, leaving the children there alone for three days until the UN arrived.) “The worst sort of thing happened to us,” Cvorovic says.

“You can’t replace those first years of your life and what they meant”

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The artist later spent eight years undergoing daily sessions of psychoanalysis provided by a charity — one year of psychoanalysis for every year spent in Bosnia, she remarks. It means that Cvorovic is used to introspection: psychoanalysis helped her overcome her artist’s block and manage her anxiety better, she says. Transforming her early traumas into art also gives her a “psychic release from all that pressure”.

Art and therapy seem tightly interlinked for Cvorovic. “These channels offered self-expression as well as a way of being seen,” she says. Cvorovic continuously practiced art at school before embarking on an art degree at Brighton University and London’s Royal College of Art (RCA), graduating in 2013. Cvorovic’s peers are international artists she met through RCA and her later practice. But she still follows artists with Balkan roots, such as Serbian Ivana Basic, Bosnian-born Norwegian Elmedin Žunić and Serbian-born Bojan Šarčević, from a distance.

During an artist residency in Utica last year however, Cvorovic did work with a community of Bosnian refugees. (According to the US Census bureau, just over 100,000 Bosnian refugees live in the United States. Seven thousand are based in Utica.) In workshops with young people, she asked them to create a monument that they’d like to see exist in the real world, and gave them materials including cardboard, fabric, carpet and floor samples, foam, wood, paint, granite, metal, and wire, to make models for those monuments. While some built models for ideal houses, others — a lot of them — recreated small versions of the refugee camps in which they grew up. “It was amazing.”

“I wouldn’t say they all had traumatic memories of the refugee camps. Some of them lived quite happily there. Ultimately, they came to America to live this American dream, and they were unbelievably high spirited. This reminds me of the [bright] colours in this show.”

When Donald Trump visited Utica, people protested with signs celebrating Utica’s refugee and immigrant communities.

But Cvorovic also connected with one workshop attendee who shared her passion for landscape: something that often features in Cvorovic’s work, including cityscapes painted directly onto fabric. Slightly older than Cvorovic, the woman came to Utica with her son in 1997. When she started seeing similarities between the mountains and the hills and the water in Utica and Bosnia, she felt like she could settle there. Every week she went hiking. “We really identified with each other for sharing a sense of longing, that can be a bit boring for other people, saying “oh, this reminds me of home”. I’ve been here for 30 years now but you can’t replace those first years of your life and what they meant,” Cvorovic says, thoughtfully.

The Ružnić market in Utica is a meeting point of the Bosnian community.
The mosque in Utica replicates designs from traditional Bosnian houses.

We end the exhibition tour with a khaki curtain that had a drawing of an explosion in Aleppo stuck in the top right corner. “It makes me cry when I see images or what’s going on there. It’s too painful because it’s unbelievable how destructive it is,” she says.

I ask her how she relates her own experience to the current refugee crisis. As a newly-arrived schoolgirl in London, she was bullied because of her accent and clothes. Yet Cvorovic doesn’t seem to dwell on this too much. “Anyone moving to a new place will experience difficulties, because it’s hard for people to accept newcomers,” she says.

“In some ways, we had an easier ride, because there were less of us [refugees], and London was less populated. But maybe because London has become more mixed, there’s more acceptance and awareness.”

What remains important for Cvorovic now is to keep the conversation on refugee experiences alive in a world long desensitised to their suffering.

“I’m most passionate about talking about childhood and children. It’s very difficult to speak about child refugees or abuse. [And] I do feel like there’s a lack of discussion.”

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