Selma Selman is the Bosnian artist breaking down cars, washing machines, and the patriarchy

Bosnian, American, Roma: many people wish to place Selma Selman in one category or another. But the artist's multi-faceted identity cannot be easily summed up — nor can her creativity be controlled.

4 November 2020

It is a trope with its roots deep in racism: look too long in the eyes of a gypsy woman, and she’ll put a spell on you. It is also the inspiration for Selma Selman’s video performance Don’t Look Into Gypsy Eyes.

Gazing into the camera, the frame pulled in tight around her face, the Bosnian artist begins to speak. “I am a Roma woman; I am a gypsy,” she says. “And if I look into my eyes, anything can happen. I can put a spell on you.”

The performance is just one example of a running theme in Selman’s work. She takes a stereotype about her own Roma community, deconstructs it, strips it of context, and pushes it to its logical limits to show just how meaningless it is. “I deploy art as a mechanism to fight marginalisation, to fight stereotypes,” she says.

Born in Bihać, in the north of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1991, Selman graduated from the Academy of Arts in Banja Luka, and obtained her Master’s Degree at the Syracuse University in New York. Today, she splits her time between Europe, the United States, and museums and galleries across the world that exhibit her work.

“When I introduce myself, I do say that I am an artist of Roma origin,” she tells me over the phone. But she makes it clear that there is a neat distinction between that and being labelled solely as a “Roma artist”. “I don’t have a ‘Roma brain’, ‘Roma heart’ or ‘Roma hands’. I don’t like such labels in art, and I don’t think it should be expected of me to deal with certain topics just because I am Roma,” she explains.

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It is a delicate balance. Selman doesn’t renounce to her heritage; on the contrary. She uses her personal and communal experience in her art. Inevitably, however, sometimes her own lived experiences and the reality for her Roma community intertwine. The metal canvases that she uses to paint, for example, spring from her memories of helping her father separate salvageable and unsalvageable parts of machinery: cars, washing machines, and other kitchen appliances.

“My father would ask me to help salvage broken washing machines and fridges. Some of these machines were so heavy that they required both my father and me to work together to extract, separate and salvage them,” she remembers.

Now, Selman uses that knowledge in her art, dismantling old cars for onlookers in art galleries or museums. “When you dismantle a Mercedes back in my neighbourhood, what’s valuable is the spare parts you get. But when you do it in a gallery, the value lays in the process, which is labelled as art. The results are the same, however,” she says.

She hopes that, one day, a kindly donor will give her a private jet to destroy. In the meantime, she chooses other symbolic objects. In a performance named Self-Portrait, she dismantles a washing machine in metaphorical rebellion against gender roles. “The performance destroys a household appliance associated with enslavement of housewives for more than a century,” Selman says. “It provides a moment of catharsis in which the artist and the viewer can ease the inner tensions that both destroy and construct them.”

Selman destroys a washing machine during a performance. Image courtesy of the artist

It is clear that Selman doesn’t consider herself only as an artist, but also as an activist. “I don’t consider art just as a pleasurable activity. I’d say that all my work has activist elements embedded in them. I think that art has to change and challenge, not just to question things,” she explains.

These pieces of art-activism can sometimes draw controversy. In 2014, while visiting the German city of Weimar, Selman urinated on the area formerly known as Adolf-Hitler-Platz. The performance I Pissed on Your Land took some twenty seconds, and was documented in a series of photos by Selman’s friend. It soon caused uproar. “This work caused so much misunderstanding! Some of my friends and even professors stopped talking to me. They misunderstood my work,“ Selman believes. Critics, she said, saw it as an act of denigration against the city of Weimar or German culture. Selman argues that by urinating on “Nazi soil”, where Hitler himself made many of his early speeches, she wanted to draw attention to the genocide of the Roma people during Third Reich and its delayed recognition. “Without a country, the Roma people were mistreated and their suffering was not recognised until the 1980’s. That is a is terrible discrimination, and the only thing I was able to do, was to piss on the land! That urine is a monument to the Roma and all other minority victims’ suffering,” Selman concludes.

Would she do a different performance today? “If I were to do it again, I think I’d still do it in the same way. The performance still makes sense today. And I did it to recognise the life and humanity of Roma victims, to educate people about it,” she says.

In 2014, while visiting the German city of Weimar, Selman urinated the area formerly known as Adolf-Hitler-Platz. The performance I Pissed on Your Land took some twenty seconds. It soon caused uproar

But not all of Selman’s controversial work is tied into grand, public gestures. Much of it is tightly bound to her personal or family life: “For me, there’s no real distinction between private life and art. When I express myself through my art, I share a big part of me with my audience.”

In one such performance, Selman literally “buys her freedom” from her family. “In [some] Roma communities in the Balkans, such as the one I grew up in, underage and arranged marriage is pretty common. Roma girls are still married very young. People consider it simply as a tradition and don’t question it,” she says. Her mother, two sisters, and many of her friends were all married young through arranged marriages. Giving money to her parents became Selman’s equivalent of securing her own dowry, or buying her own hand in marriage, in a bid to free herself from tradition.

“My parents never believed that I would succeed in life if I didn’t get married, if I didn’t find a man who would take care of me.”

“In the Balkans, where patriarchy is still pretty much the norm, women are expected to get married, have a husband, be sustained, have children,” Selman recalls. “My parents never believed that I would succeed in life if I didn’t get married, if I didn’t find a man who would take care of me.”

The issue took root during Selman’s MA course, when she dug into the roots of child and arranged marriage in the Balkans’ Roma communities back to the 15th century. The Roma then married their daughters young in order to protect them from occupying Turkish soldiers, who’d take them by force. “The custom of child and arranged marriage was misattributed as a Romani tradition, rather than a defensive strategy in a specific historical circumstance,” Selman believes. Today, she explains, the main reason for child marriages in Roma communities is not cultural, but economical. “My father married off my sister in order to buy a wife for my brother, and because my father thought she would have a good life in a rich family,” she explains.

In the first part of the project, Selman documented negotiations over price with her relatives, as well as filming her family members at work and the different hierarchies within the family itself. The second section shows videos in which Selman sells her art, hair and tickets to upcoming shows to collect the money she needs to buy her freedom. The artist remains matter-of fact about the whole experience. When I ask her how she felt during the process, she responds: “What is there to feel?” “I had to do it, I had to start so that in future there will be more of women [like me] who will fight for their own freedom.”

Selman performing her artwork, “Superpositional Intersectionalism” in 2017. Image courtesy of the artist

Although the work caused a stir, Selman says that her family ended up being very supportive of her project. “Firstly, because they needed money, and secondly because they wanted me to become famous,” she says. Selman remains close to her family, and maintains that her mother is a far greater artist that she is. “My mother doesn’t know much about numbers or how to write, but when it comes to handling money, she’s Bill Gates!”, Selman says, laughing. “I have learnt a lot from her. While I was growing up, she always told me not to be like her. She had a difficult life, but I don’t think of her as a victim, but as a heroine”, Selman explains.

For now, Selman is continuing to explore the duality between personal and universal, between herself and her community and the rest of the world.

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Her work Superpositional Intersectionalism is a series of 30 drawings, some done with her right hand, some with her left hand. Selman says she was inspired by the phenomenon of quantum superposition in physics, or the ability of a single particle to occupy two places at once. “When I transposed that concept to the way I experience my body and identity, or identities in general, I started playing with the idea of intersectionality. I decided to create these hybrid creatures that showcase multiple identities, revealing the fluidity that’s embedded in them,” she explains. The drawings look surreal, dream-like; multiple body shapes melt into one another. No creature represented is purely male or female, black or white.

In a performance of the same name, Selman acts out a boxing match where she herself is simultaneously the trainer, athlete and opponent. She punches herself and defends herself. She attacks herself and knocks herself down. She encourages herself to get up again and again. The whole performance represents a live version of the superposition of bodies, identities and relations between them.

“I am not just a Roma, Bosnian, American, female. I don’t want to choose one identity, [because] they are all true,” Selman says. “I can become anything that the situation requires me to become.”

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