They call her „Tito“ – In conversation with artist Selma Selman

„The most dangerous woman in the world“ was in our city a couple days ago for the opening of her exhibition at Kunstraum Innsbruck: Selma Selman. We were there and we were impressed, not only by the exceptional and touching art works – most of them created on found metal objects –, but also by the inspiring appearance of Selma Selman herself. We wanted to learn more about her path, her activism and her art. Here is what we found out in a conversation with the artist:

photo: Almin Zrno
photo: Almin Zrno

Dear Selma, from the exhibition’s description we know you were growing up in a Roma Community in Bosnia-Herzegovina – your family was living from collecting and recycling metal – how come you encountered the art world? 

It just came natural to me. As a child, I always wanted to know more. I was always looking for answers, but no one could give me the answers. I grew up with two older brothers – my cousins – they were very good in painting and drawing. As children we would always draw, it was the thing that felt the most satisfying to us. In addition to that we had a very good high school teacher in art. She saw that we were very talented, she pressured us to be artists. When I finished school, I wanted to continue studying, so I went to Budapest and took classes in Sociology and Anthropology, after that I got accepted for Master studies at Syracuse University in New York. So, I prepared my stuff and I left Europe to the United States in 2015. That’s how everything shifted in my life.

Would you say it was mainly your art teacher who encouraged you in going your path as an artist or did you also get support from others?

Well, to be honest, I supported myself the most – because I never compared myself to others. I accepted myself at a very young age. No one would stop me in doing what I want. Of course, as a child you need someone who directs you a bit, where to go and how. I was happy that I was surrounded by very powerful women who believed in me, like the teacher from high school, but also the teacher from my village, Dragica. She was really the woman who supported me. She bought my first painting when I was 16 years old. And for me, selling this painting for 20 Euros meant a lot, because finally I realized: someone loves my work, someone loves my art and wants to have it.

Is this the reason why you founded Get the Heck to School! [an organization that provides Roma girls a scholarship for education] – What role does this kind of activism play in your life? 

I realized how important it was for me to get funding when I went to high school. I got very little scholarship, but that scholarship helped me a lot and I know how much it helps other girls who have a similar life like me. That’s why I founded this project. I don’t want to be the only Roma girl from my village who has a higher education. I want to see other girls following me. I give them a little bit of support, the rest they must do by themselves. So far, it’s going well. But this year I’m taking a break for finding the right partners, so I can continue this, because I can’t do it alone anymore. Dragica helped me with the organization, but still, everything was on my back, I had to be a role model, a mentor, to take care of the girls, to send the scholarships, to look for money… it’s really a lot of work. 

Who are these girls you are supporting? How are they selected?

Those are the girls that I know since they were children, because I also worked in a village school as an assistant. I know them very well, I know their families – it’s a small community, around 50 families. Regarding the selecting process, I chose girls who can prove that they are good at school. For now, we cant’t give scholarships to all girls, unfortunately, it would be impossible. But I hope, in the future, to give support to all children in the village. 

photo: Almin Zrno

In a talk with Kunstraum Innsbruck you mentioned you want to be a role model for young Roma girls. For example: you are driving a Mercedes to show them what is possible to achieve as a woman. How much are you still yourself, when doing this? I mean, do you actually also like to drive a Mercedes? 

Unfortunately, we live in this material world, in capitalism, where the value of a human being is shown by the value of her/his material stuff. But I can use this as a tool to show that – with my education – I managed to become independent. I took care of my education, I could travel the world, I could buy my own shoes, I could buy my own car.

Driving a car as a woman in the Balkans means to have the power. I bought the car, not only to show them, but also I wanted to have the car for myself, to be independent, so I don’t have to ask my father or my brothers to drive me. At the same time, for the girls it’s an inspiration. This is how I create emancipation. I know, these are small things which are normal – many women are driving cars. But in my community, in order to achieve that, you have to be clever, you have to be educated – and then, you can become independent, then, you don’t have to look for a rich husband. Instagram and all social media are creating this struggle for girls that they have to find this perfect partner who takes them out from poverty and brings them this amazing life. But it’s a mistake. We all know, it doesn’t exist outside Hollywood. You have to work on yourself.

People in your community call you „Tito“ – you wrote a poem about it. I assume, they mean it as a compliment, but what do they actually want to say with calling you that name – especially as a woman? 

You know, in the Balkans [Josip Broz] Tito was seen as someone who can lead the nation. Yugoslavia was the time when almost everyone was feeling happy – at least, that’s what they told me – I never lived in Yugoslavia, I was born in 1991, but my family keeps telling me how they enjoyed their freedom, at that time, they had at least a middle-class life. Those people call me Tito because they need a hope, right? For their hope, they call me all these names, they also call me „Christiano Ronaldo“. No one compares me to a female figure, but only to male figures, which is very interesting to think about. But at the end, I realized that Tito doesn’t represent female or male, it’s just this figure of power.

Selma Selman je Tito

Sa svojom bankovnom karticom
ne mogu na pijaci da kupim
Mahune za ručak
Krenu svađe tek onako
Ručak nije dobar
Glava kuće
Baci se sve po zidu dok ja ručam
Ljute paprike od kojih želim
da me želudac zaboli
Da se ne fokusiram na naš život
Djeca bi sada mogla i konja živog da pojedu
Mati se i dalje brine
Vani se čuje muzika od koje me mozak boli
Turbo Folk koji nema ritam samo bas
Ja kao ja
Za ručak mogu i kamenje
I da izdržim kada svi kažu da neću
Na mojoj kartici računi za mahune rastu
Hoću u Ameriku neću da budem

Selma Selman is Tito

[english translation]

With my bank card I can’t buy green beans for the lunch
In the market
Disputes start just like that
The lunch isn’t any good
The head of the family
Throws everything on the wall while I eat
Hot peppers and I hope they will make my stomach sick
So I don’t have to focus on our life
Children could now eat a living horse
Mom is still worried
Music comes from outside and gives me headache
Turbo folk with no rhythm and just bass
I am as I always am
I could even eat stones
And I can persist when everyone says I can’t
Bills for green beans are rising on my card
I want to go to America, I don’t want to be

Andhow do you feel about it? – In your poem you wrote you didn’t want to be Tito, you rather wanted to go to USA… 

Being Tito means to have a lot of obligations, it means, carrying a lot on your back. I have to be careful, because I don’t want to give everyone hope that I can safe everyone’s life – that’s not my role. I just do me, you know. But by doing me, I create something where people see hope. It’s very nice to feel this way, but it also feels like a lot of weight on me. 

I can imagine you are living in very different worlds – between your home village in Bosnia and the western art world. How do you experience that? 

As I’m constantly living in different worlds, I have to perform many different roles. In my village, I have to be this role model, which is accepted, but also criticized. I’m now an outsider of the community, because I achieved many things, because I live a good life. Therefore, I feel kind of not accepted in my village, regardless of what I do, because for them, I’m now part of this white society.

It’s interesting though, as in the white society, I’m not fully accepted, because I’m not white. In Europe, I mean, in western countries, especially in the art world, I’m perceived as ‘other’, even in Bosnia, my home country, I’m perceived as ‘other’ – we are perceived as ‘other’ – I would say even ‘black’, you know, but then you are not black enough and not white enough, so what do you do with that? I’m somehow in the limbo – always in between.

You were saying that you didn’t like to be classified as a Bosnian artist, or a Roma artist. Do you think it is possible to overcome this idea of identity when it comes to understanding your art? 

I think, classification is always bad, that’s what created all these bad conditions in which we are living now: separation, segregation, division, nationalism – all of these creating war… I don’t want to be labeled, I don’t want to have a category in which segment I should be put, because I don’t believe in that. I believe in the universality of all of us. 

I never said, I want to escape from my identity. I think it’s a very strong part of me, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be the main topic. When you think about how people talk with artists from Austria, for example: Austrian artists are asked only about their art, right? But people coming from a minority are always asked first: “How did you succeed?” – no one is guilty for that, but the world is like that, we are taught in that way.  People are asking me: “How did you become a successful artist?” – because you are not supposed to be, and they are right, because society didn’t let people from my community become part of the society.

When you break this cycle, you are in the main attention and that attention can be good, but also it can be bad. For me, as an artist, I open many questions, not only about my identity and my Roma background. I open topics of values – what is an object? what is its history? how can we transform something? In regard to that, when you think about my entire life – I did the same with me as I did with my objects: I transformed myself into a person who I was not supposed to be. I created Selma Selman. I created myself. 

You mentioned that only every four-five years, you were painting on canvas. Why do you paint on canvas at all? What difference does it make, for example, when you do the portrait of you and your mother on canvas instead of metal? 

Well, I wanted to give a special place for my mother and me. As I said, every four-five years I do a canvas, but I don’t feel so comfortable with canvas – it’s about this pressure to have this white background. Also, I don’t really like it, because it’s very traditional. For me, metal is something that is precious – it’s already the artwork itself, I’m just adding on top of it. But with canvas I have to start somehow from the beginning and the reason why did my mom and myself on a canvas is, because I needed some beautiful background – even though metal parts are very beautiful to me – but I needed this cleanness and emptiness, so I can create everything from the beginning – not to have any background, not to have any attachments to it. As every part of the metal has its own history, I wanted the canvas to be the history. 

Selma Selman at Kunstraum Innsbruck | photo: Mimi Grünberger

Poems are also part of your exhibition. You started writing again when you realized that you lost your diary. How does the process of writing help you – do you consider it as a form of therapy?

I think, everything I do can be considered as a therapy. I started writing very young, but I never showed it to anyone, it was just my diary. Then, my diary got lost. When I was in the US, I realized how much I would love to recreate my diary, so I started to rewrite it, but I wrote it in form of letters to this imaginary man I called Omer – so, I’m writing my diary and my autobiography to Omer. The book will also be a bit like science fiction, because I’m creating these impossible scenes where Omer is a Japanese robot, I’m this woman who is 131 years old and my best friends are two dogs who speak German. I’m making this world for myself, and it became something very personal for me, I’m enjoying doing it. 

You are writing your letters in English, but your poems in Bosnian. What’s your relationship to all these languages you speak?

As a child I spoke many languages. My first language is Roma language, the second is Bosnian; from my sisters I would get some Albanian and I got a little bit of Turkish and Spanish from all these TV-shows. So, all my language is kind of mixed. I was never secure with language, I was afraid of it – language itself for me was a pain. I never thought, I could be a writer, I didn’t know how to write. With starting writing, I challenged myself, because I was like: Let me see what I can do. I put myself in this uncomfortable situation where I would write regardless of how it sounds. But I was very honest with everything I wrote. I started to publish my poems on social media, and I realized how much people liked them – they liked them, because they could feel them and when people can feel something, it means that it works. 

I write my poems in Bosnian, because somehow, the poetry is specific, and I think I can easily convey my messages in Bosnian language in terms of poetic writing, in terms of science fiction it’s much easier for me in English.

And why are your best friends – the two dogs – speaking German?

I don’t know. I create all these things without knowing why I’m creating them specifically. Also, for example, I wrote, that when I’m crying, my tears are small knifes and they hurt me, so, I’m not supposed to cry, that’s what my doctor told me… 

What does the fictional character „Omer“ represent to you? 

Well, I’m writing love letters to Omer, they are very sensitive. Sometimes they are very sad, sometimes very funny and confusing. But this guy Omer, he is not like a person-person. As I said, he is a robot, but he is also a system in which we live. By writing to Omer, I’m also writing to the world – why I feel broken, why I feel used, why I feel the world is not fair. I’m writing to the systems – of patriarchy, of capitalism, of the war, of poverty… But also, I speak to Omer about how to fix the world.

exhibition view at Kunstraum Innsbruck | photo: Daniel Jarosch

Your exhibition is titled “Selma Selman – The Most Dangerous Woman in the World” – is there anything you are afraid of?  

I’m afraid of many stuff – and sometimes even more ­– the most I’m afraid of myself. The world is an unpredictable place, you never know what can happen. There are many reasons why all of us can be scared, but there are also many reasons why you should let it go and make sure you are fine – that your body and your mind are fine – then, everything else will be okay.

| Brigitte Egger

The exhibition „Selma Selman – The most dangerous woman in the world“ can be visited until May 21th, 2022 at Kunstraum Innsbruck

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