Interview by Rohini Malik Okon
The following is an extract from an interview by Rohini Malik Okon.
• So did you have particular expectations at the outset?
I had quite a lot of expectations of myself. I basically stocked up on tapes and film like mad, and I really felt that when I’m there, and I was there for four weeks, I couldn’t take any time off. First of all when I arrived, it was the family and all of that, and then the next morning I was hooking up my microphones, doing the camera and I started recording because I felt that time was so precious. Also, I didn’t really have a plan, but I knew that I didn’t want it to be a documentary about my mother. I wanted to make it very clear to my mum and to the two women she works with what I was doing, and it was really difficult, and also to my sister because I was staying in the same room with my sister, and my mum slept in the same room where she sewed. It was quite a cramped situation, but I wanted it to be cramped, I didn’t want to stay in a hotel and visit because that wasn’t really the point. So that lack of space was part of the project, to see how far I could go before I cracked! But the crack was important, I wanted to crack!
• How did your mother feel about your making work in her flat around her tailoring business?
She took it on almost like a project manager, which was a bit worrying. She really wanted it to be successful, so like when she knew she had some customers coming she’d be come on Margareta you have to get your gear ready, to a point where it was like okay relax, I’ve got it under control. So negotiating that relationship…you know I’ve never worked with my mother, I’ve actually avoided every possibility to work with her, but I felt that our relationship had grown stronger over the years and that I was able to work with her. So she was more than fine, she was really up for it and really took it on. But I was also wondering, well mothers would take things on for their children and there was a sense that she would do anything for me and I didn’t want to abuse that sense either. It did make me think about how much a mother is willing to sacrifice, and if I’m a mother one day will my sacrifice be as committed as hers and I don’t think so. There are a lot of questions which I can’t even show yet, there are no visuals for them.
• I found it really interesting when at the symposium you spoke about being there as a daughter and as an artist, but also as a stranger, feeling that you didn’t quite belong in a familiar place. It was a very personal journey for you, and I’m sure your thoughts about it are still filtering through and ideas are developing
Oh yes, definitely and that sort of slippage of roles was for me really interesting and challenging. When I started filming I thought do I have the right to exploit the trust that I’ve been given because I’m a daughter, and I had an interesting discussion with my sister who was questioning my intrusion to a certain extent in her life. She didn’t want to be part of it, and then I talked to her and we talked through it and she warmed up to the idea, but she had felt that I was somehow intruding because I was filming this piece of private life and then I was going to show it somewhere else. She was afraid that people are going to laugh at us or that I was going to somehow abuse that relationship. It brought up so many questions because I love working with people and that’s where my practice is going, so these questions are never going to go away and I can only go back to myself and question my motivation. There’s a fine line between feeling responsible for the representation, and I’m not here to say well women in Bosnia are a certain way or present them in a certain light. I definitely knew that my role was not as a sort of spokesperson, but there is that responsibility in the editing room, or when I turn the camera on, when I turn it off, when I take the photograph. I have to take responsibility for the decisions I make.
• Another thing I found really interesting was when you were speaking about these ‘thresholds of vulnerability’, the language of vulnerability as a way of perhaps exploring or articulating some of these questions
I think that’s something I found most challenging, to go to that threshold of vulnerability and what does it mean as well. I’ve got my own ideas about what vulnerability means, I think people can interpret it in lots of different ways, but for me vulnerability means openness and honesty, to actually explore one’s experience without having to have these concrete answers, but to also take responsibility and not to go to this other side of saying oh I don’t know. It’s a fine balance, and I think it was a very different process when I was there to when I’m here looking back on the experience. When I was there the vulnerability was about being open to filming, but I also felt like I wasn’t vulnerable there and that I was more vulnerable when I came back, when I had space to reflect. There I didn’t have the space, physically and emotionally, it was continuous and I wasn’t on my own for a single second. When I came back I realised how lonely our lives are, or how alone our lives are – there’s a fine line between aloneness and loneliness. I love being alone, but I was really lonely the first week because I was suddenly feeling where is everyone. It was really strange, those first two weeks of coming back were just as intense as being on the journey. That’s another really interesting thing, that transition – I love that time when you’re here but you’re somewhere else and then you slowly become here.
• Yes, it’s not an immediate thing
I was interested in that period of transition after the journey. There’s so much in it once you start to unravel that threshold of vulnerability. I kind of feel that that’s where I want to go with my work, and my way of thinking about my work and my life, because there’s no separation really.
• Were you already thinking about these ideas before you went, or did the journey suggest them?
Well before I went, I was feeling like I was ready to make a shift in my work. Before that, I was very much looking at immigration, the more social and political issues around immigration and my role within it as a refugee, as an asylum seeker, the identity of a migrant. But I’m starting to feel slightly limited by it because before then I’d always been interested in the poetry of language and the poetry of art, and I write poetry. I always felt that the poetry was so immediate, but I could never get that immediacy with my art and I was starting to really battle with it, how could I get that immediacy? With this project I started to feel that things started to open, that immediacy of expression and exploration.
• Well that really came across. I found your presentation very moving, especially the videos, and that immediacy that you’re talking about really came across, but they were also very subtle
I’m really pleased with it, and for me I got in touch with something and I really want to keep going. When I was filming I was so conscious of the fact that I was holding the camera, and I just followed my gut sense, which was more important than whether the lighting was right or the sound was right. I mean I did try my best to get good lighting and good sound because I don’t want to torture people who are watching it. I loved it, and I really loved editing which I thought I would hate, it was actually quite creative in itself.
• In terms of the expectations you had at the outset, did you feel they were met or did your expectations change?
Well I sort of forgot my expectations once I was there, and I think I actually came with more than I expected.
Well the photographs of the girls, I knew I wanted to photograph them but the idea actually developed when I was in my mum’s flat. I didn’t initially have the idea that I wanted to go to their homes, but as I started to film and talk to my mum I started to think that what I was really interested in was how do these girls live, what are their lives like. It was plain voyeurism and curiosity maybe, but it was also this thing about glamour and these dresses, and what are these girls doing now and I thought I would have more space to find these things out if I actually visited them. So that’s how that developed and it sort of took off in a direction that I was really pleased about. It was a really interesting experience, travelling to their homes, sort of mini journeys within the journey. I had left when I was their age, and I’d never had a graduation ball because the war started, so there were all these parallels and thoughts coming up, and just travelling through the town that’s changed quite a bit and I didn’t know most of the places. So for me it was being in a town that’s familiar but unfamiliar and I was like a stranger/tourist, sitting in the taxi and saying where to go and trying to pretend like I knew where it was so the taxi driver wouldn’t think that I was a tourist. Well there aren’t many tourists, but there are lots of people who left and they come back and visit. It’s a predominantly Serb area, so they might think that you’re a Muslim or a Croat, there are all these tensions, or they might think you’re from abroad and have more money. So those taxi journeys were really interesting in themselves. I felt slightly uncomfortable in my own skin when I was there, especially compared to my sister, but I actually cherish that now, those spaces of discomfort because I don’t think I’d be able to make the work that I make if I had still been living there.
• Going back to the photographs, what is really interesting is the contrast between these very glamorous dresses and the girls’ bedrooms which are still very childlike and the fact that most of them had their mothers there while you were photographing them – it’s this moment of transition
Yes that’s what I was really interested to explore. Most of the time, there was a member of family there and I began to incorporate them into the work. I am really fascinated by the mother-daughter relationship, it’s such a strong bond and it can also become a contradiction where the love is so strong it can become a prison. I was interested to look at that, because I’ve had that and I sometimes say that I didn’t escape the war but I escaped my parents and my culture. I felt so liberated when I left Bosnia, I knew I couldn’t grow there as a person. So going to these girls’ homes and just observing the rituals, there was a lot of uncomfortableness in the situation because they didn’t know me, they knew my mother, and I was out of practice with the local small talk. I asked my sister to come to the first few sessions just to do the small talk, which was great because I could just get my camera ready. The girls always thought I knew what I was doing, there was a sense of authority which was interesting and I think I exploited that in a way in the photographs as there’s a sense that they’re looking at me and asking what they should do. There’s an almost erotic quality to these moments where they’re posing but they’re not quite sure why they’re posing, and the dresses are so revealing so there’s that whole sexuality element. And there’s so much flesh; I’ve had so much reaction from women here saying these girls are hardly wearing anything and showing so much flesh. I asked them just to wear the dresses and left it to them about wearing make up, it wasn’t a fashion shoot but just moments in their bedroom or living room. Their bedrooms were interesting, because they represented that transition from childhood. Some of them, their bedding was like from when you’re a kid, and my mum has actually still kept that bedding from when I was a child.