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Jasmina Tumbas: “I am Jugoslovenka!”. Feminist Performance Politics during and after Yugoslav Socialism (reviewed by Miranda Jakiša)

“I am Jugoslovenka!”, a study by the art historian and gender studies scholar Jasmina Tumbas with its focus on women’s empowerment in Yugoslav performative arts, has attracted much attention so far and will without doubt leave its lasting imprint on (post-)Yugoslav studies. An enormously fascinating read through all five chapters, this book presents a captivating and hitherto unique overview of feminist performance politics in Yugoslavia. The range of figures alone (photos, artworks, paintings, posters, video stills) illustrates the dimensions of the vast territory Tumbas has mapped, showcasing feminist works spanning several decades.

In demonstrating how much we can learn about Yugoslavia and Yugoslav feminism from visual history, the book shifts Western notions about the region significantly. Tumbas guides the Balkan imaginary away from grim warlords in camouflage suits facing trial in The Hague to a much brighter image: (post-)Yugoslavia’s female artists. The feminist performance politics of these artists are, in Tumbas’ reading, characterized by beauty, which plays a crucial role in resisting patriarchy, and by the overall “Herculean strength in connecting disparate lands and cultures” (290) of women in Yugoslavia. Along the lines of these two traits, Tumbas retells the his/herstory of Yugoslavia through art, connecting Yugoslavia’s feminist and antifascist legacies from the early 20th century all the way up to today’s expressions of resistance. The lesbian artist Nasta Rojc’s work Žena spaja kontinente (1908) exemplifies this argument of the book: Yugoslav women have bridged political and geographical continents and temporalities in the past, and they continue to do so.

What I find most interesting about this study is its inclusive understanding of feminist performance art, the distinction it makes between academic and lived forms of feminism and, perhaps most of all, its diasporic perspective and reflection of “situated knowledge” (Harraway). Tumbas illustrates her point with the most contested of her examples. She interprets the popular singer Lepa Brena as an implicit feminist. Tumbas argues that it was the feminism of her mother Eržebet, a seamstress in Yugoslavia, and precisely that of popular cultural figures like Lepa Brena, who might not appear feminist but contributed vastly to Yugoslav women’s emancipation, that crucially shaped her own feminist stances. The lived and practised feminism of women in Yugoslavia matched and complemented academic feminism. Tumbas reads all Yugoslav women in the tradition of the partizanka, the female partisan fighter during World War II, no matter whether looking at everyday heroines or elitist artists. Combining them in shared feminisms, she develops her very specific notion of Jugoslovenka (Yugoslav woman), which also appears in the book’s title (embedded in a quote from the Lepa Brena song: “Ja sam Jugoslovenka”). Proudly maintaining poise and keeping up their good looks at all times, with meticulous wardrobes, polished nails, coiffured hair and heads held high, Yugoslav women are, according to Tumbas, confident, strong and resistant. In this they differ significantly from Western notions about women in the Balkans and, most of all, defy their contradictory revolutionary traditionalist surroundings. The book draws on two simultaneous developments in Yugoslavia: the emancipatory achievements of socialism with regards to equality and the ongoing cultivation of patriarchal values. Tumbas stresses the emancipatory force of female artists within this Yugoslav context by presenting insightful and often novel interpretative approaches to several well-known and an even greater number of lesser-known works of art, highlighting their boldness, diversity and feminist depth.

Chapter 1 looks into female corporeality in the art world, which was dominated by male content and protagonists. In Yugoslavia, as elsewhere, socialism had failed women in its egalitarian promise. Jugoslovenkas lived in a patriarchal society, assisting men or (artist) husbands, while being politically, socially and professionally marginalized within the Yugoslav project. As Tumbas demonstrates, feminist artists gave bold responses in their artwork, with the female body at the centre, and with this corporeality substantially contributed to the lively and theoretically advanced Yugoslav art scene. Their lipstick and their feminism went hand in hand, Tumbas argues. Even pornography was used in a nuanced way, so that in the hands of Yugoslav feminists it developed its full potential somewhere between the poles of sexual liberation and violent objectification.

Chapter 2 is dedicated to three exemplary Yugoslav women: Lepa Brena, Esma Redžepova and Marina Abramović, all of them pop culture icons in Yugoslavia and beyond. Tumbas interprets the two popular singers along with the star from the art world as performing artists with uniquely Yugoslav performance politics and an emancipatory feminist impact. Conceding that their feminism was not necessarily loudly voiced, it still strongly influenced women in Yugoslavia. Here Tumbas quotes her own mother, who admired Lepa Brena, thereby demonstrating how radically egalitarian her evaluation of sources and how biographically involved her approach to the history of Yugoslavia is. The chapter also addresses several aspects of orientalism, discrimination and sustained whiteness within the Yugoslav context of multiculturalism, paying special attention to the Romani Yugoslav background of Esma Redžepova.

This second chapter has been subjected to substantial critique, questioning the interpretation of Brena as a feminist or the representativity of Redžepova for the Romnja. While these might be valid arguments, I consider Tumbas’s reading of the three Jugoslovenkas—which emphasizes on several levels how Yugoslavia was a lived experience for many people—a crucial element of the great appeal of this study. It succeeds in taking into account the positive sides of life in Yugoslavia, without slipping into glorifying nostalgia.

Chapter 3 turns to queer Jugoslovenkas, theorizing their art performances “as the last bastion of socialist Yugoslavia’s political-libidinal commitment to an anti-capitalist, peaceful, non-patriarchal, and just society” (152). Tumbas stresses that LGBTQ subculture artists were neither antisocialist nor anti-Yugoslav, but instead deeply reflected on Yugoslav socialism’s potential and failures. The study pays special attention to the importance of lesbian politics in the underground scenes centred mostly in Ljubljana, where homosexual visibility in the 1980s was much more prominent than elsewhere. The excellent yet so far understudied material on the decade that preceded the outbreak of ethnocentric wars in the 1990s attributes key importance to this chapter in understanding the history of the Yugoslav project.

Chapter 4 re-reads the performances and art of Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) with a focus on the extreme masculinity and lack of gender diversity of this otherwise subversive avantgarde group. Going beyond a mere repetition of the often-discussed strategies and successes of this legendary art collective, Tumbas instead elaborates broadly on the work of the theatre group Gledališče sester Scipion Nasice (Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater, SNST), and specifically on the underrecognized contributions of Eda Čufer to it. First, however, Tumbas passes a scathing verdict on Laibach’s and IRWIN’s machismo. In her view, they used women as “empty vessels representing male ideology” (204) and mere “placeholders for male bodies” (205) in their work.

Chapter 5 then looks into the visual resistance strategies of feminist artists during the 1990s and the survival of the Jugoslovenka spirit in post-Yugoslav times. The immense academic interest in Jasmina Tumbas’s approach—including numerous book presentations at universities all over Europe and North America and an impressive number of book reviews within the first months of its publication—indicates that “I am Jugoslovenka!” has hit a nerve for (post-)Yugoslav studies. The diasporic background of many academic Jugoslovenkas today plays a crucial part in this. Tumbas, a self-declared “child of the Yugoslav state” herself, was born in Subotica to a Hungarian-Serbian family that left Yugoslavia in the late 1980s. She attended school in Germany and received her academic education in the US, where she also obtained her PhD. Beauty, which plays a significant role in the book as a form of dignity, protest and provocation at all stages of Yugoslavia, is also a survival strategy. The beauty contest in Sarajevo in 1993 and the banner with the words “Don’t let them kill us”, which Tumbas makes reference to, also and to this day represent the women survivors of the brutal end of Yugoslavia, now living all over the globe.