Reclaiming Ourselves Through Our Labour: Selma Selman’s artistic practice and modes of healing

Selma Selman: Do Not Look Into My Eyes, installation view, Kasseler Kunstverein, Kassel, Germany, September 2021. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

As I reflect upon how to synthesise ideas of a possible Roma museum, exhibiting the work of artists in a decolonised way, and on the work of Selma Selman in the context of her solo exhibition at the Kasseler Kunstverein in Kassel, Germany, which I co-curated with Olga Holzschuh, the following notions come to mind:

validation of our own subjective experiences

acknowledgement of oppressive mechanisms

permission and support to restore a work of art, a body or one’s spirit

People are often unaware that their words or behaviours can be invalidating. We invalidate others’ thoughts, feelings, emotions, or experiences due to an inability to understand or empathise, or as a result of feelings of discomfort in relation to another person’s expression. Education and awareness are important tools in healing the wounds of disqualification of one’s own reality.

As a starting point, I would like to propose a hypothesis in regards to a possible Roma museum, on the basis of my own limited experience on this topic. I believe the following statement to be true: “As adults, we can’t always rely on others to validate our feelings and experiences, so it’s important that we learn how to do so for ourselves”.[1] If you agree, then we can start with the premise of imagining how a Roma museum can become a catalyst for developing the value, assertiveness and respect that Roma culture deserves. According to the panel discussion organised by ERIAC, OFF Biennale Budapest and the Romani Studies Program at Central European University (CEU) on the restitution of Romani artworks and artefacts, “Roma communities have no access to their own cultural heritage, and Roma participation in shaping their own discourse has remained extremely limited, with Roma de facto excluded from knowledge production”.[2] Taking all of the above into consideration, and directing from within how a culture is produced, edited, narrated, disseminated and displayed, validates one’s own experience and existence. Since Roma cultural heritage has been acquired by various institutions in Europe, yet hardly displayed, wouldn’t it make sense that a museum dedicated to cultivating their own story has a say in how those artworks and objects are utilised and exhibited? For this reason, my humble opinion is that an institution that takes care of the material culture of Roma would be a good thing.

When I was invited to curate Selma Selman’s solo exhibition at the Kasseler Kunstverein, located in the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel, Germany, I was well aware that this would be the first time her work is featured in such a distinguished institution in western Europe. I felt a responsibility and obligation for her practice to be seen and showcased as a contemporary artist of Roma origin, yet not only through the lens of her identity.


Selma Selman: Do Not Look Into My Eyes, installation view, Kasseler Kunstverein, Kassel, Germany, September 2021. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

 

The conundrum is that Selman (*1991), who is from Bosnia and Herzegovina, integrates narratives of the Roma community, including her own family, into her artistic practice, which is inseparable from who she is and the background stories of how some of the works came into existence. Yet Selman’s body and identity become a medium for capturing universal themes that articulate political resistance and feminist empowerment, amongst others, while at the same time being highly personal, often linked and circling back to her origins. A good example of this is the photography diptych, Don’t Be Like Me, capturing Selman sitting next to her mother, prominently featured in the exhibition at the Kasseler Kunstverein. Clad in white shirts in a domestic setting, this portrait could reference depictions of mothers and children in Renaissance religious paintings. It concurrently envelops the backstory of Selma’s mother, who was married as a child and had five children by her early twenties. Throughout her upbringing, the artist continually heard her mother say to her, “Don’t be like me…”, thus providing the title for the piece. When the viewer stands before this work at the Kasseler Kunstverein, however, they most likely have no idea about the backstory, yet are touched by seeing a tender moment captured between a mother and daughter. The museum guide told me that she wanted to cry every time she walked by the work because it reminded her of her relationship with her own mother, who has done so much for her. The question I would like to pose here is whether we need to know the circumstances of Selma’s mother’s life to appreciate this piece fully. My honest answer is that I really do not know. In the brochure accompanying the exhibition, I wrote only: “The photographic diptych, Don’t Be Like Me, captures Selman as a grown-up daughter sitting in her mother’s lap. Both look directly into the camera in front of a palm-tree inspired wallpaper reminiscent of paradise. Clad in white shirts in a domestic setting, this portrait references depictions of mothers and children in Renaissance religious paintings”.

The title of the exhibition, DO NOT LOOK INTO MY EYES, references an early video work, Don’t Look into Gypsy Eyes, which Selma produced while still at the Art Academy in Banja Luka in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This work was featured in a gallery where viewers were able to see a selection of Selman’s video works projected in succession on an entire wall. Selma speaks directly to the camera in one of her native languages (Bosnian), threatening the viewer that if they look into her eyes, many things could happen to them, including seduction, spells or danger. In a tongue-in-cheek manner, she is able to covertly make fun of those whose belief systems are rooted in superstition and prejudice, while at the same time convincing us that she might just do all of those things she is being accused of, as a member of the Roma community. The work encapsulates a commentary on fear and fascination with the other – the question being whether we can keep and accept the other as they are, without any need for them to become like us. Spiritual texts often teach us to accept people for who they are and receive their differences as gifts and mysteries to be decoded. The privileged in our societies all too often rush to speak of reconciliation, yet evade acknowledgement of the injustice of huge inequalities and antagonism faced by foreigners and strangers.

At first glance, as a blue-eyed, fair-skinned, educated professional male, I have had the privilege of being able to navigate the western world fairly smoothly. Two and a half years ago, through a seemingly unconnected sequence of events, I started to study Reiki, a Japanese form of energy healing, which further led me to become a Reiki practitioner. For the purposes of this text, I would like to draw some parallels between how it is possible to heal our physical and psychic bodies through alternative therapies, and ways in which Selman’s artistic practice has led her to overcome multiple life obstacles, as well as receiving validation, acknowledgement and support for her own work. Our bodies never forget the mistreatment (physical or psychological) inflicted on them, storing it all neatly in our muscles, tissues and energy centres of the body. The stress and traumas caused by external factors, whether by individuals or hostile environments, create blockages in our bodies, which are kept like a tightly sealed bottle until we are ready and able to release them.

The video work on view, You Have No Idea (Election Day), is a version of Selman’s best-known performance piece, where she confronts the audience by continually repeating the words, “You have no idea”. This version is set in Washington DC on Election Day 2020, the artist walking on Black Lives Matter Boulevard towards the White House, yelling those same words, followed by a swarm of photo reporters from around the world, and a crowd of intrigued as well as angry bystanders, filming her with their cameras and cellphones. I have seen a version of this performance when Selma performed it at the Agnes B. Gallery in New York, and was able to experience how visceral it is. My first line of thought in a subjective interpretation is that it is most likely very hard for us to put ourselves in Selma Selman’s shoes and fully understand what her life experiences were and are. During her gallery performance of this work, we are all gathered in a white cube gallery, ready to sip some wine, while she starts pacing slowly throughout the space, uttering the words, “You have no idea”. At first they are measured, gradually becoming louder and louder, until they overtake the acoustics of the entire space, becoming screams, yells, a cry for help. What I find fascinating and brilliant about this piece is that when performed in a gallery space alongside her other works, where we come to pay homage to Selma, to see and support her work, we are then reminded that we have absolutely no idea about what she has been through to get to this point in her life, nor can we ever comprehend it fully. As human beings, do we have the capacity to truly grasp experiences that we have not lived through ourselves? Again, I do not have an answer to this question. I have never asked Selma what she gets out of these performances on a physical or physiological level, other than the obvious adrenaline rush, since they are so intense and take so much out of her. I cannot help but wonder if this performance has ever allowed her to have any release on a psychic level of past experiences that might have burdened her body.

The summer of 2020 was one of confinement, and I took the opportunity to intuitively experiment on myself with some vocal healing techniques. The more I engaged with my voice, the more I started to realise that there is a lot of unreleased energy stored in my body, and that my apartment is probably not the most appropriate place to free what I needed to free through my voice. Luckily, I live next to a big park, and I started frequenting desolate spots late at night, where I did not need to restrain my voice and could use it at an unobstructed frequency without fear of anyone hearing me. Once I realised the magnitude of what was emitted vocally, I always felt a slight alarm that someone might call the police if they happened to hear me, but luckily that never happened. What happened during those late nights on the highest hilltops of Prospect Park in Brooklyn was that I found the courage to discharge the tremendous anger, disappointment and sorrow that was coming mostly from my childhood, stored somewhere very deep within. At first I was only letting out intuitively loud screams, which felt very relieving. After a few visits, I started communicating in my mother tongue (Serbian) with members of my family, who I imagined in front of me, telling them everything I never had the courage to tell them face to face. After allowing myself to speak my truth, to talk about my fears and hurt via the sound of my own voice, I was able to better accept all of those as an integral part of who I am. As a result, I felt relieved and reconnected to all the parts of myself that were hurting for so long. Releasing my own voice in such a primal, primordial and powerful way helped me to hear myself and confront my own tribulations that were neatly stacked in the abyss of my own body.

Selma’s video, No Space, is produced to be consumed on a cellphone and was displayed at the very start of the exhibition at the Kasseler Kunstverein. Selman sits astride a virtual globe of Earth, while explicitly stating how she is fighting for her own space. She shouts to the viewer: “My big body deserves this space. Get out! You are not welcome in my space!” Commenting on personal security, personal liberty and perhaps private property, this work can be a commentary on one’s own fight for their place in the world. At times, it can appear that the constant struggle to be a human being never ends – the fight for worker’s rights, for race rights, for gender and sexuality rights. Another important aspect to consider with regard to personal space is how much volume our body takes up in our day-to-day existence.

You have most likely heard the expression that someone has sucked all the air out of the room. Meaning that certain individuals are capable of taking all the energy through their unhealthy emotional state, as well as violating boundaries with others. In other words, we can make our energetic bodies expand or shrink in healthy or unhealthy ways. A good way to prove that your own energy exists around your physical body, and that we all attract, move and absorb energy, is to learn to simply feel it yourself. An easy method exists by feeling your hands as life-force energy, as shown in this short video via Brain Education TV. The Chinese refer to this energy as Chi, and the technique of Reiki originating in Japan uses this life-force energy to heal the mind and body. Syliva Salow, coach, speaker and author, says succinctly: “Do we expand our energy, or do we unconsciously keep it restricted? During our history, we’ve been often trained to contract and limit our energy and self-expression. When we healthfully expand our energy, we stop trying to fit into someone else’s reality. Instead, we express who we are through our words, actions, and choices. We let our energy flow without fear and by doing so we stand in the center of our soul power”.[3]

Repeatedly evoking the motif of scrap-metal collecting and recycling, Selman invites us to question the ways in which we assign value to material objects and labour, and our relationships to them. In her new multi-part sculptural installation placed at the centre of the Kasseler Kunstverein, the artist carves out separate pieces from one vehicle, creating works that reside between the painterly and the sculptural. Having a very personal rapport with metal since childhood, Selman’s scrap-metal paintings fuse impressions of everyday life and art history, as well as the use of colloquial language and her own personal experience. Humour, wordplay and her dynamic hand gestures with acrylic and paintbrushes result in small intimate objects of metal. The paintings are spread throughout the galleries, some of them suspended in air, very much like fragments of a body might represent female empowerment invading the pristine gallery space. Similarly, the video, Mercedes Matrix, exhibited for the first time, depicts Selman and her family destroying a Mercedes Benz, a status symbol of capitalism, at Kampnagel in Hamburg. Through the act of demolishing the valued vehicle, Selman co-opts her family’s manual labour, transforming it into performance art. For decades, her father has depended on converting metal waste into a resource to support the well-being of his family, while Selman today utilises the very same labour to ensure her own survival as an artist.

Selma’s series of drawings in coloured pencil on paper reveal a female character, which morphs from one entity into another, questioning notions of gender expression and internal personal identities. Escaping fixed definitions, the artist’s protagonists are presented with distorted faces, unimaginable bodies and animal-like features. This body of work is shown for the first time in the context of Selman’s artistic production and features fragmented erotic imagery sourced from her own imagination. In this set of drawings, Selman continuously allows herself to explore the divisions of our world and confronts the language of antagonism with her own imaginary narratives of bodily longing.


Selma Selman: Do Not Look Into My Eyes, installation view, Kasseler Kunstverein, Kassel, Germany, September 2021. Photo: Nicolas Wefers.

 

In her newest performance and sound installation, Letter to Omer, Selma shares her most intimate thoughts and feelings with an imaginary male individual, named Omer. She tells him her secrets and desires, and imagines what life with him could possibly look like. Stemming directly from the poetry that Selman consistently writes, this work reorients conversations around contemporary performance, as well as femininity, sexuality and patriarchy. For the opening of the exhibition, Selman performed ten different Letters to Omer on the steps and in front of the Fridericianum Museum. Very discreetly, she went from person to person, or sometimes a group of people, addressing them directly and reading the letters to them. Sometimes it was a whisper to one person, at times she sat next to someone on the steps of the museum or joined them at their table at the cafe located in front of the Fridericianum. The audience was intrigued and listened to what Selma had to tell them. Sometimes the language and setting was more abstract and fiction-like, at other times more autobiographical. The ten letters that Selman performed at the opening were recorded as audio pieces and played back on speakers throughout the gallery space, the first right at the entrance welcoming the visitor with Selman’s voice. One of the letters to Omer follows:

Dear Omer, 

I was taught on the streets in Ruzica, Bihac, and the greatest professor I ever had was my mother.

Just in a few years, I went from being a dirty Gypsy to being a very well respected artist.

Just a few years ago I was no one. I was supposed to be married because I had to follow the patriarchal rules in my village.

Just a few years ago I lived in extreme poverty.

Just a few years ago, I could not even speak or write well in English.

Just a few years ago my friends would make fun of both my Bosnian and English language and none of them could understand that my first language is Romani.

Just a few years later, I am one of the most respected artists among my generation worldwide.

Some of us genuinely use art as a tool, not only to question but to answer. As much as this reality is only mine it is my mother’s as well.

The exhibition at the Kasseler Kunstverein explores multiple concepts that co-exist in the opus of Selma Selman, including alchemy, reimagining identities, oppression, intimacy and desire. The selected works take the form of performance, drawing, painting, video and photography. The works alternate between sensitive, harsh and ironic gestures revealing discriminatory identity attributions, role expectations and stereotypes.

I am thankful to ERIAC for giving me the opportunity to write about the work of Selma Selman, and to connect it to the world of healing. I am also very grateful that I gave myself the permission to write about deeply personal matters, reclaiming my own voice and the work that I have done, and continue to do on myself. Thank you, Selma, for your practice that was the catalyst for the merging of these two worlds.

Boshko Boskovic

 

[1] “The Need for Validation and the Consequences of Invalidation”, https://khironclinics.com/blog/invalidation/, 4 June 2020
[2] https://eriac.org/the-restitution-of-romani-artworks-and-artefacts/
[3] https://sylviasalow.com/2020/11/10/how-to-expand-your-energy/, 20 November 2020

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