Representing the Self, Improperly
This text traces the multi-faceted meanings of the Šejla Kamerić’s artwork Bosnian Girl by asking how a stereotype can be taken up and turned on itself. I explain how Orientalism and Balkanism are ideological discourses that are coded into the work’s original graffiti text. I subsequently demonstrate how the piece performs an intervention into these dominant meanings by showing how trans-coding, mimesis, embodiment and the strategy of ‘the eternal return’ is used to disavow the charged meaning in the original message.
Keywords: representation, mimesis, feminist art, Orientalism, Balkanism, cultural studies
I can no longer recall the first moment when I saw the black-and-white photograph that you are looking at. In some ways, it feels as though I have always been acquainted with it, but this is not actually the case. Over the years, the artwork Bosnian Girl has become a red thread of sorts that weaves my personal trajectory and academic repertoire together, and thinking and speaking about this work has become, in a sense, effortless, organic. However, I do remember that there was a time when the work had a profound, piercing effect on me, but when I could not grasp how or why that was; I could not articulate what it did (to me), nor why that was important.
This is no longer the case. Throughout my feminist academic trajectory, I have assembled a theoretical and analytical toolkit which has given me two important things. Firstly, a critical lens through which to understand and assess the workings of power and social inequalities. Secondly, a vernacular and poetics—ways in which to communicate the meaning and significance of these understandings.
In this text, I want to illustrate how this process of sense-making and articulation has developed for me, in the hopes of encouraging you to look for your own analytical toolkits. I will be doing that by drawing on feminist and post-colonial approaches to representation, meaning and ideology to conduct a multi-layered visual analysis of Bosnian Girl. I will start by contextualising the work and my personal positioning in relation to it. From there, I will situate the work in a broader cultural and historical framework, explaining how it speaks to existing discourses, such as Orientalism and Balkanism. Finally, I will draw on critical feminist perspectives to explain how the work performs an intervention into those discourses and opens up the production of meaning in an emancipatory gesture.
Contextualising Bosnian Girl
Bosnian Girl is a work by the Bosnian artist Šejla Kamerić from 2003. It is a black-and-white photograph of the artist herself looking directly into the camera with a serious, piercing expression. Over her image, a large portion of graffiti text is positioned that reads ‘No teeth…? A mustache…? Smel like shit…? Bosnian girl!’ The text is harsh, arresting, and seems to stand in stark contrast to the stylised image of the young woman we are looking at. At the bottom of the photograph, there is a portion of text in small print that gives further information about the graffiti text: it was made by an unidentified Dutch soldier in the period of 1994-1995 on the army barracks in the town Potočari.
This location is very close to the town of the Srebrenica, where more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered by Serb army forces in July, 1995. The Dutch troops had been stationed in the area at the time to protect the Muslim population. Yet, this promised protection had failed and resulted in the first case of genocide in Europe since World War II.1 This knowledge introduces a sense of cruel irony when assessing the work Bosnian Girl. The graffiti symbolises an additional enactment of (symbolic) violence on the Bosnian people by forces that should have been offering protection.
In August 1995, I was eight years old when I fled the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina with my family and sought asylum in the Netherlands. What followed for me was a period of disorientation and adaptation to a new language and culture, as well as alienation due to never properly fitting in. I think the word ‘proper’ is significant here and may be part of the reason why Bosnian Girl gripped me years later and has not let me go since. During my childhood in the Netherlands, I never felt myself to be ‘properly’ Dutch in how I spoke the language, performed the cultural customs and participated in the social context I had come to inhabit.
The word ‘proper’ carries a lot of meaning. In Bosnian Girl, the graffitisuggests that being unclean, uncultured, unappealing (in a word: improper) are faculties that make a girl Bosnian. This, I believe, explains why the image has resonated with me so. I recognised some of my own experience in it, and felt some vindication in being seen, even if it was unpleasant or uncomfortable. To be clear, the vindication does not lie in recognising myself in the demeaning image of the ‘Bosnian girl’ in the graffiti. Rather, it’s the artist’s grappling with that image that struck a chord of familiarity. The recognition has to do with someone else experiencing and addressing the prejudice you are familiar with.
However, Bosnian Girl has never merely represented visibility for me, but, more importantly, an overcoming, a refusal of the very stereotype that is printed in big letters over the image of the artist. Although the picture is arresting, this is not a static image; it moves. In order to understand how this works, I consider in what follows how a stereotype can be taken up and turned around on itself.
The crux of the intervention that this artwork performs is that it dispels the original meaning the graffiti expressed. Importantly, it does so by the artist stepping into that meaning, embodying it, rather than merely rejecting it. The embodiment of the meaning becomes the site of its dissolution. There is also, of course, the element of the artist contrasting her own pristine image with the ‘improper’ image that the graffiti communicates, but there is more to the artwork than pure opposition.
When two opposites are placed next to each other to highlight their inherent difference, they cancel each other out in a sense. In this way, opposition implies rejection. Looking at Bosnian Girl through this lens, we can certainly argue that the artist employs the strategy of opposition/rejection—she opposes the image in the graffiti (dirty, debased, masculine, uncivilised, barbaric, anonymous, etc.) with the stylised image of herself (clean, polished, feminine, stylised, particular), thereby rejecting the original meaning.
This intervention is relatively straightforward to grasp. However, there is a deeper layer of meaning that can be teased out that places the artwork’s significance not in the rejection but rather in the inclusion of the intended meaning, thereby diluting or even nullifying its message. In order to understand how this works, we need to draw on theories that will help articulate the critique that is inherent to the work.
Meaning and Ideology
Constructionist theories of meaning say that the production of meaning is never a static enterprise. According to these theories, meaning is not just ‘out there’ in the world for us to be found and interpreted. Rather, meaning is something that is constantly being made; it comes into being. Stuart Hall, a founding figure of the field of cultural studies, has argued that meaning is negotiated in and through a complex network of exchange and interpretation, a process which is never finished.2 Meaning, therefore, is never fixed. This is not to say that all meaning is relative and that everyone has equal say in everything. If that were the case, the unknown soldier’s graffiti could have been simply dismissed. It was not because it did not constitute a single person’s opinion, but communicated longer established historical discourses and ideological views. One of these views is known as Orientalism.
Coined by postcolonial scholar Edward Said, Orientalism speaks of an ideological construct which has its origin in European colonial history and still has wide-spread effect in the present.3 It is disseminated through ideas, speech acts and images that work according to a binary (that is: oppositional) relationship between the West/the so-called Occident, and the East/the so-called Orient. In an Orientalist framework, everything that is related to the West/the Occident is put in opposition with the East/the Orient. Negative characteristics are attributed to the East (such as barbarism, backwardness, irrationality, ignorance, primitivity) and by opposing these, the West can characterise itself positively (through notions of civilisation, progress, rationality/reason, knowledge, culture). Orientalism is, therefore, a Eurocentric and colonial tool of self-definition for the West. We can see its workings in the soldier’s graffiti, which produces an Orientalist narrative of Bosnian/Eastern backwardness and primitivity, thereby also creating the idea of the cultured, civilised Western subject without having to name it. Its presence is the speaking voice that has the power of definition, producing the image of the lowly Bosnian girl.
Other existing ideologies interact with the Orientalist meaning and deepen it further, such as the discourse of Balkanism. Theorised by Bulgarian feminist scholar Maria Todorova in 1997,4 Balkanism is an ideology which constructs the idea of the Balkans as a corrupt and uncivilised entity within Europe, the repository of ‘irredeemable’ qualities (such as barbarism, primitivism, hypermasculinity, bloodthirst and violence) that the ‘proper’ Western self is not touched by. The sexist and misogynistic narrative of the ‘unclean’ and ‘unfeminine’ woman in the graffiti is an example of a Balkanist discourse.
Like with Orientalism, the image of the dignified Western subject is also present in the graffiti, though not as the object but as the subject (the creator) of this image. Orientalism and Balkanism illustrate how the meaning of the graffiti is not incidental but part of repertoires of meaning that have historical roots. That is to say, while meaning is never entirely fixed and always in circulation, some meanings do carry significant ideological power and can become culturally engrained and stereotyped, even carrying out symbolic violence. When this is the case, it becomes necessary to envision and carry out strategies of intervention and resistance.
Creating Alternative Meanings; Trans-Coding and Mimesis
One of the ways in which Bosnian Girl disrupts the original meaning of the graffiti is by employing the strategy of trans-coding. Stuart Hall has described trans-coding as the process of ‘taking an existing meaning and re-appropriating it for new meanings.’5 The most complex form of this strategy is when meaning is attempted to be ‘contested from within’6 by giving it new form rather than new content.7 That is to say, trans-coding of this kind happens not when a meaning is simply rejected, or a negative meaning is turned into a positive one, but rather when the existing meaning is challenged through a somehow unexpected iteration (repetition) of that very same meaning. In Bosnian Girl, the graffiti, with its violent stereotypes, is still used, but it is given new, unexpected form by being transported from the walls of an army barracks onto a poster, with an actual Bosnian woman in the image. This disturbs the original meaning of the text because the graffiti is now transposed into a context where it was not originally meant to be (graffiti is typically left anonymously on walls) and put into the spotlight. The ‘Bosnian girl’ is also given a particular face and identity (the artist herself). This suggests that the anonymity of the soldier—and those who share his views—is also called into question.
The trans-coding that is occurring in this work has a significantly gendered dimension. It is not simply that the message in the graffiti enacts symbolic violence; this violence is specifically misogynistic and xenophobic. It speaks of the ways in which Bosnian girls and women supposedly do not adhere to proper standards of womanhood, according to a binary patriarchal standard. French feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray has written about strategies of resistance that women can employ in a patriarchal context in order to unsettle and undermine the foundations of patriarchal logic. Irigaray has called this type of strategy ‘mimesis,’ which, in the words of another famous feminist philosopher, Judith Butler, constitutes an ‘improper transfer of sense.’8
Mimesis consists of embodying a stereotypical image (of what a woman is supposed to be) but doing so not completely in line with how the original meaning intends it. Mimesis involves making certain shifts in the original meaning so that that meaning is not dismissed, per se, but so that the containers of the logic which shape that meaning become exposed and thus put into question.
In Bosnian Girl, the artist mimetically occupies the stereotyped image that is outlined in the graffiti. This disturbs the original meaning, since the Bosnian girl in the photograph (clean, stylised) does not correspond to the image in the graffiti (unclean, improper), and because the artist gives the Bosnian girl a face, instead of anonymity. Moreover, she is not supposed to be the speaking subject and certainly not the one to (re)produce this image. In a patriarchal society, ‘men act and women appear,’ as visual scholar John Berger so aptly put it.9 In this binary framework, women are disproportionally subjected to the assessment of the societal gaze, whereas men are accorded the power of looking.
Orientalism and Balkanism also produce their objects and speaking subjects, as we have seen before. The graffiti initially establishes that the power of definition is supposed to lie in the hands of the unidentified, Western, male subject. Kamerić plays with the subject-object position; she is both at the same time. They are not oppositional. This transgression disturbs the foundations of the stereotype, which does work according to an oppositional, binary logic. The stereotype becomes less convincing, while the workings of the stereotype become more pronounced and evident (Orientalist, Balkanist, patriarchal). Mimetically occupying the image, the artist is able to turn a critical lens onto the creator of this image—not only the individual soldier, but more so the larger discourses which produce such images and narratives.
The Body as Critical Instrument; Situating the Subject and Viewer
Kamerić joins a long tradition within feminist art where the artist’s body is used as a tool for critique. The significance of such strategies lies in the fact that the critique is rooted in materiality and experience; the critique has a location and a position of enunciation. It does not pretend to be universal; the particularity of the critique is what makes it transgressive. Feminist scholarship has produced substantial critique of notions such as neutrality, objectivity and universality. Such notions can be dangerous because, in a traditional sense, they presuppose that objectivity, neutrality and universality exist and/or can be attained.
However, as noted feminist scholar Donna Haraway has pointed out, all knowledge is partial and biased, and therefore incomplete. To claim that universality exists, or that one can attain complete, objective knowledge, is to perform what Haraway calls the ‘God Trick.’10 This presupposes that one assumes a position from ‘high up,’ assessing the world in a detached, clinical gaze without being part of it oneself and without being located in that world. It means abandoning one’s corporeality, since having a body means precisely being in the world. Losing that corporeality, that situatedness, on the other hand means assuming the position of the transcendentally all-seeing invisible eye, scrutinising everything.
Consider how this works in the case of Bosnian Girl; here, we the graffiti expresses a condemnation of, supposedly, all Bosnian women/girls. The message in the graffiti is presented as a fact (emphasised by the exclamation point in the end). The fact that the author is unknown reinforces the ‘truth value’ of this exclamation and enforces its unquestioned, undisputable character. The God Trick is employed to produce a ‘view from nowhere,’ which gives a seemingly definitive statement about the appearance and status of all Bosnian women and girls.
Kamerić interrupts this logic by stepping into this image, not from a position of transcendence or anonymity, which has traditionally been associated with masculinity, but from an embodied position which produces a situated, accountable vision. Her intervention is both particular (representing herself) and carries a community aspect with it (she is one among many Bosnian women). This intervention is an example of the famous feminist credo that says ‘the personal is the political.’ Yes, this is a particular image of the artist herself, but it also makes a political statement that seeks to challenge the sexist and cultural stereotyping that was left in the graffiti. This makes it possible to recognise her image in its specificity (this is the artist herself) and to simultaneously feel invited to participate in the refusal of the original message by considering how it relates to the particularity of your own experience, as was the case with me, as I recognised myself in the rejection of the ‘improper’ discourse.
In producing a call for accountability, Bosnian Girl works as an invitation, rather than pure condemnation. This invitation is extended towards the unknown soldier as well, urging him to consider the assumptions and biases behind the statement he produced. However, this is not merely a reckoning between Kamerić and that one soldier; the invitation is far-reaching and implicates the cultural institution the soldier stands for (the West). The viewer of the photograph, whomever they are, is also engaged in the exchange that feminist scholar Amelia Jones has termed ‘the eternal return’11 between the subject of the photograph and the viewer, which is characteristic of self-portrait photography. The eternal return between the subject and the viewer involves a process of never-ending exchange and interpretation; an acknowledging of the other in their difference, but also a recognition of the fact that this other will never be fully known to us.
This opens up the production of meaning to a never-ending circulation as well, urging us to conclude that there is no final definition of who the Bosnian Girl is, and neither can the soldier be simplistically categorised as the ‘villain’ of this story. As such, the element of pure opposition becomes muddled, as it becomes clear that this is not actually, or not only, a standoff between Kamerić and the unknown soldier. Rather, Bosnian Girl is an involvement of the unspecified collective, which includes you as well, in the never-ending process of interpretation—a humbling and life-affirming enterprise.
In this text, I have unpacked the multi-faceted meanings of Bosnian Girl by asking how a stereotype can be taken up and turned on itself. I have first explained how existing discourses, such as Orientalism and Balkanism, are part of the original graffiti message and how this makes it ideological rather than incidental. From there, I have explained how Bosnian Girl performs an intervention into these dominant meanings. I have shown how the work makes use of trans-coding, mimesis, embodiment and employs the strategy of ‘the eternal return’ to displace the harmful meaning in the original message.
Ultimately, I believe the work’s significance lies in this: it opens up the circulation of meaning where previously it had been foreclosed (the message in the graffiti appears finite, undisputable). In so doing, Bosnian Girl not only produces critique, but also hope—that change is possible. And indeed, it is, as I have shown through the conceptual tools that I have drawn on, which all, in one way or another, have demonstrated how meaning-making is a contested phenomenon (since meaning is never fixed) and a power-laden enterprise (since meaning is informed by social norms and power).
Representations in particular can enforce ideologies, but can also contest existing norms, sometimes in unexpected ways. This article has explored those strategies of resistance that engage with harmful stereotypes, not through rejection but close association with that very stereotype. I have assembled a specific analytical toolkit to articulate the extent of the critique that Bosnian Girl performs. This interpretation is not definitive, but it is substantial because it is grounded in both a critical feminist framework and personal experience, which makes for a multi-faceted analysis and an open-ended (rather than closed) reading. I hope this interpretation can be grounds to inspire you to assemble your own critical toolkits. What will they consist of?
The Powertools series consists of the essays:
- ‘Introduction’, by Isis Freitas Vale Germano
- ‘Subversive Affirmation’, by Sigrid Merx / Liesbeth Groot Nibbelink
- ‘Vulnerable Looking’, by Jules Sturm
- ‘Representing the Self, Improperly’, by Milica Trakilović
- ‘Critical Tactics in Participatory Art’, by Fabiola Camuti
- ‘Is Crossing Boundaries Always Liberating? The contested politics of transgressive humour’, by Dick Zijp
- ‘Can Translation Do Justice?’, by Sruti Bala
- ‘Art, Design and Architectural Practices Beyond Precarious Working and Living Conditions: Proposals for Everyday Action’, by Bianca Elzenbaumer
- ‘Appreciate, Don’t Appropriate: Strategies to Avoid Cultural Appropriation’, by Renée Akitelek Mboya
- ‘How is Affect Related to the Social?: On Affect As a Tool’, by Eliza Steinbock
- ‘Communication as Radical Tool in Times of Societal Shift’, by Els Cornelis
Click on an article to read
- Berger, John, Ways of Seeing. London: BBC/Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
- Butler, Judith, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’. New York: Routledge, 1993.
- Hall, Stuart, Jessica Evans, and Sean Nixon, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices. 2nd edition. New York: Sage Publications, 2013 .
- Haraway, Donna, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective.’ Feminist Studies vol. 14, no. 3 (1988): pp. 575-599.
- Jones, Amelia, ‘The “Eternal Return”: Self Portrait Photography as Technology of Embodiment.’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 27, no. 4 (2002): pp. 947-978.
- Kamerić, Šejla, Bosnian Girl. Public project: posters, billboards, magazine ads, postcards. Black-and-white photograph. Dimensions variable. 2003.
- Irigaray, Luce, Speculum of the Other Woman. Translated by G. C. Gill. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1993 .
- Said, Edward, Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.
- Todorova, Maria, Imagining the Balkans. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009 .
There is an ongoing effort by activists, artists and scholars to create more awareness about Srebrenica and to make it part of the Dutch cultural canon. See the website https://srebrenicaisdutchhistory.com/ for further information and context.
Stuart Hall, Jessica Evans, and Sean Nixon, Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices, 2nd edition (New York: Sage Publications, 2013 ).
Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978).
Maria Todorova, Imagining the Balkans, 2nd edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009 ).
Hall 2013, p. 259.
Hall 2013, p. 263.
Hall 2013, p. 264.
Judith Butler, Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’ (New York: Routledge, 1993), p. 37.
John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: BBC/Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), p. 47.
Donna Haraway, ‘Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,’ Feminist Studies vol. 14, no. 3 (1988): pp. 575-599.
Amelia Jones, ‘The “Eternal Return”: Self Portrait Photography as Technology of Embodiment,’ Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, vol. 27, no. 4 (2002): pp. 947-978.