When artist Ana Pavlović was 22 years old, in 1999, she decided to leave her past in the rubble of her bombed-out Belgrade home and start a new life far to the north, in the promised lands of Scandinavia.
With the exception of an estranged cousin, she didn’t know a soul when she arrived in Copenhagen, and had no idea how she was going to make ends meet. Despite these uncertainties, however, her future looked brighter in Denmark than in the bleak and defeated Yugoslavia.
Two decades on, Pavlović is an award-winning graduate of the Danish Royal Academy of Fine Arts and a frequent contributor to the Danish art scene. Her works focus on the human psyche and the feeling of estrangement – more precisely the dichotomy between Eastern and Western Europe – and the stigma that accompanies it.
In her latest work, Love At Last Sight, she collaborates with her partner and fellow artist, Vladimir Tomić, to examine the in-between state of living in Denmark while still having strong ties to the Balkans.
The exhibition is a fusion of memories and experiences from those early days in Denmark. The centrepiece is a series of letters between Pavlović and her mother back in Belgrade. She has also created a memory collage based on the experiences of other Eastern European migrant women.
The letters reveal the intimate thoughts and reflections of women who have to make difficult, and sometimes controversial, decisions.
“In my work, I tend to focus on themes that are close to me. It’s usually things that I’ve experienced myself in some shape or form. It’s crucial that there is a dose of authenticity and honesty as well as something everyday-like in the materials that I use. That’s why I involve other people who share similar experiences in my work. In this case, in addition to using my own letters, I also use letters that other young migrant women from Eastern Europe have written,” she says.
“The status of migrant women is in many ways very specific and very appealing. I came to Denmark in 1999 from Serbia, at first as an au pair. I later stayed in the country because I married a Dane. I desperately wanted to leave Serbia, fuelled by the idea of a freer, more normal and better life in the West – just like lots of other young people from Eastern Europe. Unfortunately, this migration and brain drain is very present even today – young people leave and are ready to make severe compromises. Today it’s even harder to be a migrant, due to the rise of right-wing sentiment in Europe and the rest of the world. There is this huge resistance to refugees and economic migrants, from both politicians and citizens.”
Complexities and taboos
Pavlović is aware that some viewers might see her work as problematic in the way it deconstructs the image of Danish society as quaint and open-minded.
“These letters really get under your skin, especially those regarding marriage migration. This is a very taboo-ridden topic, with a lot of prejudice, stigma and self-stigma. I speak from experience. Eastern European women are predominantly portrayed either as victims or as predators. These letters really show the complexities of this issue. The women experience feelings spanning from actual love and belonging, to practical concerns and the constant feeling of unworthiness,” she says.
In one of the letters, a young woman writes to her family in Serbia:
“The system here is close to some sort of fantasy, they offer you countless credit options, social help and other help with school, courses – they even pay you while you to go to school!
But it’s too early to want that for myself. Right now, my 3-month visa gives me time to think of something.
The first solution we thought of was asylum – telling some sort of story of how I can’t take it any more (I wouldn’t put this down on paper ’cause it’s problematic). But now we’ve decided on a different approach: MARRIAGE!
A husband-on-paper can be found for 700-800 Deutsche Marks a month, but we’re still searching for the right one.”
In a different letter, a young woman describes attending a family birthday with her new Danish husband:
“I want to tell you about a stupid event. His aunt turned 60, so she invited everyone over, including the two of us. She put our names on plates, so that everyone had a fixed seat at the table. The food was very good. I didn’t know half of what I was eating. And little Danish flags everywhere… and then you sit there for an hour, two hours, three… Meanwhile, no one spoke a word to me – and they all speak English very well. After a few hours of trying to keep up with the Danish conversations, my mind got fed up. I told him that I would leave and he could stay, and he started to apologise for this and that. Such disrespect. I felt like shit. Sitting there for four hours without anyone speaking a single word to me.”
Through the letters, we witness the development that the young women go through, as well as the experiences of the families left behind in the Balkans. We see how both sides develop coping mechanisms and survival strategies to deal with the impact of chasing a dream of a better life.
When asked how it felt working with such intimate material, Pavlović explained that she debated whether to go ahead with it or not.
“Working with personal material is very difficult and emotional, especially when it’s personal items like these. Laying out your intimate letters, family photos and life story for people to freely interpret is a little messed-up. You’re afraid you’ll be judged – but that’s exactly why this work is important!” she says.
“My goal isn’t to tell some finite story about a group of women. It’s to put the material in a new context, so that we can view it from a different perspective and on a grander scale. I’m not afraid of exposing myself and my intimate life – I’m more afraid that people won’t care about this story and these shared experiences, because they’re not unique, and they’re definitely still around.” M