In one of her self-portraits created on scrap metal, Selma Selman defines herself as the “most dangerous woman in the world.” Dangerous for whom? Born into a Roma community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose life and work possibilities have been extremely limited by racism (her family members work in scrap-metal collecting and recycling), she not only breaks down “cars, washing machines and the patriarchy,” but, more importantly, she breaks down the boundaries of class racism. Selma Selman’s works range from powerful performances, intimate and expressive portraits and self-portraits to paintings that comment on community life, stereotypes, and emancipation using irony and humor–and resonate with an immense amount of agency.
The statement “My family transforms metal waste into a valuable resource for survival” is to be read beyond personal experience. Selma Selman’s artistic medium of painting on scrap metal ultimately refers to the racialized living and working conditions of Roma people, which have deteriorated throughout the course of the capitalist transition of the pauperized post-war society. Like many Roma in the Balkans, Selma Selman from childhood on, has worked in the informal economy of recycling: supporting the family by collecting metal garbage and selling it to recycling companies. Selma’s art practice allows her to “escape” the poorly valued work, without abandoning her context, and also questions the processes of generating the value that white privilege and access to education assign to labor and workers. “We are intellectuals” can be read on a painting made on a car roof. Here she critiques the elitist notion of knowledge – (re-)production and also creates an affirmative statement in the struggle for a worthy life and dignity.
Selma Selman’s family along with their their craft and skills play a crucial role in her work, where they serve as a supportive social and artistic structure, as a reservoir of knowledge, as well as a place of love, ambivalence, and complicity within the patriarchal matrix of power. The family members and her community are often portrayed and involved in her projects. Further, her love poetry, (such as in Letters to Omer, which addresses a fictive male character named Omer) resonates with the complex layers of memory, imagination, “science fiction,” desire, body autonomy, pain, fragility and strength.
Fragments of her poetry are sometimes translated into paintings, which is clearly visible in the sharp and witty texts that accompany and amplify her visual art. Scrap metal has a conceptual role and, at the same time, constitutes the material and object, which situates her paintings in a space located between installation and painting. These artworks function like pages of a book made up of images and texts brought together and presented in one space. The videos document performances where she alone or together with her crew, dissembles metal objects in the same way as in their recycling business, thus challenging contextual conditions of value attribution. This approach politicizes the readymade from the position of the intersectional class-struggle.
Selma Selman’s texts and multifaceted artworks in a wide variety of media make a genuine contribution to feminist intersectional art and literature, as well as to post-conceptual contemporary art.
Selma Selman’s painting on part of old washing machine, in which she portrays herself as an attractive woman with an ax in her hand (which she also uses as a symbol for her artistic practice), adds her name to the list of great (male) minds: “Leonardo da Vinci, Nicola Tesla, Selma Selman.” By doing so, she inscribes herself into the canon of knowledge and art, which she has been systematically refused. Her performance You have no Idea (2020) repeats this statement until she loses her voice. This performative act uplifts her from the racist ideology and its biased constructions of knowledge. Performed outside of the post-Yugoslav space, during the time of her immigration to the United States, this performance gains another layer of meaning within the context of the socio-political turmoil of recent years in the United States (e.g. the Black Lives Matter Movement). When she performs Superposition (2020), repeating “defend yourself, defend your body” in art spaces which are predominantly occupied by white bourgeois audiences, the repetition of “defend yourself” and “defend your body” is accompanied by body movements, which simultaneously defend and hurt her, thus raising questions of ambivalence, limits, fragility, strength, painful exposure, struggle, endurance – an entire range of emotions and strategies, which emerge from such a political artistic position and practice.
Selma Selman is a courageous artist who reinvents artistic methods and labor possibilities for herself, her family and community. Even if “only” on the micro political scale of commodifying art worlds, she still manages to unsettle unjust social divisions. Furthermore, her work also speaks to members of her community who have very little access to resources and discourses of institutional art-scapes. Persistent in her undertaking to fight exclusion as a woman and Roma, she has become a role model for, and uses her art and activism to support and empower many girls and women around her in their own struggles against oppression and for future independence. Many of her artworks indirectly raise the critical question of in what ways can a migration from the garbage waste trade to the art world contribute to overcoming structural racism; as well as which actions and strategies of solidarity are still necessary?
Selma Selma’s solo exhibition has been organized especially on the occasion of the 8th of March, the international day of the struggle of women* as well as the 8th of April, which is International Romani Day. Many of the works selected for this exhibition were created for her solo show at the National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo in 2021, which Selma Selman worked on in collaboration with curator Amila Ramović over the past two years.
Text: Dr. Ivana Marjanović