Kristina Leko’s “Amerika”

Amerika, May-June 2005, Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb

In her project entitled Amerika, Kristina Leko employs the tools of ethnology to explore the Croatian émigré community in America. The artist’s method is analogous to anthropological research, which takes culture as its object, is concerned with the contextual and involves fieldwork in the everyday.

While anthropology “deals in the present with the question of the other,”(Marc Augé, Non-Places, Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (Verso: London and New York, 1995), 18.) Kristina Leko evokes the intertwining of self and other, past and present, “Amerika” and the “old country.”

Her fieldwork focused on a group of elderly women of Croatian origin in New York, and involved conducting in depth interviews, as well as the documentation and archiving of their personal artifacts, to recover the core elements of their individual emigrant stories.

With the help of the parish priest, and through teaching on Saturdays at the church school, she won over the trust of the insular community. Entering into friendship and close collaboration with her informants, she accepted the reflexivity of her own position as an active participant in the articulation of their personal narratives.

Kristina Leko, 'Amerika' (Mixed Media, 2005). Kristina Leko, 'Amerika' (Mixed Media, 2005).

The diaspora features as a complex “other” in the American as well as Croatian context. The artist’s approach enables her to explore their contested identities by showing how this group of women feel different as ethnic Croatians to other Americans, and how equally they through their life experiences both feel and are perceived as different in the Homeland.

They represent a complicated “other,” sharing much with the “self” of Croatian national identity and preserving through their memories and nostalgia a myth of oneness, rootedness, and social cohesion.

Interestingly, and not for the first time, Kristina Leko chooses to work with women.(See for example, her major project “Cheese and Cream” (2002-3), discussed in Maja and Reuben Fowkes, “Glocal Practices in Contemporary Croatian Art,” Praesens: central European contemporary art review no.4 2004.) Although it does not directly tackle the role of women in migration, or the gender balance in the community, her work could be read in terms of feminism, as defined by Griselda Pollock as: “Standing for an appreciation of what women inscribe, articulate, and image in cultural forms, interventions in the field of meaning and identity from the place called woman or the feminine.”(Griselda Pollock, ed, Generations and Geographies in the Visual Arts (Routledge: London, 1996), 8.)

In tune with post-feminist anthropology, which “is more self-reflexive than was the ‘science of man’ before it,”(Claire Pajaczkowska, ‘Issues in Feminist Visual Culture,’ in Feminist Visual Culture, ed. Fiona Carson and Claire Pajaczkowska, ( Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh, 2000), 5.) the artist presents their stories as a polyphonic mix of voices.

Kristina Leko questions the American Dream through the parallel narratives of five Croatian women emigrants. By presenting us with their personal life experiences, she leaves it up to us whether to generalise or not about the wider community they represent.

Here again, she shows sensitivity for the insights of contemporary anthropology, according to which: “Representations of private otherness, in the systems studied by ethnology, place the need for it at the very heart of individuality, at a stroke making it impossible to dissociate the question of collective identity from that of individual identity.”(Augé, Non-Places, 19.)

In his consideration of the “ethnographic turn” in contemporary art, Hal Foster expressed disdain for the vogue for “traumatic confessional” and the “testimonies of the new empathetic intellectual and the flaneur of the new nomadic artist.”(Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer,’ in The Return of the Real (MIT Press: London, 1996), 180.) These kinds of criticism can be applied to many community based projects, especially those involving women, but run the risk of remaining at a superficial level, and failing to engage more deeply with the work.

Kristina Leko’s personal engagement with the Croatian women emigrants culminated in an exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Zagreb. The title of the exhibition and of the whole project was “Amerika,” the Croatian spelling of which refers us to the America of the Other, a multi-ethnic society, and opens up a critique of the American Dream as a dominant narrative of the Twentieth Century. The collaborative nature of her approach was expressed through her naming the five women informants as co-authors of the exhibition.

In the exhibition, a huge American flag, which spreads along one whole wall of the gallery, is opposed by five giant blackboards inscribed with the personal destinies of the Croatian women emigrants. The boards record in meticulous handwriting key moments of their life stories, such as the drama of exodus, the hardship of emigrant labour and nostalgia for the old country.

Along with the “tablets of truth,” there are glass cases, spot lit in the gloom, containing personal memorabilia, such as piles of letters, first pots and pans and a christening dress. In each we find a handwritten note about the significance of the exhibited objects, or moments in life associated with them. Personal home videos of holidays in the country of origin and family celebrations are projected on to large screens, revealing more about their ‘private other’. Interviews with the five women are projected simultaneously in another room, setting up polyphony and stressing the dimension of the work as contemporary portraiture.

The boundaries of anthropological place are conveyed through photographs of Croatian businesses and shop fronts in Astoria, Queens, where the largest community of ethnic Croatians in America live.

Providing a cultural context for the project, dozens of videos document a community life that appears to revolve around Church services, balls, and folk performances. The artist sets out to map the group’s economic, political, social and religious geography.

This project makes a contribution to knowledge about the diaspora in the States and is even a tribute to the hardship and sacrifice of first generation Croatian immigrants. The life stories of these five women provide an alternative to the master narrative of the American Dream and could be abstracted to the universal experience of emigration. For example, on one of the tablets we read:

We started to run across the sea to Italy. 1600 of us left, 300 stayed. You had to say goodbye forever. Leave without return, disappear, die. We left like little snails, which take with themselves just what they have, and walk and walk without knowing exactly where they’re going. We were not immigrants with wishes and hopes. We were refugees. Without hope. The only important thing was to leave. We all had to go through the collection camps for refugees in Italy. My family stayed almost 3 years in the camp, and then we went to America in an 18 metres long boat. We crossed the Atlantic and came to this country 50 years ago. Then we started to work, make an effort, and to hope. I can’t say that we’re American. We live here, we respect the laws, we’re satisfied, but we’re always there. We go back as often as we can. That’s where our loved ones are, in the cemetery. That’s where our past is. Though everything has changed, we see everything the way it used to be.

As with Kristina Leko’s other works, Amerika seems designed to set a debate in motion, to stimulate discussion of the issues it raises without providing ready answers. The artist deals with a global and controversial subject such as America, without allowing politics and political prejudice to directly interfere with an open response to the show. At the same time, the work is political in other ways: it’s political to share the power of exhibition making with non-professionals, as it undermines institutional positions and professional power boundaries between the makers and consumers of art.

Institutional critique, in the sense of challenging professional boundaries, is evident in the artist inviting the women, the subjects of her ethnographic investigation, to participate as co-authors of the show. This kind of critique is stronger for being in an institution such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, which normally functions according to a strict hierarchy of defined roles.

A tension was observable at the opening, when the museum curator of the show hesitated before giving the floor to the women to speak. For the women, after their long involvement with the artist, and since their life stories and personal belongings were exposed, it seemed a natural thing to do. The institution was apparently uncomfortable with the idea of ordinary women as co-authors of an exhibition of contemporary art, and would rather see their names alongside the artist’s as ornament or conceit.

A further ‘political’ dimension to Kristina Leko’s work is its contribution to the debate over globalisation and the attempt to resist its deleterious effects on culture. By highlighting and rescuing from oblivion singular objects, groups, and customs, her work is a counterpoint to the processes of homogenisation, acceleration and delocalisation that are integral to globalisation.

See the work of Maja and Reuben Fowkes at www.translocal.org.

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