“The cognate ideas appeared simultaneously in different environments, and we cannot always speak of one-way influences”: An Interview with Stanislava Barać

4 June 2024 - no responses

Author: Petra Šarin

In August 2023 I talked to Stanislava Barać, PhD, from the Institute for Literature and Arts in Belgrade about early feminist ideas, feminist (art) histories and epistemologies, as well as literature and art practice in Serbia (and Yugoslavia) from 19th century onwards, in order to shed light on the current situation in the region. The text was finished in May, 2024.

Dr. Stanislava Barać. Foto credits: Radnička komuna LINKS (http://komunalinks.com/new-page)

Early Feminist Ideas and Resources

Who were the role models and inspiration to the first generation of feminist artists and scholars? What was read and initially produced? Have these historical period and processes, which created the conditions for the emergence of the analytical and interpretative tools we have today, been systematically documented and researched at all? Did feminist awakening happen in parallel in other fields, such as literature in the region?

Stanislava Barać: I will start with your final question. Yes, the feminist awakening, for the most part, began alongside women’s literature, and that should be observed precisely in the way you have formulated it: in the region. This is because the first women authors in this, our (Serbo-Croatian) language; or these, our closely related languages (Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin, as they are known today) – protofeminists, if that is what we shall call them – appeared within the framework of the Habsburg Empire, i.e. Austria-Hungary. At a certain point, the politics of Austria-Hungary created the conditions for individual national groups to develop their culture in their mother tongue, i.e. their national language, even before Serbo-Croatian was recognized as the standard by the Vienna Literary Agreement in 1850.

I will just give the example of one of the first Serbian women writers, journalists and – as we would put it today – women’s liberation activists, Julijana Radivojević, who founded, edited and authored all of the articles in the first Serbian women’s periodical, the Talija almanac, in Budim (Austria-Hungary; today a part of Budapest) in 1829. With her we already see, in her introductory article, that she is self-aware in highlighting that, in this endeavor, she looked up to “the great and celebrated Women writers […] from foreign Nations” that she had read. Julijana Radivojević was one of the autodidacts who became an author partially by accident (due to the death of her husband), and partially due to her authentic courage (the lack of what is called the anxiety of authorship). I give this example because I believe that we are in need of more research on these kinds of women pioneers, up until the middle of the 19th century, and we are also in need of unifying this research for the first women authors and activists in the region: all of them mostly absorbed women’s literature, as well as the culture of other European women authors, through the official languages of their environment, German and Hungarian.

This is where we were somewhat left with gaps in our feminist knowledge, since, in our subsequent readings of works by local women authors, we sometimes more easily recognize the feminist ideas that simply became more visible throughout the second half of the 20th century, so it is sometimes easy to recognize the ideas and influence or influence of, e.g., Virginia Woolf, and not all the mediatory texts and the women authors who carried these ideas over. That is to say, the careful reading of the whole of the 19th century material (most often magazines) shows that cognate ideas appeared simultaneously in different environments, and that we cannot always speak of one-way influences. This truly liberates us from a colonialist constellation that still exists in both the theoretical and the research fields of feminist academia.

What went on in Yugoslav space in the second half of the 19th century (up until the creation of the first Yugoslav country), that is, the emancipatory movements with which the first (or protofeminist) ideas were integrated, is better researched. It should be emphasized that the first feminists in this period – whether they were primarily writers, actors or teachers (and they sometimes also enveloped several of these professions at the same time or in succession) –informed on the goings on in Europe and the USA in a truly holistic manner. They certainly did this through the most powerful medium of the time – periodicals, i.e. newspapers and magazines.

I would therefore like to highlight precisely the versatility of this generation, whom we can now call Yugoslav protofeminists. Through their writing, they set into motion many taboo topics, such as a husband’s violence, unwanted pregnancy, post-partum depression or abortion. If it were not for them, the feminists of the so-called interwar period – who built serious feminist movements indeed, as well as feminist terminology and entire interpretive models – could not act with the certainty they acted with either.

What may be all the more important for us today, even after the academic rise and legitimization of feminist theories and knowledge at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st century, is that we have enough reason to go back to the texts of interwar Yugoslav feminists: certain definitions, terms and interpretations that they left as our inheritance always reveal themselves to be insufficiently noticed and studied. For me personally, the most inspiring in that context is left-feminism, also referred to as the feminism of the Popular Front. If this international movement managed to maintain its continuity despite the Cold War, through the work of the Women’s International Democratic Federation – and it did – I see no reason for us not to return to this kind of international women’s solidarity today.

Epistemology, Theoretical Frameworks and Their Limitations

To what extent do these activities coincide with the American division into so-called feminist waves and do you see it as a relevant approach to studying and interpreting feminist activity in this region or in Serbia? What about the canon and master narratives of (feminist) art history in Eastern European semi-periphery? Within that context, how to affirm something that is, at the very least, doubly marginalized? Is it possible to talk about the symptom of an epistemological deficit when it comes to analytical categories, nomenclature and new (local) ways of dealing with the material and its interpretation?

Stanislava Barać: Only some of the political and artist initiatives and practices in the Yugoslav space can be directly explained by the categorical apparatus of feminist waves. Some phenomena were indeed the result of influences from the USA, or simply global influences, and some – as you have formulated it – only coincide with the first, second, third wave of feminism. However, according to my research experience, it would be completely wrong to approach researching feminist history through theoretical models or already formed patterns that we accept a priori.

In fact, when we research the history of feminist movements, ideas and individual activists and artists through the methodological framework such as periodical studies – which are my starting point – we encounter such rich and diverse sources (which lead us to equally numerous, additional branches of research) that they demand the building of a new methodological model that fits the given material. Only then, once we have built this special and (relatively speaking) original methodological framework, or at least that is what I have done so far, do we have the right to return to our previous theoretical knowledge. Certainly, this knowledge did influence the forming of this new framework, but we put it in brackets as much as possible, consciously “forgot” about them for a time, in order for our reading of source texts and magazines to unfold with the least amount of prejudice and learned stereotypes.

Therefore, it is only with such an unencumbered (which I, in a lecture, called unselective or even wild) reading of copious material, when we have built our own, fitting, methodological framework, that we return to familiar and influential theoretical studies by other authors. In this phase of constructing a scientific work (be it a regular article, a doctoral dissertation or an even more comprehensive monograph) we actually check which parts of others’ generalizations are also valid and applicable to our results, i.e. our knowledge. And then we add these commonly known theories and terms to our own terminological apparatus and argumentation.

It is my deepest conviction that relevant knowledge is formed, or rather, produced from this kind of procedure. Of course, and this might be the most important aspect, these kinds of research and new knowledge cannot hold realistic significance when they unfold individually, as individual endeavors. This is why – when I was in the position to do so, at the Institute for Literature and Arts that I am employed at, within the Research Unit for Periodicals in the History of Serbian Literature and Culture – I contributed to the formation of a research group that specifically deals with feminist periodical studies. Our biggest contributions to the study of the work of the first women authors and feminists in the Serbian-speaking world, i.e. in Yugoslavia in general and the Yugoslav space both before and after the existence of Yugoslavia as a country, are precisely our collective endeavors in studying feminist (and not just feminist) magazines as our primary sources. And, of course, what remains from that as a visible result: scientific conferences, digital platforms and collections of studies.

Topics, Socio-Political Context and Repercussions

How did feminist activities and feminist interventions in art (history), as Griselda Pollock names them, correspond with the wider socio-political situation, e.g. during the Yugoslav state socialism and after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, during the war in the post-socialist context? Which topics and problematics were initially covered in feminist art practice and which are covered today?

Stanislava Barać: In the scientific sense, today we can be extremely grateful for the answers to these questions to Zsófia Lóránd, who truly invested serious research efforts – including interviewing feminists who were active in the ‘70s – into explaining the relationship between feminism in socialism and the socialist state itself. In doing so, she broke some of the academic prejudice that became especially evident with the disappearance of the bloc division, and which foresaw the existence of feminism in socialist countries. Even when Zsófia Lóránd (and, through the international framework of research, historian Francisca de Haan or Krassimira Daskalova before her), restored the knowledge of the existence and duration of feminism in Central Eastern Europe, not all of the prejudice disappeared completely. Thus, it happened to me at one lecture on Yugoslav interwar feminism that one of the women professors posed a question on whether the interwar feminists really used the word feminism. The answer was: of course they did.

But let us utilize this prejudice as a useful means of explaining feminist interventions in socialism: what is interesting is precisely that some of the women artists or poets in the ‘70s and ‘80s, even when they did not use the epithet of feminist, or even rejected it in their later interviews, were actually conducting feminist interventions into the (conceptual) art of the time, and then on society itself. There are, of course, also those who will consistently see their art as feminist, such as Jasmina Tešanović and – as a special example of feminist activation since the ‘90s and within the peace movement – Dubravka Đurić. These two women authors should especially be highlighted, because they – like those 19th century women authors, may we never forget them – combine multiple roles precisely through their feminism: women’s solidarity itself, antiwar activism, antinationalism, Yugoslav post-war connections, literary work, essays and academic, scientific work (the latter in that sense also becomes a kind of scientific activism).

In that sense, I cannot help but recall the report given by dr. Dubravka Đurić at a big regional scientific conference called Women Scholars and Scientists in Society, which was organized by the Institute of Ethnography at the Serbian Academy of Sciences and Arts in 2020. In the theoretical part of her lecture on the “AŽIN School of Poetry: The construction of history and the future of the other line,” dr. Đurić, as part of a broader performance, performed her radical-feminist poem that literally caused the walls of the Academy to shake, even if it was due to the liberating, therapeutic, impactful laughter it caused in all of the conference participants.


What strategies do you recognize among feminist artists, collectives and scholars? What are some strategies you see as potentially beneficial but not yet as common or implemented in the region (e.g. collectivism, all-women exhibitions, archiving, critical debates, intersectionality, decolonial approach, etc.)?

Stanislava Barać: I think strategies of constant connection between feminists in the region, as you put it, or in post-Yugoslavia (to use the label from the title of Tijana Matijević’s book, From Post-Yugoslavia to the Female Continent: A Feminist Reading of Post-Yugoslav Literature, 2020) truly do exist, and they are created by employing holistic regional representation at literary and other festivals, even when these festivals initially and officially have a more narrow status, e.g., when they are linked to a city (Zagreb, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Ljubljana, Skopje) or even nationally specified at first. Likewise, many regional festivals follow the rule of first organizing their own women’s editions, feminist editions, let us call them; like it was the case with the regional literary festival The Another Story Festival [Друга приказна] in Skopje in 2019. The same was then consistently and more comprehensively done by the regional festival Crocodile [Krokodil] in Belgrade in 2020, when it was held under the title Remake / Remodel.

From the Belgrade visual artist perspective, regional and – whenever possible – feministically marked connection was immensely contributed to by art historian, curator and activist for dignified culture work, dr. Vida Knežević, or rather, the collectives she operates in: the Kontekst collective, Machine [Mašina], The Association of Fine Artists of Serbia [ULUS]. All the while, in parallel with this artist and activist action, women researchers of Yugoslav feminist heritage connect on a regular basis by organizing regional conferences, alongside which the art festivals themselves also organize special nights or panels that connect feminists from the art domain to the feminists from the academic domain. Out of the combined work of these two, or rather, three feminist domains – the art, the critical and the academic – the regional literary award Štefica Cvek also emerged, which was established in 2021 by the members of the Rebel Readers collective [Pobunjene čitateljke].

Feminist researches already did copious work in the domain of digital archiving, definitely marked by regional significance and level, such as the archives: Long Live AFŽ!: Archive of Antifascist Struggle of Women of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Yugoslavia [Da živi AFŽ!: Arhiv antifašističke borbe žena Bosne i Hercegovine i Jugoslavije] with its center in Sarajevo; The Women’s Movement Project 2020 [Projekat Ženski pokret 2020] with its center in Belgrade; and, sticking with only three examples, Invisible Archives [Архиви на невидливите] with its center in Skopje. It seems to me that this is even more than we can expect in regional conditions, and still we know that feminists will push even further.


Translation from Serbian to English: Julija Savić.

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