Viva la Vida

Selma Selman

10/12/2018 - 30/01/2019

Art, Life and Humanity of Selma Selman


November Gallery is pleased to present the first Belgrade solo exhibition of Selma Selman, a young Bosnian-Herzegovinian artist, activist and philanthropist of Roma origin who currently lives and works in New York.

Within her artistic practice, Selma deals with questions and topics such as identity, inherited socio-cultural prejudices and stereotypes, as well as emancipation, human rights, equality and ranges of humanity in the society we live in. Inspiration and legitimacy for her work the artist finds and draws from her own experiences and the life of her family. By contextualizing knowledge as part of inter-subjective process, Selma’s artistic approach could almost be regarded as epistemological.

Stemming from her own experiences as a member of Roma community, she uses her body in the performances as a metaphor to express the collective dissatisfaction and frustration of the Romani people, who are denied many rights not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but in the whole Balkan region. The performance “You Have No Idea” that she did in 2016 in Belgrade  confronts us most directly with the polygon of questions regarding our awareness of the lives of ‘others’ going on in parallel with ours while we have no idea about them. As the artist says “You have no idea, no idea about the struggles I’m facing. You have no idea who I am, you don’t know my happiness or sadness. You have no idea, and you think you have.” Although the performance refers to the artist’s specific circumstances, background, origin and the struggles on her road to emancipation from the Roma community in Bihać to the university in New York, it conveys universal message of the paradox of life nowadays, in which we are more and more focused on our micro world, and in the global rise of egocentrism less and less touched by the injustice or fates of others.

Besides performance Selma expresses herself through a wide range of media – from painting, drawing, and photography to video. In the video works presented at this exhibition she uses her body, as a field of bio-political consideration and analysis. The video work “Do not look into Gypsy eyes” breaks rooted stereotypes about Roma women who are in our culture perceived as very exotic, attractive, sexy but at the same time dangerous and ‘dirty’.  If you don’t appease her, the Roma woman’s eyes “can put a spell on you, she can curse you” – these are just a few of the narratives of the video work. On the other hand, the video work “Haram” deals with the religious understanding of the woman and the woman’s body as “constantly liable to sin”. According to the Roma as well as Christian culture, water symbolises not only physical cleaning of the body but also spiritual cleansing from our sins. Other possible narrative of this work is related to the migrant crisis where, in the escape for a better life, water can symbolise salvation, redemption or drowning.

The photography “Viva la Vida”[1], that the exhibition was named after, is a portrait of the artist holding a watermelon in her lap while sitting in an allegorical composition that includes a carpet with distinctive ethno motives in the background. This whole décor has its emblematic meaning. The plump and juicy watermelon, as a symbol of the feminine principle and the principle of fertility, suggests ripeness and reminds us of joy and easiness of life. The carpet, which is throughout the Balkans linked to the women traditional crafts and thus woven solely by women who used to do it for living and pass the skill down from one generation to another, symbolizes tradition and cultural framework we were born in. The portrait of the artist amidst such a décor, in a dress as a unique costume suggesting her Roma origin, and in a pose proudly celebrating the fruit of life as well as the Balkan folklore art and culture she is surrounded by, also features her decisive look that insinuates not only the courage to overcome and defeat the given framework but the physical and mental pain arising from that courage as well. The photography “Viva la Vida” visualizes in a subtle way the duality of “lightness” of life, the presence and absence of pain and suffering but also the triumph of personality and emancipation.

A deeply personal story of the artist is told through the displayed drawings and paintings on metal. The portraits of her relatives and friends, self-portraits as well as the scenes from the life of her family, are painted on used and disposed metal objects, mostly collected from the streets.  These objects have deeper significance for the artist, bearing in mind that her family just like the majority of the Roma people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, make ends meet by collecting and reselling metal, plastic and cardboard. By painting on these very objects Selma creates a unique “urban pastoral” like her personal diary about existence, struggle for life, but also about how we can overcome given frameworks with certain effort and give life a new meaning. By visually presenting the scenes of her family’s work the artist uses metal as both the artistic means and the tool of survival, personal transformation and escape from poverty.

An important segment of Selma’s activism is the recently initiated pilot project “Get the heck to school” through which the artist raises money to help schooling of Roma girls so they could get elementary education, and motivate them to enrol in secondary schools and university. So far she has helped 5 girls from Bihać to receive full annual scholarship and provided 35 children with daily meals.

We symbolically open the exhibition “Viva la Vida” on 10th December, the Human Rights Day in order to help promoting the artist’s humanitarian activities and together with Selma raise money for her project through which she helps educating Roma children by setting her own example as an incentive and encouragement.


Maja Kolarić



[1] A phrase that in Spanish means “Long live life”, but also refers to the eponymous Frida Kahlo’s painting with watermelons she painted several days before she died.