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Selma Selman shares the pain of others through her art

What does it mean to see the pain of others? It’s a question you may ask yourself – as I did – after leaving “Me postojisarav – Postojim – I exist,” the new exhibit at Dreamland. Featuring video, sound sculptures, paintings and performance art by Selma Selman in her first U.S. solo show, the exhibition was curated by Jasmina Tumbas.

Currently working on her MFA at Syracuse University, Selman is Bosnian with Roma origins. Roma constitute the largest minority in Europe and a highly persecuted one. Tumbas, writing in the exhibition catalog, described the show as “conceptualized around Selman’s struggle with questions of statelessness, multigenerational trauma, and survival.”

Entering the gallery, I donned headphones to watch Selman’s “Anew.” In this work, filmed in her hometown of Bihac, a Roma village in Bosnia, Selman is seen endlessly rolling down a grassy hill, a sliver of blue sky captured at the top. Just as she reaches the bottom, arms outstretched, the video loops back to the beginning. Repetition of violence is a major theme throughout her work.

Also repeated throughout the exhibition is Selman’s mother, appearing frequently as the subject of Selman’s work, such as in the paintings “Do not be like me!” and the video-work “Saltwater (at 47).” In “Do you have a boyfriend?”, the artist repeatedly asks that same question (“Imaš li momka?”) over and over again looking directly into the camera. The societal need to have a boyfriend, according to Selman, is not far from the societal expectation to be married. An expectation endlessly repeated, and, as Tumbas said to me in an interview, one “with devastating consequences.”

From Selma Selman's "Don't Be Like Me," 2016.

From Selma Selman's "Don't Be Like Me," 2016.

Continuing in this line of exploration is Selman’s performance “Composition: Bori, Nevjesta, Bride,” which she performed live at opening night March 4. Standing in a corner of the gallery with her back facing the audience, Selman undressed to the waist. With a belt of barbed wire, she cinched her waist tightly, holding, releasing and repeating.

For more than 50 minutes, Selman’s sharp intakes of breath and cries were amplified throughout the space. It is a violent performance. Her skin quickly became red and welted. Her hands, too, bore the marks of the act. Like so much of the artist’s work, multiple layers of meaning register in this performance: issues of visibility, presence, the tradition of child marriage, and femininity, but also violence by the state.

Everyday, we are presented with the pain of others. Everyday, we can bear witness to the suffering of others. But, many more times than not, we can walk past it, move beyond it, ignore it. In many ways, the pain of others is incomprehensible due to unequal tiers of privilege and experience.

I don’t know what it means to see the pain of others. I don’t know what it means to hear the pain of others. But Selman’s work called us to share in it. Between so many divides of racial, gender and classed experiences, Selman seems impossibly far from my own understandings of self. Yet I was there for Selman’s performance. Others were there. The power of her work is rooted in this synapse. She exists. I exist. We exist.


What: “Me postojisarav – Postojim – I exist” by Selma Selman.

When: Through March 25

Where: Dreamland Studio & Gallery, 387 Franklin St.


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