The Politics of Migration in the Artwork of Tanja Ostojić (contains nudity)

A petite build and distinguishable south-eastern European accent form a physical manifestation of a fierce-spirited performance artist Tanja Ostojić. Born on 19 August 1972 in Užice, in a country of what was known as Yugoslavia, Ostojić has been forced to find her way in Europe since her home nation disbanded, refusing to claim any nationality. As a female immigrant herself, her works have been uncompromisingly centered on the political and migration issues within what she deems as the exclusive borders of European Union. The exhibitions and performances are strategically timed to span the relevance of several years, using her own identity and body as a documentation archive.

Ostojić has been pursuing art since her educations in University of Art in Belgrade in 1998, and École Regionale de Beaux-Arts in Nantes in 1999, but her name became prevalent in Europe after her controversial work, After Courbet, L´origine du Monde (2005), also known as EU Panties. Using her own bottom-part as a subject to imitate Gustave’s Courbet painting, she spread her legs in an undergarment displaying the European Union flag. The image was quickly labeled as scandalous and generated outrage from the media and politicians, but she did not stop there.

Ostojić, Tanja. Left: Looking for a Husband with EU Passport. 2005; Right: EU Panties. 2004. Image courtesy of the artist.

For south-eastern European women whose countries are not part of the EU, it is often only possible to become a resident of the union through marriage, which drives young females to practice what she deems as similar, if not already a form of, prostitution. In response to this trend, Ostojić advertised herself, head shaved and stark naked, as a potential bride in Looking for a Husband with a EU Passport (2000-2005). Her message was meant to be anything but flattering, and everything that is straightforward. She was essentially a body to sell, who was after the male’s identity above all, who did not bother to sugar-coat her appearance or abilities of being a wife.

After her prominence, more of her projects involve documenting experiences of other travelers, immigrants, refugees, or the “undocumented” people; and constant attack towards the flaws of EU’s migration security and policies. Misplaced Women? (2009-present) initiated a chain of activities where traveling women would unpack her luggage and display every item in her belongings out in public, transitory places. Turning pouches inside out, removing batteries or smaller parts from their slots, and being in the state of vulnerability as their possessions are laid bare for anyone to examine, before packing them back again.

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Ostojić, Tanja. Misplaced Women?. 2009-present. Image courtesy the artist.

The movement triggered a sense of solidarity, also from men. Thorough searching is a part of standard procedure inquired of travelers and asylum seekers from “certain countries”, no matter where they move. It is a small enactment of the constant state of nakedness, of being upheld as a threat, and invasion of privacy as well as personality.

I do not feel I belong to any state and I do not like to be classified by nationality. I am a woman, a wife, a mother, a student, I am a human being, I am present, I occupy space, I am a misplaced woman. 

Marta Nitecka Barche, participant.

Lexicon of Tanja Ostojić (2013) is a continuation project started in her own family, a leftover of her then journalist aunt’s research of their surname origin. Ostojić discovered how the name rooted to a number of men of different credentials, but not a single woman was documented in the archives. To resolve this, she found and worked with 25 women who share exactly the same name of Tanja Ostojić, regardless their origins and nationalities, and documented their journeys and stories, creating a lexicon that bonds these strangers.

Ostojić, Tanja. Lexicon of Tanja Ostojić. 2013. Image coutesy of the artist.

In other chances to expose the loopholes of EU security management, Ostojić also familiarize herself with illegal border-crossing strategies and outback routes regularly used by immigrants to travel between countries for decades, took selfies, and published her documentations. In another chance, she recorded the testimonies and activities of “illegal beings” who are stuck in the deportation prison of Berlin through her video, Sans Papiers (2004-2014), popularizing the French term which literally means “paperless”. Ostojić also responses to the not-so-new series of terror activities in Europe, and uses the notion to further question the authorities of EU border systems.

Ostojić, Tanja. Integration Impossible. 2005. Image coutesy of the artist.

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