STORIES OF IN/SECURITY

During WWI and WWII over 50,000 people emigrated from the coastal region of Primorska in western Slovenia. They left because of poverty, the assimilation policy of Italy, which had occupied the territory at the end of the First World War and, after 1922, exerted an iron fist of fascist terror. During that period, many women emigrated to Egypt. The performance entitled Trieste – Alexandria Embarked (Štorja od Lešandrink*) is dedicated to these women. At its Ljubljana premiere I struggled to hold back tears at the sadness of mothers, wives and girls who, in order to survive, left behind their children, parents, fiancés and husbands to make money abroad. At the same time I was delighted that the performance depicted how these same women – be it in Alexandria, Cairo and other Egyptian cities – made good money, learnt foreign languages and manners, and became cosmopolitan ladies. Some of them never wanted to go back to their homeland. And this was not just because of the rich multicultural environment in which they lived and worked as nurses, governesses, cooks and housekeepers. But indeed, where and to what were they supposed to return to? Did their homeland provide them with security and foreign lands insecurity? No, quite the opposite in fact; and this is the paradox encompassed in the title of this year’s City of Women festival. The incongruity of in/security, which is generally considered to be a contemporary issue, is in actual fact a longstanding question. Trembling memories from the Isonzo Front and the First World War, to the massacre at Srebrenica a mere decade ago, and the exact meanings of in/security send a shiver down the collective spine.

 

After the performance, I met with and got to know those who collectively produced this piece - the director, playwright, dramaturg, actresses, the singer of the finale, costume designer, executive producer, the director of the accompanying video - all were female. I met Ema – who is also an artist – and described her my enthusiasm as to how this wholly female project had been accomplished; Ema, however, vehemently disagreed, stating that the project was only accomplished because all those involved worked practically for nothing. The inequality of women in culture persists, and it is reflected in every tender published by Slovenia’s Ministry of Culture, which is written exclusively in the male gender. Mere female hypersensitivity, or does this carry a deeper significance? The issue is undoubtedly paradoxical.

 

The morning after I read that Slovenia would have a national holiday on 15th September, a date that celebrates the return of Primorska to the motherland, as well as the Primorskan people’s struggle against the Fascism, which was the first anti-fascist movement in Europe. The Lady Mayor of Piran was most enthusiastic about it, and the organisation of celebrations for this year’s event was entrusted directress of the Koper Theatre. And I really was in a fabulously positive mood by my morning coffee break when I learned that half of this summer’s top ten books borrowed from Ljubljana’s city library were by female authors. And, with the arrival of autumn, the City of Women opens its doors; and thus begins a festival that strives hard to improve the visibility of women’s creativity in culture, art and theory. Another paradox? Let’s have a look at what the authoresses had to say about the festival, and what have been the observations of participants in the decade of its existence.

 

First off: the City of Women festival has played a considerable role in placing the city of Ljubljana on the map of the European cultural, intellectual and social events. It is a well known and highly regarded festival that is seriously discussed in academic and intellectual circles across Europe. It is also an original and unique combination of intellectual perspicacity, artistic creativity and international discussion that results in the clarification and further understanding of pertinent social issues. The City of Women stands at the crossroads of art and theory where female artists from various corners of the world with numerous ideas, philoso¬phies and political beliefs meet; indeed, it is an exiting idea that requires audacious execution. The festival is one of a kind in its approach to the presentation of women’s art: instead of searching for arbitrary similarities based on gender, it introduces a vast range of experimental and challenging works by creative women. This is an approach that draws attention to the art and culture produced by females without further reinforcing stereo¬types surrounding the notion of women. This is not women’s art – it is the presentation of artistic, theoretical and cultural endeavour by women in the context of the annual theme of the festival. Naturally, the theme of the festival concerns women’s issues in contemporary society, but strictly within a broader political, social and cultural context of the phenomena. This is why – despite the diversity of artistic expression – City of Women gives the notion of integrity: every artist is selected in order to add a particular colour to the entire evolving tapestry.

 

It is a good thing that the festival provides insight into recent achievements in contemporary art, supports new genres, addresses pertinent questions, and yet – at the same time – all of this is not so good. Due to the hermeti¬cally sealed world of contemporary art and the use of specific language and modes of expression, many find the festival difficult to understand and thus unattractive. The performances and the events are demanding, they often cause discomfort, and address those things we are afraid of, and therefore they don’t necessarily provide pleasant diversion of the type that would add a little colour to an otherwise uneventful day. By way of its broad intellectual spectrum, the festival definitely enriches and enlivens the cultural scene and elevates the local to the level of the international. Maybe too much so? Are we in need of more Slovenian participants? Maybe less contemporary art and an increased number of more com¬municative events? More politics, or less politics? A shorter festival, or perhaps quite the opposite? There are plenty of questions worthy of consideration, thus we want the City of Women festival to continue for at least as long as we are able to verify the answers and decisions, and – where necessary – change them. Would you insist on the utopian vision of a ‘happy equality’ if every-day life proved you wrong was a question raised by Duba Sambolec years ago. City of Women promotes com¬munication, diversity, connection and exchange. It is not a temple, but a crossroads, a crossroads at which we might even meet!

 

Dr. Mirjam Milharčič Hladnik

President of the Association for the Promotion of Women in Culture – City of Women

 

* Lešandrinke – ‘Alexandrians’ is the term used to describe Slovenian women from Primorska region (the western portion of what is today Slovenia which was under the Italian hegemony between 1918 and 1943) who in the early 20th century emigrated to work in Egypt.