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Selma Selman: Alchemy at work

On the way between Amsterdam and Berlin, the artist and activist Selma Selman talked with her fellow artist and close friend Miloš Trakilović about the price and value of freedom, future plans and, of course, about Omer.

Miloš Trakilović

March 15, 2024

They called her Tito, Ronaldo, Picasso.

In her mahala, Selma Selman has long been a synonym for success, and now her achievements are becoming increasingly visible on the global stage. Selma and I first met in Berlin, but we found our chance to grow closer during a two-year residency at the Rijks Academy in Amsterdam. There, as some of the few artists from Bosnia and Herzegovina in the centuries-long existence of this art program, we were coincidentally placed in studios next to each other. This accidental proximity blossomed into a close friendship.

This time, I spoke with Selma while traveling from Amsterdam to Berlin, regarding her her0 exhibition at Martin Gropius Bau. We were hurrying to catch the train so we wouldn’t be late. The train was delayed, but we had already started our conversation about her work and collaborations, about freedom, Mercedes cars, and naturally, about Omer.

Selma has reminded me on numerous occasions that gold is found within all of us, but she has also proven that some ideas are worth more than gold.

Miloš: It’s great that we can have this conversation on the train, in motion. Between two places, both of significance to us. Amsterdam, where we met and grew closer through the Rijks Academy, and Berlin, where I’ve lived for the past ten years and where you currently have an exhibition at Gropius Bau. Can you explain and talk about the works exhibited and perhaps what your goal was with this exhibition, in relation to the international audience?

Selma: I’m also really glad that we finally have the opportunity to conduct a professional interview. First, I want to say that today is a special day. It’s my mom’s birthday; she’s turning 57, so this moment is very emotional for me. On the other hand, life between Amsterdam and Berlin is very exciting, but also very exhausting. We’re constantly going back and forth, trains always running late. But on the other hand, this journey marks the end of my exhibition, which has now been running for three months and which I believe has been one of my most successful exhibitions.

Miloš: Why?

Selma: The way I worked was very simple and intuitive. When I received the invitation for the exhibition, I was already in Berlin. At the same time, I had an opening at Hamburger Bahnhof, and then curator Zippora Elders contacted me, expressing her wish for us to present a comprehensive presentation of my works. Together, we sprang into action, starting from one room and finishing with 1000 square meters of space. The way I work with curators, who I know trust me and will give me complete freedom, is to ensure each exhibition is a kind of experiment. I think Zippora trusted me, and I trusted her, which is why we managed to put together, I would say, a serious, significant exhibition.

Miloš: In what respect was this exhibition experimental or special?

Selma: Just receiving the invitation to exhibit at an institution of international significance was incredibly exciting. The space itself is very specific, adding to the thrill. This was the first time I’ve minimized an exhibition to the extent where you literally have one work in a 200-square-meter room. To reach that level of minimalism took years of work because the narrative for young artists is often “show as much as possible,” but I’ve reached a phase where I realized that “less is more.” Through a process of reduction, we came up with the concept of basing the entire exhibition around the performance Motherboards, where we dismantle motherboards from computers, which became the focal point of the exhibition. The exhibition’s title, “her0 (zero),” questions what happens when you create potential out of nothing.

Miloš: This exhibition covers many of the media you work with: performance, painting, video, and there will be an artist talk. Aside from the Motherboards performance, a new work you produced for this exhibition is Satellite Dish. Could you explain how it came about and the concept behind this work?

Selma: I would say that everything I did for the exhibition was in some way new, in the sense that my works acquire an entirely new dimension when placed in such a space. The satellite is 3 meters in diameter and weighs 150 kilograms; finding an object of that kind was quite challenging. The whole procedure begins with finding and then cleaning the object to a shine so that it can be brought into the space, which was, on one hand, quite amusing, and on the other, critical in terms of my work and its relationship with the institution. It raised questions about how “dirty” my works are for that institution. On the other hand, what might be unknown to the audience, and what I find interesting, is that I feel such satisfaction when I see my works in a perfect museum space with a serious history. Each painting I create on secondary materials actually questions the position of those discarded objects, and on the other hand, of discarded people. Thus, my works always directly critique a certain type of treatment towards people.

Miloš: You decided to inscribe the intriguing text “God make me the most famous so I can escape this place” on this object. I wouldn’t necessarily ask you “Where is that place?” because I find the ambivalence of this sentence interesting in relation to you, as an artist, and your work. This location (place) doesn’t have to signify a defined geographical position from which we want to escape. It can refer, at least that’s how I interpret it, to our identity as a reflection of the place we’re in and the need to escape the perception of others. So, why this text?

Selma: I think the work is inspired by pop culture, Instagram, and social networks, but most of all by my childhood and the search for a better life. The satellite dish is my self-portrait. This is a work where I may have exposed my emotions for the first time without thinking about the fears that have accumulated over time, but about those that are currently present and that could be present in the future. We all constantly search for our place in this world, and I believe that gives everyone a slight sense of anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Because of its simplicity, this work becomes very universal.

Miloš: Creating a link between the first work of yours I encountered, before we knew each other, “I will buy my freedom when…” and this work seems to me to show an interesting correlation in terms of perhaps using that work as a springboard for your rebellion, a pronounced need for transformation, and breaking down prejudices. Now, this work seems to reflect back on that initial point. Even though they are quite different, I find these two works compatible in terms of what they communicate, your professional and personal development, and the journey you’ve traveled between these two works. How do you see it?

Selma: That video work is very important to me, and at that time, it was questioning my position in the mahala and my future self. I recorded that work from 2012 to 2018. At the Academy in Banja Luka, I came up with the idea to create a work where I would ask my parents how much money I would need to give them so they wouldn’t marry me off. By that time, I was of an age where I could start a family, and then everyone in the mahala kept asking me when I was going to get married. I decided to create a work to buy my freedom from my parents by repaying some of the money they thought my future partner should give them. My dad asked for 5000 euros, my brother for 6000 marks, my mother first said one mark but in the end asked for 1000 marks. I knew I would have a lot of exhibitions in the next two years where I could exhibit this work as a video piece and performance. At the same time, I was selling my works, and I even sold my hair, strand by strand, which went quite well, gathering about 11,000 euros and giving it to them, which they used to buy a Mercedes. That was my freedom. The question is whether I managed to buy my freedom because it’s hardest to free yourself from patriarchal structures. But at least I no longer have the pressure to have a husband to be successful, and I proved that. That was the only way to earn my freedom at that time.

Miloš: Freedom, or the process of liberation, is a very universal, human theme. Through your existence, identity, and position, it perhaps becomes an even more complex question. So, I’d like to touch on the theme of liberation because you mentioned how on one hand, you freed yourself from certain pressures, and then new ones emerged. How do you deal with the need to break boundaries while ensuring that the freedom you discover doesn’t immediately turn into a new burden?

Selma: I can’t control that. Literally, whatever happens, I have to accept it. That’s the only way I can stay mentally stable. The most important thing in all of this is that you accept yourself, your surroundings, your environment, and the situation you find yourself in. What I believe was correct in my case is that I managed to create positivity from negativity. That way, I created an imagination for myself, and from that imagination, I created a reality in which I live and enjoy.

Miloš: The majority of your works contain some transformative potential and communicate that to the audience. Can you single out a work that had a particularly transformative impact on you?

Selma: I actually don’t call myself a performer but a transformer. All works related to transformation were created very intuitively because when I have an idea, whether I want to or not, it seems that the idea itself possesses some kind of transformative energy. Already at the Academy, I stopped painting on canvas because I couldn’t always afford it, and I started painting on waste. I think that was the beginning of transformation in my works.

My father would set aside pieces of metal from his scrap for me to work on. Then I began to paint only on waste, which led me to the possibility of now knowing how to recycle gold from waste. Recycling gold is not an idea that was conceived yesterday; the research process lasted five years. I remember my brother and I in 2018 were doing experiments to make our own gold. We would buy hydrochloric acid and put electric plates but couldn’t succeed. And my brother says, “No way, no one will give us the formula for that, it’s a secret.” That secret stayed so engraved in my memory, and I wanted to find the secret to discovering gold. That was literally our El Dorado, and finally, now I have managed to find a way to make my own gold.


Miloš: In the span of five years?

Selma: Yes. Five years ago, I came up with the idea, and then we started experiments. In the meantime, I went to Amsterdam to the Rijks Academy, where I realized I had the opportunity to experiment at the University of Science in Amsterdam and work with real scientists. That’s when I went all in. Then, my advisor from the Rijks Academy, Štefan Kundera, and I conducted experiments for a year, and each time it was unsuccessful. Toward the end of my residency at Rijks, however, we finally found a way. This process is now my secret, and I cannot tell you. The fact that I know how to make my own gold is worth more to me than the gold itself.

Miloš: Is it a kind of investment for the future? (laughs)

Selma: (laughs) But on the other hand, I would like to share this project with people for whom it’s important to know the method of recycling without toxic acids. I plan to publish this work this year with a manual, and also to obtain a certificate for discovering a form of recycling without toxic elements.

Miloš: To create a patent?

Selma: Yes, and I’m working on that now. When I finish, everyone will know how I came up with the idea. But just to go back to when our first experiment was successful, it was literally just 0.03 grams of gold.

Miloš: I remember that, I was there with you…

Selma: Yes, you were next to us in the studio. That was the most beautiful thing that happened. My collaborator Štefan couldn’t stop laughing, saying if he knew a person could be so happy for 0.03 grams of gold, he would have given up his career (laughs).

Miloš: Just one more time briefly, the concept of the work is…

Selma: The concept of the work is that, in fact, from electronic waste, mostly from those motherboards, gold is recycled. The extraction of gold is in itself already an artistic work, but I extract enough to be able to make a sculpture.

Miloš: I think this is one of your more complex works. Conceptually very simple, but at the same time, it contains many layers, collaborations, research, dedication. I believe this work encapsulates your activist engagement. It has a very clear activist element that often permeates your works. Do you recognize and where do you see the activist potential of your art?

Selma: As far as I am concerned and my work, there’s no big difference between activism and art. In fact, when you look at my works, they always have multiple layers; it’s never emphasized that it’s, for example, just a sculpture. For instance, the nail I made from gold, which I managed to obtain through recycling, has other elements behind it. Starting from research, as well as collaboration with experts, to performances with family members, as well as the recycling context.

The essence is that the Roma population started recycling iron and other types of waste a hundred years ago, for survival, and on the other hand, to save the planet. To me, this is much more important than today’s West, which has only now understood the economic and ecological essence of recycling. So, my work questions that position of the Western white world towards the minority Roma population. And then it can also be read as a feminist work, questioning capitalism.


Miloš: I’d like to continue on the theme of collaboration and cooperation through your work. How does it manifest, and how do you give it importance? It seems to me that the art world, in particular, knows how to mystify its production, and I believe we, as artists, are obliged to contribute to the demystification of creating art. Because everything we create actually comes from some kind of collaboration.

Selma: My first collaboration was with my father Selman Haris, my brother Selman Muhamed, and my neighbor Mirsad Pučić. That was the first time we worked together.

Miloš: Which work was that?

Selma: Mercedes Matrix, a work that is well-known today. I remember when in 2017 I was invited to perform in Rijeka at the Museum of Modern Art. At that time, I was living in America, and it was my first return to the European art scene. Since I had no specific performance in mind, I called my dad and asked for advice. He said, “Just dismantle a washing machine, it’s a 20-minute job.” So, I relayed to the museum director: “Slaven, I need a washing machine and an axe, and the performance will last 20 minutes.” I got everything I asked for, put on silver shoes and a dress, and dismantled the machine in 17 minutes (laughs). I called dad, and he said, “Well done, you’re a true child of mine.”

Miloš: I think your collaboration with your family becomes very visible through the form of performance…

Selma: But not just that! I do a lot of things, but sometimes I don’t put them as part of my works because it’s very important to me that not everything has to be an art piece. For example, every year I organize a video festival called “Video Screening at Selma’s in Ružica,” and I’d be very glad to show your work there. Actually, I do a video screening of works from friends who send me video pieces, and then we watch them together. I invite all sorts of people from Bihać, meaning both Roma and non-Roma, what we’d call white and black, to enjoy art together. Besides that, we also have a competition for the best Michael Jackson impersonation, with a prize, and it’s great fun, absolutely fantastic. Additionally, I have a foundation which is a very important part of my life, though sometimes it’s a huge burden.

Miloš: The “March to School” foundation?

Selma: Yes, I’m currently sponsoring fifty children through the foundation, sometimes funding it all by myself.

Miloš: How did it all start, how do you envision the development of your foundation? How do you manage?

Selma: It’s very hard work and a serious responsibility I’ve taken on. The hardest part is being from that community as an individual. I am the only person in the mahala with the highest education, and then they all look at me as the person who will save their lives, while I see myself as someone who might help a bit. A role model who works on the visibility of the Roma population while also working to degrade discrimination, which I think I’ve partly achieved. On the other hand, it’s problematic when the community expects so much from you that it doesn’t allow you to progress. That happened to me when I started working intensively on activist projects in the mahala. There was so much work that I literally had to say “no” and start focusing on my own work. And then I made the best decision to help myself so that I could help others.

Miloš: That’s one of the great truths of life, not just wisdom but a truth.

Selma: I was very young when I started the foundation, I was 26 years old, and I hadn’t even educated myself to be able to create a foundation, but simply time did not allow me to give up because I know if I hadn’t started then, all these children who are currently scholars wouldn’t be where they are now.

Miloš: Your activism and creativity span a wide range of media—video, painting, performance, and even writing. Given that we’re looking forward to the artist talk at Gropius Bau where you’ll be reading letters to Omer, maybe we can talk a bit about the letters to Omer. I wouldn’t ask who Omer is, but rather, how did the idea for this format come about?

Selma: It all started when I was re-reading “Death and the Dervish” by Meša Selimović, but in English, which I found quite delightful. Reading his descriptions of a woman’s hands over 200 pages made me wonder: “Is it really possible to describe someone’s hands in so much detail over so many pages?” That’s how the idea to start writing in the form of letters came about, and so I created Omer, a person to whom I could tell absolutely everything.

Miloš: So, Omer is essentially a fictional creation or an anti-hero of sorts?

Selma: Sometimes he’s an anti-hero, my muse, everything positive and negative in this world, but sometimes he’s the person I need, my nostalgia. The search for Omer is the most beautiful part of writing for me. On the other hand, I don’t know if Omer will ever respond to the thousands of letters I’ve written to him.

Miloš: Can you imagine one day writing the last letter to Omer, and what would it look like?

Selma: I just got goosebumps. I don’t know, it saddens me to write that final letter without ever having seen him (laughs).

Miloš: It’s said that truth is in the eye of the beholder. Is there a difference in how you’re perceived and understood in the Balkan context versus other places where you’ve lived and worked?

Selma: My career began in Bosnia when I won the Zvono Award, becoming highly recognizable on social media and television. It was challenging because I realized the importance of media presence, but at the same time, I became somewhat of a spectacle. People literally left with the impression that I was not an ordinary human being—I was perceived as a separate entity. Actually, my first exhibition was at the age of 17, and my dad was my manager. I started selling my paintings early on, which supported us. I’ve always sought opportunities to leave Bosnia and the Balkans to show people that I have a deeper life purpose, that I truly understand art and live it. I must admit, my professors at the Academy were exceptional; for the first time in my life, I felt valued not just as an artist but as a human being, a woman, and then as an artist—this was crucial for me. Now, the global audience perceives me in the way I’ve always wanted, with kindness but also critically. Of course, there are people who dislike my art and think I’ve succeeded only because I have wealthy parents. Maybe it’s because people are not accustomed to someone like me succeeding without rich parents or connections.

Miloš: Speaking of media presence, considering this is a magazine with a fashion prefix and we live in an era of widespread hyper-visibility in communication, how do you navigate your role through social media? How do you use fashion, and do you play with your image?

Selma: I’ve never taken social networks like Instagram, fashion, or magazines too seriously; to me, it’s essentially playing with an imaginary life. For this occasion, I wanted to wear Rick Owens because his minimalist approach to the fashion industry and models really attracts me. This simplicity combined with an edgy style truly describes me. I’m simple, but at the same time, I carry an edgy expression. As for social networks, I think I use them in a very smart way; I’m not obsessed with them but mainly use them for promotion and visibility of myself and my art.

Miloš: Are there moments when you wish to be invisible? What do you do in those moments?

Selma: My time, place, and life don’t allow me to be invisible, so I’ve learned how to use my visibility. I want to be visible, and I think it’s important for people to know about my art. They don’t even need to know who I am; just knowing my art is more important to me. I had the opportunity to present myself for the first time to the Bosnian and Herzegovinian public in 2021 with a solo exhibition at the National Gallery in Sarajevo, which I did together with curator Amila Ramović. That’s when I realized how important it was for me to exhibit in Bosnia, so the audience would know not just my face but my work. The exhibition was visited by about 20,000 people over three months, making it the most visited exhibition at that time. The audience was so diverse, and I truly believe my art has the potential to bring people together.

Miloš: How do you strive to make your art accessible?

Selma: By ensuring my works don’t have a limited audience and because my works deal with real people’s lives and seek potential in everyone.

Miloš: Is there a difference in your artistic expression across different media? Do you have a preference, find one more challenging or rewarding than others?

Selma: I am a performer, very self-assured, but also very fragile. Performance is something I live; I know how to engage with the audience. At the opening of the exhibition and the performance in Berlin, 2000 people showed up, waiting in line to see the performance. This art form requires a lot of practice, but the performer themselves must have a certain energy to share with the audience, even if it’s fear. You need to know how to dominate the space and give 100% of yourself to the audience. Often after a performance, I experience a void that takes time to fill.

Miloš: Maybe that’s because, in the context of art, performance is one of the most direct forms of communication, perhaps more so than other media. And I believe art, in any form, arises from an indestructible need for communication.

Selma: I’m not an actress, but I put myself and my personality on stage to communicate something with the audience because I believe it’s significant. Art is indeed the need to communicate something with people.

Miloš: There’s a painful contradiction in all of this, and that is the profession of an artist can be quite isolating, say, due to time spent in the studio. Do you experience this, and how do you deal with it?

Selma: I think that’s the most crucial and beautiful part of my work, where I’m in that solitude and enjoy every process of my work.

Miloš: I don’t always enjoy working alone in the studio; it doesn’t suit my working style. So, those moments can be quite challenging for me, which is why I asked. So, even when you’re alone, you’re not lonely? What’s your secret?

Selma: There’s no secret, I often don’t even know what I’ll be working on at that moment, and I just start painting. When I was preparing the exhibition in Sarajevo, I painted 200 paintings in two years, of which I spent 8 months in Bosnia. All that time I was painting, and it was the most beautiful experience. I listen to music, light a cigarette, have a glass of wine, and think about those paintings. That’s time for me, a period when I develop as an artist. For example, when preparing for the Gropius Bau exhibition, I was also alone in the studio, and that solitude helped me make plans for the future.

Miloš: What I really appreciate in your artistic creation is that you seem to be freed from the pressure of excessive self-criticism. Artists are often their own harshest critics, which can be good but also paralyzing. It seems to me that you’re not burdened by this and are free in your exploration and expression. Whose feedback do you value?

Selma: I often question myself and my work. I value the opinions of my closest friends, and I frequently ask my parents and neighbors for advice.

Miloš: And the relationship with yourself?

Selma: What’s most important is to believe in your art. I trust my intuition, and I’m not burdened by whether I’ve created a perfect work, which makes me free.

Miloš: So, in a way, you have managed to “buy” your freedom?

Selma: Well, yes, I’ve bought my freedom… But on the other hand, as they say, I’m a young artist (laughs). There’s so much ahead of me in life.

Miloš: As we’re nearing Berlin, the final destination of our journey and the culmination of your exhibition at Gropius Bau, which represents a significant step in your career, you’re actively working on your professional development and achieving your ambitions. Is there a specific goal you wish to achieve in the near or distant future?

Selma: My unfulfilled goal is to finally succeed in building a school in Bihać, and I hope time will allow it, and that all this success, acquaintances, and career will help me achieve it. To expand the foundation across the entire region. To help women who haven’t had the chance to get an education like my mother, to finally learn to read and write. To create a huge playground in Bihać for children and youth. So, the goal of my art is to change the harsh reality in which we live.

Photo: Lukas Korchan
Stayling: Lorena Maza
Hair & Make-up: Natalia Soboleva @Liganord_agency (with products of La Biosthetique and ghd)

Exhibition: her0, 2023, Martin Gropius Bau. Curator Zippora Elders, w. assistance Monique Machicao y Priemer Ferrufino and Elisa Maria Schmitt