The South London Gallery and Calvert 22 present Unknown Heroine, the first exhibition in the UK of Croatian artist,Sanja Iveković (b. 1947, Zagreb). The importance of Iveković’s pioneering work in collage, film, performance and installation, which tackles issues of female identity, consumerism and historical amnesia, has recently been acknowledged by her inclusion in dOCUMENTA (13), as well as through major retrospective exhibitions at Mudam, Luxembourg and MoMA, New York. This timely retrospective, curated by Lina Džuverović and spanning both the SLG and Calvert 22, introduces work made over a period of four decades against a background of political unrest.
At the South London Gallery, works from the mid-1970s such as Double Life and Tragedy of a Venus explore the appropriation of female identity by the media and issues of consumerism more generally. Double Life, 1975, originally published as an artist’s book, pairs photographs of women cut out from glossy magazines with those of the artist taken at different stages of her life. Mirroring each other in pose, gesture, situation or prop, the alignment of images highlights the discrepancy between the realities of everyday life and the highly stylised version promoted in the media. Taking this idea into the realm of celebrity, in Tragedy of a Venus, 1975, Iveković places pictures of Marilyn Monroe alongside those depicting scenes from her own life, again questioning the equivocal, constructed status of women and the division between public and private narratives.
Works at Calvert 22 focus on questions of historical amnesia. Ponos (Pride), 2003, for example, examines the inextricable links between politics and public space through the renaming of shops, public buildings and streets. Ponos (Pride) is a replica of an original neon shop sign from a textile shop in Zagreb, now renamed to eliminate the socialist undertones of the title. GEN XX, 1997-2001, similarly explores history and memory, appropriating magazine adverts of glamorous women which, upon closer inspection, reveal names of partisan heroines from socialist times. The banal advertising copy is replaced with the charges and execution dates of young, female anti-fascist militants of World War Two, documenting the erasure of these unknown heroines from the official history.
Always politically engaged, Iveković’s practice invariably embodies issues of civil liberty and dissent. In Triangle, 1979, a provocative action carried out during a visit by President Tito, Iveković drew attention to the oppression and machismo associated with political leaders and their entourages. In more recent works her activism has been more direct, collaborative and often focusing on violence against women. Women’s House (Sunglasses) was started in 2002 and is an on-going collaboration with women who have suffered domestic abuse. Advertisements for well-known brands of sunglasses are altered to incorporate short but searing statements by battered women, shifting our reading of the glasses from fashion accessory to cover-up mechanism. Disseminated through posters, billboards and pamphlets, this collaboration has so far been realised with women’s centres in Poland, Croatia, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Covering a career of over 35 years, Unknown Heroine offers a comprehensive and fascinating view into the politics of power, gender and collective memory that continue to challenge, provoke and unsettle.