Curating Portraits and Memories

Curating Portraits and Memories

18 Apr 2016

With the establishment of a digital archive of pre-Holocaust era photographs and recording testimonies of Holocaust survivors of the Jewish Community in Serbia, an exhibition and educational program with the title “Portraits and Memories” (Portreti i Sećanja) were commissioned by the Federation of Jewish Communities in Serbia (FJCS).

Here we talk to Andrea Palašti, artist and curator with a PhD in Art and Media Theory, who found herself working with the JC for the first time, and tasked with the responsibility of transforming the 5000+ item digital archive into an interactive exhibition that has toured seven cities in Serbia.

These are personal stories juxtaposed to the historical facts. However, each individual narrative also tells of the wider social circumstances of the day.

How did you find yourself in the position of the curator and exhibition designer for Portraits and Memories?

The search for curatorial and design conceptualization of the exhibition began with an open call of the FJCS. The selection process was quite rigorous - all of us who made it to the second round were supplied samples and given ten days to prepare an exhibition concept using them, which we later needed to defend orally. What attracted me were the idea and the aesthetic of the archive material, and this notion of archiving knowledge and memories. Inherent to it was a somewhat unusual perspective on the theme of family memory and remembrance, within the Jewish Community.

Was this your first experience working with a Jewish subject matter?

On this scale, yes. And I have to confess that at the start, I was quite scared of the inherent responsibility, and I’m still not entirely over the fear that someone might retroactively find fault with my work. As part of my artistic practice, though, I worked with Marija Ratković and Dejan Vasić back in 2012 on a project “Cultural memory: the present of the past”. We dealt with cultural memory by means of indexing and documenting places of suffering, anti-fascist struggle, and mass graves from the period of the Second World War in Serbia, while looking at the ways these were commemorated, reanimated or recontextualised (reused) through the years.

What were some of the curatorial and/or challenges that you faced during the production of ‘Portraits and Memories’?

The most difficult as well as the most interesting part of the entire production process was the thematic sorting of photographs. What started off as a collection of 3000 ended up being 5000 images, each of which had names, personal stories and recollections attached to them, that needed to be learned and remembered. Additionally, it was important that I find a way to counterpoint personal/family memories with public/official histories in order to contextualise them. This necessitated additional research on my part, but it also allowed me to fully understand the material with which I was working.

It was important to find a compromise between showcasing the archive without being too ‘objective’.

Although the focus lay on private memories, the exhibition included a smaller number of important contextual photographs of the war-time conditions, as well as photographs taken shortly after the end of the war. These images were exhibited next to their respective personal memories, as counterweights offering a point of critical reflection, and suggestive of the actual reality beneath seemingly care-free day-to-day.

Is there any noticeable development in terms of how the camera and the act of picture taking were perceived?

The exhibition starts off with earliest photographs - images on card stock 110x170mm in size, which are known as ‘cabinet cards’. Cabinet cards are easily recognisable by their decorative back (and sometimes front) side. For advertisement purposes, the logo of the studio and contact information were often included. The more advantageous photographers also used various props, painted backdrops and different lighting techniques as a way to attract customers and offer them an opportunity to choose the way, or, in a sense the identity, by which they would be represented.

Already by the end of 1910, the Kodak box camera largely replaced the use of photography studios, and people started producing their own photographs. Photography thus gained the status of a ritual element within the private life of individuals and families, and by becoming commonplace, it allowed for a new way of remembering relevant life events. Accordingly, the main part of the exhibition, the 19 panels, showcase and follow the transformation of (serious) studio portraits into a sea of smiles, shots of celebrations and holidays, sporting events, travel, and leisure.

Photography changed the way in which people observed their surroundings, but also the way in which they defined their personal and collective identities.

This new way of looking at life and one’s environment gave birth to a new kind of photography known as a snapshot. Snapshots were simple, mainly unplanned and spontaneous recordings of a particular moment in time captured by an amateur, and to this day remain one of the most relevant uses of the photocamera. Therefore, in a sense, the exhibition presents to the viewer the same kinds of photographs that even we, today, can recognize and relate to.

What were some of your favourites, some memorable photographs and stories that were included?

Franja Ivanji, Zrenjanin, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Ildi Ivanji.

I love telling the story about the Šlaraf society. The Šlaraf were in charge of doing small pranks and telling jokes in public, for which they were sometimes even awarded medals. They even had particular uniforms, but were all the while supposedly mocking and parodying the Freemasonry. We have included a number of their group portraits, but my favourite is that of Franja Ivanji, who, according to his medals, seems to have been one of the more successful Šlarafs.

His daughter, Ildi, remembers him as being a very witty man. He liked to play cards as well, and was quite a bohemian. One night while playing cards, he dropped a one dinar coin under the table and because it was dark he couldn’t find it. So he burned a one thousand dinar note to light the floor and find the coin.

Berta Kunorti, Mostar, 1942. Photo courtesy Ela Popovíć.

The story of Franja Ivanji is next to the panel consisting of different costumes and uniforms, revealing the cultural diversity of the community. Emphasizing the multiplicity of interpretations of the chosen subject, this panel also shows luxurious wedding dresses, uniforms of different societies, decorative Purim costumes, but also women wearing burkas -- hiding their Jewish identity during the war by masking as Muslim women.

Subotica, c. 1933. Photo courtesy of Mirko Adam.

The exhibition doesn’t just show a narrowly defined (Jewish) community. Through these photographs we can follow the historical development of a whole wider society, the whole region.

The thematic panel about vehicles reveals the technological progress and the rise of the automotive industry, while the panel representing the “korzo’s”, the pedestrian zones of the cities, features photographs that are known in the history of photography as PHOTOSURPRISE. After cameras became widespread, professional photographers had to find new ways to make money outside of their studios. Advertising their shops, the photographers left the studios for the streets, and started taking pictures of passerby, momentarily handing them their business cards with information on the shop where they could pick up the finished photographs of themselves.

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