On October 12 2016. Bojana Videkanić was holding the “Misplaced Women?” sign on the Pearson International Airport in Toronto and was diving into her profoundly touching memories about her initiation into the life of a refugee escaping Sarajevo siege in 1992 and her and her family life as refuges in the UK, Croatia and Canada. She wrote about it:
Missing Women: Some Thoughts As to Why I Became Missing While Waiting for Tanja Ostojić
By Bojana Videkanić October 2016-February 2017.
Last year I invited Tanja Ostojić to present her work at the 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival in Toronto. As one of the members of the Toronto Performance Art Collective, I have been wanting to invite Tanja to come to our festival for some time. She generously accepted and came in October 2016. In our conversations and planning prior to her arrival, Tanja asked me to help her by doing a specific action when she landed in Toronto. She asked me to create a sign and hold it while waiting for her at the Pearson International Airport. She told me that the sign should read: “Misplaced Women” which is also the title of Tanja’s piece that she was going to perform on October 16 at a tram stop downtown Toronto at the corner of McCaul and Dundas streets. Tanja gave me a choice to, if I wanted to, put a question mark at the end of the statement. I was happy to do the action and I made the sign, deciding to put a question mark at the end. My choice to do so was guided by the fact that Pearson is a large and busy place and I suspected that the sign will be noticed if I keep it ambiguous. I, however, was not considering the impact Tanja’s work would have on me.
The day came and I arrived 30 or so minutes earlier in order to keep the action a bit longer, to give it some time to play out. While standing there at the international arrivals gate, I had some time to think about the action I was performing (standing in the middle of the great airport hall with an ambiguous sign in my hands) and what its ramifications might be. There were a couple of important thoughts I had that came about as a result. First, throughout my action I realized that I was initiating Tanja’s performance, as it became obvious that my interactions with the accidental audiences were a catalyst for a discussion around borders, policing of bodies, and (in)visible violence of that. In short, I realized that Tanja’s performance has begun as people gawked at me. Secondly, I realized the echoes of Tanja’s work in our ‘local’ Canadian context with the missing and murdered indigenous women, and the impact it had in the light of Syrian crisis and the inability of the world actors to see the refugees as human beings. What I did not expect was my own physical reaction to the sign and the moment as I became missing in it.
It became obvious at that moment that the sign “Missing Women” was not about some other missing women (although of course it is about many thousands if not millions of them) but that it was also about my own experiences of borders and violence. It brought me back some 20+ years back to 1992, and my 15-year-old self, a confused, frightened child who, in a matter of few weeks between April 6 and April 20 1992, became a refugee. At the time I did not know what that meant, but I learned quickly. When my hometown of Sarajevo came under siege and the first grenades fell, my desperate, naïve parents wanted to save me, to protect me, so they found a way to put me on one of the last planes leaving the city to go to Belgrade and then on to London, England. I will never forget the scene of desperation at the Sarajevo Airport as hundreds and hundreds of people gathered to try to get their small children, parents and other family onto Kikash military plains. Pleading with important-looking military officers, with their long lists of people’s names, to let them through––crying, begging, consoling, desperate. Through some miracle my parents managed to get me on one of those lists and on one of the planes. They gave me a few of our family photos (so that I wound not forget them and where I come from), my mom lovingly packed my sinus medication and some clothes, and told me that I will be back at the end of the summer when the war will be over, and with my English much improved. And so I went, with my grey, Yugoslav child passport (which in fact was no longer valid as we were living through the breakup of the country), 500 deutsche marks, my photos, and a book. As Kikash plane lifted off (in fact this was my very first time being on the plane) I sat on the floor of its enormous belly with a couple of hundred other people not really knowing where I was going and what will happen to me when I get there. I was all alone, a child who never travelled without her parents, going to some unknown future.
Three days later I was on a plane ride to London, England with another boy, a son of my parents’ friends. The two of us were going to his aunt who accepted to take me in for the short period until I was to return home to Sarajevo. As the airplane approached Heathrow airport I became very anxious and scared. We landed and I was immediately detained by the UK customs and immigration. I was held in an interrogation room for six hours. I had to take all my clothes out of my bag, they took my family photos and asked me about each person in the photo and where they were, they asked me about my sinus medication, about how much clothes I had, and why I was travelling, do I know what is happening to my country? They even asked me about Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” the one book that I managed to take out of my parents’ library as I was leaving (the book I cannot bring myself to read again). It is hard to describe that feeling of being helpless, of being at the mercy of people in uniform, and especially being that way as a child. Like a caged animal my heart pounded, I was shaking, and I cried. I cried as all those things that the immigration officers looked through were really the last things that I could say were mine, these were the last remnants of my childhood, of my family life, and of my country, even those darn sinus pills… My entire life on display, my entire life in one suitcase, now an object of conversation for immigration officers, and evidence of my status.
Finally, I was let through, they decided that my friend’s aunt who waited for us was credible. This was my initiation into the life of a refugee. From that moment on, I moved with my suitcase from family to family, twice in London (during the 2 month stay there), and some ten times later on when I lived as a refugee in Croatia. At one point while still in London, I was supposed to be moved for the third time with an unknown woman, but when that did not work out the people with whom I was staying decided that I should be given over to the Child Services (as having a 15-year old in the house was too much for them). I couch-surfed most of the time, slept in peoples’ baby rooms next to their kids’ cribs, in their master bedrooms on the floor, in spare rooms, living rooms, all kinds of rooms. I learned to hold my pee in so that I would not have to be in the bathroom when owners of the house were in the house. I learned to take fast showers, I learned to eat when no one was looking (usually late at night). I learned how to walk without making a sound, how to use a hand towel, soap, shampoo, or kitchen utensils so that they would look like no one has used them. I learned to be sparing with creams, food, cookies so that it would not look like someone has eaten them. I learned to be invisible, how not to be noticed by police, by men, by security. I learned how to pack my bag quickly so that I can move out fast. I learned that refugees are not welcomed, that we are perceived as a burden, not just to the state and all its mechanisms, but often to extended families, friends, and even do-gooders who think that they can take in refugees into their home but cannot deal with someone actually living with them, taking their space.
I, however, also met some amazing people on the way, selfless, caring people like my mom’s friend who took me and my family in with her son for four months. Or like a doctor from the Doctors Without Borders who I met on the street and in our conversation I told him that my parents are doctors in Sarajevo and that I was not sure if they are dead or alive as all the phone lines were down and I did not speak to them in two months. He told me that he will find my parents as he was going back to Sarajevo and deliver my letter. And he did! (that was how my parents found out I was ok and alive).
Finally, I also learned that my parents were broken by the war, the strong, independent people I knew before April 1992 were now broken physically, mentally, and professionally. When both my parents came out of the besieged Sarajevo (my mom at the end of 1992, and my dad at the end of 1994) and when we lived as refugees in Croatia awaiting papers to immigrate to Canada or Australia, I saw my parents waiting in line for food donations, for refugee status, clothes, aid, they were lost and defeated, depressed. My dad has severe PTSD which was never dealt with. The defeat only continued when we came to Canada, when my parents had difficulty learning English, not being able to find a job, being too old to go to school (early-to mid 50s) but too young to retire, struggling; my father going to a local Food Bank getting food, working on construction site as a construction worker, my mom working with developmentally disabled adults and being attacked and bitten. Yes, standing there at the arrivals gate at Pearson Airport became an embodied performance of myself missing and my parents missing. I was that 15-year old kid again, trying to find myself.
Finally, another important thought I had at that moment of waiting for Tanja, as I had some confused looks from passersby, was that people could recognize the signs, they could recognize the ambiguity of what Tanja was stating. Several people stopped and asked what the sign was about. One man came around as asked where are these misplaced women? He was confused… I replied that it was a part of Tanja Ostojić’s art work relating it to refugees and migrant women, but also used the opportunity to address a more pressing Canadian context of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women and the current inquiry into this tragedy (https://www.nwac.ca/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/
Fact_Sheet_Missing_and_Murdered_Aboriginal_Women_and_Girls.pdf). A female security guard came to me asking about the sign, she approached and said, ”You know you will get a lot of people asking about the sign,” “they will think you might have some answers for them…” Then she said, “you know, I am misplaced too…” These interactions with the security, passersby, people who wait for family and friends, and being at the airport, opened up a whole other conversation about invisibility of violence, of invisibility and visibility of women who are marginalized, who are placed at the mercy of governmental mechanisms, police, immigration, child welfare, welfare and unemployment services, ministry of Indigenous affairs, lawyers, immigration courts. It became clear then that this performance was placing an ethical and moral obligation on the passersby as it directly asked them to confront the question/statement on the sign I made for Tanja.
I write this as the Syrian refugees are fleeing their country just like I did 20+ years ago. I write this as Trump has barred people from entering US, I write this as frozen refugee claimants are crossing the US/Canada border at -40˚C, I write this as an official Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women is just taking place 40+ years in, I write this as hundreds of unaccompanied minor children are prevented from entering UK (as the government stopped its program to help them,) I write this as women and children are still going missing––no questions asked… Tanja Ostojic’s performance which asks that question is therefore more important then ever. Standing in the crowd with a sign “Missing Women?” at this moment becomes an ethical and moral confrontation, one that troubles the age of invisibility. And at a time of alternative truths, the truth of those who are marginalized truth is the one that matters, and only one that cannot be erased in the swamp we call the Internet.
Bojana Videkanić is an artist, art historian and curator. Originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina, who came to Canada as a refugee. Videkanić now lives in Canada where she teaches at the University of Waterloo and is a member of the curatorial board of the 7a*11d International Performance Art Festival. 7a*11d festival, now in its 20th year, is one of the oldest and largest performance art festivals in Canada. The 7a*11d collective gathers over 20 international and national artists for each of its biannual festivals that takes place in the fall in Toronto: http://7a-11d.ca/ #7a11d2016
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