Sigrid Pawelke´s statement regarding her powerful performance contribution to the Misplaced Women? (performance workshop conducted by Tanja Ostojić) in front of the Sephora beauty shop, shopping district of the City of Aix-en-Provence, December 16, 2016.
In a city like Aix-en Provence, one of the most culturally and economically rich in France where its native sons Cezanne and Victor Hugo help to guarantee an extremely profitable tourism industry to this day, the city politics reinforce this anachronism of the 19th century as contemporary combined with the “culture of appearance”.
The expansion of the old city in the last several years provided even more space for the monoculture of appearance, with the opening of one multinational clothing shop after another – a paradise of consumerism.
In September 2016 at the height of the refugee crises in Europe, the right wing mayor declared that the city of Aix had already welcomed enough refugees and would not take any more.
But what refugees does this mayor mean? The ones who voted for her like the “pieds-noirs”, the French-Algerians, almost a million of whom came to the region after the French-Algerian war in the early 1960’s? Or the Italians, Spaniards, Corsicans and Polish who arrived throughout the 20th century, and let’s not forget the “Gypsies”, the Roma people.
Due to this context I launched a symposium “migrations – strategies of creation” at the School of Visual Arts in Aix and invited Tanja Ostojić to come speak and hold a performance workshop.
In the frame of her “Misplaced Women?” performance workshop I chose to do my performance right in front of the Sephora beauty shop, which stands for the monoculture of stereotyped female consumers and the high pollutive nature of cosmetics waste worldwide.
This “interspace” between the shop and the public space out on the street is very interesting – where does the private-public space of the shop end and where does the public space of the pedestrian alley begin? French law provides three principles for the use of public space: “Liberté, égalité, gratuité” (Liberty, equality, freedom-as in ‘take this [item] for free’)
There are laws governing these spaces and the interpretation of the laws by the person who is paid to watch and ensure safety, i.e. the modern day private security guard.
So I started to install myself right in this in-between space to challenge the security guard as well as the passersby and the customers of the beauty shop.
I arrived with a backpack filled with plastic bags and a few other belongings, wearing rather casual, well-worn street clothes.
The minute I started, I put on my “invisible” performance protection wall around me in order to pursue the task of “putting everything inside out”.
Then I began to empty all my bags: there were maybe five or six creating a scene of the so called “bag lady” and people were starting to wonder what I was doing or searching for, including the security guard who appeared hesitant to come over or ask himself whether or not what I was doing was legal, being so close to the shop? Maybe because I am a woman he held himself back so as not to interfere too much in my business in the beginning.
Next I pulled off everything I was holding inside my clothes, out of my jacket and pans pockets. In the end I took off my shoes. So I stood there in the middle of December without shoes or jacket. That was the point when the security guard came up to ask me:
“What are you doing?”
“I am just searching for something,” I answered.
“Hurry up because people are already watching. And move further away from the shop!”
The rest of the people, passersby and customers partially tried to ignore me, since that is the usual behaviour of people who do not want to get involved, neither mentally nor physically.
Under the staring eyes of the security guard I just kept slowly continuing my performance, showing no sign of inhibition due to the treatment of the security guard until everything was packed up again and then I walked away.
The most striking part for me was the feeling of being an object of disturbance to someone, while at the same time being almost totally invisible to the rest, as if I didn’t exist.
However, I am a white European so visually I did not stick out of the crowd and my outfit was still “bearable” in regards to standard conventions.
So there I was, feeling what I call a double burden as a female of otherness, but yet being legal as a European in France. It was only due to my appearance that I was safe as I have been so many other times in my life at border crossings or immigration desks. Whereas both sides of my family were refugees after fleeing the Soviet army when Stalin reshaped Europe at the end of World War II. Thanks to the women in my family many of my kin survived and resettled. Women are the first victims in those situations, but on the other hand once they manage to survive they have an incredible endurance and capacity to adapt.
But to come back to 2016 in order to understand a glimpse of the female migration situation you must experience at least for a moment physically and psychologically their condition. That’s where the profound strength lies in Tanja Ostojić’s performance proposals.
And now just imagine being illegal with signs of apparent “otherness” as a female in front of a private security guard in the same context….
Sigrid Pawelke, is professor of art history at the School of Visual Arts at Aix-en-Provence, France, researcher and performer.
Photos: Tanja Ostojić