Inequality is often expressed in numbers: statistical data relates the painful personal experiences of marginalised communities to the reality of an unbalanced and exploitative world order. But numbers can be deceptive, and even the most accurately calculated statistical average is often used to conceal rather than expose inequality. Another weakness in numbers is that they are too abstract to touch us.
It is true that art also abstracts its views on the world into a piece of art or an event, but it does so in a different, more palpable, and thus more accessible manner. That was one of the reasons why, twenty-eight years ago, the Women’s Policy Office decided to raise awareness on gender inequality and promote equality in Slovenia by organising the International Festival of Contemporary Arts – City of Women. According to Uršula Cetinski, the first programme coordinator of this “open city without walls”, its builders wanted to address the widest possible circle of people and connect “the members of social or language groups who rarely find themselves being part of the conversation”.
We have noticed that more and more art events focus on the issue of gender equality and are increasingly organised by non-feminist organisations. We welcome gender mainstreaming in Slovenian culture and art, a trend to which the City of Women association undoubtedly contributed; at the same time, however, we hope that its goal is not one of reform: that its purpose is more than counting the female artists who have climbed their way to the top – at the expense of neglecting other inequalities. Over its long history, the City of Women has paid special attention to the intersections between forms of oppression based on a variety of personal and systemic circumstances that cause unnecessary suffering. We have also been interested in the intersections between different strategies of survival and resistance – and we have always viewed them from a feminist and transnational (yet Ljubljana-located) perspective.
Wishing to find paths beyond the narrow frames imposed upon us by capitalism, imperialism, racism, nationalism, and the patriarchy, this year’s festival focuses on intersections between gender and race. We are particularly interested in how these affect everyday life in “our environment”: in the geopolitical space of South-Eastern Europe or, more precisely, in those successor states of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that are also the successor states of Yugoslavia. Disproving the general belief according to which the history of colonialism played no part in these territories, the festival will provide a range of art evidence – including on how our racisms are more than “an excess, an unexpected paradox or a short-term phenomenon”, to borrow the words of Svetlana Slapšak, but an ever-changing, yet constant practice of violence of “people against people” based on arbitrary criteria, such as a person’s skin colour or mother tongue. In simpler terms: this years’ festival raises the unpleasant question of who degrades whom in order to lift themselves up, and who benefits from this on a systemic level.
The emphasis will also be on the colour blindness of Yugoslavian socialism and the heritage of its particular racisms, keeping in mind that a necessary criticism of its blind spots does not erase the positive effects of “state feminism” that are, luckily, felt by women in Slovenia to this day. As researcher Lilijana Burcar writes in her book Restoration of Capitalism: Repatriarchalisation of Society (2015): “Socialism opened and implemented the key possibilities of women’s emancipation; it is a teaching material whose main starting points should be employed again in building a new and collectively won social justice. That is why the future of men and women” – the future of all genders – “is feminism that understands the mutual structural interdependence of capitalism, imperialism, racism, nationalism, and the patriarchy, and not only exposes these subsystems of capitalism, together with its central mechanisms of exploitation and expropriation, but is also capable of overcoming them on a systemic level, due precisely to its synthesised insights.”
Art festivals, such as the City of Women, cannot overcome systemic exploitation and expropriation, but they can call attention to the ways that turn numbers back into people.
City of Women festival team