Fabrics of Socialism weaves history of communist Yugoslavia

From the latest Fabrics of Socialism exhibition in the University Art Gallery. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

Nathaniel Klein
Contributing Writer

The image that greets you on arrival in the University Art Gallery is a rally: young people choreographed methodically in tailored lines, clothing uniform, the black-and-white exposure leeching the color from red stars that hang omnipotently over a crowd melting endlessly into the background.

This is the Youth Day Celebration in the Yugoslav National Army Stadium on May 25, 1979, a year before the death of Tito, the dictator of communist Yugoslavia. The artist who brings this image to us is Vesna Pavlović, a photographer and professor at Vanderbilt University who was herself one of the youth on parade that day. Her exhibition, Fabrics of Socialism, brings to Sewanee a stark view of the manufactured society that was a fact of life under Tito’s regime.

Fabrics of Socialism is composed of pictures scanned from the archives of the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade, Serbia. Pavlović has taken several of her scans and sewn in additional detail, adding red borders to black-and-white stars and emphasizing the borders of flags and propaganda posters.

“Her ongoing engagement and involvement makes you think about the process that created the image in the first place, and the work that it takes to reconstruct this history and this moment,” said Dr. Shelley MacLaren, director of the University Gallery. “It is the process of recollection as well.”

The exhibition’s most striking aspect is the central presence of an old projector cycling through a series of Yugoslav state propaganda images and pictures of Tito’s international travels. These images are projected onto a grey curtain, staining its ripples with yellow sepia, turning flat images into physical objects.

“The curtain is featured as a backdrop in many of the communist party meetings,” said Pavlović of her inspiration. “For me it serves as a metaphor for the curtain which hides the gaze of the other, creates secrecy, and also functions as a symbol of an ‘iron curtain.’”

From the latest Fabrics of Socialism exhibition in the University Art Gallery. Photo by Lucy Wimmer (C’20).

The curtain flickers with flashes from Tito’s motorcade, propaganda rallies, grey fedoras and wool overcoats, tailored images from the regime designed to reinforce its own power, splayed out and bisected over the folds of the curtain. The effect is to create an impression in the viewer that they themselves are a camera, their own lens stitching together light and processing exposures into an image that is at once fixed and constantly rippling with us, distant in time yet affecting and meaningful in the lives of so many today.

The back wall of the exhibition shows the film prints Pavlović recovered, rusted canisters stacked to the ceiling of musty concrete corridors. Fabrics of Socialism brings to Sewanee an “image which carries on an idea of national identity, but collapses in space under its own weight,” according to Pavlović. Pavlović plays an important role as archivist, but her work is much more than simply preservation: it is the replication of process, an important marker of oppression and a warning that we are not safe from the same.

Pavlović will hold a discussion on her exhibition at 5 p.m. on September 14 and a community screening event at 4 p.m. on October 14, both in Convocation Hall. Fabrics of Socialism opened in the University Art Gallery on August 29 and runs until October 14.