01 May 2019

Nobody here knows who Picasso is, but everyone knows Selma Selman

Selma Selman is an artist and a teacher. She also works relentlessly to succeed where the Bosnian government failed -- she wants to keep young Roma girls in school.

Tijana Cvjeticanin
Tijana Cvjeticanin Istinomjer, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Nobody here knows who Picasso is, but everyone knows Selma Selman - NewsMavens
Selma Selman, Image provided by owner.

Five years ago, before leaving Bosnia for a fellowship at Central European University in Budapest, Selma Selman made two banners and hung them in the city and on her family house. She left them as a reminder for the girls in her community, a Roma village in Bihać, to “Get the heck to school!”

“I was the one always pushing them to go to school and I was afraid that, once I leave, they will just forget about me. So I was thinking -- now whether they’re at home or in the city, they will see the banner “Get the heck to school!”. So they were kind of trapped. I locked them,” Selman says with a smile.

Selman and her two brothers are among the few people from her village with bachelor degrees. All three have finished the Academy of Fine Arts at the University of Banja Luka and all have put themselves through school by working. Among her many jobs, Selma has made money as an artist since she was a child.

“Like anyone in BiH coming from an impoverished family, it was very hard. But I have worked since I was 12: cleaning, collecting metal, selling carpets… Then I started to paint and trade with children -- I would draw them something and they would give me money. I never thought of myself as being better or less better than other kids, I just had the mentality of never giving up -- that’s an advice I got from my mom. She was a big inspiration for me and I was going to make myself and herself proud.”

Selman didn’t just use her art to support her own schooling. Her paintings, the T-shirts she sells online and the fundraisers she organizes every now and then are now providing scholarships and donations for the education of children back home in her village.

“Now we have 7 girls getting a full scholarship and 50 children who are getting daily lunches in school. So all [children from the village] are covered in some way, but we can’t provide scholarships for all. That’s why we focus on the best students who are also at risk -- girls who are doing very well academically but who are also at risk of dropping out. This year, one of those 7 girls is going to apply for the art high school and I’m sure she’ll be accepted. Next year, another one will enroll in an undergraduate school for languages.

The situation in BiH is hard for everyone, but especially for the Roma people due to the lack of education and jobs. And I can already see the progress this project has made, both for the children and for their families. It’s changing the mindset of their parents, who now understand that going to school is really important -- especially for young girls -- and it’s crucial for systematically tackling the problems of poverty. This is one of my biggest successes.”

Selman stresses that she didn’t do this alone. She had the help of several women who recognized the importance of her efforts in the country where the education rate of Roma kids continues to be low.

“I started collaborating with the BHeart Foundation from Washington DC, a group of  women working on projects related to Bosnian issues, particularly those [related to] women. They helped me with fundraising, procedure administration, collecting and delivering money to the girls. A humanitarian organization Alfa also helped a lot. Their director Dragica Bijuković was responsible for my academic success as well -- she helped me write my first CV. With their help, I managed to collect enough money by selling my paintings.”

When the project started, there were 5 girls on full scholarship and 35 kids getting lunch donations. Selman is determined to continue, one girl at a time, and is keeping her eyes on the prize: lifting up women and breaking the cycle of poverty in her community.

“It’s hard sustaining this because I’m not financially stable myself -- but I’m not going to give up. The next step is to start my own foundation, try to apply for grants, fundraise and collect enough money so I can have 8 girls next year. Every year I want 1-2 more girls in school!”  


The education of all Roma children in Bosnia, boys and girls alike, is still unsatisfactory. But Selman chose to start with the girls who suffer additional disadvantages both within the community and in society in general:

“The problem of economic child marriage affects the girls especially.  Boys also face problems of exclusion and poverty, but they have more choices and opportunities. If you’re a girl and you don’t go to school, you’re immediately targeted, people start to talk trash about you and in this patriarchal world, this affects the family as well. The families still have this traditional mentality where, as a woman, you’re expected to be married and have children very early. So giving the girls the opportunity to finish elementary school first, and then enroll in higher and higher levels of education, is crucial to changing this mentality. It’s very important to help the girls first and, after that, the boys as well.”

She continues, "This year we had the highest ever number of Roma children going to school in Bihać. This is really bringing change in the village. After these 7 girls, 7 more will come. I really believe that not only Roma girls, every girl is important in this world. They are the ones who are going to bring change. I believe in hard work -- I’m going to help these girls and they are going to help someone else. That’s how we stop the cycle of poverty."  

Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the 12 countries participating in the “Roma decade”, an initiative aimed at reducing the exclusion and discrimination of the Roma people in Europe. The fact that one woman’s individual effort has made a greater impact in the local community than ten years of this “strategic approach”, says a lot. So why have the government programs and international donations for inclusion projects failed?

“The reason why I think the “Decade of Roma” was not successful was because they invested only in the biggest NGOs, who were supposed to deliver projects for Roma people. And these big projects become a burden -- you give a million EUR to some Roma NGO, which doesn’t really know what to do with so much money. You’re thinking more about what you need to do to meet your deadlines than how to deal with the root of the problem. And there was no proper research to understand the causality behind these problems and how to tackle them.

For example, there are now a lot of projects supporting the high school education of Roma children in Tuzla, Sarajevo, Mostar… But they don’t focus on elementary schools. A woman from one of those big foundations, who were very supportive of my project, told me that scholarships are given for high schools or bachelors’ degrees because there [are] just less students there. That’s not how you change things. Elementary school is the root of education -- if you don’t have that, how are you going to enroll in high school?

And look at what happened with microcredits, this European project for impoverished people in Bosnia. The idea was that they would give 5,000 BAM (2,500 EUR) loans to Roma families to start their businesses and they would start to pay it back after six months. So people took this money, tried to start businesses, failed, and became more impoverished. Who thought that 5,000 BAM would be enough for poor people in an impoverished country to make a sustainable business and start paying back the loan? What was the logic behind that? Maybe it’s better to give 2,000 but not expect anything in return.

And when it comes to women, it was just assumed that they are allowed to do something on their own. But in reality, they had to hide from their husbands -- men are still the ones who are making a lot of problems, this patriarchal mentality is still strong, not only among the Roma, but in Bosnia and the Balkans in general. So none of these things were really researched before those projects started.”

Selman points out another big oversight, the fact that most of the “inclusion” initiatives focused only on Roma people, but not on those around them, thus overlooking the issues of prejudice, racism and discrimination they continue to encounter.

“One of the biggest projects that they worked on was housing for Roma people. But they ended up making all these segregated houses, which is among the biggest mistakes a state can make. If you want Roma people to integrate, you can’t segregate them, this can not bring any progress.

Of course, you can’t change it all immediately. Ten years is not enough. Roma people have been around since the 15th Century and since then we have been perceived as a problem. So how do you change the mentality of people, the concept of “Gypsy”, you know? Roma people do not have a problem. Non-Roma people have a problem. And because non-Roma people have a problem with Roma, we all started to have problems.”


On her website, Selman “sorts” her art into categories of “individual resistance”, “family and community resistance” and “activism and organizing”. A lot of it deals with racism and sexism.

Do not look into Gypsy eyes” explores prejudice against Roma women, who are often ascribed dangerous “supernatural powers” in the collective imagination of non-Roma peoples. Another way in which racism and sexism manifest themselves is the hyper-sexualization of minority women, a topic Selman addresses in her work “'Dance', 'Belly', 'The'”, where she deconstructs the “absurd exoticization of an Oriental dance attributed to the women of the Roma people”. In “Superposition”, Selman -- who is a practicing kick-boxer -- hits herself with boxing gloves, swinging really close to the audience in the front row, and shouting “Defend yourself!”,

Another one, which she performs in both Bosnian and English, is called “You have no idea”. She repeats these words to the audience with increasing intensity, to the point of screaming. In 2018, when she was on her way to perform it at a festival in Rijeka (Croatia), the contracted driver threw her out of the van, saying that he won’t drive “whores and Gypsies who bring bad luck.”

After she made it public, torrents of racist and sexist comments were hurled her way, repeating the same insults and saying that she “deserved it”.

Selman says she decided not to press charges against the man because the financial fine would have been to much for his family to bear. But she did want to respond to both the incident and the harassment, so she made “Superposition 3: Attacking the attack” -- a challenge to a virtual fight in Mortal Combat arena.


“I was a bit surprised; it’s been a while since I’ve felt like that and I had to react somehow. So I made this game, but I made it in a funny way in order to criticize that. I used myself as one of the characters and the other character -- the racism -- was a gorilla [laughter]. I did have some virtual fights, but it was really funny, we had discussions and stuff. It was actually a really good work.

I made a big poster where you could see what people were saying. It’s important to show to people what we created and that racism still exists. And it’s really ugly. But I think there is a way to destroy racism and I’m working towards that. It is going to change. Really. With humor and with hard work.”

The incident wasn’t the only thing that fueled the online harassment.

Several media outlets viewed the incident as an opportunity to “recycle” articles about a project where Selman openly peed at the former Adolf-Hitler-Platz in Weimar as a way to address the Roma Holocaust -- which took decades to be officially recognized in Europe. Inflammatory headlines like “I piss on your land: A Roma from Bosnia took off her panties and urinated on a German lawn” appeared just days after the incident in Croatia, although the “news” was already a year old.

By the estimates of US Holocaust Memorial Museum, about 100,000 Roma perished in concentration camps and mass murders in Yugoslavia in WWII. Many of them were killed in NDH, a Nazi puppet-state run by the Ustashe in the Croatian part of Yugoslav territory. Among other things, the man who verbally attacked Selman had also shouted Ustashe slogans at her, so it was painfully ironic that this particular project was used to incite further attacks on her.  

“I was all over the newspapers in Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia. So people would read and comment, saying bullshit about me on social media and everywhere on the Internet. Some would even write to me privately on Facebook, calling me a whore for doing that -- women especially!

People really misunderstood one very important fact - I didn’t piss on “German land”. I didn’t piss on Goethe, or on Weimar artists. I pissed on fascist land, in recognition of the Roma holocaust, to acknowledge the human lives, the immeasurable suffering, and the pain of the Roma victims.

The Roma were murdered because of the Nazi ideology, but weren't officially recognized as victims until 1982 in West Germany and in 2011 in Poland. Without a country, and being treated as second class citizens, the depth of Roma people’s trauma is still not memorialized in Europe.

The urine is a "monument", a recognition of Roma and all other minorities as those who have the right to claim and mark their humanity. This work recognizes the life and humanity of the victims with or without the approval of official histories.”  

You have to educate yourself

Selman currently resides in the US, where she’s an assistant art professor at Syracuse University. She notices a lot of similarities between racism against people of color in the US and racism against Roma people in Europe. But she also notices the differences -- for example, the fact that the “N word” is recognized as a racial slur in the US, but in Europe, “Gypsy” is not.

“It is much more complex, because you have Roma people calling themselves Gypsies and it’s somewhat ambiguous, as it does come from a word which means stealing, but also from the word “Egyptians”, because there’s a story saying that we came from Egypt. But, you know, Gypsies can say to Gypsies that they’re Gypsies. But when you hear that from someone who is white, it’s not very nice. Especially when you hear that from educated people. You live in a country where you have 200,000 Roma people. How come I know so much about Bosnians, Croats and Serbs, and you don’t know [that it’s not ok to say that]?

You have to educate yourself. The biggest problem is that there’s no education on that in schools. You only learn about Roma people through scholars or poets who use “Bohemian Gypsies” -- I think every poet has used Gypsies as exotic metaphor for something.

Another problem is you don’t have the Roma language in schools. A lot of kids, myself even, we know the street Roma language, but we never learned it grammatically. It’s the first language that I ever spoke with my family, but through years of going to school and hanging out with non-Roma people, you learn Bosnian better than your mother tongue. I was ten years old when I first saw it in writing. When I did a speech for the “Blue Frog Society”, I needed help to make the Romani grammatically correct (a guy from Sarajevo, Dalibor Tanić, helped me with that).

So if you ask me what I would do, I would definitely stop this segregation. We have to put people to live together. Educate young women -- give them the opportunity to help their parents and themselves. And the state has to recognize Roma people -- even though we are a minority -- we have to be represented as a nation.”

This representation is perhaps more difficult in Bosnia than anywhere else. The country’s ethnicity-based based political system, which excludes anyone who doesn’t belong to one of the three “constituent peoples”, has already been successfully challenged in European court of human rights. But nothing has changed. As Selman notes, a Roma person still cannot even run for a three-member state Presidency.

“We have to change our policy fundamentally. If we need a president, let’s have one, not three. And let’s have a woman, one with a vision, who can make a plan for Bosnia. Not only for five years, for the next hundred years.”


Despite the fact that, at 28 years of age, her accomplishments are already too many to mention, Selman doesn’t see herself as the headliner in own story. It’s the colossal figure of her mother that towers over all others.

“She’s the one who did everything. She’s the mother of art -- I’m just the art. I am her artwork.”

Naza Abdulahi, Selman’s mother, moved from Kosovo to Bosnia to be married at 12 and had her first child at the age of 13. She never received any formal education and the marriage was not legally recognized, so she remained invisible in the eyes of the state. Selman discovered that when she tried to fulfill her mother’s wish “to see for herself if the sea was really salty like she heard” and realized that her mother has no personal documents and couldn’t leave the country. She turned that story into a video project Saltwater at 47. The childhood room of her own that her mother never had, inspired another artwork, a 3D print called “Room”. Selman plans to use VR technology to “bring it to life” and give her mom her first ever private space -- albeit virtual.

“She had a very hard life. When I was a child she was always telling me ‘Never end up being like me. Just leave this place.’ I always remembered that and always knew there is something else out there for me. So I made these two big paintings -- I painted the two of us in white shirts and black skirts, wearing the same clothes. I wanted to paint one identity in two bodies, to show how progressive a mother she is and honor her through that painting. I painted her like you paint presidents and prime ministers.”

The issue of child/arranged marriage, which shaped her mother’s life, is still a problem for some Roma girls in Bosnia and beyond. It’s one of the key issues Selman addresses through her unique mixture of art and activism.

“For my thesis, I went to India to do research about child and arranged marriage. I worked with these wonderful girls who belong to the lowest cast, “Musahar”, teaching them both art and self-defense, because there’s so much rape there. That was very inspiring for them. They perceived me as someone who is white, but has the same experiences as them -- my mom was also married as a child and I still managed to succeed.

When I showed them paintings of myself and my family on metal, some of them would say “I’m doing the same! I’m collecting metal with my father!” And I’d tell them: “This is how you can make it. Finish school, start painting the metal and go and exhibit it -- people will buy it!” Then I returned to the US, wrote my thesis and did the post-production of the video project “I will buy my freedom” that I was making when I was home during summers.

You know how in the Balkans they say “Žensko dijete, tuđa kuća” [A female child, someone else’s house -- meaning that a daughter will marry and move to her husband’s family house]? I wanted to respond to that and I asked my mom, my father and brother “How much money do you want me to give you in order to not marry me off?”. So they would state their prices, I negotiated with them and we finally settled on a price for my freedom. I was selling my hair, my clothes, my art and I managed to pay them almost everything. Only a few thousands more and then I’m done.

With that work I addressed the issue of child marriage and showed one pattern of how to destroy it, to destroy patriarchy. I gave you the money that my future husband would traditionally give to you. I can buy my own freedom.

It’s a criticism of child and arranged marriage which is perceived as Roma tradition, but it’s not. It has roots in the Ottoman empire, when Turks would rape very young Roma girls, so in order to prevent that, Roma people started marrying them very young. And some people still do it because of economic reasons. So you can see that the woman would always suffer. She was always in a position of being an object of exploitation.”  

Selman’s story is the best example of the kind of changes she wants to see happen in her community. Inspired by the life of her mother, she is now that “mother figure” to the girls she pushes to overcome all the obstacles and get more from life. She keeps them in school. She  watches over them and “locks” them with her banners. And she brings them art in every way she knows how -- including her very own “movie festival”, Open screen at Selma’s place, where everyone is welcome to be both the author and the audience in movie screenings at her house.

“There is something funny that happened recently,” Selma says after we’re done with the more serious portion of our talk. “The children were telling me about the art classes in school, where they learn to paint and learn about painters. And they were joking that, since everyone in Bihać knows me, nobody knows who Picasso is, ‘but everyone knows who Selma is’. [laughter]”.


Images reprinted with permission of artist.


Project #Femfacts co-financed by European Commission Directorate-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology as part of the Pilot Project – Media Literacy For All

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