exploring gender and feminism through traditional culture and social engagement.
My Country is the World
For more than 15 years, I have traveled over and over again to what is known as the Former Yugoslavia. I could say in a way I grew up there, returning as if on some kind of homing instinct.
Two days before I left for a Fulbright in Bosnia this year, I found a handful of letters my grandmother and I wrote to a woman we sponsored in a refugee camp in 1995. I was reunited with this woman twice in her repatriated village which had been ethnically cleansed and turned into a rape camp during the Bosnian War.
My Country is the World is an exploration of the untold experiences of two radically different women in war, trauma and overcoming. Early writings during my time in Bosnia can be found on Gender Assignment here.
The letter I wrote in 1995, being read by her nephew at her home in Grapska.
My grandmother, Isota Tucker Epes. My mother is her namesake.
Like Other Girls Do
Like Other Girls Do is a film by Melissa Potter shot on location in Montenegro and Serbia.
Stana Cerović was born in a tiny village in Montenegro to a family without boys. She sacrificed marriage and children to dress and live like a man. Stana wishes to be remembered in the family graveyard as her father’s son. Yet hardly anyone lives in the village anymore, and there is no mason to carve Stana’s name in stone. In Belgrade, Serbia are five young women--a bus driver, drag king, student, printmaker, and graffiti artist. They reveal different ideas about sacrifice, personal choice, identity, joy, and remembrance. How will Stana be remembered in this new world?
U.S. premiere of Potter's film, Like Other Girls Do at the Reeling LGBT International Film Festival
Stana Cerović, the film subject poses with a photograph of herself dressed as a man. Photo: Melissa Hilliard Potter
Pulp & Pastry
In a 2015 Teaching/Research Fulbright award in Sarajevo, Bosnia, I collaborated with my long-time friend and colleague, Adam Pantic on a hand papermaking project called Pulp & Pastry exploring the interdisciplinary intersection of food and the art of hand papermaking. Both food and hand papermaking reflect their places of origin and carry their cultural histories, and are made with many of the same materials. Through papermaking and cooking as performance, participants were invited to describe how food conveys their personal histories and memories. We were joined by special guest, papermaker and founder of The Mobile Mill, Jillian Bruschera. She launched her new invention, The Papermaker's Pack.
Pulp & Pastry is a culmination of many significant artistic and professional relationships I developed in the Former Yugoslavia over the past 17 years. Hosted at the University of Sarajevo, Pantic and I made pita and handmade paper with fruits and vegetables sourced at Sarajevo’s famous Markale green market. We each brought our personal histories to the project: Pantic through his memories of military academy in Sarajevo during his youth, which he explores through his culinary nom de guerre, “Djulistan, PhD in Oriental Sweets” and me through a Bosnian woman I wrote during the Bosnian war and was reunited with 20 years later in her Bosnian village. The project also reflected one of the most important works of my career, which took place 9 years earlier through my first Fulbright Scholar award: the construction of a hand papermaking studio at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Belgrade. Pantic masterminded the studio construction and taught hand papermaking in the studio while I was in residence.
Today, we understand our work in the context of “socially engaged art”, a term that gained momentum after our first collaboration in Belgrade and is now one of the prevailing contemporary artistic movements. Our mutual understanding has been through media and materials that engage audiences in participatory events and extend traditional academic art practice into intersections of craft, traditional culture, ethnography, documentary, and performance.
Belgrade’s sister-city, Chicago is known as the Serbian center of the United States with an unverified, but estimated population of 400,000. Since World War 1, the Serbian diaspora tried to create relationships to a homeland in nearly constant flux through wars, national affiliations, and secessions. This project explores the shifting context of Serbian experience through a series of interviews with multi-generational artists and curators who describe the conditions that shaped the experiences of Serbs as they made the US their home, and acclimated to a post-Yugoslavian society. Selected quotes from the interviews are paired with images by Potter and Rappaport in their Chicago Serbian neighborhood, and in Belgrade where they both traveled in 2003. They reveal individual experiences that offer a brief window into the ways in which culture and politics shape our interpretations of belonging and homeland.
Dorijan Kolundzija, artist and curator discusses the Serbian Millennial response to a war culture they never experienced firsthand. Image of graffiti in Dorčol, Belgrade by Melissa Potter
Matt Pavich, 2nd Generation Serbian-American, talks about the atmosphere in Belgrade during the NATO bombing of the city. Photo of a mural depicting the Montenegrian coast at the Serbian American Museum, Chicago by Mat Rappaport
Branislav Dmitrijević, curator and critic, discusses work by Mladen Bizumić about a recently renovated Tito-era hotel in Belgrade. Image from JAT headquarters in Irving Park, Chicago by Mat Rappaport
Collaborator, apprentice, assistant, fabricator—this project considers the unacknowledged labors that make major artworks possible. Pink bookmarks printed with historical research and transparent pages depicting the work of these invisible makers challenge our notions of authorship in the art history tome, Gardner's Art Through the Ages. The book is covered in pink handmade paper made by the artist.
The book was commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in conjunction with the Kerry James Marshall Mastry exhibition.
Seeds InService: A Papermaking Institute (website) is an ecofeminist art project by Melissa Potter and Maggie Puckett that combines feminist and ecological concerns. Papermaking plants grow in gardens curated each year around themes including Women’s Health, Las Mujeres Zapatistas, Pre-Colonial Gardens, Bosnian Women’s Magic, and War Gardens: Seeds of Displacement. Fibers grown from these plants become raw material for art works, collaborations, research and workshops.
Food, Sex & Death
Food, Sex & Death is a series of work stemming from my research on the the history of the women who worked as sex workers in the location of The Papermaker's Garden at the turn of the 20th Century until the mid-80s.
A New Conscience and an An Ancient Evil by Jane Addams lays bare the race and class problematics of the anti-prostitution movement. At the same time, Hull House workers studied the Papermaker's Garden area where many Italian, Irish and Eastern European immigrants worked at prostitutes. In their wage map research, Hull House workers could not determine wages for these women, or whether they were free at all. But they did mark the location on their maps with white boxes, a ghostly bookmark in what would become a future debate for “sex work is work.” Now in copyright free public domain, I created a free download of the original text.
Seeds InService: A Papermaking Institute is an initiative of Melissa Potter and Maggie Puckett to explore the intersections of the art of hand papermaking with gardening, social practice, community engagement, and creative pedagogy in The Papermaker’s Garden at Columbia College Chicago. The project was reviewed by historian Jennie Sorkin: “The duo held harvesting and papermaking workshops and created an ad-hoc distribution center for radical feminist literature, which they distributed with the seeds and care instructions, extending the garden’s metaphor to mean the seeding or cultivation of future generations of activist artists and gardeners.”
Honoring the women of 488 State Street, the early 20th Century brothel closest to the current Papermaker's Garden site. Brothels were recorded by Hull House Wage Map researchers.
Memorial menu honoring invisible labor and sex work in the Papermaker's Garden. Printed on potato fiber grown in the beds on the same location where some of these women worked.
Wage Maps: Brothels, handmade sunflower and corn paper tablecloth, paint, ink, 5 x 8 feet, 2015
Food, Sex & Death event in the Papermaker's Garden.
Public domain edition available on Lulu of Jane Addams testimony about sex workers in the South Loop Chicago area. Presented as a public reading and peformance at the People's Church for an exhibition, Worn Articles.
Letterpress printing holiday cards on paper with fiber from Fresh Press, Illinois.
Feminist Felt is a collaboration by Melissa Potter with women in the Republic of Georgia, Miriam Schaer, the Women’s Fund in Georgia. It grew out of a Soros Arts and Culture grant program, Felted Lives: Crafting Women’s Stories. The works embrace feminist activism for women’s basic rights to safety as well as advocacy for women craft artisans, whose skills are endangered, underpaid and under recognized.
A collaboration with artist activist groups and women craft unions in the Republic of Georgia engaged the ancient Georgian craft of felt making to explore contemporary artists books, as well as protest banners and masks, which have been used in Georgian feminist and LGBTQIA marches and protests. These craft practices are in urgent need of intangible heritage preservation. Simultaneously, women's empowerment movements have taken Georgia into its second wave of feminism, and they oppose the oppressive gender regulations of an Orthodox society, at times to their personal endangerment.
Equal Pay for Equal Work, designed with Ida Bakhturidze, Miriam Schaer, Nana Magradze, and Clifton Meador
Equal Pay for Equal Work, designed by Melissa Potter in handmade felt
Melissa Potter and Ida Bakhturidze in a Georgian village credit union.
No Violence, designed by Ida Bakhturidze and an Alvani workshop participant in handmade felt.
Ida Bakhturidze and Melissa Potter in front of the Alvani school.
My Body, My Choice, designed by Ida Bakhturidze and Melissa Potter
Listen to Women! Designed by Independent Group of Feminists members in Tbilisi, Georgia
Women's Rights are Human Rights, designed by Ida Bakhturizde
Tbilisi's first International Women's Day march with banners
From the collection of ethnographer, Robert Chenciner
Women in Alvani share their Tusheti traditional design
Ida Bakhturidze, Melissa Potter and Miriam Schaer at the Georgian border of Daghestan.
Jersey Devil felt mask, designed by Melissa Potter
Ida Bakhturidze wearing bunny mustache mask designed by Melissa Potter
Women's Fund in Georgia founder, Nana Pantsulaia and her feminist mask.
Felted masked activism at protests against virginity testing in Tbilisi.
Craft Power: Tusheti Rugs is a series of flax handmade paper laminated el wires, which illuminate when plugged in. They are part of a research project with Paul Catanese called Handmade Media. Through this project, we are exploring the intersection of hand crafted media with handmade paper. I created these works inspired by the crafts symbol system in the Republic of Georgia, where it is understood some of the images may be derived from ancient Amazonian cults celebrating female power. They were featured in the San Antonio city-wide exhibition, Luminaria.
Flax handmade paper laminates, pulp painting, and el wire embeds by Melissa Potter
Boy Brides & Bachelors
Boy Brides & Bachelors is an animated video by Melissa Potter shot on a cold January night in Southeastern Serbia during a ritual called Surovari in which men dress as women (large breasted peasants, grandmothers, and brides), and engage in pretend sexual acts with village bachelors. Little is known about the meaning of this pagan ritual, but its contemporary gender role-play implications are profound. I use stop motion animations to engage my questions about the underlying meanings of the ritual, and make a connection between my inability to translate much of what was going on with the strange language of gender itself.
Boy Brides & Bachelors
A series of pedagogically-based collaborations Melissa Potter designed for artists such as Alison Knowles, the Guerrilla Girls, Laura Anderson Barbata, and Yanomami community leader, Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë to create limited editions and engage with Columbia College Chicago Interdisciplinary Arts graduate students.
Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë (right) works with Book & Paper alumni, Haley Nagy and Don Widmer.
Book & Paper alumna, Kaitlin Kostus (left) works on one of Sheroanawë Hakihiiwë.
Working for the Taller Intensivo el Libro y Papel in Caracas, Venezuela.
Working on the design for an artists' book interpreting Yanomami history for Taller Intensivo el Libro y Papel in Caracas.
Working on a collaboration with The Guerrilla Girls making banana paper for a student interactive activist poster workshop.
Creating limited editions for Laura Anderson Barbata celebrating the legacy of Julia Pastrana.
Book & Paper alumna, Boo Gilder creates papel picado-inspired pulp paintings for Laura Anderson Barbata.