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by Alice Oliver

Marija Mandić is a Serbian-born artist currently based in Prague, who deals with the questions of genealogy, past, and memory with her practice. Her work recalls distant memories in present space and time, challenging the possibility of accurately recording past experiences. Human memory, like the landscape, evolves with time. 

AO: Could you tell us a little bit about your early life, where did you grow up and how did that environment shape you and subsequently your practice?

MM: Parts of my childhood that most shaped my today's practice are related to growing up in the small town near Novi Sad in Serbia and at the family cottage on Fruška Gora, a mountain in the northern part of the country. I'd spend much of my time outside - in the streets with other children or in nature, chasing butterflies and other insects, roaming freely through the woods, or exploring nearby almost abandoned cottages. An important part of these memories takes my grandparents who would often tell me about their childhood. For me, most of their stories sounded almost like myths back then. I think that altogether their storytelling and the environment in which it was told impressed deeply into my memory so it had to find its way to materialize through my photographic practice.


AO: Can you tell me a bit about how your photographic practice started? What were some elemental moments in your photographic education that helped or hindered the shaping of your practice?

MM: My interest in photography started very spontaneously in my teenage years when my best friend, also called Marija and I started taking photos for fun. Although photography became a very important part of my life, I got a bachelor's degree in new media art from the Academy of Arts in Novi Sad. It was later on, during my master's and PhD studies that I got focused predominately on photography. I think that working with different media such as video, installation, drawing, etc., contributed to my today's photographic practice. The key most recent moments in my education were participation in lectures held by Borut Vogelnik (IRWIN) within the Studio of the Visiting Artist organized by the Academy of Fine Arts Prague (AVU), and winning VID Foundation for Photography grant.

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AO: Can you tell us a bit more about your body of work July 32 and the starting point for this project?

MM: The starting point for the work were stories told by my grandparents about the places where they were born and from which they came, that I was listening to while growing up. As an adult, I always wished to see those places so as to demythologize them in a way since as a kid I had imagined them as almost surreal. That's why I started looking for my grandparent's native houses that are located in four different parts of the ex-Yugoslav space - Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Kosovo. Knowing that what I was looking for is no longer there, I asked my grandparents to write me guidelines to those sites relying on their memory, so that I could in a way see what they saw long ago. July 32 evolved from this process as a series of black and white photographs which I juxtaposed with their memory-guidelines. I imagine this journey and July 32 like a preface of a book about my family mythology that is still in the making. I'm currently working on White Bee, a project about a mythical female ancestor who is known under that name in Serbian tradition, and which I see as the first chapter of this book.


'On the right side of the house a stream and a plum tree, and on the left a cornfield'

AO: Was July 32 a new step within your practice, or something that evolved out of earlier concepts or themes that you had worked with in the past?

MM: I'd say it naturally evolved from my earlier practice. I've always been interested in the influence that place has in defining our many identities, and houses were types of places I was particularly curious about. I did many works, even though I would rather say sketches, that indirectly dealt with the idea of home, and which were generally about the different aspects of the relation between a person and place. On the other hand, July 32 was a new step within my practice since that was the beginning of my family mythology exploration. Through this ongoing research, I managed to encompass my interest in other themes such as memory, genealogy, history, mythology, social issues.


'Next to the house a shop, in front of the house a canal and a flagpole, the house second in line from the intersection'

AO: Your work talks to me about a sense of place and home. What does that mean to you?

MM: I think places where we were born and where we grew up, over time become our inner topographies – places we carry within us our whole life. For me, it means space for the exploration of the very subtle edge between personal and public. This duality of the home is what intrigues me. The idea that very intimate connections we have with it could be so universal.

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AO: How has the Pandemic affected your photographic practice, were you still able to roam as freely as before?

MM: I started working on July 32 at the beginning of the pandemic, so it definitely slowed down the whole process. For the work, I wanted to travel to different Balkan countries so I had to plan out everything very well and do my best to make enough good photos at once. However, I managed to travel to some countries two times. The pandemic changed my rhythm and reduced opportunities for photographing, at the same time giving me plenty of space to contemplate my practice and finish writing my dissertation.


'A house built of brick, and between the brick a wooden beam and a wooden fence'

AO: Some photographers prefer to work with photobooks and publications, while others feel that exhibiting their work is the most effective way to resolve and expose their work. Based on your own personal practice, what do you think suits your work best, and how have you come to this conclusion?

MM:  As for July 32, I decided that the best way to show the work was through the exhibitions. It was mostly due to the scope of the work which I felt wasn't enough for the photobook. Also because the work allows for a more uncontrolled or random order of viewing photos. On the other hand, the project White Bee that I'm currently working on, I plan to finalize as a photobook, because it is much more complex and requires a kind of storytelling guidance, that a book enables to achieve.


'From the poplar tree on the right, up the road'

AO: Please can you share with us some of your favourite photobooks or bodies of work that have influenced your practice?

MM: To name just a few:
Alec Soth - Broken Manual and Niagara

Masahisa Fukase - Family
Larry Sultan and Mike Mendel - Evidence

Ishiuchi Miyako - Mother's
Laila Abril - On Rape and On Abortion
Carrie Mae Weems - The Kitchen Table Series


Currently favorite:
Hoda Afshar - Speak the Wind