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Çiknia jonë: Our Girlhood
Thursday 14 March, 2024

Çiknia jonë: Our Girlhood

by Elena Gallina (Idaho & Brasenose 2019)

Elena Gallina is the Rhodes Trust’s first Artist in Residence. In her exhibition ‘Çiknia jonë: Our Girlhood,’ Gallina examines the Kosovar practice of collecting and trading paper napkins. After Rhodes House, this exhibition will be displayed first in the USA then across Kosovo. Read Gallina’s full artist statement here.

I grew up in Kosovo following the war of ‘99. My parents were humanitarian aid workers/missionaries who moved there when I was just 5 years old and the country was never anything other than my home, even before we were a ‘country’ and instead a ‘UN occupied territory.’ Kosovo didn’t declare independence until 2008.

One of the walls at Çiknia jonë: Our Girlhood. The wall is covered with photographs in a range of sizes and text extracts from interviews.

This exhibition in particular is centered in Mitrovica, Kosovo, the city where I spent most of my childhood. It was often called the ‘epicentre’ of the war, and still today, if there are tensions, they often begin near the bridge which divides our city in half (Serbians to the North, Albanians to the South).

Since leaving Kosovo as a teenager to study and begin my career (focused primarily on women’s empowerment in post-war environments), people often asked how I’ve done the work I’ve done. As a researcher and activist focused on combatting sexual violence in refugee camps and other volatile environments, I’ve witnessed immense violence. The Me Too movement brought a lot of that to the fore, and increasingly we are able to articulate what it really feels like to exist as a female body within a patriarchal world.

Two people viewing Çiknia jonë: Our Girlhood.

However, there’s also something about the warm light we emanate as women. What keeps me dancing in the face of some of what I’ve seen is the power of intergenerational circles of women who’ve held me and supported me, communion, laughter, cooking, practices of conservation, that unique combination of softness and strength. A particularly feminine grace. This exhibition was made in an effort to pay homage to the small beautiful creative ways in which girls and women the world over manage to live, work, play, and exist, despite, and resisting, the parameters of a world dominated by violence.

This exhibition is about our (Kosova) napkin trading practice specifically, but it is metaphoric for our general tendency to me rrujt (guard and love and conserve) beautiful light-hearted things that are vetem per na (just for us.) This practice goes as far back as the 60s (my oldest interviewee was 89), carried right through to my own post-war epoch. Through aunties, grandmothers, sisters, friends, cousins, daughters, many collections were passed down generation to generation. Unfortunately, in my city (Mitrovica) most homes were burned during the war. My interviewees of the pre-war era talked about their collections burning, but also how they started again with helping their young daughters in the 2000s, my own generation.

A collage of colourful napkins next to guests at the Çiknia jonë: Our Girlhood launch event.

As part of my praxis, in interviewing I asked women to comment not just on the nostalgia of our napkin trade, but on what womanhood meant to them: then, now, into the future. Too much photography and art focuses specifically on violence against women or the patriarchal barriers that define us. Here I am asking women simply to define themselves outside of that. This was an effort as almost every interviewee responded in the first instance with reference to our sfidat (challenges.) Their eventual thoughts, to dig deeper on what womanhood really means to them, are interspersed within the exhibition.

Documenting and commemorating something as ‘simple,’ ‘cute’ and ‘mundane’ as our napkin collections, what they meant to each of us in girlhood (ages 6-14), how they bound us to our aunts, mothers, cousins, and other female neighbours, and what they still mean to us in our shared nostalgia and simple joy, is a sort of loving political resistance.

Elena smiles as she gives a talk about the exhibition.

As I laid out my sister’s and my own collection inside my studio (all 280 napkins), sitting with memories, moments, triumphs, silliness - our girls’ world, amidst the backdrop of a divided city (Mitrovica) in a country awaiting independence (Kosovo), the place that still holds some PTSD for me, there’s a warmth to our collections I hope to convey. We had this thing: it was ours.

Rhodes House is also a complex place with a very complex history; the legacy is heavy. I’m still figuring out what it means to be a Rhodes Scholar and artist simultaneously. But I think for me the significance of having women's voices, from my home, filling up the walls and bringing colour and joy into the room is significant and makes me proud we are making a place inside a space which has historically been emblematic of colonialism and patriarchy.

Visitors viewing the exhibition.

I hope that visitors to this exhibition will take away colour, a tenderness, and a felt understanding that even amidst difficult boundaries there's something beautiful and special about the way women live, breathe, connect, and celebrate the mundane - in this case, paper napkins. I hope the show provides a place for celebration and reflection of girls’ history and ways of play.