At seven, Matea Radic and her parents left their home in Sarajevo, fleeing the Yugoslav Wars. She and her mother boarded the last bus out of the city before the siege began in 1992, and her father escaped two years later to join them in Winnipeg.
Today, October 26th, Matea’s show 7 opens at the Graffiti Gallery. Her series of paintings and drawings examine “the effects displacement had on [her] as a child and a person.” As Matea talks about her memories of life before the war, grenades, the family that stayed behind, it’s clear this pain, decades old, is still fresh. That’s the funny thing about trauma; it can break the surface before you even know it’s there, won’t subside until it’s ready. It keeps its own time.
I chat and snap photos with Matea as she works on the focal piece of the show: a large mural where a four-legged black beast Matea calls a hole maker looms over an abundance of food, plants, animals, and household objects. The image, like each of the pieces in Matea’s show, is playful, childlike, and nightmarish.
FULL: This summer, you travelled back to visit Sarajevo. How did the experience of the trip shift your perspective or contribute to this work? Was that your first time visiting since you left during war?
Matea Radic: Yes. It was a month shy of twenty five years later. The whole idea for the show was to explore displacement and how it changed me, what it did to me. And then I became hyper-focused on the moment we left — that moment where everything is great, and then all of the sudden, it’s just bananas. The work in this show is about that moment between good and bad.
FULL: Do you feel like this is something you’ve explored in your work previous to this show?
MR: I think subconsciously I was, but I didn’t realise it. I didn’t realise how traumatized I actually was from everything. Going back home made me realise that I had trauma. Before then, I thought, “No, we escaped. My family’s alive, we’re alive. I’m fine.” I don’t get to have trauma.
FULL: I think that’s an incredibly common way of coping, to just bury it and not recognize the experience as trauma.
MR: A year ago, when I was starting to think about the idea for the show, I was talking with someone about it. She was asking me about my life, and I was telling her. She was the one that said, “Oh, you have trauma.” And I went, “No, I don’t, I’m fine.” She went, “No. You bury it until it comes out.” I started thinking about that. Leading up to going back home, there was something in my chest that hurt and wanted to come out.
FULL: Something I’ve noticed come up in your work is the array of food laid out around your central figure, and I’m seeing that again in this mural piece. I’m curious what that’s about for you.
MR: This mural is called, “The Day the City Changed” and it represents all the things that I had. I had a lovely family, and we were living such a fairy tale life. Everyone was happy, or so it seemed to me, and we had everything we needed. All of the sudden, everything was taken.
FULL: The colours you’re using are so strong. What made you pick the red?
MR: I’ve been working with this colour for awhile now and I’m just obsessed with it. It’s not a blood red, it’s this weird, orange-y red called Boing! with an exclamation point. I couldn’t believe it. Pat Lazo was picking up paint, and he asked me what colour I wanted, and I told him I wanted a vermillion. He wanted the swatch name, so I went on the internet and had to pick one out of about twenty reds. Seeing it on the computer, you don’t really know what the colour’s going to look like, but I thought, yeah, this Boing! looks fine. It ended up being the exact colour I needed.
FULL: On your Instagram, you posted a drawing that reminds me of the ones you’re hanging here. You called it “A little drawing about big feelings.” I’m curious about some of those feelings, if you feel comfortable expressing them.
MR: I wonder who I could have been. I grieve not being able to have the life that my parents did, and the life that they had to leave behind. Then I feel guilty saying that because we have a great life, and we’ve had so many different opportunities being here. But when I went back home, I really felt in my heart that this was my place, and I had never felt that before. I get really angry at these monsters, the people that allowed themselves to get brainwashed by these maniacs, and all the innocent people whose lives were cut short because of that mentality. It makes me sad and mad.
FULL: What are you hoping to offer your audience with this work?
MR: I want people to realize that while they’re living their cozy lives, there’s bad stuff going on. I don’t know what the solution is, I just want people to understand. I want to understand.
FULL: It can be hard to be optimistic that the state of the world will change. Sometimes it seems that humans are in this cycle of the coziness you mentioned until that bad thing comes in. But until it does, people can be oblivious.
MR: And in recent events with the refugee crisis, it makes me so sad that people who are just trying to keep themselves and their families safe are being turned around like they’re lesser than. That’s another thing that I started thinking about in terms of the effects the war had on me. These people came and took everything away. They made me feel like I could have died, and I was lucky just to be alive. That kind of follows you. I ended up living believing their hate for me. A part of me never felt worthy. I’ve always been a pushover, and I think that has to do with being robbed of yourself.
Reconciliation can’t happen until you understand what it is that’s ailing you. I’m on the path to that, but I don’t know what reconciliation looks or feels like yet.