Turning a Struggle Upside Down
Photography by Lila Vroegop. Courtesy of artist.
Jue YangYou graduated from the art academy in 2021. Is there anything that you need but cannot find outside of the academy?
Maja SimišićI miss two things. First, the support and mentorship. When you go to art school, you get weekly feedback sessions from your peers and professors. But after graduation, you kind of go from a hundred to zero. You don't have sources of feedback unless you really hunt people for it.
The second thing I miss is space. I went from a place where I had all the tools and equipment I could dream of – Adobe programs, fast computers, 3D, wood and metal workshops – I went from all that to having literally none of it, not even a printer or scanner. Finding studio space is challenging. But even when you can find a studio, you still don't have the equipment. It’s not impossible to make things now, just that everything becomes an extra hassle compared to what it was before.
JYYou told me that one of your struggles is to connect to the art world. How are you navigating it right now?
MSI actually love to visit different galleries and talk to people about my work. What makes me anxious is not the connection, but the system and the hierarchy. They don't teach you how the system works at school. For example, I had no clue that some galleries work with a curator. If you have a project, you probably won't have a chance to show it anytime soon because the curator already made a schedule for the next two years.
I feel I am doing ten people’s work as one person. I am the artist, but also the studio manager, personal assistant... everything. I am the one to find galleries and contact them. I am the one to remind curators to get back to me. I have to keep my website updated. I have to have my CV and PDF portfolio always ready. My biggest struggle at the moment is to navigate all these things while still connecting with other artists and places that inspire me.
JYWhen we spoke last time, you said that "to do art where I come from, you have to be either rich or magical." You are from Serbia. What is the same and what is different in the Netherlands?
MSThere is a lively art scene in the Balkans. But there's no money, even though there's so much talent. How do we eat everyday and still make art, if there is no money? In the Balkans, there are not so many opportunities. There is a little funding, but to get that little bit you have to be established in the scene for a long time. In the Netherlands, I have a side job. It’s not a great job, but I can pay for my stuff and live. Here artists can live by having part-time jobs or freelance work, and I don't think you have to be a star to get funding in the Netherlands.
JYHow many jobs do you have now?
MSI have one part-time job and two freelance gigs. I try to freelance every other week. Right now I don't have any income from my art.
JYSo: three days at work and four days to make art and apply for funding and do all the other things you have to do. Do you have any weekends?
MSWhat is a weekend? I literally had no days off for the past two weeks. I got to a point where I was so tired I thought I was going to go crazy. Even when I had time to sleep, I couldn't. Yesterday I took a sleeping pill and told myself, “Maja, you have to sleep!” When I woke up, I had some coffee and took the day off. I don’t remember when was the last time that I actually chilled and took the day off — not an hour break, not a nap, but a day off.
JYHow do you spend your time in your art practice?
MSI don’t really work with materials. When I make an installation or performance, I destroy them afterwards. I don't have the space to store them anyway. At the moment, I am mainly researching and focusing more on the conceptual part. What’s taking a lot of my time is the networking, the explaining and over-explaining myself to funds and open calls. I understand it is part of my career, and right now that’s probably more important than actively creating something.
Model: Rebecca Levy. Photography by Cosmo Davis Gimeno and Naomi van Kleef. Courtesy of artist.
JYYou said that not being a European citizen makes life much harder. I struggle with this, too. I have experienced, and am still experiencing, the visa process. Can you tell me what is hard for you?
MSThe laws and regulations for non-Europeans are so rigorous. The hardest part is the constraints the immigration office puts on you. I was 19 when I came here as a student. I wanted to work, but the rule says I could not work more than 16 hours a week as a non-EU student.
When somebody wants to employ you and you are not from the EU, they have to file a special work permit for you, and you have to wait for 5 weeks. In those 5 weeks, you are not allowed to work. You don’t even know if you will get that permit in the end. Basically, if your parents don’t have the money to support you — that is €10,000 for the non-EU tuition and another €8,000 for living expenses — you are left to support yourself working 16 hours a week on a job that you might not get. And you cannot get DUO because DUO is only a loan for European citizens.
Luckily, I was an excellent student and got the scholarship from the academy to finish my studies. With the scholarship, I was able to pay the normal EU tuition for the second, third and fourth year of my studies. It was one fifth of the tuition for international students. If I did not have the scholarship, I would have probably had to go back to my home country.
JYHave you spoken about this with other people?
MSI became involved with the student union at the academy. Most of the time, international students don’t speak up because what they face is difficult to speak about. I also didn't talk about it in the first and second year. I was afraid of being deported. In the fourth year, I suddenly had the strength to speak up. And so many people, especially those who are Dutch and had no idea about this, agreed how stupid the system is. But such a system is really hard to break. It makes me sad, not even angry. Now I have to apply for the next visa in September. I'm terrified.
JYI can relate. I went through it, but there are still more rounds to go. It is exhausting to feel that one moment I am here and the next I am uprooted.
Let’s take a deep breath and come back to you. You lost your studio a month ago. You also had to move from where you were living. Even though you said that struggles inspire you in your art, I want to ask: when does the struggle become too much?
MSI'm asking myself this as well. I want to accept it and make the best out of it. In a way, it has become my artistic practice and my personal methodology. I take a struggle, turn it upside down and make it processable. I can either cry or laugh, and I prefer to laugh.
I still have the motivation to stay in the Netherlands. As an artist, I feel welcome and understood. I feel well. But as a non-EU person, I don't feel well or welcome. They are trying to tell me, "oh, you shouldn't come here. We're going to do everything so that you cannot stay here." And I say, “well, I am going to stay, and I am going to have some fun in a situation that I do not enjoy!” I do wonder: how long will I be able to do this?