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Global Recession: Lenka (58), Serbia

 INSP 01 August 2019

Lenka Zelenović is a 58-year-old pensioner from Belgrade with a degree in economics and a stable family background. As a single mother of a child with special needs she struggles to makes ends meet. Despite the troubles, she has managed to become an artist and inspires others to achieve. (2719 Words) - By Dragana Nikoletić

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Lenka Zelenović, 58, has managed to transform herself from a woman, overcome by numerous worries, into a socially-engaged artist and star of the Serbian avant-garde culture. Pictured here with her daughter Jelena, 25, and motherher mother Jozefina, an ambulatory patient. Photo: Miloš Stošić

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Lenka's 25-year-old daughter Jelena, who suffers from Williamson’s Syndrome, helps with the family business.Photo: Miloš Stošić

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Lenka Zelenović, 58 and her daughter Jelena, 25.Photo: Miloš Stošić

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Lenka Zelenović has managed to transform herself from a woman, overcome by numerous worries, into a socially-engaged artist and star of the Serbian avant-garde culture.Photo: Miloš Stošić

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Lenka Zelenović has managed to transform herself from a woman, overcome by numerous worries, into a socially-engaged artist and star of the Serbian avant-garde culture.Photo: Miloš Stošić


Her fingers, busy with embroidery, have created an opus of world-renowned "kuvarica"[1] - traditional handmade kitchen cloths to hang over the stove. Their skilfully-embroidered captions typically convey morals and educational messages for members of the household, cautioning women not to shirk their household duties. "You cook, speak less, lest your lunch be a mess," reads one, which Lenka has adapted significantly for contemporary contexts.

The broad smile on her benevolent, rounded face and the penetrating look with nevertheless mild eyes, shows energy and optimism that cannot possibly pause or rest. It's a modest elegance that inspires trust - a feeling that is multiplied by the captions she is embroidering, and is immediately noticeable upon first meeting her.

It's only later that one also notices the kindness, patience and concern Lenka has for her 25-year-old daughter Jelena, who lives with Williamson's Syndrome, and her mother Jozefina, an ambulatory patient. It also takes a second glance to become aware of the combativeness and passion with which she responds to injustice, the "in-your-face" attitude that forms part of her creative expression and wins you over for good.

Her - or rather, her mother's - flat, in a high-rise on the edge of New Belgrade and Zemun used to be a building to house workers and the families of military personnel. The result of transition, it now features an odd mix of people, and can be further used to reflect Lenka's habits and character. Its strict lines of combination shelving from the 1980s reveal not only her propensity towards order, but also testify to the impossibility of affording new furniture.

"God knows what state the wall behind [the shelves] is in, because we didn't manage to paint them since we moved in," she muses with concern.

Lenka is accustomed to media features - immediately after introducing me to her grandmother Pepica, she hands me a sizeable portfolio. The solid heap of newspaper articles that follow her career are all bound in hard cover, brimming with detail, yet as impeccably tidy as her flat.

She has everything in that flat - from light romantic curtains, to doilies on the back of armchairs; toys, books, souvenirs, photographs and miniature icons. Every item has its distinct place and receives special treatment. Surprisingly, however, is the fact that not a single piece of her artwork hangs on the walls.

Instead, they are tidily sorted out, awaiting a true exhibition. Some of her works are kept by Prota [Dragan Protić], with the art group Škart, which has initiated her contemporary "kuvarice" project. Others form part of private and public collections of contemporary art around the world, from the United States to Japan.

Lenka is still insufficiently aware of her success, despite ample documentation of her participation in national and international exhibitions - events such as the Night of Museums, Mixer Festival, Pesničenje,[2] a prestigious October Salon award, and a monograph authored by famous director and painter Slobodan Šijan which contains a photograph of her frequently-cited "kuvarica" about Tito. There's been a 33-minute documentary made about her life and art - one cannot help but notice her works appear everywhere.

She is not intoxicated by her success because she remembers the period prior to this - long years of poverty, including months of subsisting only on wheat from humanitarian aid, which she soaked in water, cooked and added milk and sugar to.

Lenka's childhood memories focus on the strictness of her parents and the defiance she showed in staying out after curfew as the family's "black sheep."

"On one such occasion, I met my first husband. We fell in love and after only a couple of months we married," Lenka says without any trace of emotion, showing a faded black-and-white photograph of the once-happy couple.

Love was the main, but not sole, motive Lenka left her parent's home. As a young girl, she believed this step would free her from all limitations. But the couple's initial tolerance for each  other after they had moved to her husband's birthplace in Kosovo turned into something completely different for Lenka. House arrest.

"I hardly went out and when I did, it was always with him. When we moved to Belgrade again, I was even ashamed to approach a salesman at the market to ask about the price of potatoes," she remembers, though she says she would prefer not to.

Her salary ended up in his wallet. While she tried to adjust to this new reality, divorce was inevitable. There was no division of shared property - there was no shared property in the first place. With no alternative, she returned to her mother's home. By then, her father had already died.

Jelena was born somewhat later, the offspring of a one-year extramarital relationship. She was a blessing for Lenka but a burden for the father. After having seen his child only a couple of times, Lenka says he "got rid of" his responsibility and disowned his daughter.

One more mouth to feed did not seem like a problem for the distribution of household funds -until 1999, when the war in Kosovo and NATO bombing discontinued payment of salaries and pensions and her company in Orahovac ceased to exist. It was only then that the real difficulties started.

Unfortunately, not all her troubles were financial in nature - around the time Jelena was four, it became clear "something was wrong" with the little girl. Even now, doctors have not managed to establish a diagnosis for her special needs - whether it has been due to complications at birth or something else. Nevertheless, she has grown up happy. Her soul has remained child-like, while her body matured. Lenka put off sending her to school for a year, to allow her to catch up with her generation, but in vain. She started attending the so-called "special school" and at first, everything went smoothly, until she experienced bullying by her fellow schoolmates.

"They would call her from the window to spit on her, would tell her she was crazy or 'smacked with a wet stocking' - a phrase they could only have heard from their parents," says Lenka.

Because of the torment, Jelena stopped eating and withdrew into herself completely; was silent on the outside and brimming on the inside, until one day she attempted suicide.

The silver lining was that while rushing to the emergency hospital, Lenka and her daughter ended up at the "Mother and Child" Institute, where Dr. Stojanov diagnosed Jelena with Williamson's Syndrome the moment he saw her. The diagnosis was confirmed after further analysis in Switzerland and although malevolent, because it is incurable, it was soothing to finally have  concrete answers.

In light of the new knowledge about Jelena's illness and previous bad experiences with schooling - but also reflecting an attitude that "so many intellectuals are nowadays out of work" - Lenka decided not to send Jelena to high school. Instead, Lenka felt it sufficient to teach her daughter to do housework.

Meanwhile, she urgently needed to keep her little family above subsistence level, so she became a member of the Association of Single Mothers in Zemun. She soon found a job in the organisation's second-hand shop, until one day, when Prota came into her mundane life and turned Lenka into an artist.

Socially engaged art - an outlet for all the stress

"Embroidering 'kuvarice' has become my occupational therapy, an outlet for all the stress," Lenka explains.

The more stressful the reality, the brasher she was.

From almost naive captions such as, "My husband loves the bottle, our love has become a rubble," she moved on to critical and even riotous texts.

And there was no area of life she did not comment on, in the over 240 embroidered captions she's done to date.

She has addressed a wide range of topics, from true confessions of homosexual lovers to the hygienic habits of her neighbours, to the harassment of unprotected children. She has become a true "punk," as famous artist Aleksandar Zograf described her in the movie documentary by Dejan Dejanović and Ivan Živić.

So "punk", in fact, that she's had trouble exhibiting her works in some places, and has begun making prison jokes about herself. In time, Lenka has become "a punching fist" of Škart, even more popular than the original members of the group and more forthcoming in her public appearances. She has become a performer.

In addition to the condensed "kuvarice" captions, she has begun writing poems - most likely a working of her genetic pool, as her father used to write poems like, "There are days when I don't know what to do."

She began travelling with Škart and went abroad for the first time in her life, to Belgium, Holland and Lithuania. She began publicly presenting her work, even in English - which, as she says, she "wracked her brains" to remember. .

While Lenka cannot count on stability in her work because most commissions are those she gets for friends' weddings, she can pool her and her mother's pensions, as well as social welfare to cover the expenses for Jelena's care.

Earning about 40,000 dinars a month (the equivalent of less then 400 Euros), Lenka lives a modest life. It requires great economising skills and does not provide for new clothes, visits to Jelena's favourite restaurants, vacations or ice-cream. Lenka has visited the seaside only four times, Jelena three times, and not once have they managed to do it together.

In the game of numbers, Lenka's needs are satisfied only when she's met the needs of her family and is finally alone late in the evening. It is only then she can filter the pains of the day and create a sudden verse, always resounding and pointing, with her embroidered canvas.

"A larger part of my day is spent in this kitchen, which is also a bedroom, a dining room and a laundry. Here, I can watch the television show of my choice because, unlike Jelena, I dislike Spanish, Turkish and other TV series," she explains.

She's set some rules for her multi-purpose room - one being that no one can enter it before 8 a.m.

"Jelena is an early bird and can hardly wait for the set time to wake me up with a kiss. She  immediately asks, 'Where are we going today?' She feels stifled in the flat and likes to be outside, or, at least on the balcony."

Out there, she takes care of basil, bindweed and the other potted plants, as well as two "serious" tomato plants - both used for food until the cold in November, and as effective protection against mosquitoes. Jelena also dreams - in vain, her mother stresses - about a house in a village.

Her grandmother Jozefina does not budge from her armchair, which Lenka describes on one of her "kuvarica", "In the armchair as an empress, my mother is anything but restless."

Both her daughter and her granddaughter do as they please, sometimes concerning and worrying her. In those moments, the mostly idyllic family situation turns into a state of siege. Sparks fly among all generations, but eventually all ends with reconciliation, gaining a sort of epitaph on Lenka's "kuvarica." Because arguments here die in love.

However, there is one area of life which Lenka refrains from putting into her captions - her daughter's wish to get married.

"She does not yet understand that this is impossible, or hardly possible," Lenka explains, with a sadness that has been absent from everything she's talked about until now. "And thus in five-year plans, we always shift the date for the wedding back, since she was fifteen."

But the truth that Jelena has known all kinds of love - besides physical intimacy - and that her life is filled with friends and even boys she sets her fancy on, eases her mother's sadness.

Yet Lenka fears for her daughter's future - "what will become of the little one" - when she dies.

"The only thing that remains for me to do is succeed in the fight that all children with special needs should obtain the status of the disabled. It would mean almost three times more in social welfare, as well as adequate care after their parents' death," stresses Lenka.

Once she has succeeded, she will be "done with the state" - the politicians, she explains.  Lenka holds them responsible for a crisis even deeper than the world's current economic one, because she says they impoverish the budget with party nepotism.

Her final act, she concludes with the smile, will be to personally hand a "kuvarica" to Novak Đoković, dedicated to his victories - but until that happens, you can commission your own "kuvarica" at lenkazela@gmail.com.

Translation: Vanja Savić

[1] Kuvarice: pieces of cloth on which various witty messages are embroidered, mostly referring to kitchen and cooking, but also to the traditional role of women in the family. Fashionable in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these pieces were mostly used as decoration on kitchen walls or as cloths.

[2] Pesničenje (pugilitism, fisticuffs, boxing): a popular cultural event regularly organized by the art group Škart in various venues throughout Serbia, featuring amateur poets who recite, sing or perform their poems to a live audience.

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