Interview: Senka Mušić
By: Emma Corcoran
We caught up with Senka Mušić, a graphic designer and photographer from Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, to chat about her recent Bachelor thesis on Traditional Balkan Witchcraft. In her project, she analyses Balkan witchcraft heritage as a style-based subculture, fusing fashion and art photography to produce ‘something between a commercial and alternative approach’. The goal of the project, she states, is ‘to create style guidelines of this theme and incorporate them into photography and design today’ while also offering a ‘specific approach on beauty and ugliness, on mystery and horror and our own forgotten past’.
An Interview with Senka Mušić
ST.ART: Can you start by telling me a little bit about yourself, maybe when you first became interested in art and what inspired that interest?
SM: That was a long time ago [laughs]. I guess I was a different kid. I always wanted to do more creative stuff, kind of like always wanted to do art stuff – to draw. But I wasn’t really talented as a young person… I wasn’t the super talented kid at art, but I just wanted to do it. Then the first time I discovered the photo camera, it was like love at first click [laughs]. As soon as I figured out that I could actually take photos of whatever I wanted, it was kind of like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ Then the computer came in, and I always loved playing video games, so I just wanted to combine it altogether into graphic design. It was what I wanted to study since I was like five, so it was kind of like dream come true: I waited my whole life to do this right now.
ST.ART: Could you tell me a little bit more about your background in art?
SM: I went to the Art Academy for graphic design studies. It’s not focused on photography, but I took a lot of time to do photography and focus on that. It’s kind of like, I’m a graphic designer who’s also a photographer and a photographer who’s also a graphic designer – it’s switched between those two all the time.
ST.ART: And do you find that those two different types of art forms inform one another in your work?
SM: I mean, I can definitely see how both of them combined can see potential in everything. A graphic designer always wants to make everything look better visually, and as a photographer, you can always see potential – visual potential, artistic potential – in anything you see. It’s a nice combination of skills.
ST.ART: It’s nice to have those two perspectives.
SM: Yeah, I mean, it’s kind of the same, but it’s also different; they have their own specific characteristics.
ST.ART: Can you tell me a little bit more about your project on Traditional Balkan Witchcraft? What inspired you to create that?
SM: It started actually like a regular photoshoot with two of my friends as witches. One of my friends is a makeup artist, and she wanted to do something different, not like bridal or wedding makeup but just like different dark makeup, and the other girl had different clothes. We did a regular photoshoot, and the images were so different from what I had done so far, so I just wanted to explore that more. I was in the process of graduating, so the final project turned into this whole research about Balkan witchcraft, and more and more photos, almost thirty different characters, ended up in front of my camera. It started so insignificant and small, and then it just exploded into this big project. I would never have thought… like if somebody told me in my first year that I would graduate with witches, I would have told them, ‘What? No. Why would I do that?!’ [laughs].
ST.ART: Did you always have this interest in witchcraft or did it develop as a result of this project?
SM: It kind of developed. I always into different mysterious dark stuff like dark arts, dark movies, dark music, whatever. But I didn’t really like witches because most depictions of witches are too glamorous and too surreal to be true, kind of Disney, or they’re just like complete gore – but none of them are true. This was kind of interesting because it’s kind of a heritage – Bosnian Balkan heritage – so you need some respect to it, but it’s also very modest, very simple, but very effective. That’s kind of the whole point.
ST.ART: So do you think it’s more personal in that way because it’s a part of your heritage? Can you identify with it?
SM: I mean, yeah, it’s difficult to say you can identify with it if you’re not actually a witch – which I’m not [laughs].
ST.ART: [laughs] Yes, that’s very true.
SM: But in a certain way, as an artist who lives in the suburbs, I’m kind of tagged as a special person, as someone different. My whole life I just wanted to go to the city and to work in the city, but I still live in the suburbs. And as a female artist, you’re kind of always pushed away from society. I mean, that’s not a radical thing, but whole story about the witches and being pushed away from society, I can see myself there; I can’t seem to find a connection with some parts of the society, and it’s kind of the same with the witches. It’s a radical comparison, but it’s kind of the same I guess.
The Balkan heritage is really famous worldwide for its cultural things and food and whatever, but this is kind of a different alternative heritage which nobody actually explores, because it’s kind of like not real but still it’s real. Today there are actually witches, people like that. It’s kind of hard to believe, but also very interesting to research and explore that kind of area.
ST.ART: I think what’s really interesting about your work is the way in which it combines past and present. The subjects are set in sort of contemporary situations, with fashion and photography, but images also combine Balkan heritage, so it’s interesting the way in which they inform one another.
SM: It’s very difficult to make it a realistic project. Of course, they’re a bit more fashionable than they actually are, but I really try to respect what I’ve read and what I’ve researched: to not make them glamorous people, but still interesting enough, to make them a bit scary, but not too much, like not going into gore and complete horror, because it’s more of their expressions, their staring – that’s what does the trick I guess.
ST.ART: Is there a message you hope to convey to viewers through your images?
SM: There are different messages. There’s a kind of personal message, but it’s also about exploring alternative ways of nurturing your own culture. The problem with horror and mystery is that a lot of people don’t like it because they don’t think it’s any good, but I just don’t see the point in always looking at happy photos, happy art… it doesn’t provoke enough emotions like other kinds of arts. I wanted to compare beauty, horror, scariness and mysteriousness, all of these elements combined, so that it’s still attractive; it’s a balance between alternative and commercial art, just to be good enough for everyone but also specific.
ST.ART: I think it defies expectation in that way, too; it offers a different perspective on what beauty is.
SM: Yes, I mean, they are beautiful in a sense, but they are also kind of – ‘no’ [laughs]. The prints are life-size, so if you see them in a room, it’s like they’re real people. It’s a really different way of showing your photos, of showing people to other people. It gives a certain effect, which I like, and people also like it in the end. Maybe they’re a little bit scared, but they enjoy it in some way.
ST.ART: Having your work life-size, was that a conscious decision you made as the artist or was that like a trial-and-error type thing, something you fiddled with before you found the size that you thought was most appropriate?
SM: I wanted them to be life-size. Before graduation, I had a small exhibition [of the images], and the people who were my models were actually there, so it was kind of like… there were photos of photos of people with their photos. They look very different than the photos, but also you can see how they’re actually witches, in a way; they’re all human. And to have them life-size, maybe even a bit bigger, kind of shows them as certain heroes. I wanted to put up my work, and not have like, fifteen small photos; that kind of seems insignificant. I just chose like ten of them, made posters, just put them up and it was kind of like they consumed the whole room. If there were small photos, I don’t know… it would just show how much work I did, but that wouldn’t really show the images; it would just show the amount of work, and nothing else, I think.
ST.ART: Was it difficult to pick and choose which images you would ultimately feature in the exhibition?
SM: Yes. There were a lot, a lot of photos. To this day, none of them are really all published, and nobody actually saw every single photo. For every person, there’s a complete photoshoot of at least twenty okay photos, but it’s so hard to put them all out there. They’re all very different: some of them are just portraits, some of them are doing some kind of ritual, or whatever. It was hard to choose, but I had to in the end.
ST.ART: Do you have a favourite photo of the collection?
SM: Probably the first photos. To this day, I find them the most interesting ones. My friend, the makeup artist – I think in the most prominent ones, she’s like the goddess of all the witches… You always try to top the first photo, but whatever you do, it’s not going to work; the first good photo is probably going to be best one.
ST.ART: That’s interesting that you say that, because some people might say the opposite. They might say, ‘Oh, my work has evolved, and now this finished product after months of working is the one that I prefer.’
SM: Well, it’s just the image. The final product is all about the whole other world. With only those first two witches, it was just a photoshoot and nothing else witchcraft-themed, but after so many models, characters, the research, it’s kind of developed into a whole other world. That’s kind of the strength of the project, I think. But if I had to choose an image, it would have to be the first ones.
ST.ART: How do you go about choosing a subject and then translating an idea in your head into a visual form? Does it begin with researching into a specific witch or a story and then you move from there?
SM: There was only actually one book I could really use to research about specific Balkan witchcraft. All of the other books I’ve read, they’re just about theories and witchcraft in general, so I had to follow one book. It would start with even a definition of a Balkan witch, which is kind of funny because everybody can relate to it. Every single self-sufficient woman is a witch, in the end [laughs]. So yeah, I had to research and read all of it and just imagine different people, the men different from the women, so it’s kind of not a specific witch, but there are black and white witches, so you can see the differences. There were some stories, but I didn’t want to make mythical creatures out of them. The witches are all part of a society, so I wanted to show a wide range of people. In the end, my professor asked me, ‘Do you think you could make anyone a witch?’ and I said, ‘Yes, why not? They’re all people, just people: regular people that do what they do.’
Most of the people were my friends, but also people I didn’t know: some of them were designers, some of them were models, some of them were friends of friends… I didn’t want to choose specific people that actually looked scary because it’s kind of easy. There are some people that are not really scary, and some of them are, so there are a variety of people. It’s always more challenging and interesting to shoot a variety of people than just to choose people that listen to heavy medal and have long hair [laughs]. That would be the easiest solution.
ST.ART: Did you find it limiting having only one resource, that one book to use? Or was that easier?
SM: I wish I had more to read, specifically about Balkan, but I guess there’s no real evidence; it’s kind of logical that there’s only one book, so I didn’t expect anything more. I guess it was enough for this project, but maybe not enough it if it was a larger one.
ST.ART: You said you do graphic design and photography, and you interweave these two mediums in your work. Did you do this as well for your Balkan Witchcraft project?
SM: Yeah, I made ten posters, so I had to combine typography and some symbols that I found in the book that were used by witches. I also made a small double-sided book with a logo. One side is just the research and the other side is like a catalogue of all the photos, so I had to do some graphic design for that. I was kind of disappointed because I wanted to do a lot more of it, because I’m graduating in graphic design, but my professor said in the end that sometimes there’s a need for a small amount of graphic design, just don’t overdo it; the photos speak their own story, and you just like intervene with graphic design just a little bit. I created the logo out of a font I did earlier, out of a typeface. It’s my own product, so that’s kind of a special thing about it; I created it with my own mind. I didn’t take somebody else’s typeface, somebody else’s photos, costumes – it’s all kind of homemade.
ST.ART: That seems very personal, too.
SM: Yeah it is. You can finally hold a book of all the images and the research. I wanted to make it separate but also together, but I didn’t want to mix the text and the images because it was so precious. The research was really, really hard. There’s no book specifically that helped me with the project in that aspect, because I actually researched witchcraft as a subculture, not a religion, and how it can be transferred into art, design and photography today… and nobody actually writes about that anymore. It’s really hard to view it as a subculture because you need subcultural style guides or whatever, kind of like what happened to punk – it was a kind of religion to some people, and it kind of transferred to the most obvious graphic design style ever. I wanted to explore this in witchcraft. It’s a little bit different from the photos, but the product makes sense in the end.
ST.ART: Do you think you would explore any other types of artistic mediums, apart from graphic design and photography, for your future work?
SM: I’m actually thinking about doing a master’s thesis. It has to be some kind of graphic design, but as with this project, I first want to do a video, a really short movie, about Witchcraft, and then for the final project it will be the title sequence that I have to animate, and probably more research… but it’s kind of a foggy plan, I don’t know if I’ll actually do it, but I have this kind of vision. Everybody says, ‘You should just continue doing this. You could do anything else, but this has the potential to be a short movie or video.’ There were even suggestions about a self-portrait, which would be even harder.
ST.ART: I think a video would be really interesting because it’s a different type of visual arts.
SM: I guess what this project lacks is that you don’t know what kind of environment these witches live in. They are just portraits in the studio; there’s no environment, there’s no nature, and they’re really connected to nature, so probably a video would be outside… so video is far better to explore that area of witchcraft, like environment, houses, whatever they do outside. I only have portraits, so you have one aspect of it, but you don’t have the whole picture.
ST.ART: Do you have experience in filmmaking or would that be something that’s completely new to you?
SM: I made two smaller videos I had to do for small projects, but it’s nothing like I would show to everyone. It’s a hard medium. I thought it would be easy because I do photography, but it’s a whole other world, it’s not even close. I actually wanted it to be easy, but it’s not. I’m still thinking about the videos. I can’t do something that’s shitty because I have months and months of preparation, so it has to be good [laughs]… probably a short video – not a whole movie.
ST.ART: Have you experienced any challenges as an artist or more specifically with this project that you’ve been working on? Is there something that you may dislike about being an artist?
SM: Probably doing everything on my own. I’ve never really had a real makeup artist. I mean, for a few photos, there were people who actually did the makeup, but I just have to do it all by myself. For the costumes, the costumes are actually two pieces of cloth that I just wrap around people… kind of a lot of improvisation, and there’s no stability, like I just don’t know what the end will look like. I wish there was more planning in terms of knowing exactly what it will look like, but it’s really a lot of improvisation, and it’s really hard; you have a person and you have a piece of cloth and black makeup, and you just do something out of the person [laughs]. Every time it’s different, but it always ends up looking at least decent, like every one of them. But too much improvisation, like, it will probably be easier and more stable if I had a team – people who actually do makeup and costumes and lighting. Doing everything by myself is kind of… I always wish people would actually do it with me, but it’s difficult to get people to do it. Everyone has their own projects, so it’s very difficult to gather a team of people that will actually do it. But I think if I do a video, I will probably get professionals, because it’s really hard… in video, you can see everything. In photoshoots, if I make a mistake with a costume, I can just wrap it up. It’s easier to fake a mistake, but in video, you need a team of people to support you, so that’s kind of a problem.
ST.ART: So did you have to learn a lot on your own then?
SM: I mean, I’m a girl obviously, and I do my own makeup, but it’s different for photoshoots and this specific theme. It ended up being very basic makeup, and most of the time it fit, but the costuming was kind of improvisation, like whatever I could do with one piece of cloth – I have one big skirt and one piece of cloth and two scarves, and I just do whatever with it. The models also help. Everyone just did what they could to make it work in the end.
ST.ART: That’s really impressive, though, that you managed to do all that on your own and still create a very successful, visually stimulating project. I feel like that’s even more impressive than if you had a team of people.
SM: Yeah, it was really hard to do because I had all of my exams, too, and I did it all on my own, so it’s kind of like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ [laughs]. Lots of being tired and not sleeping, but it was worth it in the end, I guess – having something to show. You can have a portfolio, but you can also have a personal project that you can carry with you all the time. It wasn’t easy, but it was worth it.
ST.ART: Do you have a favourite piece of advice you’ve been given?
SM: I actually have a quote – it’s a bit long, but if anybody asks me… kind of the point is, you do your work and you see that it’s not really looking like the work you like – like you have a certain aesthetic and you like certain stuff, certain pieces of art, but the work that you do, it’s not really looking like it. There’s a certain gap between the work that you do and the work that you like, so the only way to fill the gap is with lots of work – work, work, work until you are actually satisfied with project in the end. I mean, it’s a long quote – it’s way better than I explained it – but it’s kind of a random quote that I found on the internet, and it’s probably the best piece of advice ever. Still today, I have photographers I love and artists or whatever, but there’s this gap; I always feel like this gap is still there, but only working and working more will fill it up in the end. Probably the best advice for any artist is like… my classical drawing professor told me that when you are actually satisfied, you can go into retirement [laughs]. You will never be completely satisfied with anything, but you can be 50% satisfied. And it makes sense, like every time I’m satisfied, it’s probably wrong, something is wrong – either it’s me or the work. You should never be completely satisfied so there’s a bit of space to grow. I mean, it’s kind of negative, but it’s for a positive result in the end.
ST.ART: Would you consider pursuing any other type of project or theme apart from Balkan witchcraft in the future?
SM: I actually started a new project, but I always work on something. I just can’t sit. I’m actually doing a collaboration for the first time in my life, like a real collaboration. I have this friend, an illustrator, who works for Marvel Comics. I really like his work – I think his sketches are amazing – so I just asked him one day if I could make a photoshoot from his sketches, and he said why not. We just started a project where the creatures and heroes from his sketches come alive in my photos. He just brings me random sketches and I just have to create those people. We’ve done five photoshoots so far, and after that he will make drawings and paintings out of those photos. It’s kind of like a collaboration back-to-back: he brings me a sketch, I make a photo, he makes a drawing, he makes a painting – it’s like going back and forth. He’s always present at the photoshoots because it’s a different atmosphere; it’s a different environment to have someone there. It’s really fun, and it’s like, I have to do whatever, so it’s challenging. He just brings me a sketch and says, ‘Make this’. If it’s a girl with a katana sword, I have to find a katana sword [laughs]. If it’s a girl with cables in her hair and around her face, I just have to make it somehow. So yeah, it’s quite challenging, but it’s really fun. It’s probably going to be a long project; it takes time and people have a lot of work besides that, but it’s going well so far and I’m satisfied so far. It’s also a lot of improvisation, of course, but it’s an interesting collaboration and it’s a different theme; it’s fantasy sci-fi mostly, not witchcraft. I just wanted to have a break from witchcraft because if you do something for so long, it kind of gets dull, and I don’t want to get sick of witches [laughs].
ST.ART: How will you showcase the final images?
SM: We probably want to make an exhibition to show the sketches, to show the photos, to show the paintings, to show all of the different versions of certain sketches and ideas… but we’ll see how it goes. The exhibition will probably be online – 100% we have to put it online. But a book… it’s really hard to put out a book, so we’ll see about that. But an exhibition, definitely, just to see all of the different characters and his ideas turned into real-life people. It will probably be very interesting to see the different ideas he has and then my version of it and then his version of the painting. It’s a complex process, but it will be good in the end I guess. The collaboration is really fun. It’s something different. It’s just fun – I don’t have any other word. It’s hard to find different people, different models – like if he shows me a girls that’s really thin, I just have to find a thin girl; I can’t fake people. So yeah, different stories every time.
I’m probably going to start doing more of these projects. I don’t really like to do just fantasy, and witchcraft was more fantasy. I also like to go out and do standard documentary photography to get down-to-earth a bit. It’s not fun for me just to do fantasy or makeup, costumes, whatever – I couldn’t do that forever. I have to go out from time to time and do standard photography, maybe architecture, maybe documentary, maybe something more dangerous… to go out of the studio. It’s kind of like, you get into a safe zone, and you’re good, so I just like to mix it up.
I had this project where I took photos of an industrial site. It’s a really large portion of land and sea. It’s actually forbidden to take photos there, so I just had to run from the guards and climb walls [laughs]. The whole site has a negative effect on the people living there. I got a lung infection, so it was a real sacrifice for that project, but the photos in the end look like something from another world. They don’t even look real because they look like they’re from the past; they kind of look like vintage industrial photos, like the dated beginnings. The people who live there, when they first saw the photos, they were really emotional because they look at the thing that they want to see; they want to see all the factories gone, like in the past – like a memory from the past. It was a really important project for me because I had to actually conquer some land, some sea, and actually go out there. It’s nice to have projects that are like that.
It was five months of taking photos of that site. It was really… it was kind of scary because I had to go out of the studio. To be just in the studio and to be in the safe zone, it’s kind of… it’s not working; you cannot grow. I had to do something that’s real, because it kind of opened up the discussion again about destroying those factories, or should they work, shouldn’t they work, are they emitting some gas that’s not allowed. It had a purpose, like a real purpose.
ST.ART: So when you travel to take photographs outside the studio, did you photograph nearby places?
SM: The photos from the industrial site, I was actually an exchange student for one semester in Croatia, the neighbouring country – it’s split. This split is actually at the seaside, so it has land, sea, rivers – everything. That kind of industrial zone has a large part of the city at the suburbs. One of my family friends lived there their whole life, and everybody started to get cancer, just a lot of bad stuff. I just wanted to make a project, so every weekend I went to them – go by foot to some factory and just hoped not to get caught [laughs]. I got a lot of questions – like cars would show up and would ask me if I worked for the newspaper, who am I, am I a tourist… and I just tired not to answer any questions, because I couldn’t answer them in the end. I also have a Google map route that I took. It was like 26km, like five hours of walking every weekend. I did it all alone, and it was kind of like soul-searching in this ugly place. The photos ended up looking really pretty, which was kind of bizarre. It was fun, but I just wished that I had some safety equipment; I wasn’t really thinking about it, so I just had a lung infection or whatever, so. But I’m okay now [laughs] but everybody was like, ‘What are you doing? Why are you doing this?’ and it’s like, ‘I have to do this, this is important!’ I mean, it’s worth it, but I wouldn’t recommend it… next time I will at least bring a gas mask [laughs].
I was in front of a big factory and there was this field of trees, big trees. I wanted to get a shot, but I couldn’t get it from the road, so I just hopped into the field, and as soon as I did, there was this fog around me, like the factory was putting out some gas, I don’t know what. It was a concrete factory, so it was not a nice factory; it was really smelly and just really bad. I had to go away, and I was coughing all the way back home, like for one hour, I was just coughing going home. I wasn’t thinking, obviously, but I will next time [laughs].
ST.ART: Wow, that is a huge amount of dedication.
SM: I mean, it’s not like I went to war or something… maybe I’m just foolish [laughs]. It was completely different from the witchcraft and sci-fi photos, but I guess I was just bored of it. I get easily bored, so I just have to do different stuff. I love architecture, and I love to analyse it… more architecture history than art history. It just made sense to me to explore the whole area, literally explore land and architecture and sea.
ST.ART: It sounds like your work is very eclectic, because you have the Balkan Witchcraft Project but also your interests in sci-fi and architecture. It’s cool that you have so many different interests.
SM: Yeah, it’s really hard for me to be entertained with my own work, so I just have to do a lot of different stuff. I think the people that I work with can’t imagine what I do besides work, because it’s so different – from colourful to dark witches, there’s a really wide range of stuff.
ST.ART: And then that way, you never will get bored.
SM: Yeah, hopefully not [laughs].