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Tumbas receives prestigious Warhol grant, Jelavich book prize

Jasmina Tumbas.

UB faculty member Jasmina Tumbas' difficult personal history consistently influences her work.


Published December 13, 2023

“I’ve always had an interest in thinking about art and politics, and how art reveals certain difficult realities of life. ”
Jasmina Tumbas, associate professor
Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies

As an accomplished scholar, art historian and award-winning author, it’s difficult to reconcile Jasmina Tumbas’ current station in life with her challenging youth. She became a refugee at the age of 7, when she and her family fled the impending war in socialist Yugoslavia and spent her formative years as an immigrant with the precarious “Duldung” (toleration) status in Germany.

“My adolescence was marked by experiences of discrimination and poverty, first living in a refugee camp in Germany, and then social housing. At age 13, I was displaced again when my family was deported in 1994, at the height of the Yugoslav wars,” recalls Tumbas, associate professor in the Department of Global Gender and Sexuality Studies at UB.

As a result of her migratory life, she speaks German, Serbian, Hungarian and English.

“This combination of languages, citizenship and immigration status is linked to my history of migration,” she explains

Her difficult personal history consistently influences her work, which focuses on contemporary art that illuminates the societal impact of political ideologies, especially in the context of human displacement and feminist and queer histories of resistance in the East European region and its diasporas.

“I’ve always had an interest in thinking about art and politics, and how art reveals certain difficult realities of life,” she says.

Tumbas has lived in the U.S. since 2001, receiving funding for her degrees, which include a bachelor’s from Maryville College, a master’s from Savannah College of Art and Design, and a PhD from Duke University. Since 2007, she has conducted field research in Hungary, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Germany.

“My research and the original documents and materials I have collected form the basis of my in-depth studies of contemporary artworks,” she says.

"I am Jugoslovenka!" book cover.

Tumbas’ first book, "I am Jugoslovenka!: Feminist Performace Politics During & After Yugoslav Socialism" (Manchester University Press, 2022), was recently recognized with a Barbara Jelavich Book Prize from the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies.

“I never expected it. I'm really humbled and extremely honored,” she says.

And her second book project, "Queer and Feminist Yugoslav Diaspora: Art of Resistance Beyond Nationhood," has just been awarded a prestigious Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant.

"The Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant is a highly competitive grant that has recognized the groundbreaking work of scholars I have admired for years," Tumbas says. "I am humbled to be part of such an impressive community of arts writers.

“What’s more, this support for my project offers a remarkable level of visibility to queer and feminist artists living in the Yugoslav diaspora. I’ve written about art my entire career, so to receive this award for my book means the world to me.”

The Barbara Jelavich Book Prize, established in 1995, is awarded annually for a distinguished monograph published on any aspect of southeast European or Habsburg studies since 1600, or 19th- and 20th-century Ottoman or Russian diplomatic history in the previous calendar year.

“In my book, I theorize the figure of Jugoslovenka (Yugoslav woman) as central to understanding the queer and feminist interventions during the socialist Yugoslavia era (1945-1991) and how these legacies shaped antinationalist art discourses in the postsocialist era,” she explains.

The book was launched in nine countries and at major contemporary art museums and venues last year, and was released in paperback in December 2022, less than a year after the hardback edition. It is being translated into Slovenian (under contract, due 2025) and is currently in discussion for a Serbo-Croatian translation.

“The book tour of “I am Jugoslovenka!” in 2022 was a once-in-a-lifetime journey I will never forget,” Tumbas says. “It was during the many conversations and new encounters I had then that I began to conceptualize the focus of my second book project, on the queer and feminist Yugoslav diaspora.”

That project is being funded by the Warhol Foundation grant program, which supports writing about contemporary art and aims to ensure that critical writing remains a valued mode of engaging with the visual arts.

“The 27 writers selected to receive the grant this year are working on art projects that address performance practices, land art and public art, as well as image cultures including analog and digital-imaging systems,” says Pradeep Dalal, director of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant program. “The grantees engage urgent issues, such as disability access and aesthetics, Indigenous communities and their art practices, transnational modernisms, queer and feminist art, and more.”

In its 2023 funding cycle, the Warhol Foundation awarded a total of $935,000 in Arts Writers Grants in three categories: articles, books and short-form writing. Ranging from $15,000 to $50,000, these grants support projects addressing both general and specialized art audiences, from short reviews for magazines and newspapers to in-depth scholarly studies. Tumbas’ book project, “Queer and Feminist Yugoslav Diaspora: Art of Resistance Beyond Nationhood,” is the first study devoted to theorizing and historicizing contemporary art of the queer and feminist Yugoslav diaspora at the intersection of gender, migration, race and exile.

In addition to her book projects, Tumbas launched a Global Gender and Sexuality Studies graduate seminar in spring 2023 that introduced students to transnational perspectives on queer- and feminist-centered cultural production from various diasporas since 1945.

In conjunction with that course, Tumbas co-organized a four-day, hybrid symposium at UB this past April, titled “Queer and Feminist Yugoslav Diaspora,” that included some 22 contributors. Focused on the research for her second book project, the symposium was designed as a platform for scholars and artists from the Yugoslav region to discuss their diasporic experiences.

“It was an extraordinary opportunity for us to share our migration experiences and put them into context with our scholarly work,” Tumbas says. “For me, it was also important that UB students had a chance to learn from scholars and artists who currently live in the diaspora, most of whom have had to contend with the many issues we discussed in our graduate seminar throughout the semester.”

The UB symposium was the first of its kind in North America, featuring a combination of Zoom and in-person panels, video and film screenings, a master class and a live performance.

Tumbas’ work continues to consider a wide range of issues relating to being physically and emotionally displaced while also yearning for a sense of belonging.

“When you’re a queer Yugoslav diasporic, you’re displaced in more ways than one,” she says. “In addition to losing a country to war and experiencing pressure to continually assimilate in new cultural contexts, traditional diasporic communities often do not welcome queer, trans or gay individuals, either.

“I’m interested in understanding what this means for the Yugoslav story, and also how artists deal with it,” she says. “How have burgeoning queer and feminist practices in art — from this complex population of refugees, migrants and war survivors — intervened in the discourses of the global art world? What types of artworks do they create that give them a sense of emancipatory potential? What political issues are they interested in?

“Those are just some of the questions that guide my interviews with artists.”