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Cups of Memory

Aida Sehovic '96

There’s significantly more than coffee, sometimes, in a cup of coffee. Particularly in Bosnian culture, notes Aida Sehovic, where preparing and drinking a cup has more in common with the Japanese tea ceremony than the American Starbucks stop. This summer, Sehovic, an artist and 2002 UVM alumna, used the traditional Bosnian ritual of gathering for coffee as the central vehicle for a Sarajevo art installation focused upon her homeland's tragic recent history.

Sehovic had started exploring coffee as a medium during a post-UVM year working on her master’s degree at the School of Visual Arts in New York. “As a refugee, it becomes even more important,” she says of coffee’s place in the Bosnian social fabric. “In most other ways, whether you want to or not, you adjust to the American lifestyle. This is a part of our identity we can keep.”

A July 2003 trip back to Bosnia, her family's first return, coincided with the anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which some seven to ten thousand Bosnians were killed. Emotions were particularly high during the July 11-15 anniversary because bodies of the first victims recovered and identified from mass graves were now being ceremonially buried. The experience of returning to Bosnia at such a charged moment turned in Sehovic’s imagination and a vision for a future work began to emerge.

Between research, interviews, and developing the concept of her work, Sehovic’s “Sto te nema?” (“Why are you not here?”) was nearly a year in the making, but would be one day in the final production. She made logistical preparations in Bosnia during a six-week leave from her staff position in UVM’s Registrars Office, then on the morning of July 11, 2004, Sehovic set to work on her installation in the square in front of a Sarajevo mosque. A bed of soil, 30 meters across, depicted a map of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the eastern edge in the area of Srebrenica, 989 cups were set out for each of the residents whose bodies had been identified and re-buried to date. Most were filled with coffee, brewed on-site. Forty-four cups held only sugar cubes representing those under age 18, too young for the ritual, who had died; a single rose represented the one female victim. In a burlap sack at the side, an additional 338 empty cups stood for the individuals to be buried that day in Srebrenica. Three tape recorders embedded in the soil ran tape loops of Sehovic reciting the names and birthdates of the dead.

For the artist, collecting the cups (fildzans in Bosnian) was an important part of both process and product. Many came from Bosnian families in the Burlington area, where Sehovic, her parents and three sisters immigrated in 1997 following previous stays in Turkey and Germany. Many came from residents of Srebrenica and neighboring areas, some who lost family in the massacre. One woman gave her a cup that had been in her family for 40 years. Considering the participation of so many in the work, Sehovic says, “It is not my project, but our project, our consciousness.”

Sehovic says her ultimate goal was to create “an experience that is moving and powerful.” Her snapshots of the day include photos such as the one of a woman with a child by her side, kneeling to hear the recitation of names, tears in her eyes; a journal of visitors’ reactions includes comments in 13 languages. Sehovic estimates approximately 2,000 saw the exhibit, and many more learned about it through extensive media coverage in Bosnia. “It was a very overwhelming experience,” Sehovic says. “It was good for me, as an artist, because I could see that it actually worked. But it is a very sad project.”

Professor Kathleen Schneider’s 3D- design class was a pivotal moment for Sehovic as an undergraduate, expanding her view of what art could be and leading her to major in studio art. The professor remembers Sehovic as “a risk taker, so willing to experiment.” A research project in Schneider’s class introduced Sehovic to Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo, whose work focusing on the tragedy of the thousands “disappeared” in her country resonated with the young Bosnian artist. Sehovic began to explore similar themes with Schneider’s guidance during her undergraduate years, including her John Dewey Honors Program senior project, an installation titled “Tree of Life.”

Sehovic is hoping to extend the reach of “Sto te Nema?” with subsequent July 11 installations, the number of coffee-filled cups growing as more bodies are discovered, identified, and laid to rest. She’s also working on final edits of a video shot by Gates Gooding, a UVM senior. With assistance from URECA! (a UVM undergraduate research grant), Gooding traveled to Bosnia to film and assist in Sehovic’s work and create his own film about Bosnian youth.

Sehovic envisions creating two final versions of the “Sto te Nema?” video —one for Bosnian viewers and one for Americans-and is hoping to screen them at UVM later this year. “A project like this is a way of healing for Bosnians, coming to terms with this terrible thing that happened to us,” Sehovic says. “And for Americans it is building a bridge of understanding where Bosnian people are coming from, because it is very hard to talk about these things.”