Tanja Softic’s contrapuntal prints reflect her immigrant life of adaptation and change.
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"Oculus" etching, mezzotint and photogravure
I meet Tanja Softić at her studio at the University of Richmond where she is a professor of art. Though her academic field is printmaking, Softić refers to herself as a “works on paper person” and considers herself equally to be a painter, working facilely in both media and bringing aspects of each discipline to bear on the other. A petite woman with dark hair and large, arresting eyes, there is a controlled energy and grace that’s almost feline about Softić; it’s clear there is a wellspring of energy behind her exterior façade of calm. As she talks about her work, I am struck by how articulate she is, as comfortable in the world of words as that of visual communication.
Softić (pronounced “Softich”) hails from Sarajevo. She came to the U.S. in 1989 to attend graduate school. She had always intended to return to Sarajevo, but the Bosnian civil war, which ironically commenced the very day she was defending her thesis at Old Dominion University, prevented that. Fortunately, she had secured a teaching position at Rollins College in Florida, where she remained for eight years. In 2000, she came to the University of Richmond to develop its printmaking program.
These days, she is an American citizen and very much settled in this country. But having “transitioned through three citizenships in addition to one period of being a citizen of no country,” as she puts it, she experiences what the late writer Edward Said called “the contrapuntal reality [of an exile].” Her work reflects this cultural hybridity. It’s multi-layered and dense, expressing the aggregate, polyphonic experience of the immigrant in which constant adaption and change is the norm.
“The visual vocabulary of my drawings and prints suggests a displaced existence: fragmented memories, adaptation, revival and transformation,” she says. “Because I do not live and work within the comfort or boundaries of the culture in which I first learned to observe, interpret and engage the world, I have the arguable privilege of having lived more than one life.”
Softić’s works are elegant and lyrical. There’s a delicacy about them that is distinctly feminine—you would never mistake them for the work of a male—but there is also a potent strength. Using a science-based iconography, she borrows from botany, ornithology, entomology and astronomy, connecting images much like a poet connects words, playing with the symbolic and structural connections between them. Softić’s works possess a cartographical quality, as if with them she is charting the course through memory and identity. Softić says she’s drawn to radiating structures; in one print Queen Anne’s lace, the joists and rafters of one of the Jefferson pools in Warm Springs and a schematic rendering of a black hole appear. These are items that seem so foreign to one another, but in Softić’s hands they achieve a kind of symmetry even as they express the “awareness of simultaneous dimensions” that is the exile’s experience.
Migrant Universe (2007-2010) is a series of ten large-scale (60” x 60”) related works that Softić likens to a book. To produce each work Softić laminates Asian paper onto gessoed panel. She then stains the paper with a thin solution of acrylic medium and pigment, which imparts hue and also sizes the paper creating more surface resistance. She applies this acrylic “soup” while the panel is lying flat and then lifts it onto its side to create rivulets of color running down the surface. When it reaches the right saturation and the lovely hazy-hued quality she desires, she adds images (sometimes actual collages) on top of it, which act like exclamation points playing against the muted background.
Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art at the College of Charleston (the initial stop of a traveling exhibition of Migrant Universe commencing this fall) says: “Tanja Softić possesses the unique ability to bridge disparate realms of human knowledge and enquiry through the visual arts. I think she embodies the best qualities of the artist as agent provocateur in the sense that she probes the ulterior questions of humanity.”
Recently, Softić has begun to use photography in the beginning stages of a work. She’s interested in silhouette, not detail, and purposely takes photos facing into the sun. She enlarges these almost abstract images, and then traces them onto the surface, likening this process to making a preliminary sketch. Softić admires these early versions and says she’s had hankerings “to keep it simple” and stop there, but she can’t resist adding all kinds of “bells and whistles.” Ultimately, she embraces these additions because they make the work authentically hers. The finished piece is a combination of plan and happy accident. “Part of it is, in a real sense, flying by the seat of your pants, but part of it is intentional and at some point your fluid mind connects the dots and goes with it.”
In May, Softić will participate in a month-long residency at the Fundación Valparaiso in Almeria, Spain. For Softić it will be another opportunity to turn her finely attuned itinerant eyes on another culture, adding one more layer of richness to her contrapuntal outlook.