Vanja Bućan: Birds of Paradise
The series of photo collages Birds of paradise was created during the pandemic, when the artist Vanja Bućan, suddenly entrapped inside her home, began to reconsider questions pertaining to social constructions of gender, the meaning of motherhood, and the role of women in a household. Bućan’s collages show floating women in fictional environments of urban nature and abstract moments at the dining table – a consequence of long-term limitation to the kitchen space, the routine of a home and housework. At the same time, they are also a personal reflection of the role of a woman as a housekeeper and the primary carer of children.
Women all over the world are caught in a daily routine of domestic work. It is the artist’s view that this unpaid work turns them into invisible bodies, serving and caring only for the existence of someone else. As Silvia Federici, a feminist activist, writes about housework: “It is important to recognize that when we speak of housework we are not speaking of a job like other jobs, but we are speaking of the most pervasive manipulation, and the subtlest violence that capitalism has ever perpetrated against any section of the working class.” In her influential essay, written in 1975, Federici argues that the fact that domestic work is unpaid is the biggest reinforcer of the supposition that domestic work is not work. This conviction is additionally fortified by presenting domestic work as a natural, inevitable, and satisfying activity inherently prescribed to the female sex. “We are all housewives because, no matter where we are, they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less insistence that they should be met […].” It is this very marginalisation of the woman as the “natural” housekeeper that Bućan addresses in her latest series of photo collages, in which she transfers female figures from the kitchen to idealised environments of nature.
In her work, Bućan often joins the human figure with fictional landscapes. In Birds of paradise, however, nature takes on a merely symbolic role, no longer in focus. She constructed her collages by first photographing and then rephotographing women in constructed natural environments, imaginary oases and gardens, in which they seemingly float outside of space and time. Bućan interprets this as a first step towards freeing women from the captivity of domestic environments and establishing themselves in a space of utopian freedom. Yet the author soon realised that she had unintentionally merged two entities, both often the subject of idealisation and commodification – namely the female body and nature. Birds of paradise, much like the female form, have an identity prescribed to them, and are defined by connotations of beauty and exoticism, even though these markers are framed by an anthropocentric view of nature – birds of paradise certainly do not live in “paradise”. Nature, like women, is frequently subjected to attempts of domination inside the logic of the capital. For this reason, Bućan designed the series in two segments – the first with female bodies in natural environments, floating like birds of paradise, and the second, in which women are reduced to “working” hands at the dining table, the focal point of any household.
Bućan comments the complex social situation with subtlety and humour, only hinting at the burdensome relationship between women and housework. Birds of paradise do not depict trauma or regret, but reconsider mundane moments, such as preparing a meal or pausing briefly at the kitchen table. Bućan’s women are stripped of individuality, no longer autonomous subjects. Instead, they are presented as a group of working hands, their existence and labour reduced to the space of a domestic kitchen. Just as “birds of paradise” belong to a fictional “paradise”, women are forced into the context of domestic work arbitrarily. Through her photographs of bodies in natural environments and hands forming imaginary communities, the artist creates utopian scenarios of escaping the roles society assigns us.
 Women in Western Europe lost the right to perform profitable activities during 16th and 17th centuries, when they were gradually diminished to the role of the housekeeper, while craftwork or any other type of production was devaluated and unpaid, or the profit was collected by the husband. See Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch (New York: Autonomedia, 2004), 92–100.
 Silvia Federici, “Wages Against Housework (1975),” in Revolution at Point Zero. Housework, Reproduction and Feminist Struggle (New York: PM Press, 2012), 28.
 Ibid., 36.