Jelena Sofronijevic joined Retrospect for an interview titled, “Listening to Empire: Making Podcasts with Audio Producer Jelena Sofronijevic.” We discussed their ongoing podcast series, EMPIRE LINES, which explores the unexpected, often two way, flows of empire through art. Here, we offer an edited transcript of the conversation.
What inspired you to make Empire Lines?
One of the reasons I first came around to this was a very basic interest that I had in post-impressionist art. I don’t have an Art History background at all – my interests were always very visual, rather than academic. Growing up, I was familiar with the works of Vincent van Gough and soon discovered Émile Bernard and Paul Gauguin. I saw how the post-impressionists were influenced by Japanese art and artists, such as Hokusai’s woodblock prints. This led me to look at art and trade connections between the Netherlands and East Asia. It’s really fascinating. As Angus Lockyer has said, “without Hokusai, we wouldn’t have modern art”. That’s something I believe to be wholly true.
I’ve always been drawn to radio because it’s a really accessible form of media. Art and empire can often seem academic and inaccessible. It’s really challenging to make “good radio” and to make good podcasts, especially when they’re object-focused. The presenter has to paint an image with the words and the language that they use – I’ve always found that challenge very exciting.
Could you give us a brief overview of the work involved?
I’m a bit of a spreadsheet fiend so I have pages and pages of spreadsheets. One of my favourite episodes is with Dr. Paulina Banas. I first came across her work through the connections between Polish, European, and Asian identities during a trip to Kraków. I went to this amazing museum of Japanese art and technology, which talked a lot about how Polish artists learned about Japanese art through their interest in European post-impression. They learned “Japanese” techniques in European schools. I started researching that. That’s one example of keeping my eyes open for ideas.
I’ll reach out to a presenter and ask them to propose an artwork. We might discuss it and we might meet to chat about ideas for the podcast. The presenter produces a script that I may edit, often by asking more questions. We record the episode, that I record via Cleanfeed – an audio only version of Zoom. The presenters also record a backup. I then edit the episode, which normally takes around three hours. Finally, I upload and publish the episode.
I advertise widely. I wrote an exhibition review of the E.A. Hornel Exhibition, published by Museums and Galleries Edinburgh, that referenced the podcast. I do video conferences and seminars. I make “Headliner Assets”, waveforms that you’ll get when you follow the official twitter feed.
I will say that this is not my full time job and mostly happens on evenings and at the weekend. It’s a lengthy process and a lot goes into it.
Your show crosses space and time, crossing continents and different imperial systems. How did you find the presenters? How did you bring these presenters together?
Basically, I always have a “thinking pen” when I’m looking at anything. I am always watching when I’m reading and when I’m travelling. Often, I might reach out to someone if I’ve seen an artefact in a museum. For example, I reached to art critic, Laura Gascoigne, who speaks about George Chinnery’s Self-Portrait of an Artist in Macau, because I had seen the portrait and read one of her articles on Japanese art in The New Statesmen.
Sometimes it’s when I see museum exhibitions. So, I went to see the E.A. Hornel Exhibition at the City Art Centre. I was fascinated by how it had been curated and the artefacts displayed so I reached out to Ben Reiss, one of the curators.
When I attend seminars, I pick up ideas too. I reach out to people in lots of different ways and, over time, have fostered a network of presenters. Dr. Mihaela Mihai pointed me in the direction of Dr. Alex Bremner. He pointed me towards Dr. Laura Fernández-González, who encouraged me to contact Akemi Luisa Herráez Vossbrink. I always appreciate and encourage presenters to recommend others.
A Conversation between Jelena and some of the podcast’s presenters
Dr. Emile Chabal:
I just happened to teach Jelena and so did an episode on La Haine, a French film from 1995. I’ve done quite a lot of radio and other public engagement work before, including a podcast for the Edinburgh Centre for the Study of Modern and Contemporary History. The networks are not just a way to get to know people but a way of building up knowledge that you can use as part of exchanges and discussion.
I was given a free reign and wrote a free flowing script that analysed La Haine and its post-imperial dimensions. The film captures many aspects of 1990s French society. I took it as an opportunity to talk about the historical and aesthetic dimensions of the film and some of its critical reactions. Whatever piece of art you’re talking about, you need to think about who is viewing it and how they respond to it. La Haine sparked a national conversation about the state of French society and that involved some substantial questioning of what constitutes the French national story – who belongs, who doesn’t belong, and who can be a French citizen. I think films like La Haine open up the conversation about empire in new ways. The cultural production of the 1990s, especially music and film, really opened up that conversation.
It’s also a film I really like and I think everyone should watch it. It’s ninety minutes of concentrated directorial genius, just from a purely technical and cinematic level.
Being able to talk about film in this context, really helped to counter the marginalisation of art and art history as a valuable political and historical source.
Dr. Emile Chabal:
I think the other thing about film is it’s a very dynamic art form, there’s a lot of different things going on at once. Cinema costs a lot of money, so you have to think really hard about production and the commercial dimensions of film. This can get elided in other forms of art, with the emphasis on the “individual brilliance” of an artist. Even if you think a director is very brilliant, they require funding and actors. An architecture of people and infrastructure is required to make a film. The political economy of cinema is really important, which is another way to think about an imperial or post-imperial dimension of empire.
My episode was on George Bernard Shaw’s 1904 play, John Bull’s Other Island. The play was commissioned by W.B. Yates and was to be shown at the Abbey Theatre, which was envisioned as the national theatre of Ireland. When Yates read the play, he rejected it because he had envisioned a patriotic play, a mythical play, a Celtic play. Instead, Shaw presented a realistic and cutting example of how Ireland was moving from a British colony into its own identity. It moves from a traditional conventional imperialism to a commercial imperialism.
The play is about a classically English person, Tom Broadbent, who wants to start up a new town in Ireland. Broadbent envisions a commercialised version of Ireland. The reality slaps him in the face – Ireland is far more rough around the edges and has its own identity. He’d tried to commercialise this through a sense of English conception of Irishness.
Working on the episode was so much fun, I got to indulge in something that was a real passion of mine.
For presenters, I wouldn’t say I have a specific set of criteria, but there are things I keep in mind. I’m interested in work that challenges discovery and global histories over the longue duree. I platform a range of academics and people from a range of fields.
In his episode, Angus Lockyer talks about global trading networks as essential modes of transports for goods, individuals, methods, and ideas. In a polycentric world of goods production, Europe was at best a final consumer and at worst a poor relation.
I am often asked why I use a one-way narrative. I like to work with experts in their field and don’t pretend that I’m an expert. It gives the presenters a creative autonomy. I want them to consider the idea of art and empire broadly.
It might be a network of presenters, but they have different interests and approaches. What ties them together is a global understanding of history.
Your podcast is very much situated in the “Global Turn”. There is a risk that by making points of connection horizontal, you neglect the violence, disruption, and inequality caused by empire(s). How do you navigate that? How do you emphasis connections whilst making space for the fundamental violence of empire?
I don’t believe in a solely aesthetic view of art – the podcasts challenge the idea that art is only “pretty”. One of the episodes that touches on this issue is Dr. Henry Dee’s episode on James Christie Scott’s cartoons for the Workers’ Herald. It’s a real example of how art was used by marginalised communities to challenge the violence that they faced. Looking at art that speaks on that front makes it possible to speak about connections and violence because the violence is embedded in the art.
James Christie Scott was a painter in South Africa and was commissioned to redecorate the worker’s hall in Johannesburg in 1925, which was the newly acquired hub of South Africa’s first Black trade union – the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union of Africa (ICU). It was the largest Black trade union of the interwar world and many of its tenets were embedded in Christie Scott’s mural and cartoons. Upon stepping into the hall, visitors would be confronted by this huge mural of a muscular black giant, stepping forward, literally breaking the chains around his ankles. He’s toppling these two Graeco-Roman pillars. The mural is The Black Samson and based on the biblical allegory of Samson destroying the temple of the Philistines. For trade union leaders, it represented workers breaking into freedom.
Interestingly, Scott re-produced Samson in his cartoons for the Herald. In a cartoon from 1926, Scott labelled the pillars “imperial capitalism” and “racial prejudice”. One of the people squashed by the collapsing temple is General James Hertzog, Prime Minister of South Africa – his colour bar legislation lying abandoned. That’s a real example of how art viscerally spoke to the violence of empire and was used to disrupt that.
The ICU had international connections, it was linked to the ANC, those involved in the Harlem Renaissance, and the New Negro Movement associated with Marcus Garvey. Scott’s work speaks to the importance of having radical, autonomised, self-organised, and self-financed Black cultural institutions.
Art has been a tool of the marginalised and an expression of the violence of empire. Sometimes it has been the only and the loudest tool to speak out and challenge oppression.
Transcribed and edited by Jamie Gemmell
Jelena Sofronijevic (@jelsofron) is an audio producer and freelance journalist. They are currently Assistant Producer at PODMASTERS. Their other podcasts and radio shows include The Arts Show (FreshAir), INDIAscussion, and Liberating Sustainability.