Radozda, 1966 – A three-year-old girl leaves her home with her family, who in search of a better life, decide to pack their whole life and move to France. How much does such a small child remember from her life in Macedonia? Judging by the words of our dear artist Suzanna Pejoska – maybe more than we think.
Born in Radozda, in what was then Yugoslavia, Suzanna and her family moved to France in 1966, and as she says, “the freedom to walk from house to house, listen to the waves and watch women weave clothes and rugs in the village” was replaced with a small, ruined apartment, a toilet in the basement, holes in the ceiling and rats as pets.
At the age of nine, Susanna began drawing replicas of famous paintings and thus discovered what her true passion really was. Although she graduated in audio and visual arts, she never worked in that field. At the age of 19 she had her first exhibition, and since then she has exhibited all over the world, except Macedonia, for which she is especially sorry.
Her drawing style is unique and almost always incorporates the Macedonian traditional embroidery and gold color, as a symbol of the light she remembered as a child looking at the icons in the churches in Radozda. A few years ago, in a mountain village in the Aveyron area, she and her husband, the famous painter Pierre-Marie Corbel, bought an old house that they completely renovated and ever since are living a calm life, filled with much peace, art, music and love.
Dear Suzanna, let’s start from the beginning of your life journey in Macedonia … do you remember anything from the three years you lived in your village Radozda and what it was like being an immigrant child in the 60’s in a country like France?
Suzanna: They say that a child does not remember anything before the age of 3, but I have many memories. I remember the great freedom I lived in, sailing from my house to the neighbors’, the whole village was my home … my horizon was open to others and when I was little I organized myself spatially. I remember the wolf that came into our garden, its howling in the night as we watched in paralysis through the window. My village Radozda is located on the shores of Lake Ohrid, wild and natural beauty was everywhere, in every stone and in every Murenka (eel).
I also remember my mother weaving carpets and aprons with her imposing loom. My walks by the lake, the women washing their clothes … the lake! Almost like a human presence, calm like a flat mirror waiting to be released … the waves scared me with their strength, this beautiful lake was transforming, it became almost threatening like endless anger.
I was part of this set, I was a small part of the whole, I loved the smells (sometimes I miss the smell of the village, I remember it as the smell of a mother) costumes, conversations, crying, laughter … the smell of roasted peppers and the cemetery that was almost attached to the house we lived in. The pagan festivals and the food exchanges that were carefully prepared for days (for those women it was a kind of proof because there was an implicit notation that everyone would cook the best dishes in their home).
There were magnificent icons in the church, an iconostasis with unprecedented splendor in the ancient chapel at the other end of the village where we secretly went to celebrate Mass. I am still stunned by the smell of incense, the beauty of all the very old icons (from the 13th century), and I remember the secret whispers of caution from which I understood that what we were doing something forbidden (communism time).
All this remained deeply engraved in me and now I remember it! Sometimes I forget the details because there are so many treasures that I keep from 0 to 3 years, which are priceless and the foundation of my life.
Arriving in France in 1966 was a traumatic experience. I found myself locked up (I, who was free as air) in a dirty place (a very dilapidated apartment) where there were holes in the ceilings, the toilets were in the basement, and the rats passed between my little legs … we stayed there for a year before moving to a social housing apartment.
I no longer had my reference points, the school gave my mother clothes and I hated that. We had our place, clothes and habits in the village and we were worthy and proud ….. there, in that school, I understood that “we have to face the fact that our customs are not theirs”… unfortunately, I have heard this way too many times over the years.
You graduated in audio and visual arts, but you’ve never worked in that field. When did you discover that you love painting and at which point in that journey did you accept your Macedonian heritage, especially the light of the Macedonian icons, as a memory that brings you the greatest inspiration?
Suzanna: I have always drawn or painted … I made my first exhibition at the age of 19 and at that time there was strong discrimination of male artists against female ones, I was rejected. The use of gold in painting seemed too decorative to them, they did not understand that its use is essential in my artwork, it blends the sacred and the non-religious, it increases the essence of being, and connects the human with what is outside of him.
Fortunately, my husband, who is a great painter, believed in me and encouraged me. I was very successful and sold all my paintings at this exhibition, something I did not expect. It was weird, I had imposter syndrome, I did not believe I was real, and yet I was and I am legitimate.
At the beginning of my painting journey, my inspiration came from the icons I grew up with and admired, just as much as I admired the beauty and splendor of the landscape. It had nothing to do with religion, but was mixed with the image of my mother’s woven apron that I watched as a child as I sat on her lap.
When we leave heaven, we can only try and find it again … my pictures were the island I took refuge in (I have a whole series of pictures I called “The Possibilities of an Island” in an attempt to restore some form of perfection, but also change the band aid of the open wound…).
You married the French painter Pierre-Marie Corbel and have 3 children, the oldest of whom is a special sunny child. How did that journey change you as a woman, as a mother and as an artist?
Suzanna: My husband and my children are my greatest happiness. My oldest daughter (a sunshine child with disabilities) taught me so much, and although it was and still is difficult, I can say that painting therapeutically helped me in keeping the spirit. Twelve years later we had two more children and it was then that I realized what a “normal” child means, as I had no idea up to that point…
I admired their life awakening every day, their ability to learn and share, I was here for the three of them and I had to juggle to keep painting, so it was not easy. Sometimes it seems to me that I am supported by a force that comes from my parents, my ancestors (those strong and resilient Macedonian people) and from my own history.
Was the retirement to that old country house you renovated an escape from the outside world and what do you do when you close yourself in your world – your studio?
Suzanna: Our property is in the countryside (north of Aveyron, Lot Valley in the Aubrak Regional Natural Park) and we are surrounded by nature. Here we wanted to welcome many friends and at the same time be able to raise our children (the last two were born here) in a peaceful environment. We had the opportunity to have our own personal spaces, each of us has their own workshop, which is a luxury.
When I’m in my studio I spend the whole day there and have my lunch as well (I have a small kitchen) which allows me to be completely shut out of this world. I turn off my cell phone and live in the moment, in the present of creation, and let it guide me.
It seems that the music you listen to is woven into your art … what is its role in the pieces you create and what kind of music do you usually listen to when you are in a creative mood?
Suzanna: We all love music in our house, and when I paint in my studio the sound of music modulates my gestures, my brush strokes. I mostly improvise while being in a complete hypnotic concentration, like a shaman. Shapes and colors are colored sounds of the color range balanced with inner sounds, mixed with the rhythm of the music.
For my series on Ellis Island Immigrants, I listened to Fela Kuti’s music non-stop and it was the right choice for me.
The old Macedonian tradition says that the son inherits all the family property, and the daughters are left with nothing because they move out of the family home and leave everything behind. How did this tradition affect you, not only as a woman and a mother, but your art as well?
Suzanna: To be honest, my brother was the one who inherited everything from my mother. She gave up on us, the daughters, because her son was the only one important to her. This helped me break up with the material (and maternal) heritage, but it left me a lot more than that … a treasure that is inexhaustible because it depends only on me and my capacity to create and re-create so that I can offer and share my part of paradise for others to see.
You have exhibited all around the world, with an active exhibition in Munich, Germany at the moment. Although the very foundations of your art draw threads from your childhood memories and the Macedonian heritage, you have yet to exhibit in Macedonia. Do you think this is because you feel a greater need to present who you are to the rest of the world instead of returning to Macedonia where everyone is like you, or the right time is yet to come?
Suzanna: I would love to, but even though I was chosen to represent Macedonia in China at the Ningbo Museum for a very prestigious exhibition, and even though I am listed as one of the few women of Macedonian descent in France in the Antoinette Fouque’s dictionary of women artists unfortunately, I have not exhibited in Macedonia yet.
I am also presented on the prestigious website Aware women artists, but Macedonia has not invited me to exhibit yet … I am very, very sorry.
In one interview you said that you feel like your pictures are “dead” until that last detail that breaths life into them. You invest so much energy and emotion in every move you make with the brush. Do you ever cry while painting and do you feel excited or calm after finishing a piece?
Suzanna: Yes, I cried in front of certain paintings, sometimes even while painting them, especially in the Ellis Island series which was a big step for me in my art research. When I finish a certain piece, I feel calm and full, but only for a short time, because I immediately think of the next one that excites me deeply from the bottom of my soul.
I feel a very strong female energy in your paintings. Did you channel everything your mother taught you while you were growing up and how the months spent in Radozda, Macedonia helped you understand who you are, who your mother is and who the Macedonian women are?
Suzanna: I spent all my summers in the family home in Macedonia, those were the periods of the year that I was looking forward to, while the rest of the time I was snorkeling (in my youth). The female pictures are the Macedonian women (friends of my sisters who were older than me) who marked me. Women in the former Yugoslavia were so intelligent, interesting, culturally educated and free. They came from Belgrade, Skopje … obviously from the big cities, because those who remained in the village were captives of the ancestral customs.
Equality between men and women was not an utopia in Tito’s Yugoslavia (everything was far from perfect, but there were some good things). These friends, Violeta, Danica, studied medicine, architecture, law, while at the same time in France there was no male-female co-education at schools, it was established in 1976 and very few women were admitted to responsible positions. These Macedonian women showed me the way because they were feminist, but at the same time feminine and very attentive to the others around them.
This softness is exactly what I am looking to achieve in my paintings and what I hope to reach everyone deeply. Our times, our lives are complicated and I feel an urgent need to share the beauty (luxury, peace and contentment) and serenity that fills me at times, moments of grace. There is beauty in gravitating and my series of pictures of migrants from Ellis Island fully illustrates that!
Gallery from Suzanna’s exhibitions around the world: