CLOTHES FOR DEATH - Series of photographs and short videos

mara milawhite julka
milena jovana cvijeta
rosa vida jelka



ljubica liza


"Death cannot wait for the clothes, it's the clothes that should wait for death." Kaja (Tuzla, Bosnia & Herzegovina), 2006

Clothes for Death/Odjeca za Smrt is a research based visual art project documenting women in Croatia and Bosnia & Herzegovina who prepare clothes in which they wish to be buried. The resulting works, photographs and video interviews, deeply engage with the lives of the women photographed, reflecting on their complex identites and spaces, shaped by multi-faceted historical, social and cultural currents*.

Documentation of the project can be seen on the 'Clothes for Death' Blog, part of a-n Artists projects unlimited

The following is an excerpt from the catalogue essay by Pennina Barnett titled A Respectful Distance: The Negotiation of Space in Margareta Kern's Clothes for Death

"Susan Sontag describes photography as 'an elegiac art... touched with pathos.' Kern's photographs have a melancholic air about them, so to ask how absence is inscribed within Clothes for Death may seem absurd. It's there of course in the display of carefully selected clothes worn only in death; the Christian iconography that adorns so many rooms; the unstinting gaze that pierces each image. But it also lurks in the very organisation of pictorial space: the sparse whitewashed walls that corner the diminutive figure of Rosa; the materiality of their uneven surfaces and small soft shadow cast upon them; the open wooden chest emptied of burial clothes; and similar effects across the series - an empty cardboard box; the 'vacant' bed that Liza faces, as if at a wake; stretches of windowless walls, the occasional window, blinded with light, like a blank canvas. Yet death is constantly interrupted by the detail of life, in all its ordinariness: a blue mug, a bedside light, a carton of juice. Death and life in uncanny relation."
The essay in full can be downloaded here.

Pennina Barnett is a Senior Lecturer, Department of Art, Goldsmiths College.

*"In the West there is a temptation to view history and memory in Eastern Europe as "out of control". with tribal passionas, blood feuds, and "primitive" ethic strife "threatening stability in Europe". But this view denies the West's own struggles and privileges a particular Western version of stability. Eastern European explanations of the same phenomena, ranging from victimization through amnesia to nostalgia, can be just as distorting. What these opposing positions have in common is their failure to recognize the full complexity of the phenomenon of collective memory and of the region's history of struggles over concepts of nation, political power, economic entitlement, and the contradictory lessons of the past." Esbenshade in Remembering to Forget: Memory, History, National Identity in Postwar East-Central Europe, 1995.


Dealing sensitively with the subject of death, Kern has interviewed each person she photographed. In those ‘video interviews’ women are shown taking their clothing out of the boxes, suitcases, holdalls and wraps to carefully – and with pride - explain what each garment is for, and how and why they have selected it.

still ana bosiljka still


The element of ambiguity Kern feels on her return is evident in these photographs. There is a sense of transience experienced on both sides of the lens, a mutual searching for identity....The most telling of the photographs, however, are the 'Clothes for Death'. Likened in the catalogue to memento mori or vanitas, these are poignant and affecting images in which eight elderly women are portrayed alongside the skirts, blouses and headscarves they will only wear when dead. A record of the most intimate of wardrobes, a form of trousseau for death, these photographs are as much about life as its ending; content, vulnerable, resolute, uncertain, proud and layered with texture.
June Hill, for Embroidery, July-August 2009

Review 'Female Jesus of the photographer Margareta Kern' by Miljenko Jergovic, for Jutarnji List (The Morning Post, Zagreb, May 2008). Full article in Croatian/English.

"We commonly think of death as our final journey, a long sleep, and these metaphors are poignantly embodied in Margareta Kern's 'Clothes for Death'. In tattered suitcases or in a Camel cigarette holdall, these elderly women have packed their final outfits - a white nightgown, an embroidered bolero, a pillow, a pair of thick woollen socks. There is a moving contrast between their worn clothes and the newness of the unworn - clothes that someone else will dress them in. Following her 'Graduation Dresses,' which marked the transition from teenager to young woman, this series honours our final transition with a direct but respectful gaze. Although none of the subjects smile, their faces seem to tell how they will approach the unknown: with contentment, bitterness, dissatisfaction or uncertainty. In each, the ritual garments laid out at their sides suggest a consolation, a chance to preordain one aspect of the unknowable. The stark simplicity of their present surroundings is filled with their inevitable future. In some images, the half-shuttered windows, some netted, others bare, hint at the otherworldly just beyond the frame. Kern has brilliantly captured the alignment of the earthly and the transcendent with warm assurance and quiet resolution." Cherry Smyth, critic for Art Review, Art Monthly

“Within their homes in the very midst of life, carefully wrapped garments were drawn from high shelves and under beds, the tissue parted in most cases for the first time to any eyes – even their husband’s – let alone the camera’s cool gaze to reveal treasured garments. Amongst the wishes to look nice and to be a credit to their families are ever the practicalities and a loving consideration for the grieving. Whether frothy mass produced petticoats bought in the 1960s or the incredibly fine hand woven cotton lovingly made into a classic skirt, or even soft woollen socks, each piece has been chosen in mind of a final impression. In a country still coming to terms with conflict, death is never too far away and being prepared and dressing for it offer a last vestige of control within the unknown. Kern with a pure unstinting gaze and a creative empathy captures them in a moment of still contemplation, powerfully poignant in light of future stillness.”
Sarah Jane Downing, The Big Issue, 1 – 8 October 2007. Excerpt from the review of Clothes for Death exhibition at the ICIA Bath.

"The artist has depicted all her subjects with great dignity, allowing the images to speak for themselves, creating a real sense of these women's lives as well as their preparations for their deaths." Review by Edward Adam, for a-n magazine, Nov 2007 issue, read more.

Art Rabbit interviews Margareta Kern during her solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts, Bath.
By Beth Greenacre, 29.09.2007


Margareta Kern has been selected as one of the recipients of the National Media Photography Bursary 2008/09 to assist her with the continuation and completion of the Clothes for Death project. The photographes together with the new journey notes and reflections, produced as part of the bursary, will soon be available on this website.

The photographs from the ‘Clothes for Death’ series have been shot on a Medium format Mamiya 7ii camera, 6x7cm format, using only natural light that was available. Liza (Donja Vrba, Croatia) was the only one shot using 35mm film.
Photographs available in a limited edition of five C-type prints per photograph.

A fully illustrated catalogue "Clothes for Living and Dying" with essays by Pennina Barnett, Dr Alex Rotas, Matthew Shaul and Margareta Kern, is available from Amisha Karia, UH Galleries Support Officer T: 01707 284290 or Margareta Kern on info[at] / price: £7.99 + pp.

Clothes for Death project has been exhibited at the recent solo exhibition Clothes for Living & Dying at the PM and Bacva Gallery (HDLU), Zagreb, Croatia (15.5 - 29.5.2008) and Clothes for Death solo exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Interdisciplinary Arts, Bath, UK (12.9.2007 - 4.1.2008), which opened as part of an international conference 'The Social Contexts of Death, Dying and Disposal'. They will be exhibited again at the forthcoming exhibition Clothes for Living & Dying, at the Margaret Harvey Gallery, from 11.9. - 18.10.2008. Clothes for Living & Dying is a touring exhibition by the University of Hertfordshire Galleries. A fully illustrated catalogue with essays by Pennina Barnett, Dr Alex Rotas and Matthew Shaul will be available at respective touring venues.

The research for this project has been kindly funded by the Research and Development Grant from the Arts Council England.
The production of Clothes for Death photographs has been kindly supported by Gradski ured za obrazovanje, kulturu i sport grada Zagreba / Department of Education, Culture and Sport - City of Zagreb, Ministarstvo kulture Republike Hrvatske/ Ministry of Culture of Republic of Croatia and The University of Hertfordshire Galleries.

For their support I would like to thank Dr Renata Jambresic Kirin and the staff at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb, Dr Marija Lugarec, Radmila Iva Jankovic, Pennina Barnett, Dr Alex Rotas, Professor Manda Svirac, Dona Danon, Andja Stanivukovic, Otac Radivoje, Anica Glisic, Zeljka Micic, Zvonimir Toldi, Women's organisation "Duga" in Banja Luka, and Marcus Kern.
I am very grateful to all the women who took part in the project, without their willingness, openess and curiosity this project would not exist!