The Fine Art Academy 40th Anniversary Exhibition, Collegium Artisticum

In the late nineteenth century, traditional art history tells us, the old academic salons- heavy, dark coloured shows featuring neo-classical history paintings, scenes from the Bible, portraits of the great and the good, and landscapes (varnished), gave way in significance to the commercial art market, the rise of the independent dealer and savvy critic, and the independent artists’ grouping. Academies still existed and turned out students, it’s just that no one really wrote about the work of academicians any more.  At the beginning of the twenty first century then, in Bosnia & Hercegovina, with an independent art market struggling to exist, the number of active art critics barely needing one hand to count, and independent artists groups very active but relying on support and sales from outside the country, the academy here continues to operate at a level rare in other European states.

This exhibition used the whole of Collegium’s vast two spaces- every corner was filled with work in a ‘Salon’-style format. One hall was devoted to the work of students past and present, with the other given over to the work of staff. The result, in the first instance, was a spectacular overload- on first inspection, it seemed almost impossible to consider anything in such a crowded space- but it worked, as this was a show which required repeated visits in order to try and process some of the more interesting pieces. Certainly, both in terms of the massively crowded opening night and subsequent visitor numbers, this was one of Collegium’s best attended shows in recent years. This in itself is evidence of the importance of the Academy in the city and wider BiH; similar academic events in other European cities would be met with much greater public indifference.

As with all shows on such a large scale, the quality was uneven. However, there was more than enough to keep the visitor’s attention and, in the student exhibition hall, jotting down one or two names to watch.  The painting and product design sections had particularly strong representatives. Amel Hodžić’s large-scale painting, Trijumf Ljudski Gluposti (Triumph of Human Stupidity), shows two masked figures in a grimly lit, tiled space, with their actions ambiguous. Technically slick, this is the work of a very adept painter who also is capable of operating in various discourses: hints of sado-masochism, internet voyeurism, the end of the machine age and the constant battle between privacy and voluntary self-revelation, all exist in an uneasy co-relation, in the claustrophobic space.

In product design, Adela Hodžić’s assured and elegant re-tracing of 60s fashion culture in her Linea series of four photographs caught the eye, as did the colour-saturated, compositionally unusual Jaje series by Ira Arnautić and Hafidža Hadžimuhamedović. In a strongly fashion-literate era, with Fashion TV on constant rotation in many city centre cafes and pubs, it can be difficult to stand out to such an image-saturated and jaded set of eyes, but both these pieces, whilst still showing a strong awareness of fashion and design history, managed to do it.

Turning the corner into the ‘staff’ exhibition hall, Amela Hadzimejlić’s installation- Težnje, Ceznje, zapisi, ofisci, utisi i sjećana- caught the eye. On one level, these jars and objects, filled with pastel coloured gel and liquid, call to mind Damien Hirst’s early Pharmacy fragments; whilst these containers on a wooden bookcase can be read playfully or nostalgically, they can also be read in terms of a serious academic composition, in terms of the gradual gradiation of colour and of the objects in terms of shape and volume. Whilst relating to Hadzimejlić’s previous work, this installation marks also a new and interesting departure.

Just along from this stood Amila Handžić’s explosively inventive project Ten Commandments- Elements of Humanity. Artist’s books are a relatively rare phenomenon in contemporary BiH production, but Handžić has produced a text with interactive pages, set alongside a video on how the user can interact with each page to make different words- all of which have some bearing on her ‘ten commandments’. Each page has been thought through with a fierce intelligence; each is a new and delightful assault course of sleight of hand and verbal trip wires for the user. In stark black and white, this is a book which appeals primarily to the viewers intelligence and patience and there are more than a few surprises in this project, even for the most committed user.

Tatiana Milaković’s Bez Naziva series of large scale paintings, showing a range of Emil Nolde-style expressionist figures in a glowering, claustrophobic space, provided a disturbing and provocative presence in a corner. The crackling nervous energy of these paintings were in direct contrast to the subtle, beautiful photographs of Ivan Hrkas . His six photographs: From the Suggestive Cycle: analysis of the family portrait show a witty set of observations on the domestic interior, in a bleached white light. The focus on an elderly couple in their domestic space alludes to the intimate familiarity of a long standing and strong relationship, set alongside the wry observation of consumer products in a bathroom, and the steady elevation of brands to near-human status in late capitalism. The final picture, with the old couple displayed in an Arnolfini Marriage type circular mirror, in an image otherwise dominated by family heirlooms and furnishings, reveals a rare and informed aesthetic sensibility on the part of the photographer.

The large scale sculptures of Nela Hasanbegović and Halil Tikvesa marked an intriguing full stop on the display. Hasanbegovic’s work, Light and Darkness, combines the seductive mathematical beauty of high modernism with an adventurous selection and handling of material that is thoroughly contemporary. Her stringed white X-form invites close examination and recalls the ‘stringed form’ experiments of Naum Gabo and Barbara Hepworth in the 40s, but the use of material and execution in a very tight space is remarkable. Tikvesa’s chaotic, entertaining wooden stake, with little figures climbing in an out of the upturned twigs, provides and interesting contrast.

This show raises a number of interesting questions. It would be good to see the Academy mounting more exhibitions like this, not only to give younger artists a chance, but also to keep the public informed of how things are developing in terms of teaching quality, and the latest works of the academic staff. In a culture where indifference, cultural withdrawal and the retreat into private life are near-fatal characteristics, the Academy has a vital role to play not only in growing a new domestic audience for art, but in suggesting a widening set of artistic strategies to that audience.

Further, with access to political circles enjoyed by few individuals or voluntary organisations, the Academy in Sarajevo, together with other like institutions in BiH, has a huge role to play in trying to effect at least some change in the fragmented governance of the arts in BiH. Currently, politicians seem to want to have as little to do with culture as is humanly possible, and certainly aren’t interested in funding it; compare that with countries such as the UK (not a fair comparison I know, but hear me out), where the cultural industries are now the third biggest net contributors to GDP, bigger than the contribution of manufacturing industry. In a post-industrial continent, where we move gradually from being producers to consumers of goods made elsewhere, the cultural industries are vital to the future well being of countries, and there seems to be no-one whatever in government who grasps this. Institutions such as the Academy, because of their very status, could help to lobby for such changes.

But perhaps most importantly, the Academy’s main role is in developing and nurturing their students to adapt to the very difficult cultural circumstances that they will face, when they leave with their final degree. It’s all very well calling for a change in funding models in culture, but for the moment that is just simply whistling in the dark. Whilst the current circumstances obtain, students have to be shown how to be self-reliant, self-promoting, adaptible and co-operative, as well as provided with basic marketing and job skills. The ability of the Academy to be sensitive to changes in the market and in circumstances for artists, and to produce as many students as possible who are confident in navigating such difficult waters- will be the major test of the Academy’s development, in the forty years to come.

Overall, this was a fitting exhibition to mark an important anniversary for the Academy. Where it goes from here, however, will be just as important a question for it to answer, effectively, in the years to come.

Jon Blackwood

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