The Struggle for Culture in Sarajevo : The Strange Case of Čarlama



This morning, at 11 , Galerija Čarlama in Skenderija was packed with a wide cross section of the city’s artists, writers, actors, cultural entrepreneurs, and art historians, for a press conference. The reason? Yet again, the strong presence of visual art in Skenderija, is under threat, bafflingly, from the shopping centre management.

It was at the beginning of the summer that these same authorities tried to have the ARS AEVI collection- one of the finest collections of contemporary art anywhere in Europe-evicted from the complex. A major action, featuring the arts community and students, saw the eviction halted after it had begun. Since then, the lights have been turned off at Collegium Artisticum on a frequent basis, over a seemingly insoluble dispute regarding electricity bills. As the press conference began today, the lights at Collegium were off, once again, frustrating staff and potential visitors alike.

Čarlama has occupied their space in Skenderija for several years. Under the leadership of Jusuf Hadžifezović, Čarlama has flourished as a genuine artist run space, featuring Jusuf’s impressive collection of Yugoslav and post-Yugoslav art, and the fruits of his own practice of ‘depotography’. Čarlama has been one of the focal points of the attempts, in recent years, to kick start a genuine international arts scene in the city, despite all the obstacles that seem to be placed in the way of that happening.

In the summer, we were told, Čarlama was being evicted, to be replaced, by a planned gymnasium. This never happened, and Čarlama stayed on, on a more clandestine level than before. Now, the Skenderija management have issued a notice to evict the gallery from its current premises for a period of one week (?), although it is far from clear how such a short term eviction can be enforced in practice. 



In response, the gallery has launched its ‘Art Fight’: a continuous programme of performances, events, small exhibitions, and speeches, that will last the whole of this week. By encouraging the artistic community to respond to these threats of eviction, the gallery hope to draw attention not only to their own plight, but also to the wider existential threat facing the lively cultural scene in the city. In a year which has seen the National Gallery and the National Museum closed down, and remaining cultural institutions left to run on empty, this is not a straw in the wind, but rather than unfolding of a bizarre and relentless campaign against the production, discussion and exchange of cultural ideas in Sarajevo.

Hadžifejzović was uncompromising in his assessment of the situation and its motivations, which he regards as financial in nature. ‘We have sent urgent letters to the Federal and Cantonal Ministries. We are staying here to resit the threatened eviction. They re making things so difficult for us here and for real cultural institutions everywhere in the city. Čarlama was founded on the basis of a good co-operation with previous management, but that has gone now. We have had several important exhibitions here which have brought a lot of good publicity and visitors to Skenderija. We applied for money on the basis that 30% would go the Skenderija, and the rest to Čarlama. Last year we were awarded 24 000 KM, but Skenderija took all the money and gave us nothing. We cannot run a programme on this basis. We have still had exhibitions and events, but we are unable to pay anything now. The director of Skenderija  intends to apply to the court to have us evicted, but we will fight it all the way, and we have right on our side. I am now appealing to all the artists in the city to come and help us at this time, to come and make performances and to bring their work, as a symbol of their resistance to the threats and difficulties that we face.’

For a gallery with small funds, Čarlama has had an incredible reach during the period of its existence. In 2009, its biennale of international artists in the empty shop spaces of Skednerija attracted international press coverage, including this piece in the New York Times. Artists from all over Europe have exhibited at the gallery since then. It is an open and genuinely democratic space run by a team of dedicated volunteers and activists. It is a space for local artists to make and exhibit work; for lectures and workshops; for artists to mutually support an encourage one another, in difficult times.

In any other city in Europe such an initiative would be supported and encouraged. But, in Sarajevo, for reasons that no one can grasp, and which have never been convincingly discussed or accounted for, such spaces face continual harrassment, with the seeming aim of extinction in mind. Elsewhere, on the excellent Culture Shutdown website, the effects of this catastrophic policy, in the case of National institutions, have been detailed and discussed.

Now the campaign against the vandalism of contemporary culture has shifted to Čarlama, which will be the focal point of the struggle for the next seven days. This is another struggle for the very soul and future of the visual arts in the city, and as the ‘Art Fight’ unfolds in the coming week, it is deserving of everyone’s support and solidarity. Without spaces such as Čarlama, with all the potential it has to support the development of culture in the city, culture will simply wither further on the vine. This cannot be allowed to happen. 

‘Art Fight’ will continue throughout this week at Galerija Čarlama, Skenderija. Please come and visit to show your support for the campaign and for a successful outcome.

Jon Blackwood

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