At the end of October, many were appalled to learn that a sculpture at Vraca memorial park had been toppled from its plinth, and mutilated. The sculpture, by Alija Kučukalić, is dedicated to the memory of all female combatants in the liberation of Sarajevo, although many assume it to be dedicated solely to the National Hero of Yugoslavia, Radojka Lakić.
It was soon announced that the authorities had arrested an indivdual they believed to be responsible for the attempted destruction of this sculpture, although they have released no details, nor suggested whether the vandalism was motivated by metal theft, or by sinister political motives. The removal of the figure’s right hand, and its toppling, together with the fact that the bronze alloy would not have much commercial value, does suggest that this was something more than a straighforward case of theft, and is yet another example of the hotly contested status of Yugoslav era monuments, and their sorry fate in the post war years.
Kučukalić, born in Sarajevo in 1937, graduated from the Fine Art Academy in Ljubljana in 1960, and went on to specialise in bronze sculptures of the human figure, rendered in a stylised or semi-abstract style; he was a Professor of Sculpture at Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts since its foundation in 1972. His work is familiar in the city, from the seated figure in the main plateau at Skenderija, although the commission for this memorial sculpture to Women Combatants was probabaly the most significant in his career. Tragically, ten and a half years later, he was an early victim of the siege of Sarajevo, killed by shrapnel on the 21st of June, 1992.
The monument itself is an unusual portrayal of a female partisan figure. She is shown, arms raised up, in a gesture of defiant pride. This active pose is unusual for a female figure, who in terms of Yugoslav memorials tend to be portrayed in a more passive light, certainly by comparison with their masculine counterparts, such as the not-dissimilar pose of Stjepan Filipović in Valjevo, Serbia. The stylised contours of the female figure and the blocky masses of her limbs and torso were in the mainstream of Yugoslav public sculpture at this time, intended to convey a sporit of indomitable strength and resistance to viewers, and the persistence in popular memory of those who had been killed in the Axis occupation.
Although the monument originally represented all female combatant casualties from Sarajevo in the 1941/45 occupation, many regard the figure as representing Radojka Lakić, a legendary figure associated with the Communist resistance in the city. Lakić, born in Skender Vakuf in 1917, had a rather itinerant childhood, and studied philosophy at the University of Belgrade. By her late teens she was part of the Communist Youth Movement, and partly estranged from her parents who disapproved of her activities. From mid 1941 she was working and living illegally in Sarajevo whilst carrying out underground communications work for the local party. Arrested with false papers, and disguised by a Muslim veil, she was imprisoned and horrifically tortured by the Ustaše, before being executed, not having given away any information.
One in every seven inhabitants of Sarajevo was killed during the Fascist occupation of 1941-1945, with the final casualties killed during the liberation of the city on 6 April 1945. In some ways Radojka Lakić, alongside other identified heroes such as “Walter” Perić and Adem Buc, came to act as symbols of all that sacrifice and loss. So that present generations do not forget the suffering of the city from that time, the restoration of Kučukalić’s sculpture is of vital importance to the history and cultural fabric of the city. it is good to see, thanks to camapigning by Akcija Građana and concerned individuals, that the sculpture has already been repaired sufficiently to be returned to its plinth. The severed arm has been taken to a secure location until such times as it can be re-attached. Restoring such a monument in contemporary BiH is no straightforward task, but still a vitally important one. Crude attempts to erase historical fact by symbolic aggression against monuments, from whatever era, canot be allowed to go unchallenged. Attacks on the rich and diverse historical fabric of our city leave us all much the poorer.
Words: Jon Blackwood
Photographs: Jim Marshall