A Strengthening North-Westerly Breeze : A Review of Art in BiH, 2013

9a98c3bef58c745faccb6a763ed23389The casual visitor to Bosnia & Hercegovina may conclude that little has changed in the visual art world in 2013. Major institutions remain closed, or subject to political interference; artists and art workers continue to look abroad for funding and exhibiting opportunites, despairing of the situation at home; art continues to fight a losing battle for any recognition domestically, with local exhibitions- no matter how ambitious- struggling to attract visitors, beyond a hard core of dedicated art enthusiasts and practitioners.

As is so often the case with culture in our country, though, the reality is much more complex and, on the whole, slightly better than a superficial look may indicate. Whilst there have undoubtedly been further setbacks, most notably in the inaccessibility of Čarlama, and some bizarre and seemingly arbitrary recent changes in the management of public galleries, these have been offset by a number of notable events and exhibitions both locally and internationally. Most prominent in the last year has been the re-appearance of a BiH pavillion at the Venice Biennale, featuring a well received exhibition by Mladen Miljanović; the vivid BiH thread running through this year’s Oktobarski Salon in Belgrade, curated by CRVENA offshoot Red Min(e)d and featuring Adela Jušić and Lana Čmajčanin amongst the commended artists; compelling shows such as Miraz / Dowry, organised by SCCA at Collegium Artisticum; the hard work of Collegium staff being rewarded with a remarkable double-show of contemporary European art in September, Europe South-East : Recorded Memories and ex-ordinary; and, most recently, the ambitious collaborative show What Can I Not Know About You, curated by Anja Bogojević and Amila Pužić, across three galleries in Sarajevo.

This roster of shows and activities indicates that whilst 2013 may not be seen as a vintage year in BiH’s art history, nonetheless it will be seen as significant after a very bleak 2011 and 2012. Future historians will have plenty of evidence that 2013 was a year when things seemed to be turning- however incrementally- in a more positive direction. What cannot be predicted is how long this apparent upturn will last.

Institutional Developments

276806_254681597991614_1565229407_n2012 drew to a close with the threat of closure apparently lifted for the Čarlama gallery in Sarajevo’s Skenderija shopping centre. For a couple of months, it seemed that the existential threat to the space was over; however, since early summer, it has been without electricity. Although not officially closed, this lack of electricity has made it very difficult for the space to be used as it once was; as a space of artistic experiment, as a repository for Jusuf Hadžifejzović’s fascinating collection of contemporary art and ephemera from ex-Yu; and as a meeting point for the exchange of ideas and information betwen the city’s artists. Whilst it is possible that  Čarlama may again open at some point, the prospects of that happening any time soon seem remote, and it is the loss of this exchange of ideas which has been perhaps felt most keenly. From the times of subdokumenta in 2009 to early 2013, Čarlama was the space for experimentation in the city, and if no solution can be found for it in Skenderija then surely alternative venues will have to be looked for.

Protesta per la chiusura del Museo nazionale di SarajevoČarlama was the last institutional casualty of the year. The National Museum, scandalously, remains closed, and despite a day of protest on the first anniversary of its closure, and continual pressure from camapigns such as Culture Shutdown and Akcija Građana, there seems to be very little movement on that issue. A new commission has been formed to look into the matter of the crisis in BiH’s national institutions, but it will not move quickly. Elsewhere, new leadership, in particular at the Historical Museum of BiH, has seen fresh energy and approaches developed both to the care of national collections, and to the funding of programmes of display and education.

These positive signs at such state funded institutions have been offset by the bizarre removal of several key directors in December- including the director of Collegium Artisticum who had, by any measure, done a very good job since being appointed. The intentions of politicians in making such moves have yet to be divined, although rumours persist of a desire for a clumsy merger between Collegium, ARS AEVI and the Bosnian Cultural Centre. If this is true, it is a crude cost-cutting measure which may fatally weaken the ability of Sarajevo to mount any kind of coherent exhibiting strategy, on the threshold of the most important year, in cultural terms, since the signing of the deeply flawed Dayton agreement.

Exhibitions and Interventions

327580865d20d590d59e4f1a14d850aaSpace does not allow for a detailed blow-by-blow account of the exhibiting year, merely to note the most significant events. At the beginning of 2013, attention was focused on the National Gallery of Bosnia & Hercegovina; after the end of the show of Montenegrin artists contributing to the ARS AEVI project, Nela Hasanbegović took over the gallery’s top floor with her solo show Speech of Whiteness. The stand-out works in what was almost a retrospective of the artist’s early career, was the beautiful video installation Priča o Ribi, a childhood story of a desire to eat fish when it was completely unavailable during conditions of wartime. Perhaps the most striking work visually was the Between Light and Darkness, a spectral lancing of a dark and awkward space with strings of fluorescent thread; a geometric shattering of a familiar terrain.

Early in 2013, a show of young BiH artists was curated by Jusuf Hadžifejzović at Collegium Artisticum. Jusuf’s work as a curator, and as an encourager of emerging talent, receives less attention than his work as an artist, but it is no less significant for that. This was an engaging showcase of about a dozen artists, with the paintings of Demis Sinancević and the brightly coloured geometrical sculptures of Emir “Mute” Mutevelić perhaps sticking longest in the memory. This was a significant show, as people tend to conceive of BiH art as running in generations; it gave an idea of who from the next generation fo younger artists may-with a fair wind- emerge in the coming years.

3tout404DirectDemocracyRemaining at Collegium, one of the shows of the year was undoubtedly Miraz / Dowry, a profound exhibition of video installations by mid career artists from all parts of ex-Yugoslavia, curated by Dunja Blažević. It was particulalrly interesting to see the public interventions of the Belgrade artist Milica Tomić, and her work focusing on the casual militarisation, barely suppressed violence, and constantly re-written and over-written histories of the contemporary age; Gordana Anđelić-Galić’s video performance, Washing, was a compelling parallel, programmatically developing her earlier Flags performance in a new way, wittily echoing the forms and paradigms of socialist realist portrayals of domestic labour, as well as drawing attention to the absurdities of the multiple emblems that have presumed to represent this part of the world in the last century.

DANIJEL OZMO Na splavu_CropHowever, it was not only in the familiar exhibiting spaces that interesting exhibitions could be found. At Atelje Figure, at the end of June, a long-overdue sampling of Danijel Ozmo’s work was mounted for one night only. This sensitively chosen selection of paintings, woodcuts and linocuts drew on collections from all over Sarajevo and reminded viewers not only of the breadth of Ozmo’s tragically short career, but also of his central place in the Sarajevo art world of the 1930s, and his instinctive sympathy with left wing persepctives and the bitter struggle of sections of the local working classes during that long and troubled decade. It was a reminder, too, of what every citizen of our country loses by not having regular or structured access to the national collections. The slow-motion collapse of the “official” institutional art world in BiH means that the very groups of people who should be inspired by works such as these- children and students- are largely unaware that they exist. The only frustration of this show was that it was on for such a short time.

Meanwhile, in Zvono, there were many such short-running shows; I particularly appreciated the chance to study Izmet Muježinović’s drawings up close, whilst the evenings devoted to the work of Ambrosia in January, and to the hugely popular humorous videos of Damir Nikšić, werre amongst the busiest art events of the whole year in Sarajevo.

Venice 105Historians of 2013 will acknowledge, however, that the most significant showing of BiH art took place not in this country but in Venice. At the beginning of June, the first pavillion representing BiH art, in twenty years, opened at the Palazzo Malipiero. The exhibition happened after the conclusion of long and tortuous government level negotiations; in short, the right to mount an exhibition representing BiH will alternate between the cultural authorities in Banja Luka, and in Sarajevo. For this first re-appearance, the work of Mladen Miljanović was chosen as representative, curated by Sarita Vujković and Irfan Hošić. Themes familiar to many longstanding observers of Mladen’s work- the performative, the post-conceptual, delicate carved inscription on granite- were all present. The artist’s quotation of Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights, and his re-location of that masterpiece in contemporary BiH, complete with Stojadin and fine-writing policeman in a fluorescent vest, was widely commented upon and one of the more assured national representations at this year’s Biennale. The curation, location and presentation of the work was of a very high standard, and it is to be hoped that the next pavillion, to be overseen by a team from the Federation, is already in the planning. It will need to be to maintain the standards set by this year’s exhibition.

54-oktobarski-salon-3In Banja Luka, another intriguing exhibition was the return of Mladen’s mentor- Veso Šovilj- at Dogma Arts, with a show of new work entitled And What do you Represent? This show of installation and painting opened at the end of October, by which time the Oktobarski salon was winding towards a conclusion. This event received very, very little recognition in domestic media but, arguably, was just as significant as the country’s return to the Venice Biennale. The salon, at the tricky Zepter exhibiting space, featured over fifty artists from around the world, with a very strong core from BiH. With Danijela Dugandžić-Živanović on the curatorial team, the show covered performance, installation, video, painting and sculpture. Adela Jušić’s Ride the Recoil, in development for over a year, made a remarkable debut appearance, perfectly located in a chilly, run down store room surrounded by a claustrophobic courtyard. Lana Čmajčanin’s piece 166987 Uboda was shown in a new arrangement, silver stitching on white cloth under a bright light, the stark language of the piece shocking the viewer as they try to follow it in the glare. The salon, deply concerned with issues of inclusivity, gender, education and cultural specificities, finished with an extremely strong and memorable series of performances from Alma Šuljević and Lala Raščić.

izlozba_sta-sve-o-tebi-ne-mogu-da-ne-znamIn December, an unusual collaborative exhibition was displayed across three separate gallery spaces- the gallery of the Academy of Fine Art, Galerija Roman Petrović, and Java. The show What Can I Not Know about You, curated by Anja Bogojević and Amila Pužić, of Abart, invited fifty young artists to show work they had done whilst on a residency programme in Mostar. Some of the work- notably by Lejla Bajramović, in her piece dealing with childhood memories of Mostar’s bridges, and by Iva Kirova, in Java, dealing with the ruined architecture of the city, were sensitive responses. The methodology of the show- through widespread collaboration (with Weimar University), and the desire to show Mostar through fresh eyes and challeneg a local audience to put aside their steretypical views of a city they think they know all about- was compelling. In some ways this exhibition was the latest iteration of the strategy by which contemporary art in BiH survives- live locally, work as much as you can internationally, or with international partners.

Looking Forward to 2014

2014 will be a very atypical year in the cultural history of BiH, 100 years since Gavrilo Prinčip’s actions triggered the beginning of the first world war. As a consequence, there are comparatively vast sums of money available for local artists to make projects and collaborations reflecting on those events, whilst the city gears itself for a huge influx of both visitors, and a level of international meida attention probably not seen since the middle 1990s.

It goes without saying, however, that there will be a huge disjunct between the very specific cultural circumstances of 2014, and the reality on the ground that most people active in culture in BiH have lived through in the current century, until now. It is vitally important that visitors to the city are made aware of this huge gap. Come the end of 2014, it seems likely that the sums of money made available this year will simply dry up. 2014 is not just about presenting BiH art in its best light to visitors, but in developing a strategy for how to continue the increased level of quality activity once the attention of the international media and funders has moved elsewhere. The pressing and urgent need to build a new cultural infrastructure, incrementally, is something that this global attention can help to achieve.

2014 seems set to be a big year for a few organisations and individuals. In June and July, duplex is taking a representative showing of contemporary BiH art to Paris for a two month exhibition, and will be taking a smaller show to Stockholm before then. Duplex is an abslutely vital link between the different art scenes from around BiH and other captials; Pierre Courtin’s tireless efforts promoting artists from here may well be about to bear fruit. No less important, in keeping these channels to the outside world open, is the planned re-emergence of the Zvono Award for young artists, after two years in abeyance for lack of funding. The prize, overseen by SCCA, promises a solo show doemstically to the winner, along with a fully funded six weeks in New York City, is a remarkable incentive for emerging young artists and an absolutely crucial founding block in building an international profile. The return of Zvono in 2014 is a really welcome filling of a sad absence in the Bosnian art calendar, and is probably the event we are most looking forward to in the next year. And speaking of Zvono the group, rather than the prize, their retrospective planned for Collegium Artisticum in Janaury seems set to be the first highlight of the New year.

In terms of individual artists, it seems set to be a massive year for one or two in particular; certainly for the painter Radenko Milak, whose profile continues to grow at a rapid rate, and who is lookin forward to shows in paris and in Munich in the twelve months ahead. Expect, too, to hear much, much more of Adela Jušić, Lana Čmajčanin and Lala Raščić in the next twelve months; Adela and Lala have had prominent recent showings in Switzerland, as part of the Culturescapes Balkan festival and Bone performance festivals, and already all three artists have international showings lined up for 2014.

So, in conclusion, yes, on the surface, nothing changed and everything stayed the same in the BiH artworld. But, as this brief summary of the year has shown, we have active at the moment, in our country, 25-30 artists whom one could take anywhere in the world for an exhibition and be absolutely certain of its quality and enduring interest, alongside five or six curators. Many countries with much better resources and cultural infrastructures would be desperate to try and attract the kind of talent that is emerging- in spite of everything – from here. But, as has been observed many times, the political classes in BiH remain enduringly indifferent to the talent glittering all around them- and this is applicable to all sections of cultural life. if quick and easy money could be made from art, you could be sure that there would be much more immediate political interest.

So, in the meantime, it must be enough for the artworld that we have to be built by our own efforts, as it seems futile to expect anything like a cultural straegy or vision to emerge from the political classes anytime soon. Just like our football team, just like our film industry, just like our small number of business successes, any success and prestige in this country emerges in spite of the conditions that they emerge from, rather than because of them.

Although we may lament this state of affairs, it does not top us working or very much enjoying the successes of others. In 2014, with the world’s press turning its focus again to Sarajevo, I can see a freshening north-westerly breeze from Bosnia-Hercegovina’s art world blowing across Europe. I would like to think that, in time, this breeze will strengthen, and blow away the choking smog of political apathy and indifference once and for all. Only time will tell, and we will be there to report and reflect on what happens throughout 2014.

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