The 28th of June versus 2014: the year of the BiH Grassroots

So, how has 2014 been for you? Everyone I know has undergone significant changes or life events this year; the birth of children, the change of jobs, the leaving of a long-occupied house for somewhere new. And these personal narratives have been played out against a traumatic year of brutal conflict (Palestine, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq), floodings, high profile accidents, epidemics, uprisings and chronic political instability. Looking forward to 2014, SCB predicted that it would be a very unusual year in term of culture in Sarajevo and in wider BiH, as for once money would not be an obstacle to the realisation of interesting projects.

In fact, culturally, politically and socially, the year has mutated in some very strange ways, and the long-anticipated and planned for “commemoration” of the centenary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and Countess Sophie, have simply been drowned out by the relentless appearance of appalling news from other parts of the world. Far from being the centre of the world’s attention, as was planned for the last week of June, Sarajevo has been a sidelined puppet-show, with the world’s global audience captivated by bloody bear-pits elsewhere. Those of a spiritual bent talk of the world “entering a new phase through a long painful transition period”; those who set less store by spirituality merely note the production of a decade’s worth of history in a few short months.

In terms of visual art, it has been a compelling year so far. The show The Desire for Freedom at the National Gallery in June put together five mid-career artists who, in their own way, have developed compelling trajectories in the last decade. Gordana Anđelić-Galić’s two videos, Mantra (2006) and Washing (2011) show the stultifying effect that a constant change in political structures, and views of the future, have burdened ordinary people and, at best, blighted them with a permanent instability and lack of faith in the future. The artist’s stubborn persistence in carrying an enormous weight of flags in Mantra symbolises the persistence of the struggle of the peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the face of this constant uncertainty, the existential struggle to survive. It also links to the highly contested and contingent narratives of the recent past, engaged in a constant process of re-writing and over-writing, thereby undermining the foundations of any notional progress in the present century.

In the same show, a youthful work by Venice 2013 entrant Mladen Miljanović echoes earlier work by his academic mentor, Veso Sovilj; Welcome from 2006 shows the young man standing against the outline of BiH, rendered in the form of a hangman’s noose; this focus on the limitations set by the state on the ambitions of a young artist to travel, develop and exhibit recalls Sovilj’s work The Art of Bosnia-Herzegovina Stays within the Boundaries of Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1996. Maja Bajević’s videos, facing one another, wittily re-interpreted canonical texts from the febrile atmosphere of SKC in Belgrade in the early 70s; Marina Abramović’s Art Must be Beautiful is re-calibrated as Maja’s Art Must Be National; in this sense, her claustrophobic self-destructive gestures form a very good metaphor for the straightjacket of lies that the ethnic nationalisms of the 90s imposed on artists and their production. How Do You Want to Be Governed also uses the form of a 1970s performance piece- this time Raša Todosijević’s Was ist Kunst? to similar devastating effect.

2014 has been a good year to show contemporary BiH art to an international audience, and alongside the National Gallery, Collegium Artisticum’s programme of international and domestic art, and duplex 100m2’s industrious activity, have tried to make the most of the opportunity. Collegium’s programme this year- showing a spectrum of artists from Scotland to South Korea- has been remarkable for its breadth and depth, whilst duplex successfully pulled off the biggest-ever showing of art from BiH in the Memory Lane exhibition at Galerie agnès b. in Paris, in June. Certainly the biggest showing of BiH art since independence in 1992, this show, which you can read about in entries below from June, was one of the biggest ever from the “Yugosphere” in history; probably the most significant showing of artists from the Western Balkans since the state-funded 5000 Years of Yugoslav Art shown in Paris in 1971.

Note the mention of state funding and state involvement there. The duplex exhibition, so potentially far-reaching in its implications of the future of the chosen artists and visual culture from BiH in general, was funded from entirely private sources; the state seems actively indifferent to its core function of promoting, and encouraging interest in, BiH from abroad. The political and diplomatic classes are genuinely clueless about the role that the arts can play in shaping and changing the image that a country has in the world, and in encouraging inward investment. Similarly, a show last year of BiH art at the Rosenberg Gallery in Baltimore was entirely funded by non-BiH sources, as is the recently opened Decoding show in Cetinje. This is of course nothing new, in that even established artists have to struggle and adapt however they can to keep a career going in a funding climate only occasionally troubled by a token gesture from the state.

Another trend has been interesting to observe this year; the cranking into life, via millions of EU funds, of a semi-dormant and ruthlessly self-interested local cultural elite.

In most countries, the appearance of a major anniversary such as the 28th of June would have been planned for years in advance, carefully co-ordinated and designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. In fact, the scramble for funding was typically last minute, ill-targeted and of course eventually hoovered up, in large part, by the usual five or six bodies that monopolise external funding in BiH. The result has been a rather scattergun, incoherent series of here-today-gone-tomorrow events, of at best questionable significance. The megalomaniac The Century of Peace after the Century of Wars performance- A Riverdance through a hall of caricatures- achieved, at best, polite indifference, and the causing of traffic jams on Obala for a few days, a major cultural legacy in return for a six-figure budget. This is just one example amidst a bizarre programme clearly not pitched at ordinary citizens, an archipelago of ticket-only bar-code access conferences, and concerts closed to all but international audiences.

The joy felt by so many citizens of Sarajevo at the beautiful re-construction of Vijećnica, the hallucinogenic Neo-Moorish masterpiece of Karel Pařik, Alexander Wittek and Ćiril Iveković, was heartfelt; few eyes were dry as Vedran Smajlović appeared again in a building that had lain in ruins, when he last played his cello there. However, such emotion is tempered by the fact that this is another public building, formerly owned by all, which has stealthily changed function; no longer a national library, it is in strong danger of becoming a private playground for local politicians and itinerant foreign diplomats; the commitment to re-establishing the building as a national and university library seems a lot more lukewarm in comparison with the desire for luxury accommodation for politicians and an expensive restaurant to keep them well-fed. Sadly, this is just another example of a stealthily asset transfer enriching a tiny corrupt elite at the expense of everyone else, happy-clapped by gullible external funders.

Such strange scripting took place against a backdrop of environmental catastrophe. The floods that overwhelmed much of central and northern Bosnia in May, along with neighbouring communities in Eastern Croatia and Western Serbia, displaced nearly a quarter of the population and destroyed the lives that many had rebuilt for themselves after the war. Shocking scenes saw the contours of familiar towns such as Doboj, Maglaj and Bosanski Šamac were transformed by the floods into deserted, devastated, diseased, dystopian nightmares. Activists on the ground regularly report that the damage is much more severe than that caused by the fighting in 1992-95, and will undoubtedly add to the already existing burden of mental and physical illness, as who will pay for the damage, and the timescale for it to be righted is far from certain. Central government, farcically, did next to nothing, other than organise a day of mourning, call for an increased level of prayer, cause problems and delays over “missing paperwork” for aid convoys, and, very grudgingly and belatedly, mobilise the BiH army. The functions of government- providing aid, help, comfort and succour to the near one million people affected by the flood- fell on the shoulders of volunteers, activists and foreign aid agencies. The very existence of “celebrations” on the 28th June, when people were suffering the loss of all they owned no more than two hours drive north from the capital, seemed obscene.

Before 2014, it seemed as though it would be the year of the cultural and political elites; for a year at least, culture would be well resourced and all active would benefit. In fact, 2014 has turned out to be the year of the hard-pressed grassroots reacting to events in Bosnia. Volunteers- often with little experience of life outside of cities, and certainly no experience of disaster relief- did what they could, and gave from scarce personal funds, to try their best to dig out fellow citizens from catastrophe. Little wonder that the BiH government is obviously no longer trusted with money by the international community, and was by-passed almost entirely at the recent disaster recovery fund in favour of NGOs, and direct investment on the ground.

The protests from February 2014 showed the ordinary BiH citizen the huge potential for grassroots activity. The establishment of plenums in the wake of these uprisings in cities and kantons across BiH, the passionate and long-suppressed challenge to the Dayton state, demystified the process of government for many who had been accustomed, all their lives, to leaving those processes to elites. The tipping-point had been reached, whereby the costs and risks of uprising were fewer than the costs of enduring the internationally-sanctioned kleptocracy any longer. The plenums have much less of a profile a few months later, but the work that continues to be done under their auspices will eventually feed into a better future post-Dayton polity; something that is simply an inevitability in the next few years, however unwilling the international community, its attention fragmented by a farrago of urgent crises around the globe, may be to contemplate that. The abysmal hand played by local politicians- seemingly unaware that their futures were at stake- was exemplified by the response to the damaging of the national archives. The very politicians who had starved the institution of money and ensured that it was kept open in poor and unsuitable conditions, blamed protestors for the collateral damage suffered to a nation’s cultural memory, a memory they paid some limited attention to for the few moments when it was politically expedient to do so.

In cultural terms, a similar trajectory can be observed. Whatever the ephemeral “impact” of the major cultural events of the year, the grassroots activities are the ones which will have the longest lasting impact on the trajectories of BiH culture. I am thinking of projects such as CRVENA’s crowdfunded new initiative to document the lives, activities and legacies of the women’s partisan movement during the second world war, working with the archives of the resurgent Historical Museum of BiH; of Jim Marshall’s recent opening of a photography exhibition at Galerija AB in Maglaj, so severely affected by the flooding in May but which has determinedly, thanks to huge efforts by gallery staff and the community, re-opened; of the re-emergence of the Zvono award, attracting a record number of applicants and shaping again the potential for development of the winner, Selma Selman.

The lesson is stark. In terms of cultural activity, and building the infrastructure that BiH culture needs so desperately to flourish, it is the persistent and under-valued efforts of those who work year after year on the ground, in making exhibitions personally costing hundreds and thousands of KM, in working for nothing to realise a vision, in believing in creativity and personal development despite all the obstacles and indicators to the contrary, it is the grassroots and small active NGOs that have a track record of delivering quality projects which have a lasting impact for the widest number of people, and which will lay the foundations for a BiH culture which has such enormous potential for growth and lasting significance.

One wonders when international funders will grasp that screamingly obvious fact, and begin to support them with amounts of money that actually matter, in order to begin to build towards an over-arching cultural strategy that people can have some faith in being delivered; everything else, I’m afraid, is just white noise from political and self-appointed cultural elites, that the vast majority of people tuned out long ago. When the EU tap once again is turned off at the end of 2014, it is those small organisations and selfless and poorly rewarded cultural workers, those who graft and adapt in the circumstances, that will survive and endure- in culture and in politics.

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