Visiting the Albanian towns of Gjirokaster and Berat

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My first visit to Albania was earlier this year in late September when I visited the northern Albanian town of Shkoder en route towards Montenegro after having spent a week in neighbouring Kosovo. Visiting the rest of the country wasn’t on the agenda on that trip but I vowed to return to Albania later in the year. Since the beginning of November I had been based in Athens for almost three weeks. Yet I made sure that I would return to Albania before the end of this trip.

From the northern Greek town of Ioannina, I took an early afternoon bus directly to the southern Albanian mountain town of Gjirokaster. I was the only tourist on the bus. Ioannina is a mountain town located on a plateau of around 500 meters. The entire sky was heavy with thick low lying clouds and I was wearing my warmest garments. During the two hour bus ride we drive through some awesomely stunning mountain landscape. There is no heating on the bus and my feet are turning to ice. The border crossing feels like its located at the same altitude as La Paz in Bolivia. On the Greek side we all have to get off the bus and I make an inward groaning sound. Uniquely for border crossings, the Greek border official is full energy and excellent humour. His English is impeccable…‘So Mr Nicholas Alexander, what the hell are you doing on the Greek-Albanian border?’ When we approach the Albanian side I feel relieved when we don’t have to disembark the bus. Instead the bus driver takes all our passports to give to the Albanian border official before handing them back to us.

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By Lake Pamvotis in the northern Greek town of Ioannina

On arrival in Gjirokaster, the bus stops on the side of the main town boulevard, Bulevardi 18 Shtatori. Multiple red Albanian flags line the middle of the boulevard. I establish my bearings towards my guesthouse via Google Maps. With hindsight, it would have taken an age to find my place without all this digital cutting edge technology at my disposal. From the boulevard, I walk up multiple ascending narrow stone paths. As I get closer to my destination, the older part of town with its old historic Ottoman style houses (some splendidly dilapidated) slowly reveals itself to me. I wish I were wearing my hi tech Merrel brand boots with their tough Vibram grip. My trendy hipster Vans shoes are not made for walking these jagged stone paths. As I walk further up one of the paths, a young man on a donkey with a small cart attached to it passes me by.

Google Maps is on my side and eventually I reach my final destination, Mele Guesthouse, or at least I think I have? An elderly couple greet me at the gates and take me inside their house. I ask them for the whereabouts of Mele, but neither of them speak a lick of English. We sit down on the sofa in the living room and the lady goes to the kitchen and returns with a tray carrying a bowl of sweats and an oversized shot glass of raki. With weather as cold as this, the raki is like a hot woodfire stove in my belly. I am also presented with a photo album of the couple with two of their children, a son and a daughter, in Venice. I assume that the daughter is Mele. After some time, a man in his late 30s/early 40s appears. I have a giant lemon sweet drop in my mouth disabling me from speaking clearly. Mele, I learn, is the surname of the man who’s name is Edmond. He speaks excellent English and I follow him to his house next door where my room is located. There is a balcony by my room with a tremendous view over the rest of the city and of the dramatic wide snow capped mountain symbolic of this town. My room is not warm but Edmond tells me to use the air conditioning unit on the wall, which doubles up as a radiator during this time of year. Edmond and I sit on the sofa in the heated living room. He makes me a delicious and warm organic tea and mentions that he once lived in Milton Keynes for two years back in 2005. Nowadays he works as a metal welder in town and lives in the house with his partner and their adorable young kid.

I spend the remainder of the afternoon walking around the old town. I need to withdraw some local cash so I head back towards the new part of town where I originally arrived. Instead of the arduous multiple narrow paths route I earlier in the day, I find a descending stone paved road leading directly into that part of town. After withdrawing my cash, I enter a bakery and order a slice of cheese and spinach pie and a wedge of halva cake. It all comes to about one Euro in the local Leks currency. That same purchase down the road in Ioannina would have cost me three times more. I am served by a young woman of about 20 who speaks passable English. She is so lovely and kindhearted, and admits to me that she cherishes all the opportunities to practice her English. Her name is Ada and she’s a student at a local university.

When I return to the old part of town, I try to find Taverna Kuka, a restaurant recommended to me by Edmond. The wooden taverna is aesthetically very tasteful and well heated. On one wall, there are several framed pencil sketches of assorted areas of the old town by a local artist. My first choice, the moussaka, is unavailable so I settle on a plate of qifqi, a local ball-shaped delicacy made from rice, dhjozme, egg, salt, pepper and milk.

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Taverna Kuka

 

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A plate of qifqi and meatballs

At night the temperature drops below zero. The air-con is humming away converted ice cold air into warm air. It’s a cumbersome and electricity wasting process and nothing beats a radiator, whether portable or nailed to the wall. Entering my private bathroom, which is unheated I must add, is like accidentally wading into a winter in Vorkuta. I pee and brush my teeth with haste before exiting back into a warmer vacuum. Edmond has kindly provided me with enough blankets to prevent the entire population of Gjirokaster from developing hypothermia.

When I wake up at 7am the next day, I roll up the shutters covering the sliding balcony glass doors. I am rewarded with a pristine blue day. The wide mountain and town skyline are majestic. I am served a decent breakfast of bacon, eggs, bread, sweet pickles and a Nutella crêpe. Wolfing down my breakfast, I tell myself Carpe fucking Diem. I am going to live today like its one of my last. I have the energy of James Brown, sans angel dust.

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View of Gjirokaster from the balcony of my guesthouse room

 

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Breakfast on the balcony

The first site in town I visit is the former childhood home of the Albanian president-for-life Communist dictator Enver Hoxha. Hoxha ruled the country for over 40 years from 1944 until his death in 1985. During his rule he cut off the country from most of the world. Albanian civilians were not allowed to leave and his regime tortured and killed thousands. Albania was comparable to Fidel Castro’s Cuba or present day North Korea during this period.

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Enver Hoxha 

Hoxha’s childhood home is an old Ottoman style house over 100 years old, which has been converted into the town’s ethnographic museum. Most of the wooden features and designs of the house appear to be original and well preserved. In contrast to this, many of the old historic Ottoman style houses dotted around the old town look neglected and in a decaying state of disrepair. In the vestibule of the first floor of the house, there is a small corner table with two black and white photographs of Hoxha resting on the wall. The living and guest rooms of the house are furnished with long sofas, antique carpets, intricate Ottoman style wooden reliefs on the wall and also some artillery pieces like the two rifles in one of the rooms.

The childhood home of Enver Hoxha now the Ethnographic museum in Gjirokaster

 

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Photographs from inside the Ethnographic museum in Gjirokaster

Another figure to come from Gjirokaster is one of Albania’s best known literary figures, Ismail Kadare. His most famous novel, I visit his former home, which has been reconstructed after a fire in the 1990s destroyed the original structure and features. It is used as an exhibition space today and when I visited there were a number of Expressionist style oil paintings by a local artist dotted around the home. In one room there is a small table with black and white photographs of Ismail as a young boy, some books, the hat he wore whilst he was a journalist in Vietnam during the war and a certificate honouring Kadare for winning the Jerusalem Prize for the Freedom of the Individual in Society of 2015.

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Inside the former home of Albanian writer Ismail Kadare 

Afterwards I head to the enormous hilltop fortress of Gjirokastra. Just before I walk up the steps towards the fortress, I get lost walking up some of the mazes of surrounding stone pathways. The higher I climb the more awesome a view I have of the fortress and the old bazaar. The wide snow capped mountain in the distance, visible from my balcony, augments the beauty, rawness and authenticity of this historic slice of Albania. When I enter inside the fortress, I arrive at an area with great tall multiple stone arches and a collection of artillery dating back to the Second World War. Most of these weapons belonged to German and Italian forces, which occupied Albania during that time. The fortress is also home to the Museum of Gjirokaster. The museum contains numerous displays and information documenting the history of the city from as far back as pre-historic times. Of most interest to me is the period of history starting from when the Ottoman Empire conquered the Balkans region. In 1417, Gjirokaster became part of this empire. Since that time the town grew immensely and Islam became the dominant religion, although the Ottomans were tolerant towards the existing Christian communities.

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Fortress of Gjirokaster

 

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The artillery gallery inside the fortress

By the time of the 18th and 19th centuries, Gjirokaster was an important administrative centre for the empire. It was around this time in 1811 when the city was captured by Ali Pasha of Ioannina, the last town I visited before I arrived in Gjirokaster. To say that Pasha was a formidable ruler would be an understatement. From the modest bits and pieces I’ve read up on him, he strikes me as the quintessential larger than life colonial despot; an intimidating and nightmarish version of Louis XIV of France on an eternal cocaine comedown. Or more generously, a PG certificate Ghenghis Khan. Lord Byron famously visited his court in the walled Turkish Kastro in Ioannina in 1809 and had conflicting feelings about the man. On one hand he was impressed by the ruler’s cultural refinement and the opulence of his court yet he was shocked by his propensity for off the charts barbarism as he wrote in a letter to his mother, ‘His Highness is a remorseless tyrant, guilty of the most horrible cruelties, very brave, so good a general that they call him the Mahometan Buonaparte…but as barbarous as he is successful, roasting rebels, etc, etc..’ An example of his brutality include tales of drowning people who rubbed him up the wrong way by bundling them into sacks loaded with stones and then tying up the sacks before proceeding to drop them in Lake Pamvotis below the walls of his court. I recalled walking by that lake close to the Kastro and former court of Ali one cold and overcast day on my way to the bus terminal hellbent on getting to Albania. All the leaves on the trees by the lake were golden autumn brown. Ignorance is bliss and all I can remember is being struck by the beauty of the nature of my surroundings. Ali Pacha of Ioannina back then was just a name and I knew almost nothing about the man and the history of the town I was passing through.

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Ali Pasha

But back to Gjirokaster before I digress any further. The origins of the fortress date back as far as the 12th century but it wasn’t until the time when Ali Pasha first seized the town that major changes occurred. He instigated an enormous building project to expand the fortress with the help of his chief architect, Petro Korçari. His expansion project included new fortifications, the clock tower and an aqueduct to transport water from a mountain spring to fill the huge cisterns in the castle. The fortress was large enough to house up to 5000 soldiers along with their weapons and other supplies. An arsenal of 85 assorted British made state of the art arms were added to further protect the fortress from invasions. Not surprisingly, during Ali Pasha’s rule, the fortress never came under attack.

Some other interesting things I discovered in the museum about Gjirokaster include how fond the English landscape painter and poet, Edward Lear, was of the town. He visited two times in 1848 and 1859 on his travels through the Balkans. There are two black and white photographs which ignite my curiosity. One is a photograph of the old town from 1925 and the other is a photograph of locals hacking away with a hammer at the large town statue of Enver Hoxha after the fall of Communist rule in 1990. Although Gjirokaster is his place of birth and the town where he grew up, during his 41 year rule of Albania from 1944 until his death in 1985, he only visited his hometown a few times. There is also a display of miscellaneous ephemera from the Communist era such as political propaganda papers and identity documents.

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Painting of the fortress and the connecting aqueduct by the 19th century English painter and poet Edward Lear 

 

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The old town of Gjirokaster in 1925

 

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Locals posing by and hacking away at the statue of Enver Hoxha in Gjirokaster after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s

 

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Objects and ephemera from the Communist period

From the top of the fortress, one is rewarded with a monumental view of the famous wide mountain of Gjirokaster. Ali Pasha’s clock tower is located near the end beneath the backdrop of the mountain. Elsewhere there is a large metallic dome shaped structure over a circular stage. This is where the National Folk Festival is held every four or five years.

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The Ali Pasha built clock tower of the fortress of Gjirokaster

With less than a couple of hours remaining of light on these preciously short days, I make my way towards Zekate House; a grand Ottoman era house and probably the most spectacular of all the grand houses in Gjirokaster. It was built between 1811-12 and was a gift from Ali Pasha to Beqir Zeko (whom the house is named after) who built the house for him. It is located on a high slope over looking the rest of the old town. The view from the top of the house over Gjirokaster is just as epic as the view from the top of the fortress. The house is incredibly well preserved with almost all of its original features. One of the guest rooms comprises of ornate Ottoman style art on the walls and a beautifully designed wooden ceiling in the same style. Some of the windows feature multicoloured glass pains.

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The grand Ottoman era Ali Pasha constructed Zekate House 

 

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One of the guest rooms inside Zekate House

In the evening the temperature drops dramatically hovering around the -5/-6 Celsius mark. Even with the aircon unit going into overdrive to pump warm air it isn’t enough and dispite having all the blankets in the world, I consider sleeping in my clothes. All this aside, the guesthouse is very homely and Edmond and his partner did their very best to make my stay as pleasant as possible. Edmond organises his friend to collect me after breakfast the next day to drive me to a part of town from where my bus to the town of Berat, further north of the country before the capital of Tirana, would depart. His friend arrives in a black Mercedes Benz parked at the bottom of the path leading up to Edmond’s home. With hindsight I am glad I opted for a cab. I most likely would have got hopeless lost had I gone it alone. Edmond’s friend doesn’t speak a word of English and the young lady at the office of one of the bus companies is not much better. Fortunately I have my phone so I give Edmond a call and he communicates with both his friend and the lady. I later learn that the bus to Berat will be arriving at a later time. Two minutes later I am bundled into a white mini van destined for the Albanian town of Lushnjë from where I have to catch another bus to Berat. When I enter the van it is close to full capacity and I find a seat in the row of seats right at the back of the van.

Leaving Gjirokaster, we slowly descend to a lower plateau and the temperature becomes noticeably milder, but I am still wrapped up. There is no heating system in the van. Before we reach Lushnjë, the bus driver points to a sign indicating the direction to Berat. The driver speaks zero English yet he directs his hand pointing frantically to a small bay area by the connecting road. I assume a Berat bound bus will be stopping there? Still I am not sure so before disembarking the bus I make an impromptu call out to all the passengers on the bus beginning by asking whether anyone speaks English? Thankfully a young lady with dyed platinum hair comes to the rescue and is able to confirm in modest English that I need to go to the bay area the bus driver keeps relentlessly pointing at. I say the Albanian word for thank you, faliminderit, about a dozen times putting my right hand to my heart.

Like some travelling 1930s Mississippi Delta Bluesman, I trudge with all my stuff over to the other road and the small bay area. Within five minutes a Berat bound battered furgon appears and I nudge myself inside with my suitcase. I am dropped off somewhere outside of Berat from where I board a local bus to the centre. The ticket seller on the bus asks me in broken English what football team I support? I am not a football man but I tell him Tottenham. He looks at me and smiles, exposing a set of truly disgusting broken and jagged nicotine stained teeth; a sight so disturbing I conclude this is someone not suitable to be around young kids. ‘Chelsea!!!’ he howls at me in a voice so piercingly loud all the other passengers stop what they are doing.

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Berat

From the centre of town I disembark with my suitcase and walk, via trusty Google Maps, to my guesthouse located in a quiet and desolate location on the margins of the centre of town. It is a small newly built bungalow home with a few rooms. The outside of the house is no great shakes, but the few rooms inside are all in immaculate condition. In spite of this the rooms are very cold and even the air con unit doubling up as a heater doesn’t sufficiently heat up the room. The floor is cold as ice and the bathroom is one big freezer with a wooden door. The owners, an old Albanian couple, have a heart of gold though and the price per night is ridiculously cheap and good value. Too good in fact, especially if you consider that the price included a very generous breakfast of assorted slices of ham, jams, bread, feta cheese slabs and cut pieces of cucumber and tomato. Yet the cold temperature of my room means I sadly have to move on to another place the following day. The second guesthouse I stay at is more expensive, but is closer to town, run by a lovely family and has warmer rooms.

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The old Ottoman Gorica Quarter of Berat

Most of my stay in Berat is handicapped by ferocious torrents of rain. In fact the rain was so severe across most of the country that whenever I watched the national news it was all total mayhem; monumental floods, overflowing rivers, main highway roads blocked by mud and sludge etc. I was even wondering whether I’d make it on to Tirana on time? The entire second day of my stay in Berat was spent inside my room. When on the third day the rain still hadn’t softened, I was so determined not to spend another day bunkered in my room, I decided to brave the deluge. All I had was my small black umbrella I purchased from a vendor in the Omonia district of Athens for a couple of euros.

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Castle walls of the old hilltop Kalaja neighbourhood in Berat

I wanted to visit the old Kalaja neighbourhood located on top of a hill within the walls of the old city castle. It is a quite a shlep to get there and with the lashing rain and low hanging clouds even more challenging. About two thirds of the uphill stone path have turned into rapid streams of water. I invariably step into the steams and my busted Vans are already soaked to the bone. Yet I persevere and make the entrance of the castle walls at the top of the hill. From where I am, all of the town below is smothered in substantial puffs of nimbus clouds.

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A cloud smothered view of Berat from the historic hilltop Kalaja neighbourhood

Yet I am glad I made it. The old neighbourhood within the castle walls is a gem of stunning old Ottoman architecture and narrow stone alleys and passages. Walking through this maze evokes mental images of passing though a slice of medieval England with a Turkish twist. It feels very authentic here and this is no museum. It is a living and breathing neighbourhood where locals go about their daily lives.

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Photographs from the old Kalaja neighbourhood

What is interesting is that for a long time Kalaja was a Christian neighbourhood and at one point had around 20 churches. Today there are fewer churches, yet the largest church in the district, the Church of the Dormition of St Mary (Kisha Fjetja e Shën Mërisë), is an old church still in existence dating back to 1797 and was constructed on the base of a church from the 10th century. This church is the site of the Onufri Museum. Onufri was a 16th century Orthodox icon painter and Archpriest priest of the Albanian town of Elbasan. He is considered the most significant icon painter of a group of Albanian icon painters from the 16th century who were instrumental in reviving the style of old sacred religious icon painting which flourished during the pre Ottoman Byzantine period. Some of his panel paintings are featured in the museum along with works by other Albanian Iconographical painters made between the 16th and 20th centuries. The enormous and ornate iconostasis situated inside the church is magnificent and one of the finest creations of the 19th century by the very best Albanian wood-carving masters. The iconostasis features two rows of icon paintings created by the ‘Grabovar’ icon painters from the Çetiri (or Katro) family under the leadership of the master icon painter Johan Çetiri. The carving of the iconostasis is documented to have been constructed by two master craftsmen, Masters Andoni and Stefani. It’s prohibited to take photographs but I am so blown away by the works that I sneak a cheeky pic on my Motorola smartphone.

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The elaborate gilded 19th century iconostasis inside the Church of The Dormition of St Mary

 

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16th century icon painting on wood by Onufri

Outside the church there is a display of black and white photographs of Berat from the early 20th century. They show scenes of life in the town including a photograph from 1918 of the old Gorica quarter of Berat with its many old Ottoman era houses all grouped together on the side of a hill.

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Photograph of the Gorica Quarter from 1918

 

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Photograph of the old bazaar from 1908

The rain is still fierce and by the time I return to my guesthouse my shoes, socks and rucksack are soaked. In the evening I have dinner at a local taverna restaurant called Weldor. I’ve already eaten there a few times and I am always served by a cordial young waiter who speaks faultless English. He’s never been to England but for many years he worked in a hostel run by a guy from Newcastle. The restaurant serves delicious and authentic Italian pizza, pasta and risotto dishes made by an Albanian cook who spent many years in Italy working as a chef. The local staples are also excellent and tonight I order a homemade casserole dish made with aubergines and served with some of the finest bread I have ever tasted.

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Traditional Albanian cuisine at Wildor restaurant

By the next morning the rain has stopped and there are even some patches of blue in the sky. I seize this morning before I depart to Tirana to walk and explore the town in a way that was long denied to me. The main pedestrian promenade in the centre of town is covered in sludge. Already there are men at work with shovels and hose pipes trying to remove and wash away all the mud. Watching the people at work is like witnessing the aftermath of some natural disaster. I return to my previous guesthouse where I’d left my pyjamas. The owners greet me with a smile and hand me a plastic bag containing them. I tell them I am staying with a friend.

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The aftermath of days of heavy rains, which flooded many parts of Albania

I walk over the river to the old Gorica quarter. Most of the cobbled paths are smothered in sludge with huge puddles making walking a challenge. From Gorica, I have a super view of the old town on the other side. Both this district and the old town are full of old classic Ottoman style houses each side mirroring the other and both responsible for this being known as the Town of 1000 windows.

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The old town of Berat from the other side of the river

The family at my guesthouse arrange for me to go to Tirana via an acquaintance who will be driving there. I spend the remaining couple of hours of my time in the foyer with the family and their two adorable dogs, Spiky and Lucky, before a silver hatchback Golf pulls up to take me to my next destination.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

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Forget Bitcoin, Is This A Stock Market Bubble I See Before Me?

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Bitcoin has had a stellar year rising from a low of under $1000 a coin at the start of the year to an unprecedented high of almost $20,000 just last week. The general consensus is that Bitcoin is in a dangerous bubble that will pop very soon akin to the Dutch Tulip and South Sea bubbles of many moons ago. Yet the price keeps on rising. Analysts have been pronouncing the death of Bitcoin ever since the price was just a mere $0.23 a coin back in 2010. You can visit the website 99 Bitcoins to view the countless botched BTC obituaries. No matter whether you believe Bitcoin will continue on its dizzy heights or crash and burn, there’s no denying that the underlying blockchain technology will play a paramount role in the transition towards a cashless society.

 

A look at UK Fund manager Neil Woodford

With every person and their Jack Russell engulfed in the current crypto-mania epidemic, it is easy to overlook other potential red alerts on the financial landscape. Earlier this month, top fund manager Neil Woodford went on record stating that financial markets are entering a bubble phase yet elaborated on this by saying that while many stocks are overvalued there are also many companies, which are undervalued. Woodford has come under a lot of heat these last few months after a number of stocks in his CF Woodford Equity Income Fund portfolio have fallen substantially in value. Yet the stock selection of his portfolio is interesting. While the portfolios of other fund managers are weighted more towards large multinational and defensive companies such as consumer brands company Unilever or alcohol goliath Diageo, and are minimising exposure to the UK in the wake of all the uncertainty created by the 2016 Referendum result (as well as the possibility of an anti-business Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government abruptly coming to power), Woodford’s portfolio is heavily exposed to the UK. Woodford thinks that there is too much negative sentiment towards the U.K. economy and as a result many domestic U.K. companies are very attractively priced (due to panicky investors reducing their exposure to UK stocks) with potentially minimal downside and plenty of upside should sentiment towards the U.K. economy improve.

 

Warren Buffett, NASDEQ all time highs, and the 2000 dot-com crash

Any good student of the world’s most famous living value investor Warren Buffett would spot these opportunities and at the same time be very cautious of stocks with high valuations trading at close to all time highs. In the USA, the FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google) stocks fit the bill as well as several other stocks trading on the NASDEQ index which has been on an off the charts bull run. The incredibly high valuation of the NASDEQ Index combined with the mesmerising new highs breached by Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies like Ethereum and Litecoin create the perfect storm for a repeat of the spectacular Dot.com crash of the early 2000s. At the height of the dot.com bubble, the NASDEQ composite shot up to a high of 5000 points around the turn of the new millennium before crashing to almost a 1000 points in 2002. Since the beginning of 2009, after the 2008 Financial Crash, the NASDEQ has been on an incredible run motoring from 1200-300 points to almost 7000 points reaching an all time high of 6,914 points this year. It is today trading very close to that high in the range of 6,840-80 points. Whether history has a habit of repeating itself or not it sure has a habit of rhyming, to quote Mark Twain.

 

Market sentiment and looking beyond it

One of Buffett’s most famous and often quoted mantras is; ‘be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful’. Yet the Buffett pearl of wisdom I’ve always taken to my bosom is; ‘the market can remain irrational longer than you can stay solvent’. One would like to think that stocks are priced according to their fundamentals but it is always sentiment that is the winner. The current Bitcoin craze is the perfect example. Sentiment is incredibly positive and gung-ho towards this creation that is seen as revolutionary and a disruptive game changer in the world of money, and consequently many want in whatever the price. The FOMO (fear of missing out) bug is very strong. But sentiment can always change at the flick of a switch and when that happens it will be the fickle inexperienced investors with weak hands who bail out the first even if that means incurring staggering losses.

Neil Woodford is the quintessential student of Warren Buffett who is periodically on the look out for undervalued and unloved stocks whilst steering clear of expensive and hot overvalued stocks. If positive sentiment towards the U.K. economy returns at some point in the future and Sterling makes further gains against other major currencies, Woodford’s fund will end up not only beating the FTSE index but substantially outperforming the funds of other star fund managers. Brave investors with strong hands prepared to dip their toes into his fund at this stage could end up handsomely rewarded.

 

Why has the FTSE been reaching all time high levels?

The root of the FTSE trading at a very high level is because of the high valuations of big multi national companies such as Unilever, Diageo and British American Tobacco trading at (or at least close to) all time high levels and their current combined market caps representing a humongous slice of the total FTSE 100 pie. At around the beginning of 2000, shares in Diageo were trading below £5 a share. They recently reached a high of almost £27 with a total market cap in excess of £65 billion. Shares in British American Tobacco were also trading at below £5 a share around that same time period and over the years have performed very well reaching an all time high of £56.43 earlier this year with a market cap in excess of a whopping £120 billion. Unilever shares less than ten years ago in 2009 after the 2008 Financial Crisis could be snapped up for under £15. Earlier this year they reached a record high of £45.57 a share with a market cap almost nudging £60 billion.

One of the principle reasons why many FTSE companies have been reaching all time high levels in the last 12 months is because, since they are global companies, their earnings are received in many different currencies. When the Referendum result was announced in the U.K. last year Sterling dropped to a 30 year low of 1.34 against the dollar. Since this time, the value of Sterling continued to decline bottoming around the 1.20 mark against the dollar before returning to that initial 1.34 level against the dollar that it was just after the Referendum result. During the last 18 months, these multi national companies have benefited enormously from a weak Sterling valuation and yet in spite of this some are still trading on PE (A company’s share price against it’s earnings per share) ratios of 20 or more. Now what would happen if sentiment towards the U.K. economy were to improve and consequently Sterling were to climb to pre Referendum valuations of 1.40 to the dollar or higher? This would affect the foreign earnings of these multi national companies when converted back into stronger Sterling. And by extension lower their earnings per share. Their share prices would likely cool down quite significantly

 

Out of the Sinking: Recent performance of recovering blue chip miners

The Holy Trinity of Unilever, Diageo and BAT are all solid bullet proof defence companies but cheap they are not. At the height of the commodities slump less than two years ago around the start of 2016 all of the blue chip mining companies were trading at unimaginably low levels. Today with sentiment towards these mining companies vastly improved, they are trading at much higher levels and, consequently, are not the bargains they once were not so long ago. During that time one could have hovered up shares in Australian mining titans BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto at just over £5 and £19 a share respectively. Earlier this year BHP shares were trading at over £15 each (with an LSE market cap on the LSE in excess of £30bn) whilst Rio shares went over £38 (with an LSE market cap at one point breaching £50bn). Even more impressive is Anglo-Swiss multinational commodity trading and mining juggernaut Glencore. Today the shares are trading at over £3.50 (LSE market cap over £50bn). At the height of the slump Glencore shares could have been snapped up at less than 70p. Many junior mining companies with higher production costs didn’t survive the slump in iron ore prices but the blue chip mining companies with lower production costs got through this difficult period. Sentiment towards all miners at the time was very bearish and that was reflected in the share prices. But those investors brave enough to take the plunge are now, providing they are still holding their shares, sitting on enormous paper profits.

 

Hunting for bargains

Although some companies are trading at, or close to, historic highs and thus pushing the FTSE index close to record high levels and fuelling fears of a stock market bubble, a large number of companies are trading at heavy discounts. Interestingly the vast majority of these companies are UK domestic companies where sentiment towards the U.K. economy is poor. For example, many of the UK house-building companies, while not trading at the very low levels they once were after the Referendum result was announced, are trading on low PE ratios in the region of 10-11, which is less than the accepted fair value PE of 15. These include FTSE 100 companies Barratt Developments and Taylor Wimpey (both firmly in Neil Woodford’s fund) trading today at £6.28 and £2.03 respectively and both with similar market caps around the £6.5bn mark. If there is any future further weakness in the share prices that would obviously make them even more attractive as investment opportunities.

Two other UK companies in Neil Woodford’s portfolio which are currently very depressed are the FTSE 100 company Capita and the FTSE 250 company Provident Financial. The share price of the latter company collapsed spectacularly back in August this year from a high of close to £35 a share to at one very brief interval sinking to below a fiver. Since then they have currently been trading in the £7-£9 range and can currently be bought for around £8. The crash was rooted in the problems encountered in the business’s Home Credit division. It is a risky share and more downside cannot be ruled out but the potential upside if the business were to recover is huge. Woodford has taken a lot of criticism for the performance of this share yet he remains unfazed and in fact has been accumulating more shares at these new depressed levels. The business support services company Capita has also experienced a huge share price decline tanking from a high two years ago of over £12 a share to its current price of £4.74 a share. The decline in the share prices of both companies means that they now pay very generous dividends. Whether they will be maintained is anyone’s guess but in the case of Provident the current yield is too good to be true at over 15% and for Capita it’s just under 7%.

Two enormous British multi billion pound companies trading at depressed levels are BT Group and energy giant Centrica. BT shares have almost halved in value from a high of around £5 back in 2015 to a low of £2.42. The shares are currently trading at £2.70 with a current market cap of close to £27bn (with nearly that same amount wiped off its from its all time high – quite a dent to the overall FTSE index) and paying a generous dividend yield of over 5%. Centrica has been experiencing an even rougher ride falling from a high of over £4 in 2013 to a low of just £1.33 this year. The last time the share price was below £1.50 was over ten years ago in 2003. Currently the shares are trading at £1.45 and at this level paying a dividend of more than 8%. And at this price the market cap of the company is over £8bn (with around £14bn wiped off the company’s value from its high in 2013). The root of BT’s fall from grace is an accounting scandal at the Italian division of the company. Centrica is struggling with the prospect of political intervention via price caps for its customers and increasing competition. Both companies display certain levels of risk and sentiment is poor for those reasons. One could also come to the conclusion that much of these risks are priced in to the depressed share prices. There is also the risk that those companies now experiencing huge dividend yields because of their low share prices risk having their dividends cut. That cannot be ruled out.

Not all big multinational companies are trading at close to all time highs. The pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has a huge global presence and is currently trading at above £13.14 after having fell to £12.70 from a high of over £17 all within the space of this year. At its current level it still has a collosel market cap at around £64.5bn and is now paying a dividend yield in excess of 6%. The company does come with quite a lot of risk despite its size. It has very high levels of debts and the pharmaceutical industry is very competitive. In spite of this GSK is a diversified pharmaceutical business and a huge money spinner. However I think it can still fall further especially if the dividend is cut (which may be a sensible idea to reduce the company’s debt pile) which I see as very likely. This would probably create further weakness in the share price and would be an absolute steal if £10 or less were breached (being a huge company further deterioration in the share price would dent the FTSE 100 composite substantially – every time the share price loses a pound in value, GSK – and by extension the FTSE 100 – becomes £4.9bn poorer).

One more solid British company, which I like that is trading at a low valuation is the defence and engineering service company Babcock. In 2008 after the Financial Crash, the shares were trading under £4 before going on an upward trend reaching an all time high above £14 in 2014. Since that high was reached the shares have been on a downward trend and are now priced at £6.76. This is a substantial discount to it’s all time high. As well as the attractive price its trading on a forward PE of less than 10 and currently offers a not to be sniffed at 3.89% yield. Babcock is also featured in Neil Woodford’s portfolio. What’s more, I see plenty of potential upside to the current price and even the possibility of the dividend being increased.

 

Disclaimer: For the record I am not a qualified financial adviser. I am not Nostradamus. I have no crystal ball. As always it is very important that you do your own research before making any investments. Never ever make investment decisions based solely on what someone says.

 

By Nicholas Peart

Written: 11th – 12th December 2017

©All Rights Reserved

Image: Clipart

 

 

 

Solutions In The Age Of Job Security Decline

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This is an unpublished piece I wrote back in May 2017

Today we are living during an extraordinary time where technology is advancing at an exponential pace. The growth of the internet and powerful emerging technologies like Artificial Intelligence are disrupting industries and jobs that were once considered safe. It seems to me that the traditional Industrial Age job seeker 9-5 modal of working and job security are in decline. Replacing this is the rise of the precarious gig economy of job scraps with zero hour contracts.

Any job where the work is repetitive and/or is work where there are patterns in the tasks is most certainly at risk from potential automation. In fact the whole notion of ‘a job’ is changing. Restricting yourself to the mindset of solely looking for work is restricting yourself to a periodically shrinking pool of increasingly scarce opportunities. On the other hand, if you can move away from the mindset of a job seeker to one of a job creator or entrepreneur than you have already prepared yourself. That is the new job security.

 

Solutions for Workers in low paid Unskilled Jobs

Low paid jobs such retail and bank clerk jobs, cleaning jobs, transportation driver jobs, factory workers and all kinds of call centre and admin work etc are the most at risk from automation. In fact many of the jobs in these industries have already been automated. It is important that people in these jobs take a moment to retreat and try to understand a bit more about themselves. What are your interests and passions? What inspires you? If you have a passion, say for example, for cooking or gardening, you could start a blog and connect with people and impart some unique and sought after tips and extend this into offering a paid service like cooking or gardening classes/workshops. There are also more potential revenue streams like providing advertising space on your website especially if you have lots of subscribers and followers. You could also focus on a more specialised form of something that you are passionate about which would make you stand out if the market of the area you are focusing on is overly saturated.

 

Solutions for Professionals

Professionals in the medical, legal and financial services require more skills than people in low paid unskilled work yet it does not mean that their jobs are not immune from the potential threat of automation. As I already mentioned, it is important to understand and know what interests and inspires you as it can potentially be translated into a successful online business or project. Alternatively, if you are, for example, a lawyer working for a large law firm and you want to remain in the industry, you could start your own online law business in an area of law you are most interested in. In a way, AI will be very beneficial to the legal industry since super intelligent deep learning systems will be able to (and already are to a degree) crunch through reams of dry data and documents in far less time than a human can. This will have the added benefit of freeing up more time to work on more cases and more interesting aspects of law. Furthermore, all these new technologies will make running your own business easier, saving you both time and money.

 

Solutions for Creatives

If you are an artist, musician, writer or fashion designer etc, the most important thing is finding and connecting with your biggest and most loyal fans since they are the ones who will always willingly fund what you do whenever you try to sell your products and services. With the rapid growth of the internet and social network sites this is easier to do than ever before. All this enables creatives to potentially bypass middle agents and deal directly with their fans, meaning all profits go directly to you without any middle people taking a cut. Twitter is an indispensable social networking site for constantly networking, connecting and keeping your fans up to date with all your developments. Instagram was made for creatives and is a very powerful platform to network and showcase your uniqueness.

If you are a creative that is shy and feels uncomfortable with networking and are inexperienced in the business side of things then my advice is to find a trustworthy and experienced manager to do all the networking, promoting, funding and sales on your behalf in exchange for an agreed percentage of your net revenues.

It is very important that you are constantly connecting with your fans and making them feel a part of your creative journey, since if you ever wanted to raise funds for your projects via crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, you will stand a higher chance of reaching your financial targets.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

Modern And Contemporary Art In Sarajevo

Earlier this year in September, I spent many days in Sarajevo. Whilst exploring the city I made sure that I set aside a decent portion of time to investigate and discover some of the city’s art. The first place I visited was a cultural centre called the Bosniak Institute. When I visited one Saturday afternoon, there were not many visitors, which was a shame as it has so much to offer and the entrance fee is only a few KMs. One wing of the institute over a few floors consists of a permanent collection of paintings from different decades of the 20th century by Bosnian artists. There is a street painting of a corner of the historic Ottoman style Baščarsija district of the city dating back to 1920 by an artist called Doko Mazalić. Elsewhere there are two Expressionist style paintings from the mid 1950s by the artist Rizah Stetić, one of which is of the main square of Baščarsija where the famous wooden Sebilj fountain is located.

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1920 painting of the historic Ottoman style Baščarsija district of the city by Doko Mazalić

 

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Paintings from the mid 1950s of the Baščarsija district by Rizah Stetić

Two other paintings from the early 1960s catch my eye by the artist Ibrahim Ljubovic. The first painting is of a woman with heavy, tired and anxious eyes. A black half chimp half crow beast clings to her shoulders. The background is sombre and bleak; like a vulture’s playground.

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Paintings from the early 1960s by Ibrahim Ljubovic

In another corner is a Naive Art style painting by an unknown artist likely created sometime around the middle part of the 20th Century and a tapestry on the wall by one of the stairs. Back on the ground floor level at the entrance is a small but powerful temporary exhibition of drawings documenting the 1992-5 Bosnian War by the artist Mevludin Ekmečić.

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Drawings documenting the 1992-5 Bosnian War by Mevludin Ekmečić.

The exhibition, entitled “Drawing the War: Bosnia 1992-1995”, features a selection of barbaric, graphic and nightmarish chronicles of pain, reminiscent of Francisco Goya’s “Disasters of War” drawings he created between 1810-1820 at a time when Spain was struggling with many domestic and global conflicts. Spain is very similar to former Yugoslavia in that both countries are unions of different countries with deep roots. History sadly has a habit of repeating itself and today, with the current push for independence in Catalunya, Spain, in the worst outcome, could face a similar fate to Yugoslavia’s, perish the thought. Examining and studying these drawings in greater detail, they further convey to me the futility and insanity of war. Everybody suffers. There are no winners. In fact life for the so called ‘conquerors’ for me is hell on Earth; I wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of Ratko Mladić or Radovan Karadžić and the rivers of blood on their hands. The drawings show victims tortured, dead bodies on the ground with severed heads, a blood thirsty war general clutching a freshly decapitated head by its hairs and the destruction of the historic bridge in the city of Mostar. Each drawing also has written notes by Ekmečić where he describes the horrific images of the war (which he saw broadcasted on TV and in the newspapers when living in exile in Paris) and would then furiously sketch them with black ink.

In another area of the institute is the Mersad Berber green salon featuring a permanent display of paintings donated by Berber. Mersad Berber is one of the best known and greatest Bosnian artists of the 20th century and true master artist in the classic sense. His works have an epic and profound quality to them spanning the great periods of art history from the Classical Greek and Roman periods to the Byzantine, Renaissance and Ottoman eras. His paintings are also spiritual, human and timeless. Observing his works in greater detail, he is a descendent of the old masters and there are subtle echoes of some of the greats like Caravaggio, Zurbarán and even Bosch. This broad palette of art history combined with his own mixed media techniques have positioned Berber as a unique artist with a distinct style. From 1978 until his death in 2012 he taught at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo and his work is featured in London’s Tate Gallery collection.

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The Mersad Berber green salon located inside the Bosniak Institute

 

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Paintings by Mersad Berber

The Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art, a concrete Brutalist style building in a part of the city reminiscent of the Barbican in London, has a collection of donated works by global contemporary artists. It is a modest space over two floors with plywood interiors and a transient atmosphere, and gave the impression that the museum is lacking in funds and operating on a tight budget.

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The Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art

Yet in spite of this I have read that there are plans to relocate the existing museum and its collection into a new building to be designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. There is a work by the legendary German artist Joseph Beuys in the collection of 100 bottles of olive oil. Two Spanish artists, sculptor Juan Muñoz and Txomin Badiola, each have a work in the museum. Muñoz’s piece is a hanging blue sculpture of a man and two smaller suspended white figures touching the right palm of the blue man.

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Joseph Beuys: Ölflasche (100 bottles of olive oil) (1984) 

 

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Juan Muñoz: L’Appeso (1998)

 

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Txomin Badiola: Double Trouble 2 (1990)

The Russian-American artist duo Komar & Melamid are featured with their 1995 installation, “50 Proposals for the United Nations”. The historical context of the work is interesting. During the Bosnian War in July 1995, the Bosnian town of Srebrenica fell and experienced the biggest genocide in Europe since the Second World War where over 8,000 civilians were killed. The United Nations had designated Srebrenica a safe zone but failed to protect the town and its civilians from the Bosnian Serb Army. At the time the UN was also approaching its 50th anniversary, yet this anniversary coincided at a time when the UN was experiencing great difficulties and challenges not just with the situation in Bosnia, but also the genocide in Rwanda, which the UN also failed to prevent. The installation features three head busts of Joseph Stalin, George Washington and Jesus Christ.

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Komar & Melamid: 50 Proposals for the United Nations (1995)

There are works by some notable Bosnian conceptual artists. The artist Braco Dimitrijević has an installation piece comprising of three black and white framed photographs of historical figures alongside six pairs of black shoes each positioned by the left and right sides of each photograph. Dimitrijević was a key figure in the development of conceptual art in former Yugoslavia during the 1970s. His best known work is his Triptychas Post Historicus installation series of works by famous artists in dialogue with everyday objects and fruits and vegetables.

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Braco Dimitrijević: Heralds of Past History (1997)

Two other Bosnian conceptual artists, both contemporaries of Dimitrijević; Edin Numankadić and Dean Jokanović-Toumin, have also donated works to the collection. Numankadić’s installation piece “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Never” has those words each individually written on four framed black stone slabs propped on wooden crates. He is also the director of the 24th Winter Olympics Museum in Sarajevo, which opened on the year of the Winter Olympic Games in the city in 1984 to commemorate them.

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Edin Numandkadić: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, Never (1996)

Toumin’s work on display is simply a quote from an 18th century writer called Avigdor Pawsner, “If you are looking for hell, ask the artist where it is. If you don’t find the artist, then you are already in hell”. This quote is also engraved on the wall by the entrance to the museum.

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Dean Jokanović-Toumin: If You Are Looking For Hell… (1993/98)

Elsewhere in the museum are two photographs by the Bosnian artist Nebojsa Seric Shoba entitled “Sarajevo-Monte Carlo”. Shoba lived through the 1992-5 Siege of Sarajevo when the city was surrounded by Bosnian Serb Army troops and it was very difficult for civilians to leave the city. In this period Shoba volunteered as a soldier protecting the city and it’s civilians against attacks from the BSA. The photograph on the right shows the artist as a soldier during the siege and the photograph on the left is of the artist in a similar pose in Monte Carlo wearing casual clothes taken after the war. In the first photograph the artist is thinner and in a constant state of tension and uncertainty with no end in sight to the war. In the Monte Carlo photograph, the artist has put on weight and is more relaxed and non defensive wearing funky clothes. Not so long ago he was in a war zone in a constant state of fight or flight and didn’t know whether he would live or die.

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Nebojsa Seric Shoba: Sarajevo – Monte Carlo (1998)

The National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina, located in an old Austrian-Hungarian era building, has a collection of over 6,000 art works. When I visited there were two exhibitions on display that interested me. The first exhibition on the top floor, entitled Intimacies Of Space, is a permanent exhibition of works by modern and contemporary Bosnian artists and artists from other parts of former Yugoslavia. This exhibition is divided into five themes; “Garden”, “Interior”, “Atelier”, “Landscape” and “Window”. The Bosnian artist Behir Misirlic’s painting Small Part of the Garden (1969) is an ethereal and sensitive composition of meta-morphing forms and nuances, subtle colours and light and dark shades; of captured moments of fleeting beauty most naked eyes fail to perceive.

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Bekir Misirlić: Small Part of the Garden (1969)

Green, Green Grass of Home (2002) by the Sarajevo born artist Maja Bajević is a video installation with a poignant story around the themes of identity and loss. In the video the artist is walking in a green field describing her apartment in Sarajevo where her grandparents lived and where she subsequently lived before the Bosnian war. Since the war other people have occupied her apartment and have refused to vacate it. All attempts to get it back have been in vain. In the film, as the artist is walking in the field, she tries to remember the flat and all the memories she has of it in as much detail as she can going from one room to the next with just the mental map of her memory to guide her.

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Maja Bajević: Green, Green Grass of Home (2002)

In the “Interior” section of the city exhibition there are three paintings by artists from former Yugoslavia which stand out. Mensur Dervisević’s oil painting “Space” is a desolate vacuum of black, burnt brown umber, pewter, green-brown olive and pale grey hues. In the darkest area of the painting is a lone mirage-like figure; an eternal spirit nailed to its place; stationary and ambiguous. It’s power and presence is augmented by the claustrophobic dark landscape enfolding it.

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Mensur Dervisević: Space

Ordan Petlevski’s oil composition “From the Interior” is similar in spirit to Dervisevic’s painting; a highly introspective work in dialogue with the core of the subconscious. The white, beige, dark and light brown middle area of Petlevski’s painting, for me, represents a process of animal metamorphosis. I see a head forming at the top of this area, like the head of a rabbit. A wing is developing at the bottom of the painting protruding the left side of the figure and at the bottom right, if you study it closely enough, you may be able to decipher a vague face with a fire-red opel eye. In the bottom left of the painting there is a gash of orange-red like a ray of light. Look closely and the face of a woman may appear.

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Ordan Petlevski: From the interior (1957) 

Ljubisa Naumović’s “Interior” oil painting from 1943 represents a well furnished and comfortable living room. It’s painted in a style which reminds me of some of the great early 20th century French painters, especially the Fauvist painters Raoul Dufy and Henri Matisse. “Interior with Open Windows” has a similar loose and free brushwork style and subject matter. Red is the prominent colour in many of Matisse’s interior paintings. In his landmark “The Red Studio” painting, everything is drowning in red. In Naumović’s painting, the dominant colour is green in three different hues; the blue cedar green front wall and three chairs, the olive green floor and right-side wall and the warm spring green bed by the blue cedar green front wall.

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Ljubisa Naumović: Interior (1943)

There are three works in the “Atelier” part of the exhibition, which register with me. Two of these works are oil paintings by artists from former Yugoslavia. Antun Sojat’s “From the Studio” is a painting of the artist’s studio with a cold, threadbare, dark and musty tone; a studio with limited to no natural light. Beautiful and tasteful objects such as the vase of flowers or the small grey-green statue and stand of fruits on the desk or the brown painting easel featuring a head bust resting on the bottom are all within a limited framework from which they can shine. There is abundant beauty buts it’s all entrapped and frozen. On the other hand, in Emanuel Vidivić’s “My Old Studio” painting, natural light bathes his studio. He is not kept in darkness. His studio is ample in space with many paintings leaning next to one another by the studio walls. It feels just as much a home than an artist’s studio.

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Antun Sojat: From the Studio

 

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Emanuel Vidivić: My Old Studio (1936-8)

Artist Edin Numankadić features again here. The third work of the “Atelier” segment I am going to focus on is an installation by Numankadić called Traces Of War from 1993. This work is significant since it shows the artist’s studio as it was in Sarajevo when the city was under siege. In the other two works I focused on aesthetics and natural light. In this work, those subjects take a back seat. When you are creating art in a war zone and your city is surrounded, questions such as whether you are going to live or die or when will the war end are always at the fore of the mind’s landscape. There is a perpetual state of tension and anxiety.

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Edin Numankadić: Traces of War (1993)

In the “Landscape” theme of the exhibition the Bosnian artist Gabrijel Jurkić’s painting “Blooming Plateau” is an epic wide and open landscape space painting of blooming bright yellow white floors under a pure cloudless ultramarine blue sky. The blooming landscape is punctured with snaking blue streams. Distractions are limited but the space offers one the opportunity to reflect and become connected and in touch with their surroundings; like climbing down from the intellect to the earth. Another painting featured in the same theme is Bosnian artist Bekir Misirlić’s “The White Plateau”. The white minimalism associated with the works of the American artists Robert Ryman and Agnes Martin springs to my mind when I study Misirlić’s painting. The lines on the white background, for me, are the metaphysical counterpart to Jurkić’s “Blooming Plateau” painting. It’s as if Misirlić’s “The White Plateau” is a reading and analysis of the heartbeat and vitality of the blooming plateau field in Jurkić’s work. The lines are rarely disturbed and undulate only at occasional intervals. There is little disturbance and volatility.

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Gabrijel Jurkić: Blooming Plateau (1914)

 

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Bekir Misirlić: The White Plateau

In the final “Window” section, there is a relief painting by the artist Narcis Kantardzić. Seeing the work from a distance, one could be under the illusion that they are inside one of the traditional old white houses on the Greek island of Santorini. Yet examining the work closer up, the two white buildings on the left and right edges of the painting appear more modern than traditional and the illusion slowly fades away.

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Narcis Kantardzić: Landscape (1986)

On another floor of the art museum there is a separate temporary exhibition featuring contemporary artists from Sarajevo and Zurich, Switzerland called “Sarajevo-Zurich: Unlimited 2017”. The first work I see on display in the exhibition is an installation entitled “Nostos Algos/Return Suffering” by an artist from Sarajevo called Adela Jusić, who is also a founder of Association for Culture and Art CRVENA, which focuses on various cultural and feminist projects. She is also a graduate of the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo. Her installation recreates a living space comprising of a dated Tito era clock, furniture, a framed black and white photograph of a young boy, and three open suitcases and miscellaneous objects scattered across the floor. The artist lives in a house which she rents from a Bosnian family who fled during the start of the Bosnian war in 1992. The family ended up as refugees in Denmark where they still live. The difference now is that they are not refugees any more but Danish citizens. Once a year the family return to the house they left in Bosnia for a week or two. The objects left behind when they fled the war remain. Even though the family come back for such a short period each year, all these objects which they left behind are firmly connected to their memories. The clock and furniture may remind the family of happy times before the war broke out; of perhaps sitting down to meals together with three generations of family members set around the table. Each object has its own energy and connection to the family and triggers mental pictures of moments and events from the past each time the family return to their former home; returning to what they reluctantly and painfully had to leave behind, due to circumstances beyond their control, and to memories they’d since become detached from as they began their new life in Denmark.

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Adela Jusić: Nostos Algos/Return Suffering (2017)

The next work from the exhibition I am drawn to is another installation by the well known Bosnian artist Jusuf Hadzifejzović. His work, “Shop of Emptiness”, features two tables and a shelf with used consumer grocery goods such as empty bottles, tins and cardboard containers (originally used to package these goods) transformed into artworks. Some of Marcel Duchamp’s (arguably the father of Conceptual Art) most well known works are his “readymades”; everyday mass produced consumer objects he appropriated and repositioned, turning them into works of art. Duchamp’s iconic 1917 “Fountain” urinal work is one fine example where he appropriated an everyday nondescript mass produced urinal fountain and signed it “R.Mutt”. In Hadzifejzović’s installation the empty disposable objects he presents are his own little readymades directly connected to his daily life. The curator and writer Jonathan Blackwood describes the displayed objects as “mute witnesses to the life of the artist”. Often when we consume, we consume mindlessly and with no awareness. We take for granted what we are consuming. These mass goods fill a very temporary need or urge and once it has been satisfied we forget about what we consumed and almost automatically dispose of the empty contents with no attachment to them. By retaining the empty objects, at least one can contemplate on them even after, in the words of Blackwood, “their original purpose has been filled”. “Shop of Emptiness” is a mindful report on Hadziferzuvić’s quotidian consumption over a period of time in his life; a meditation on his consumption and the particular memories, feelings and mental pictures each empty object conveys to him when they were consumed during those intervals in time.

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Jusuf Hadzifejzović: Shop of Emptiness (2012-15)

The established young Bosnian artist Bojan Stojčić, who’s also a professor at Sarajevo’s Academy of Fine Arts, has a photographic display series entitled “No Trace Promises The Path”. The photographs are visual extensions of lines from a book of poems of the same name written by Stojčić. Each photograph is a fleeting execution of specific interventions, situations, locations and emotional reactions. Of the montage of different photographs, one photograph is of a border crossing with queueing cars. At the crossing, the artist intervenes with a small vertical slip of paper with the words, “Fear Has No Border”.

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Bojan Stojčić: No Trace Promises The Path (2013-15)

Towards the end of the exhibition, there is a short video installation by the Sarajevo born and Academy of Fine Arts graduate Lana Čmajčanin. Like Adela Jusić, she is also a co-founder and member of the Association for Culture and Art CRVENA. The video, entitled “Geometry of Time”, features 35 different historical maps of the location of Bosnia and Herzegovina from Roman times until the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 which ended the war in Bosnia and led to the current formation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During this time period Bosnia’s borders changed frequently. For over 400 years it was part of the Ottoman Empire, then after it was under the rule of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire before becoming part of Yugoslavia. The fall of Yugoslavia and the ensuing Bosnian war leading to the Dayton Peace Agreement resulted in the current Bosnia and Herzegovina state. The numerous interventions in Bosnia and Herzegovina during its history and the changes in its borders are a reflection on the ambitions and desire for power of its colonisers. Bosnia is a country that has always been colonised, never becoming a colonial power itself. In the video, the country becomes increasingly submerged in blackened marks enfolding all of South Eastern Europe. For a country that has been invaded and colonised throughout its history what do these borders really mean?

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Lana Čmajčanin: Geometry of Time

By the main city cathedral, I one day visited Galerija 11/07/95, a memorial gallery preserving the memory of the Srebrenica massacre of 11th July 1995 where over 8,000 civilians lost their lives. The permanent exhibition on display features a series of powerful black and white photographs by the Bosnian photographer Tarik Samarah, which documents the aftermath of the massacre. His photographs include graphic images of the skulls and dismembered bones and body parts of the victims dug up from multiple unidentified mass graves.

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Photograph by Tarik Samarah from 2002 documenting the aftermath of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre

In the History Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina opposite the American Embassy, I visit another photography exhibition, 15 years, of photographs by the Scottish photographer Jim Marshall. The photographs are of specific locations in Sarajevo in 1996, a year after the Bosnian war, and of those same locations 15 years later in 2011. The photographs from 1996 were taken on a modest Nikon 35mm film camera. The effects of the war are very vivid in these photographs; buildings are badly damaged and the city is scarred and mutilated. Yet slowly civilians were beginning to recover from the traumatic and devastating three year siege of the city and could finally experience a level of freedom which they were long denied. They didn’t need to run or hide any more and live under the constant threat of danger. Civilians could at last travel outside of the city. It was during this time that Sarajevo was beginning to heal.

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Photography by Jim Marshall from his solo exhibition 15 Years

When Marshall revisited the city 15 years later in 2011, he revisited those exact same locations and took new photographs with a digital Nikon camera. The differences are very noticeable. There are now few traces of the war and almost all of buildings which had been destroyed have been transformed and reconstructed.

 

By Nicholas Peart

Written: October – November 2017

©All Rights Reserved

 

 

 

A World Where Everybody Is An Entrepreneur Doing Something They Love

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This is an article I originally posted on Elixtacy on July 10th 2017

 

We are currently living in a time of great technological transformations. The internet has created enormous opportunities for individuals, entrepreneurs and businesses. The most clear game changer with the internet is the direct peer to peer contact it offers with all kinds of people from all around the world. It creates a fabulous opportunity to develop an online business or project in something you truly love and enjoy. In the process, you get to directly connect with many different people finding potential fans and clients who appreciate, love and value what you are doing.

 

Moving away from old Industrial Age model jobs

Currently many people are still stuck in Industrial Age jobs. These jobs are often of a repetitive nature even if, for now, they may provide a stable income and job security. And it could be argued that many people who do these kind of jobs don’t enjoy them (even if they may pretend that they do) and do them purely for the money. Yet these are the jobs most at risk from automation. These are not just jobs in the retail, manufacturing, construction, transport and basic service industries but also high skilled jobs in the legal, financial and, ironically, even tech industries (there will come a time when AI will be able to do most of the programming/data analysing jobs and create better software than humans can).

 

Tapping into your creativity 100%

When the above scenario occurs, instead of the dystopian reality that many predict, people will have a great opportunity to develop a business or project doing something they truly love. They will be using their creativity 100%. They will have to. They will have no other choice. It will be the most important “commodity” we have to offer. The alternative option is to be part of a society of “useless people” (a most disempowering term) who constantly lament about how they used to have a solid job and no longer have it due to automation. These are people who sadly haven’t tapped into their creative resources and the immense power within themselves. Instead they fail to change/adapt and are constantly stuck in the past. A very sad state of affairs but it doesn’t have to be like this!

 

The importance of using your initiative

In our current society only a small segment of the population use their initiative. Most people are crippled by fear, anxiety and low levels of self esteem to take the initiative to start their own business or project. They are more comfortable applying for a limited and dwindling supply of jobs. But one day in the future everyone may be forced to use their initiative. Yet it will be by utilising their creative gifts to their fullest capacity. After automation has made obsolete many jobs in existence our creativity will be king and the entire global economy will be full of individual entrepreneurs and startups all utilising their creativity and operating in something they love, which even benefits and contributes to society in a meaningful way. It will be a truly pure and direct sharing economy of people interacting and transacting with their unique services.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

How Artificial Intelligence Can Be Your Friend

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This is an article I originally posted on Elixtacy on July 25th 2017. I have edited the original article.

 

Much has been said about artificial intelligence or AI. Often people have talked about AI in a very fearful way as something with catastrophic and apocalyptic consequences. Even highly regarded people like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawkings have warned of the potential dangers when AI becomes highly developed and sophisticated. There is no question that AI will develop exponentially and become an enormous industry. It will greatly augment other industries and increase their productivity in unprecedented ways.

 

What about when AI becomes more sophisticated than humans?

One of the hot topics surrounding AI and the main cause of most people’s concern is, what happens when AI becomes more sophisticated than humans? Most people view such a situation as a threat to humanity and there are perfectly legitimate and rational arguments as to how AI can be a real danger to the human race. But let’s look at AI and it’s potential in a more exciting and positive way. This is a technology, which has the power to change our lives and make our lives better and less gruelling. Already there exists different kinds of AI such as the electronic calculator, speech and image recognition, or the algorithms designed for automatic language translation, spelling and grammar corrections, and the ones tech goliaths Facebook, Google and Amazon use to create our daily news feeds and recommendations respectively etc. The Siri function on your Apple iPhone (or Amazon’s Alexa) is a very embryonic form of the ‘virtual assistant’ type of AI, which will grow and develop at an exponential rate. At some point in the future this kind of AI bot will be your 24/7 multi task virtual assistant, which you’ll be able to have intelligent two way conversations with about virtually (no pun intended!) anything. Based on all your digital data and spoken words, it will help you make all your decisions for you. This virtual assistant bot will help you with all kinds of issues whether they are legal and financial queries, relationship problems and generally try to help you to organise your life and make it more efficient and productive. A SMART Life! In some ways, it could be said that the future of the traditional Google Search engine, where you type what you are looking for, is ‘voice search’. Existing and continually developing search engine algorithms incorporating increasingly sophisticated speech recognition functions will develop into super smart virtual assistants where all quieries are answered and specific links and information to those quieries is provided through the already substantial amount of data and content on the net.

 

Job automation

People fear that AI will speed up the process of job automation and eventually make all jobs obsolete. This will happen yet it will happen to all Industrial Age, repetitive jobs with little to no creativity. Instead of being fearful, people should be happy. I mean do people enjoy repetitive, humdrum and uninspiring jobs? In our current culture there is this incomprehensible and irrational obsession with work; but work of an often soul destroying kind and not work that people enjoy and which can benefit and change society. AI will eventually automate all forms of repetitive and uncreative work and in the future people will be working far fewer hours.

 

A Post-Work society and why our creativity and ideas will be king

AI in the distant future will lead to a type of Post-Work society. Yet in these times people will be finally free from monotonous work and will likely be engaging and harnessing their creativity and ideas in doing something they love. Rather than being a threat, AI will be an indispensable and invaluable resource, which will augment, complement and greatly benefit our levels of creativity and ideas and help us to realise with the best results whatever we want to achieve. AI will greatly enhance our creativity and generation of ideas and help us to tap into them in unimaginable ways. And best of all, it will all most likely be free. No need to set aside money for expensive lawyers, financial advisors, planners and accountants. Or even software developers and digital data analysts and marketers. AI will be able to serve you in all these areas at no cost.

 

By Nicholas Peart

(c)All Rights Reserved

Low (to no) cost high strength satellite internet for every corner of the world

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Ever wondered if there would come a time when every corner of the planet, both on and off land, would be connected to the internet? Elon Musk wants to do just that via a satellite internet network called Starlink as part of his ambitious Space X project (founded in 2002 to further develop space technology and create the conditions for people to live on other planets). Musk plans on launching a Low Earth Orbit (LEO) broadband “constellation” of satellites, which would beam down high speed internet to every part of the globe. Space X is scheduled to start launching these satellites potentially in 2019 and hopes to have all the satellites in orbit and everything complete by 2024.

Musk’s project is not a brand new thing. A 1990s company called Teledesic along with two other companies, Iridium and Globalstar, tried to build a commercial broadband satellite constellation. Yet these companies didn’t succeed and Teledesic suspended its satellite construction work in October 2002. These companies were maybe too ahead of their time, but with the expansion of the space industry over time as well as the advancement of space technology development as more money continues to be invested in it, Musk’s Starlink satellite constellation has a higher chance of succeeding.

 

The end of cell tower network telecommunications companies?

Over half of the world’s population has internet access and some device to access the internet with, most commonly a smartphone. Yet most people still rely on assorted telecommunications companies to call and connect to the net. Telecommunications companies are still needed as long as their are landline connections, but with the world constantly becoming increasingly mobile and with so many people completely bypassing landlines for smartphones (especially in developing parts of the world where it’s cheaper to buy an inexpensive smartphone or dirt cheap cell phone than install a landline), the services provided by traditional telecommunications companies could potentially be bypassed if Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet project really does take off (no pun intended). For now we need these telecom companies as they still provide us with the essential connectivity infrastructure, yet unless they match or better Elon Musk’s ambitious satellite plans, they could encounter huge challenges. Free public internet in assorted public spaces via normal on the ground cell towers is always increasing across the world. Fast developing countries such as India already have free internet in many railway stations across the country (thanks to Google).

 

Wi Fi from balloons and drones

Google and Facebook both tried to solve the challenge of internet for the entire world. Google tried this via their Project Loon project (“cell towers in the sky”) which via mobile cell towers connected to hot air balloons they tried to connect remote parts of the world to the net. However the problem was that sometimes the balloons would not last in the sky and would soon come crashing down to earth. Facebook tried to solve this via internet powered drones flying above parts of the world lacking internet infrastructure. SpaceX’s project seems the most ambitious yet in solving this challenge.

 

No need for multiple networks and SIM cards to provide your roaming

If every part of the world is connected to the internet via Space X there could be potentially almost no need to use the services of traditional telecommunications companies (This is, of course, not only dependent on Spacelink succeeding, but on decreasing costs of sending satellites into space). It is always a pain to change SIM cards whenever travelling to a different part of the globe. Even if there are a clutch of competing online telecom startups offering SIM cards that can be used in almost every country and traditional telecom companies are offering services where existing national SIM cards can be used in many other countries (though often at high costs), it is still a rather cumbersome way of connecting the world when one considers all the future possibilities. Sending satellites into space may currently be vastly expensive but as more companies tap into the very nascent space industry and the technology to explore and enter space improves and becomes cheaper and safer, costs for satellite powered internet will go down dramatically. Hopefully Musk’s ambitious project will set a new bar for others to follow suit and maybe even match or better what he is doing.

 

The end of mobile numbers for instant connectivity

With access to a super fast public internet connection wherever you go in every part of the world, there is no need to even have your own mobile number (even if online video/messenger services like WhatsApp still require it – for now) and anyone from any part of the world can instantly connect to each other. This provides the ultimate instant connectivity transcending all networks and other connectivity services. I suppose with Facebook being the social media site with the highest number of users at close to almost two billion, it’s Messenger service is the closest thing for over 25% of the world to instantly connect and communicate with one another without a mobile number and only an internet connection.

In the wake of this it is crazy to think that for far too long we have relied on a plethera of large global telecommunications to provide us with our daily connections. Of course at this moment, the infrastructure provided by these telecommunications companies are still vital for our daily connectivity and on-the-go roaming. Yet Space X’s Starlink satellite project has the power to revolutionise the way we all connect if most if not all of the world has a state of the art internet connection. Having the entire world connected to the internet you have the quintessential Smart World of every corner of the world connected to the net. What’s more there’s a parity in terms of connection with everywhere having an equally super fast connection. This also has the potential to dramatically speed up the development of developing/undeveloped nations.

 

By Nicholas Peart

©All Rights Reserved

 

Other useful links…

https://edgylabs.com/spacex-satellite-network-soon-to-be-named-starlink/
More info on Space X’s Starlink project

Video link below illustrating Space X’s plans to establish satellite internet for the entire world…