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

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