Strong Sarajevan art lacks hope for future

In Sarajevo, young contemporary artists rise to address social issues through their works, but post-war circumstances make it very difficult.

A group of art enthusiasts gathers at the opening of a photo exhibition in Sarajevo. TV-cameras are filming, the artist is being interviewed, people are clapping. Most of the underground mall, which is where the event is taking place, has quieted down. Only people left in the building are here, enjoying the company of other artists, chatting over a drink. It’s a perfect place to meet Sarajevan artists.

From outside it looks like a group of any artists in any city. In reality, however, life of an artist in Sarajevo is much harder than in other cities. Almost 16 years after the Bosnian war the country is still shattered, leaving few options for artists to survive. Asja Hafner from Sarajevo Center for Contemporary Art knows the difficulties contemporary art faces in Bosnia: no proper places to exhibit, no money and the themes visible in the art is often harshly criticized.

Contemporary artists can exhibit in an underground mall gallery in Sarajevo.

Hafner argues that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, topics related to the war are often ignored completely and it’s only the contemporary artists who are trying to deal with the war and the trauma through their works. The reactions are sometimes hard: many Bosnian journalists question whether it’s necessary to continue addressing the issue through art.

Despite difficult circumstances, artists try to continue normal life, meet new people and have or visit exhibitions. Emina Huskic, a young graphic designer and a student at the Academy of Fine Arts, is gazing at the photos, occasionally greeting people she recognizes. She is accompanied by Emir Mutelevic, a fellow student and partner in an art group called “Colour Crew”. The group is still missing its third member, Deenan Hadzehasanovic.

“We have so many problems in Bosnia. Corruption is one, but then we have 99 others. The unemployment rate is really high,” Huskic says. With her art group she wants to make a difference, but doesn’t see much hope: The Colour Crew members say the politicians don’t react or care about the efforts and opinions of artists.

All three artists are supported by their parents, because it’s impossible to make a living. There is no money or funding in art. The group wants to go to Body Painting World Festival in Austria to represent Bosnia and Herzegovina, but they can’t afford it. “We applied funding from our government so we could go, but we have no idea if we will get it,” Huskic says. Something in her voice shows she is not very hopeful.

All the members of Colour Crew agree that making art in Sarajevo is not easy. They say people don’t know about art nor do they appreciate it. Nevertheless, there are many good artists who are trying, and Mutelevic says economic and social problems in the city actually make art stronger. “Someone once said that poverty is good for art, makes it better,” he says.

In the underground mall, across the hallway from the photo exhibition, lies a contemporary art gallery where the members of Colour Crew spend their days working. The gallery is one of many situated here. A few years ago an experienced artist and curator, Jusuf Hadzifejzovic, started a gallery project in this half abandoned mall. A growing number of empty shops gave him an idea about using the space for art. Now the small shops around the mall are full of different works from different artists, free of charge. It’s an opportunity for artists to exhibit, even though the mall is not a popular place to go in Sarajevo anymore.

After the war

Memory of Bosnian war is still strong in Sarajevo: one of many cemeteries in the city

Sarajevo has a long and impressive history in various forms of art including movies, theatre, music, painting, and so on. The Bosnian war, however, changed everything. “Before the war there was a strong art culture in the Balkans, and Sarajevo was always the city which didn’t follow the trends”, explains Hafner.

According to many artists everything in art is now difficult. There is no money and the government is not functioning at any level. The representatives of the three nationalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina – Bosniak, Croat and Serb – can hardly ever agree on anything and therefore no decisions are made. The same goes with the country’s three presidents (Bosnia has a president for each nationality and the presidency circulates between them in eight month periods). It’s almost impossible to get funding for art, even the National Library has not been completely rebuilt after the war.

Many young people in Sarajevo feel tired of talking about the war. They say it’s been over 15 years and the country has so many other problems to talk about, it’s time to move on.

Statements like this don’t appeal to Hafner. She explains that young people are fed up because the war has been used as propaganda for ethnic or religious agendas: it has never been addressed or dealt with truthfully. “We have to do it, nobody else does it,” Hafner claims referring to contemporary artists, who deal with war issues in their art. She says artists are the only people who actually try to talk about the war sincerely, without propaganda.

However Hafner doesn’t see much hope for Bosnia. She has been around far too long to stay positive, and she is not the only one.

Academy Award winning director Danis Tanovic shares Hafner’s murky prediction for the future, only his opinion is tougher. “Sarajevan art scene? Where is it, show it to me. It’s a dark hole, you can only see small sparkles of light. We are falling down and eventually we have to crash.”

Tanovic sits in a small, cozy Sarajevan restaurant and questions almost every question asked from him. He knows all the staff, chats with other customers and rolls a plastic filter in his fingers: he is trying to quit smoking. When asked how he would define art, the director shrugs and says human life equals art but adds that it doesn’t mean good art is everywhere; he thinks quality art is mostly lacking in Sarajevo.

Tanovic made a breakthrough for Bosnian movies with his anti-war film, as he calls it, “No Man’s Land”, which won an Oscar for best foreign movie in 2002. He is strong-minded and known for speaking boldly. He talks straight about Sarajevo; his view is somewhat pessimistic even though he claims to have optimism. He doesn’t think post-war Sarajevo has any good new artists, because none have made a breakthrough internationally: “Art that doesn’t go across borders is not good art.”

One of the most respected contemporary artists and curators in Sarajevo, Hadzifejzovic, has a slightly different viewpoint about the art scene in the city. Hadzifejzovic argues the world of contemporary art has never been stronger.

“Sure the economic situation is bad and nobody can sell their work. But we have more good contemporary artists in Sarajevo than we had before the war. The war changed art.” Some people left and became famous artists abroad while others got inspiration from the war, he continues.

Hadzifejzovic recognizes the difficulties in Bosnia, but separates them from the actual art. In time of difficulties, art becomes stronger. “The purpose of art is to address social problems. All nations and countries need art. But artists are not judges who are on one side and say what is right.”

Hadzifejzovic cares for contemporary art and tries to help young artists by giving them places to exhibit in the underground mall. It’s not the perfect place, but it’s better than nothing. Hadzifejzovic knows what it is to try to be successful as a contemporary artist. When he started, during Yugoslavia period, a gallery-owner called his art “experimental” and kicked him out of the gallery. Hadzifejzovic says he sees potential in the young artists in Sarajevo.

But the question lingers in the air with Hadzifejzovic: Is there hope for Bosnia?

He shakes his head.

About Helena Hyvönen

Helena has been freelancing for Finnish papers for several years now and after the Netherlands she is headed to Latin America as a travelling journalist. → About us