BY ANA RUSSELL-OMALJEV , 2016 JUNE
The identity, community culture and connectivity of the Balkan arts scene has been sidelined for too long. Now a new collective from the region intends to combat the issue. Dr Ana Russell-Omaljev, creative director of Contemporary Balkan art, which recently exhibited in London, writes for IAM on what the Balkan region has to offer
Contemporary Balkan Art’s latest exhibition, Interruption, is now open. Dr Ana Russell-Omaljev, its creative director, explains why she brought the work of these artists to London and what the works say individually and collectively about perspectives on the region.
Contemporary Balkan Art (CoBA) was created to give a voice to emerging and established modern artists from the Balkans within the specific landscape of London. Interruption, our third exhibition within a year, evidences the strength of the need within the arts for connectivity between different regions in the European context. It was opened by Victoria D. Alexander, senior lecturer in arts management at the Institute for Creative and Cultural Entrepreneurship at Goldsmiths, University of London, and features over 40 works never before exhibited in the city from 16 artists including Lidija Delic, Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Nemanja Nikolić, Marija Šević, and Romanian artist Dragos Burlacu. One of the largest exhibitions of its type ever to be held in London, the exhibition continues to generate considerable interest perhaps in part due to the diversity of media featured including painting, sculpture, photography, videos, print and graphics, but also due to our accompanying Artist in Conversation series, including a discussion of Marina Abramović’s writings, theatre performances and other works.
We have selected artists who speak the universal language of social commentary combined with a humorous take on the absurdities of modern life. These artists reflect on the cultural, political and social “interruptions” which affect the societies which they inhabit. For example, the works of Emir Šehanović Esh explore the pagan, tradition, superstition, the occult and also flea market pictures of Bosnian child brides. Emir studied Bosnia’s unique history where the Bogomils, a Gnostic sect, were prevalent in the Middle Ages. Emir observes that the contemporary Orthodox Church, and contemporary Islam, retain certain characteristics of the Bogomils, as well as even more ancient pagan rites. Our aim was to exhibit those of Emir’s works that most reveal his local colour and fascination with the occult.
The photographic work of Jovana Mladenovic deals with the forgotten history of WWII monuments in former Yugoslavia. Jan Kempenaers’ much talked-about 2010 book Spomenik, presented images of such monuments, or spomeniks, in isolation and without any explanation of their origin or meaning, leading to the mistaken identity of many of these monuments. Jovana’s Monumental Fear seeks to quell that controversy with explanation, but opens deeper questions of how and why Yugoslav postmodernism differs from Soviet social realism, why these monuments demonstrated such abstract symbolism and what they represented for local communities, schools and Yugoslav society more broadly. Monuments play a significant symbolic role in national remembrance and the fact they can in some cases be readily forgotten, even by the inhabitants of nearby towns, raises questions about the desire to remember the partisan’s victory in WWII, and the state of Yugoslavia which emerged from it. In order to shed further light on these questions, I talked with Jovana on 25 April at The Library (Covent Garden) as a part of our artist in conversation series. The discussion tackled subjects including brutalist architecture and how it helped to build national identity in the Yugoslav republic.
Both Jovana Mladenovic and Emir Šehanović Esh, as well as the other 14 artists featured in Interruption, are acknowledged both locally and internationally. CoBA is interested in concepts that balance dominant artistic paradigms and the personal sensibilities of individual artists. The uniqueness of our artists lies in their use of different genres and expressions. Our mission is both to exhibit the work of a range of contemporary Balkan artists and also to hear their opinions about art today and possible future trends.
The idea behind the Interruption is that art exists to encourage reflection, and invite questions. Despite the difficulties currently facing the countries of former Yugoslavia, and in many ways because of them, the Balkan transitional experience can offer insights into fundamental issues of contemporary political ideology and identity. For example, the experience of division and feelings of displacement in the Balkans, from the disintegration of Yugoslavia in the 90s through to today, may give answers, in part at least, to the questions of how Brexit and Trumps’ presidency will affect ordinary people. The upside, artistically speaking, is that cultural and political isolationism fostered the development of a generation of Balkan creatives who think outside the ‘box’ of commercial international trends. CoBA seeks to interrupt and disrupt the London art scene with their fresh, sometimes unsettling, work.