The Ludwig Museum is one of Budapest’s primary cultural institutions. When I visited the museum during my time in Budapest, there were three different art exhibitions on display. Two of those were purely focused on contemporary art from the Uralic world. The language, Hungarian, is part of the Uralic family of languages. The three primary languages from that family are Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian.
SALLA TYKKA : Short Titles
The first exhibition was a display of short films by the Finnish video artist Salla Tykka. Her films focus on the inner core of existence. The first of her short films I encounter, Giant, is set in the gym of a Romanian all girls school. Here the girls undergo strict, stultifying and repressed exercise routines with faultless precision; as if they are robots or algorithms and not human beings. Watching the film makes me nauseous. The gym is also like one great soulless and sterile modern day concentration camp. Its an intensely depressing video and I only watch a few minutes of it before moving on yet out of all Tykka’s short films, it is also one of her most memorable.
Still from the short film Giant by the Finnish artist Salla Tykka
Another film by Tykka, Lasso, is set in suburban Finland. It features a young man in his home gyrating in a dynamic and primal way with a lasso. During this moment, a young girl outside watches him transfixed through the slits of the closed blinds. She develops strong feelings towards him, difficult to articulate in words. But when the ritual with the lasso ends, so do those feelings and she is brought back down to earth. The film beautifully encapsulates this moment so many of us experience yet struggle to verbally convey.
Still from the short film Lasso by the Finnish artist Salla Tykka
My Hate Is Useless is an early short film by Salla Tykka from 1996 documenting her struggle with anorexia. It is a raw and visceral film further documenting the pain and suffering she experiences. At one intervals she violently screams in Finnish ‘I hate myself’. Elsewhere in the film we see various bits of paraphernalia such as the medication she is taking.
Still from the short film My Hate Is Useless by the Finnish artist Salla Tykka
RELATED BY SISTER LANGUAGES : Estonian-Hungarian Contemporary Art Exhibition
The second exhibition in another part of the museum is an exhibition of Estonian and Hungarian contemporary art curated by Krisztina Szipocs, the chief curator of the museum.
The first works are encounter are a small series of canvases by the Estonian artist Kaido Ole. Yet close by the canvases are two large painted mural like installations by the same artist depicting both the beginning and end of Estonia. The installation showing the beginning theme contains a sepia image of a coastline and the sea encased within a square sequence of different hues of blue. The end theme of the installation is more abstract featuring fading brown hues and the letters ‘Eeeeehhhh’ in the middle. It is difficult enough to envisage when the beginning may have been even if one where to use such primordial elements such as the sea and the colour blue. The end however is unwritten.
Kaido Ole : The Beginning Of Estonia (2016/18)
Kaido Ole : The End Of Estonia (2016)
Close by, a video by the Estonian artist Tanja Muravskaja, Three Sisters, featuring two girls who are both cousins reflecting on the war in Ukraine from their own personal experiences. One of the girls in the video lives in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev and the other in the small Russian town of Belgorad, located 40kms from the Ukrainian border. The two videos play simultaneously as the girls talk at the same time. What is immediately clear is that both have very different views and experiences. From what I can decipher the girl from Belgorad comes across as if she got the rougher end of the deal. You can just see it in her stern facial expressions never mind what she is saying. The brief blurb states she is 27. In body maybe, but spiritually she has the weight of a babushka at the fag end of her seventh decade. The girl from Kiev, on the other hand, appears more open and lighter in spirit without any of the heaviness of her cousin from Belgorad. I’ve never been to Belgorad (yet I’ve been to the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv just down the road), but I can’t imagine it’s a place bursting with outliers. The third sister is the artist herself who acts as the mediator; the sister who attempts to heal the rift. Her invisible role is the trickiest.
Tanja Muravskaja : Three Sisters (2015)
The Hungarian artist Hajnal Nemeth has a video work entitled Crash – Passive Interview (2011) an experimental operatic video in 12 acts. I witness two acts of this video. The first features a clip in a BMW factory featuring two men in workers clothes in a kind of comic operatic dialogue, whilst the second shows one of the two men again this time dressed like some playboy from Milan in an open top white BMW in another operatic dialogue with a woman. The dialogues are police reports made after a series of non fatal car crashes. How something so ordinarily prosaic, anxiety ridden and traumatic is turned into some kind of absurd Eurotrash Aldi like visual opera has me in fits of laughter. Its a tragic-comedy masterpiece and one of the highlights of the show.
Hajnal Nemeth : Crash – Passive Interview (2011) – still one
Hajnal Nemeth : Crash – Passive Interview (2011) – still two
The Estonian art duo Johnson and Johnson, who’s name is taken from the global big pharma behemoth of the same name, has a work in the form of an illustrative chart on display entitled Top 5 State Employees. I can’t read a word of any Uralic language but visually the chart metaphorically echoes how this world at large defines ‘progress’ or ‘success’. What today’s measure of success of progress may be won’t be the same 100 years from now. What does it matter? What does it mean? Employees work for someone else and do what they are told and do their best to please to be rewarded. They have no skin in the game despite their best and most conscientious efforts. On the other hand, the Steve Jobs and Elon Musks of this world would make the Bottom 5 State Employees. They are too disruptive and visionary.
Johnson and Johnson : Top 5 State Employees (2009/18)
A Selection From The Museum’s Permanent Collection Of Hungarian Contemporary Art
The final exhibition in the museum featured a selection from the museum’s permanent collection. The work on display was global with works by big names such as Picasso, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close and Georg Basalitz. However, with the limited time I had left in the museum before the departure of my train to the Hungarian town of Szeged later in the day, I purposefully decided to focus on works by Hungarian artists in the collection. Below I am featuring some these…
Emese Benczur : Not All Is Gold That Glitters (2016)
Often when looking at a work of art, the first question to pop into the viewer’s head isn’t, ‘What’s it called?’ or ‘What’s it about?’. Rather it is, ‘Who’s it by?’. The more discerning viewer may ask the first two questions, but most will ask the third. Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Francis Bacon, Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst are some of the biggest names in modern and contemporary art. It is hard to find someone who has never heard of Picasso before. Yet how many could name the title of one of his many paintings?
Picasso is a brand in the same way that fashion giants Prada, Armani, Chanel and Louis Vuitton are brands. When one looks at a suit, most will invariably try to find out what brand or label it is over any investigations regarding it’s intrinsic qualities. It’s the same with other ubiquitous consumer products like Coca Cola. You can buy a cheaper supermarket cola, which may even contain the exact same ingredients, yet it will never have the same cachet as a ‘Coke’.
The following story encapsulates perfectly the power of ‘Who’s it By’. The artist Bansky recently tested this by submitting an original work of art for the 2018 Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Art in London under the fictitious name ‘Bryan S Gakmann’ (an anagram of ‘Banksy anagram’). It got rejected during the selection process. Nobody had heard of this Bryan S Gakmann chap. Yet when Banksy himself was asked to feature a work at the show by the organizers, he submitted the work rejected under his fake alias. After all, it was a ‘Banksy’ in the end.
For most of November 2017 I was based in Athens. During my time here I delved into the history of Athens and Greece via all the sites and museums in this city. Yet I endeavoured to set aside ample time to visit many of Athens’ contemporary art galleries. The city has a very healthy art scene. In spite of the economic and social problems facing the country and the lack of funding some artist spaces may be experiencing, there is a veritable buzz here. A number of international artists have moved to the city attracted by this buzz and more affordable rents. As Berlin (long popular with artists for its cheap rents and artistic spirit and history) has become less affordable, some artists have already been looking to other cities across Europe to base themselves in. Athens is one of those cities, seen as a compelling cultural alternative to Berlin. So much so that in 2017 the Documenta art event held in the German city of Kassel every 5 years, was also held in Athens. As a city with over 2,500 years of history and the landmark Akropolis site beaming across the landscape, that can’t be a bad thing to blossom the imagination.
The Exarcheia district
For a strong taste of alternative Athens, the Exarcheia district is the place to be. This is a raw and unsanitised part of the city. Its streets are caked in graffiti and there’s a heavy anarchist spirit in the air. The scars of the country’s economic problems are very noticeable as you walk the streets. Frequent demonstrations take place here and often without warning. I’ve written a separate post about this district with several photos.
Mural of a homeless person in Athens’ Exarcheia district
EMST National Museum of Contemporary Art
Athens’ National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) opened its doors in the hip Koukaki neighbourhood only two years ago, after a plethora of legal and political difficulties. When I visited it was only partially open. It was not possible to access the museum’s permanent collection of art works, which was a great shame. Hopefully that will be possible soon. On a positive note, I viewed two impressive temporary exhibitions. The first of those was a photography exhibition of contemporary Greek artists entitled What We Found After You Left, which was made in response to a related film, Tripoli Cancelled, by the film maker Naeem Moheiaeman about his father being stranded in Athens’ now defunct Elinikon Airport for nine days without a passport in 1977. The recent photographs created in response are taken in Elinikon Airport, which shut down in 2001. The airport is now a crumbling disused relic. In the photographs one can sense desolation, wilderness and decay. A true feeling of distressing alienation, which is what Moheiaeman’s father experienced during his ordeal. A re-visit to a traumatic period of time made even more poignant by the airport’s neglected and forlorn state.
Photograph by Christos Kanakis from the What We Found After You Left exhibition at EMST
The second exhibition, Chinese Xieyl, located on the bottom floor of the museum features a selection of works from the collection of the National Art Museum of China in Beijing as part of a collaboration with EMST. It is a brilliant exhibition and an excellent sampler of important painting and sculpture works from China during the 20th century.
‘Miners’ by Li Shinan (1940-) from the Chinese Xieyl exhibition at EMST
State of Concept
State of Concept is a not for profit space also located in the Koukaki neighbourhood not far from EMST. It was founded in 2013 by the art critic and curator Iliana Fokianaki and is an integral component of Athens’ contemporary art scene. I visited on the opening night of a solo show by the Czech artist Zbynek Baladran entitled Difficulties To Describe The Truth. On display are short films and installation works by the artist. Through his work he explores the very notions of what is often passed of as truth. This is especially pertinent in this current politically tense climate of fake news, information wars and cheap noisy rhetoric masquerading as facts. Through this deluge of corrupted information, especially in the digital world of limitless over-saturated free content, getting to the real truth and facts is mired with obstacles. It’s less challenging to remain tranquilised with easy truths.
Contingent Propositions (2015-17) by Zbynek Baladran from his solo show at State Of Concept
In addition to this exhibition, in the lower level of the gallery there was another separate solo exhibition by the Russian artist Anton Vidokle comprising of a trilogy of his films entitled Immortality for all: A film trilogy on Russian Cosmism. Cosmism was a movement, which developed in Russia in the late 19th century, before the 1917 October Revolution, by the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov (1829-1903), who was a champion of life extension, human immortality and transhumanism. He even believed in the resurrection of the dead. As wild as all this may have sounded back then (and even today), current emerging technologies, especially Artificial Intelligence, more than 100 years later are working towards these realisations. In fact the Life Extension industry is poised to be huge in the future. Google have a department called Calico which is focused on life extension and one of the leading visionaries in this field, Dr Aubrey de Grey, has a not-for-profit foundation called SENS, which is completely dedicated to life extension and anti-ageing. The futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil has gone on record to state that the Singularity (the event when AI will be on par with human intelligence and when both will merge) will occur in 2045. Both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky were influenced by Fedorov’s writings. Russian Cosmism was a transformative movement striving to transcend art and philosophy by creating a new world. A world where one is universal and not cemented to one planet – where one is fully connected to the universal cosmos and astral metaphysical world; free from micro societal constraints and mores.
Still from the film Immortality for All: A film trilogy on Russian Cosmism by Anton Vidokle
The Breeder Gallery
Located in the Metaxourgio district the Breeder Gallery is one of the city’s most cutting edge art spaces. It is a large multi story gallery. I visited one evening at an opening featuring three separate exhibitions. The first of these exhibitions, In Search Of Happiness, by the local art collective Arbit City was made up of an installation of flags on the outside front façade of the gallery.
In Search Of Happiness – flag installation by Arbit City at the Breeder Gallery
The ground floor and lower level of the gallery featured the second exhibition, a minimalist solo exhibition entitled Nearly Inaudible Breathing by the Portuguese artist Joana Escoval. Yet it was the third exhibition on the upper floors that was the highlight; a group exhibition featuring emerging Greek artists called Athens And Its Periphery In Regards To Contemporary Painting curated by Hugo Wheeler, a young independent British curator who recently moved to Athens from London. For me this show was one of the most vital shows I witnessed during my time in the city with works by local artists projecting the zeitgeist of Athens as a developing and increasingly important and exciting global art city and hub attracting artists from around the world just as Berlin has been doing over the last several years.
Work by Orestis Lazouras as part of the ‘Athens And Its Periphery In Regards To Contemporary Painting’ group exhibition at the Breeder Gallery
Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center
TheIleana Tounta Contemporary Art Center is a large warehouse space over two floors dating back to 1988. It has hosted many important exhibitions in the city. During my visit I attended the opening night of a new exhibition, Integral II, the second part of a two exhibitions themed around not just the current political and economic situation enfolding Greece, but also the situation throughout the world. In the first room I enter I am greeted by a giant installation created by the well known Greek born artist Jannis Kounellis who was one of the main figures of the Arte Povera movement in the 1960s and 1970s in Italy. The installation features a large square industrial steel plate resting on one of its edges surrounded by burlap sacks containing charcoal. In the background to the right of the installation are a series of paintings by George Stamatakis and to the left is a tall vertical relief by Socrates Fatouros comprising of bitumen sheets and elastic liquid membrane.
Works by Jannis Kournelis, George Stamatakis and Socrates Fatouros at the Ileana Tounta Contemporary Art Center
The exhibition continued upstairs featuring another smaller work by Kournelis as well as more works by contemporary Greek artists. Of those works it is George Lappas’s Traveller (2013) work, which stands out. It is a great red sculpture made of iron and red felt. The ‘headless/dislocated’ traveller reflects Lappas’s own experiences as an eternal refugee.
Traveller (2013) by George Lappas
Gagosian Gallery (Athens Branch)
The Gagosian Gallery is probably the largest art gallery empire in the world. The Athens branch is quite modest in size spread over just a few rooms on one floor in a building in Athens’ Kolonaki district. On my visit there was a solo exhibition by the American artist Sally Mann entitled Remembered Light: Cy Twombly In Lexington of black and white and colour photographs of the late Cy Twombly’s studio taken from 1999 to 2012.
Remembered Light, Untitled (Flamingo Profile) (2012) by Sally Mann
Twombly was a friend and mentor of Mann’s. They both grew up in the US state of Virginia. The photographs of his studio featuring miscellaneous objects, art works, paint marks on the studio floor and walls, and light and shadow tones perpetuate his memory and spirit. Cy Twombly may be gone in body, but his energy continues to radiate strongly as if he never really left.
Touring the art galleries in Athens’ Kolonaki district
The Kolonaki district in Athens where the Gagosian gallery is based is conveniently home to the greatest concentration of art galleries in the city. Of course it is impossible to visit every single gallery (although I almost did succeed!) but I did visit a good number. My first port of call was Gallery 7 and a solo exhibition of realist portrait and figure paintings by the Greek artist Maria Hatziandreou. Her paintings are mature, emotive and atmospheric with a gift for empathy and getting to the emotional core of her subjects. She uses the medium of paint and colour very skilfully to achieve this.
Painting by Maria Hatziandreou at Gallery 7
At the Eleftheria Tseliou Gallery there is a group exhibition, Conditions of Production, of mixed media works by emerging international artists. The focus of the exhibition is on materials with meditations on where they stand and how they fit in in the world of contemporary art. Of those works I am particularly drawn to Tina Tahir’s ‘Xenos (welcome mat)’ made of soil.
‘Xenos (welcome mat)’ (2016) by Tina Tahir from the Conditions Of Production exhibition at the Eleftheria Tseliou Gallery
The Christina Androulidaki Gallery (CAN)is a small but notable art gallery, which plays a vital role in the city’s contemporary art scene. At the time of my visit I caught a group photography exhibition of young Greek photographers entitled The Sense of an Ending. It is a strong show and the space is perfect for the works on display. Definitely a gallery to follow and keep abreast of the most promising emerging local talent.
Freewheeling (2017) by Dimitris Mylonas from the exhibition The Sense of An Ending at CAN
Afterwards I head to the Kalfayan Galleries space, originally established in 1995, and with a space in Thessaloniki too, focusing on Greek contemporary art. I visited the gallery to catch a solo show called The Cheat by the established Greek artist Antonis Donef. The central part of his exhibition is a large installation work entitled Cheating In Art History comprising of 370 neatly rowed lidless black pens across four black rectangular tables ending at an open book. On closer inspection, the pens contain pieces of text from E.H. Gombrich’s book ‘The Story Of Art’ (which is the open book on the final row) engraved very small scale with a needle. This alludes to the title of the work of memorising parrot-fashion style segments of information rather than fully understanding and absorbing it.
Antonis Donef’s solo exhibition The Cheat at Kalfayan Galleries
The Zoumboulakis Galleries is one of the oldest galleries in Athens dating back to 1912. Nevertheless it is an important promotor of contemporary art in Athens. When I visited there was a solo exhibition of paintings entitled ‘Future’ by the Greek artist Christos Kechagloglou. His paintings are colourful, childlike and optimistic. His dreamy impressions of landscapes and seascapes invite the viewer on a happy journey of magic colours and limitless imaginary possibilities free from social straitjackets. The artist Paul Klee springs to mind when I focus on Kechagloglou’s paintings.
Painting by the Greek artist Christos Kechagloglou from his solo exhibition ‘Future’ at the Zoumboulakis Galleries
One of the biggest surprises for me though was the two exhibitions I saw at the Astrolavos Dexameni gallery. I stumbled upon this gallery in the Kolonaki district by chance not knowing anything about the gallery beforehand. It is a large space over two floors where I was rewarded with a solo exhibition of polemic paintings by a young Greek artist called Stathis Mavridis and a separate show of atmospheric experimental paintings by a female Greek artist called Iles Xana.
Painting by Stathis Mavridis at the Astrolavos Dexameni gallery
Stathis Mavridis’s paintings are powerful and very relevant. His painting featuring the former German Federal Minister of Finance, Wolfgang Schauble, and the words ‘Schuld abladen verboten’ (Literally; ‘Guilt unloading prohibited’) is particularly prominent.Schauble’s period as Germany’s finance minister from 2009-17 coincided with the unfolding of the crisis in Greece and in other countries across the Eurozone. Schauble is a very controversial figure in Greece as he is seen by many as responsible for the draconian austerity measures imposed on the country since the crisis first erupted.
Painting by Iles Xana at the Astrolavos Dexameni gallery
The separate exhibition of paintings by Iles Xana are a delight. Whilst Madrivis’s paintings are external and time-based, Xana’s paintings are internal and timeless. There are like dream worlds one can float and get lost in. As well as paint she incorporates other materials such as glue to realise her visions
Important contemporary art related places I missed
One important place I really wanted to visit was the DESTE Foundation Center For Contemporary Art. Unfortunately there were no exhibitions on at the centre when I was in Athens, which was a shame as this place is one of the beacons of Athens’ contemporary art scene. The DESTE Foundation For Contemporary Art is a not for profit foundation originally established in Geneva in 1983 by the Greek art collector Dakis Joannou who is one of the most important figures in the world of contemporary art. The exhibition space in Athens is focused on promoting emerging and established contemporary artists.
With much regret, I sadly wasn’t able to visit BERNIER/ELIADES GALLERY, which was founded by Jean Bernier and Marina Eliades in 1977. The gallery is an important and influential promoter of Greek and international contemporary art. When I tried to visit the last exhibition had already ended. I hope to check out this gallery on my next visit to Athens
The Onassis Cultural Centeris a leading arts centre located outside of the city centre, which I didn’t get round to visiting. It’s an enormous place though with a wide and diverse program of activities, exhibitions and events.
Albania is not a country that frequently pops on many people’s European travel itinerary. Its way off the Euro Rail grid and it’s one of a small bunch of European countries that isn’t yet a member of the European Union. But this small country located at the bottom west corner of the Western Balkans is a rewarding, authentic and educational experience.
My first taste of Albania was in fact via the newly independent country of Kosovo, which became independent in 2008. In Kosovo at least 90% of the population is Albanian. From the small Montenegrin mountain town of Berane, I boarded a battered bus to the Kosovan town of Peja. I didn’t expect to encounter any significant art of note in this town, but I was delightfully surprised. On a late afternoon stroll through the town, I stumbled upon the Peja Arts Gallery; a large ground floor space with a number of striking paintings by the artist Isa Alimusaj.
Isa Alimusaj solo exhibition at the Peja Arts Gallery
Alimusaj is a notable Kosovan artist who has exhibited his work extensively in the Kosovo region since the 1970s with occasional exhibitions in Serbia, Albania, Macedonia and even Poland. His paintings are vivid and hallucionary dreamscapes; plains of raw and visceral emotions. I could namecheck Munch, Dali or Bosch, but Alimusaj’s style is his own. His perceptions, vision and created worlds are only his and no one else’s. I look at these monumental paintings and think what a hit they would be exhibited in a top-notch gallery in London, New York or Paris. It’s a crime that they are hidden from most of the world.
On my second day in Peja, I chance upon an art studio close to the old Ottoman style Bazaar of the town. Little did I know that the studio in fact was Alimusaj’s. Stacks of his sublime paintings were crammed on top of one another in a small room. Alimusaj himself was in a smaller adjacent room painting. When he recognised me I tried to strike up a conversation. He didn’t speak any English only Albanian and some German. In my substandard German I complemented him on his paintings and told him how much I loved his current exhibition.
A few kilometres outside of Peja town is a beautiful old terracotta-red Serbian Orthodox monastery called the Patriachate of Pec. The jewels of this monastery are the painted 13th century frescoes inside. Even after all this time, the paintings are very potent and alive. I am particularly transfixed on a faded ceiling fresco where the areas of deterioration accidently create a powerful and apocalyptic effect in the blue sky; as if Nikola Tesla entered the scene with his earth shattering Tesla coil. It is unwittingly modern.
13th century fresco from the Patriarchate of Pec monastery
In the Kosovan capital of Pristina, I visit the National Gallery of Kosovo. Opposite the gallery is the National Library of Kosovo; an off the scales futurist-retro style juggernaut of a building so out of sight it makes Antoni Gaudi’s architectural designs look like a row of non-descript Barratt homes. The library was designed in 1982, when Kosovo and most of its neighbouring countries where all once part of former Yugoslavia, by the Croatian architect Andrija Mutnjakovic.
National Library of Kosovo
At the National Gallery there was a solo exhibition on display entitled ‘Groan’ by the artist Zake Prelvukaj. Prelvukaj is a mixed-media artist. There are experimental paintings, photography and video installations on display. Her paintings are expressive, introspective and primal with elements of tribal art from sub Saharan Africa. On the top level floor of the gallery, there are two video pieces by Prelvukaj; one of which entitled Blood-Feud-Vengeance features the artist with her hands covered in blood.
Works by Zake Prelvukaj at the Kosova National Art Gallery
From Kosovo I make my first trip to Albania to the northern town Shkodra, where the Marubi National Museum Of Photography is located. This museum has more than 500,000 photographs in its collection with the oldest dating back to 1858 when the first photographs were documented in Albania. The origins of the museum can be traced back to the painter and photographer Pietro Marubi who was from the northern Italian city of Piacenza. He emigrated to Shkodra in the early 1850s where he founded, Foto Marubi, using old camaras he’d brought with him, which utilized the wet plate collodian process to develop photographs. This was the most technically advanced way of developing images back then having only recently been invented in 1851 by the British inventor and photographer Frederick Scott Archer. The legacy of Marubi’s studio and landmark photography collection was protected and enhanced by the innovative and distinguished Albanian photographer Kel Kodheli (who later changed his surname to Marubi) who first began work at Marubi’s studio in 1885 at the age of 15. Kel inherited the Marubi studio after Pietro’s death in 1903 and was responsible for expanding the collection of photographs in the studio by collecting photographs from established Albanian photographers of the time as well as photographs by lesser known photographers documenting Albanian culture as well as Albanian urban and countrylife. The enormous photography collection as well as the museum’s reputation as the most important museum for photography in Albania is all thanks to him.
Pietro Marubi Jak Bjanku
The most interesting photographs in the collection of the museum for me are the experimental photographs employing collage and cut and paste techniques. Some of these are by Pietro Marubi himself from the 19th century and look very avant-garde; almost Dadaist before the movement was invented.
On my second trip to Albania later in the year in December, I spend time in the capital city of Tirana as well as the old Ottoman towns of Gjirokaster and Berat. In Berat, I visited the Onufri Museum in the old Christian neighbourhood of Kala surrounded by castle walls and located on the top of a hill with an amazing view over Berat. The museum is located within the grounds of the neighbourhood’s largest church, Church of the Dormition of St Mary, which contains a magnificent gilded iconostasis from the 19th century.
Iconostasis from the Church of the Dormation of St Mary in Berat
Onufri was a 16th century Orthodox icon painter and Archpriest of the Albanian town of Elbasan. He is one of the most significant figures associated with Albania’s history of art and the most important icon painter of a group of icon painters working in Albania during the 16th century who wanted to revive the sacred religious icon painting of the past, which flourished before the era of the Ottoman Empire. The collection of works in the Onufri museum are by Albanian Iconographical painters between the 16th and 20th centuries and includes original works by Onufri himself.
An original 16th century wooden icon painting by Onufri
When I eventually reached Tirana, I wanted to tap into the city’s contemporary art scene. During the long reign of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, who ruled the country from 1944 until his death in 1985 Albania was similar to North Korea today; a pariah country completely cut off from the rest of the world. Albanian citizens were not permitted to ever leave the country and those who, against all odds, managed to escape could not return. It was only after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s that the country was finally liberated after decades of isolation.
View over Sheshi Skenderbej (Skanderbeg Square) in central Tirana
One of the most notable Albanian artists of the 20th century is Edi Hila who was born in Shkodra in 1944. He graduated from the Higher Institute of Arts in Tirana in 1967. Yet with the inescapable and stultifying backdrop of the Enver Hoxha regime it was challenging to shine and fully develop as an artist. In 1974 the regime found him guilty of ‘foreign influences’ in his work. It is precisely because of such a strict and authoritarian regime that no art scene could blossom in the country. Albania’s contemporary art scene only began to develop from the early 1990s and even since then it took time, because the country was isolated for so long and no ‘foreign influences’ could seep through. Today in this digital age of hyperconnectivity it’s a different story but back then all forms of international media and communication were suppressed. Nevertheless, some of the pre1990s works of Hila are one of the best representations of a meaningful and enlightened documentation of some of the art produced in Albania during the Communist era.
Since the early 1990s a new generation of contemporary Albanian artists slowly emerged with the artists Adrian Paci and Anri Sala being the most internationally recognized. Adrian Paci was born in Shkodra in 1969. He studied at the Arts Academy of Tirana where he trained as a realist painter. Then towards the late 1990s he emigrated with his family to Italy escaping a period of political unrest which was breaking out across the country. He is currently based in Milan where he lives and works. Paci is a mixed media artist whose whole oeuvre of work comprises of videos, installations, paintings, sculptures and photography. Yet he is best known for his videos, which he began to make around the time he left Albania for Italy. Back in the first half 2013 an important retrospective of his work entitled Lives In Transit was held at the Jeu de Paume experimental art space in Paris and travelled to other cities around the world. Interestingly, I was in fact present at the space in April of that year where another exhibition was also taking place in the same space involving my friend, the Philippine artist David Medalla. At the time I wasn’t familiar with Paci and sadly didn’t properly investigate his show, but I remember a clip from his powerful 2007 film Centro di Permanenza Temporanea, which took place in an airport with a scene featuring a still of a large concentration of people on a solitary unconnected air-stair. Watching this film again there is a strong sense of tension, uncertainty and anxiety in the video; a meditation on the meaning and, perhaps, also futility of life. Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going to? Delving into the depths of these existential themes and questions is uncomfortable. Maybe since most of us are not trained to be mindful of this and prefer to escape and ‘keep busy’ in our cultivated roles.
Adrian Paci Centro di Permanenza Temporanea (2007)
Anri Sala was born in Tirana in 1974. He completed his studies at the Arts Academy of Tirana in 1996 before moving to Paris where he continued his studies at the National School of Decorative Arts and after at the National Studio of Contemporary Arts. Sala, like Paci, is best known as a video artist and began to fully harness this medium in his work around the same time as Paci in the late 1990s. He made his first video work in 1997 entitled Interview – Finding the Words. The 25 minute film features footage of a black and white video Sala found of his mother speaking at a youth movement of the Socialist Party in the 1970s. There is no sound in the original film so Sala tried to restore the missing speech in the film via the aid of a deaf-mute lipreader. When he plays the film to his mother with the reconstructed speech she is embarrassed with her language yet doesn’t distance herself from her socialist beliefs or associating herself with a political movement. The Albanian art writer and critic Stefan Capaliku explains how Sala, ‘enters between the (lost) voice and the (found) figure of his mother, someone who has lived both during communism and political pluralism. He interferes via the reconstruction of lost time, connecting two antagonistic moments.’
Subsequent films made by Sali include, Byrek (2000), which is a 24 minute video showing a traditional Balkan dish, byrek, being made with the recipe written in Albanian on the middle of the screen and Time After Time (2003). His film Give Me The Colours (Dammi i colori) was exhibited at the Tate Modern in London and in 2011, he had a high profile solo exhibition at the Serpentine Galleries.
Anri Sala Byrek (2000)
Whilst in Tirana I tried to locate some of the art spaces in the city which play an essential role in the city’s art scene. Unhappily I didn’t have much luck. On first impressions it seemed that I had perhaps overestimated the possibility of a thriving creative hub in the city. One place I very much wanted to visit, the Tirana Institute of Contemporary Art (T.I.C.A) was no longer in operation when I visited Tirana in December of last year. Considering that T.I.C.A, founded in 2002, was the first center for contemporary art in Tirana and has played a leading role in developing contemporary art in Albania, this was not a good sign. Another art space The Tirana Arts Lab appeared to be in operation and when I visited its webpage an exhibition was taking place, but it seemed to be permanently closed whenever I tried to enter. I later learnt that the owners were away in Germany. Furthermore, I had no luck in finding the Tirana Ekspress cultural centre.
The National Art Gallery of Albania
Yet my stay in Tirana was by no means fruitless. The National Art Gallery of Albania was all in working operation. Situated by the entrance to the museum is a modern white grid installation entitled The Cloud Pavilion designed by Sou Fujimoto. There are over 5000 works of art in the collection. Inside there is a modest room on the ground floor with paintings of portraits and street scenes from the first half of the 20th century. On the next level there are more, larger paintings which are historical and political in subject matter. Surprisingly when I was visiting, there was a large temporary exhibition by Grayson Perry featuring a series of tapestries inspired by the 18th century British artist William Hogarth’s series of works, ‘A Rake’s Progress’.
Sou Fujimoto The Cloud Pavilion
In addition to the Perry exhibition was another temporary in the museum by an Albanian, Kosovo based, artist called Zeni Ballazhi with a body of work across a range of different media. One work features a gilded framed photograph of the skull of an ox with a crown on its head. In another corner of the exhibition is a video projector projecting distorted footage of a human skull x-ray. Elsewhere is a room full of newspapers with a lone car tyre. Ballazhi’s art constantly questions who we are and our relationship with the world. He explains his art as follows; ‘Through artistic creation I seek to rebuild human soul unity, to replenish that soul with energy and tension, in order to transform my relationship with the world. Art addresses the need to introduce all living elements to the world, to enable them to communicate amongst each other, without privileges or hierarchy’.
Zeni Ballazhi The smile of a fake life (2014)
From the National Art Gallery I walk towards the trendy Blloku district located south of the Lana River. On the way I walk past the iconic ‘Pyramid of Tirana’. It once served as the mausoleum for Enver Hoxha until 1991. Today it is derelict and neglected. Ample amounts of graffiti can be found and you can sometimes witness young locals playing on top of the structure.
Pyramid of Tirana
In the Blloku district, I visit a small commercial art gallery called the Kalo Gallery featuring a solo photography exhibition entitled North Korea’s Choreography of Happiness by a Tirana based photographer called Alfred Diebold. The exhibition comprises of photographs Diebold took when he visited North Korea. His photographs offer a fascinating glimpse into a country, virtually off limits to almost all outsiders. The only way to visit this country is as part of a guided tour and even in such a situation one is under immense scrutiny. In spite of these restrictions and limitations, Diebold captures North Korean society debased from some of the propaganda around the country. For example, one photograph shows a group of three locals having a picnic in some park with a greater variety of food than one would expect reading about from such a part of the world. In the photograph I see chicken, bread, apples and some salads too, as opposed to say Oliver Twist style gruel slop.
Photograph taken by Alfred Diebold whilst in North Korea
On the same street is another gallery called the Fab Gallery featuring a solo exhibition by Ardian Isufi entitled Flower Power. The highlight works in this small exhibition space are the large triptych paintings with themes of nature and destruction using bold and lavish amounts of blue, purple and red.
Ardian Isufi The Garden Of Permanent Instability (2016)
The highlight, however, of my time investigating Tirana’s scene involved a meeting the curator and gallery owner Valentina Koca who is a very important figure in the Albanian contemporary art scene and a tireless promoter of promising Albanian contemporary artists via her gallery space, Zeta. Since it was established just over ten years ago, it has played an integral and crucial role in showcasing the works of some of the most gifted Albanian artists. The history of the gallery and all its exhibitions are documented in a handsome hardback book, ‘Zeta: 2007-16’, published in 2016. Nineteen Albanian artists are represented in the book. Albanian modern artist Edi Hila, whom I mentioned earlier, is featured. In fact he has already exhibited three times at the gallery. In the book there are colour photographs of four paintings by Hila; two of which are from 1975. His water colour from that year, Under the Sacks, reminds me of the artist Marc Chagall sharing his loose, surreal and introspective qualities. Each show by Hila at Zeta was curated by Zef Paci, who is an art history professor at the Tirana Academy of Art. One afternoon I met Zef along with Valentina for coffee and tea at a local café in the city. We spoke at length about the history of Albanian art as well as the current art scene in Tirana and the future of the city and Albania in general.
Edi Hila Under The Sacks (1975)
Other Albanian artists in the Zeta book who’s works intrigue me include Albana Shoshi, Enkelejd Zonja and Ervin Berxolli. Shoshi’s painting At The Sea (2008) comprises of a large Albanian family on the beach with two towels suspended from the parasol; of which one represents the flag of the European Union and the other the flag of Albania. On one hand this is a typical painting of an Albanian family on the beach. Yet this is also a political painting too. Albania is not a member of the European Union yet it shares a border with a country that is, Greece. Furthermore, when this painting was created in 2008, the cracks and struggles that the European Union is currently grappling with, had yet to come to the fore.
Albana Shoshi At The Sea (2008)
Enkelejd Zonja is a mixed media artist yet its his hyper realist paintings, which interest me. One of these paintings, In Your Vein (2011), is inspired and influenced by a painting by the Italian master Caravaggio depicting the former Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha pulling up his shirt and vest to expose his right nipple whilst simultaneously grabbing the hand of a member of the public, as if it is imitating a pistol with one finger piercing a deep wound in his torso. It is a painting of high drama and very human with each subject painted in a sensitive and realistic way with no exaggerated mannerism. The three subjects in the painting next to Enver are representations of the so called ‘common man’ and are each painted in a style, which donates to the painting a strong sense of gritty realism; this is the aspect of the painting, which shines for me and I am reminded of another painting by Caravaggio; his 1601 painting Supper At Emmaus in the London National Gallery capturing Jesus with two of his disciples who are both depicted very acutely in all their hardcore material poverty and humanism. The man with his hand under Enver’s grip is dressed in dirty, well-worn and little washed cloths; he could be a factory worker, builder or metal welder perhaps. The older man to his right with his head hunched down appears down and out and downtrodden with a face revealing someone who’s ridden through the heavy grime and rough ride of life and has subsequently been severely conditioned and affected by his experiences.
Enkelejd Zonja In Your Vein (2011)
Ervin Berxolli is also a mixed media artist and in the book there are two photographs of prints on wood entitled From The Cycle Icons (2014). In these works I am reminded of seminal experimental black and white photographs I witnessed in the collection of the Marubi museum in Shkodra. The distortions, various marks and manipulations augment the metaphysical qualities of the works and small discerning nuances morph into something more pronounced and take on a greater role. They become haunting and hard to forgot.
Ervin Berxolli From The Cycle Icons (2014)
There is more to Tirana than what at first meets the eye, but through perseverance and an unyielding curiosity the city and its secrets will slowly be revealed.
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.
1920 painting of the historic Ottoman style Baščarsija district of the city by Doko Mazalić
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.
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.
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.
The Mersad Berber green salon located inside the Bosniak Institute
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.
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.
Joseph Beuys: Ölflasche (100 bottles of olive oil) (1984)
Juan Muñoz: L’Appeso (1998)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Antun Sojat: From the Studio
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.
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.
Gabrijel Jurkić: Blooming Plateau (1914)
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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?
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.
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.
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.
If anyone had a chance to look at my photographs from Belgrade’s Savamala district one could not unreasonably come to the conclusion that Belgrade is art. It may not be an ostentatiously lovely city like Paris or Prague with its magnificent buildings (although there are many impressive buildings here) but it has an atmosphere that is hard to beat. Many people have compared Belgrade with Berlin and for many years Belgrade has been touted as the ‘new Berlin’. I love Berlin too and there are obvious similarities but comparing the two cities is unhelpful. Yet its unavoidable. For many years Berlin was and still is one of the world’s premier cities for artists to reside. It’s close competitors are London and New York yet unlike those two cities Berlin for a long time was a much more affordable city for artists to live. But recently some artists in Berlin have began to feel the pain of increasing rents in the city and thus are forced to seek out other cities. But I digress. I find Belgrade an atmospheric, raw and, at times, an intense city. These are the perfect ingredients for artistic inspiration. A view over Lake Geneva, as nice as it may be, doesn’t quite cut it for me.
Art is everywhere in Belgrade. Not just in the galleries. But in the mixed and diverse architecture of the city’s buildings, in the wealth of street art, and in the air and rhythms of the city. Handsome and regal-like buildings from the age of the Austrian-Hungarian empire can be easily spotted hand in hand with imposing cigarette ash grey Communist era Brutalist blocks. Despite their wealth and history, many are in slow and crumbling decay. Very few are ‘tarted up’. I particularly admire the old yellow Belgrade railway station building at the edge of the city. In that part of the city the pressure is high and its Belgrade’s very own Gare du Nord; flourishing and radiating with warts and all flowers of life. There are no ‘must do’ sites here but the energy is pulsating and pungent. I think the writers Charles Bukowski and Jean Genet would have fallen in love with this neck of the woods.
Mural of The Clash lead singer Joe Strummer by Grupa JNA
Street art bathes all corners of Belgrade. The Savamala district has the lion’s share and you can see one of my other posts here where I document that area with many photographs. I particularly like a street art collective that go by the name “Grupa JNA”. Many of their murals can by found in the Dorcol district. Look out for the murals of Morrissey and Joe Strummer. In Savamala there is a mural of the young Bosnian revolutionary and assassinator of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Gavrilo Princip and probably the most impressive and imposing street art mural in all of Belgrade of a man with his mouth open wide with all his teeth painted as rows of buildings. In his hand is a tree which could pass for a piece of broccoli.
Mural of Gavrilo Princip; the young Bosnian revolutionary who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand
Sadly the Museum Of Contemporary Art in Belgrade is currently closed for renovation works. It’s been closed for some years but hopefully it should be reopening its doors soon. What I originally envisaged to be a large setback regarding my plans to tap into the city’s contemporary art scene has not been much of a hindrance at all since during my time in Belgrade I was very fortunate enough to visit many of the city’s galleries and discover the works of a large number of exciting artists.
Opening at the Remont gallery of a solo exhibition by Serbian artist Goran Stojcetovic
The first gallery I check out in the city is the Remont gallery off Maršala Birjuzova street, which is an important core art gallery in the city for promoting the latest local contemporary art. I am fortunate enough to attend the opening night of an exhibition of works by the Serbian artist Goran Stojcetovic. He is the founder of Art Brut Serbia after the term coined by French artist Jean Dubuffet referring to ‘outsider art’ created by artists working outside of the art world and art institutions. Goran’s signature blue ink works on papers are brilliant, pure and highly idiosyncratic works of art. There are also elements of humour too as can be seen where he ingeniously transforms the front page cover star of some Serbian celebrity gossip magazine into one of his trademark blue Bosch devils. Serbian surrealism at its finest.
Works by Goran Stojcetovic
I catch the tail end of a group exhibition of Hispanic artists entitled Chinese Whispers/An Image, A Memory at an experimental art space called U10 close to Terazije street. Peruvian artist Rudolph Castro’s seven charcoal drawings entitled Walls (2017) is a powerful work of art in the context of the history of brutal Latin American dictatorships and the war and violence throughout the 1990s after the fall of former Yugoslavia. Chilean artist Benjamín Altermatt’s video The Land Which Is Not comprises of a series of old photographs taken in Belgrade accompanied by random sounds with the intention of creating a new real or unreal territory debased from its original identity.
Chinese Whispers group exhibition at the U10 gallery
Walls (2017) by Rudolph Castro
The Land Which Is Not by Benjamín Altermatt
A little further up Terazije towards the city centre, I visit Gallery SULUJ where there is group exhibition of sculpture and installation works entitled Soft Sculpture – Hard Thoughts. Myrsini Artakianou’s Zero Past, Infinite Future is a collection of fragile and organic life forms disjointed but brought together to make their desolation alive. Bleak close up, but as beautiful as the rarest of pearls from a distance. Sonja Hillen’s Thoughttorture is a ‘knitted brain’ in a knitted grey/blue puddle. The third work to catch my vision is a participatory installation entitled Shaping by Danica Bićanić. It is a soft rubber ball-like sculpture which she invites viewers to reshape and remould from its original form.
Zero Past, Infinite Future by Myrsini Artakianou
Thoughttorture by Sonja Hillen
Shaping by Danica Bićanić
South of Terazije off Kralja Milana street is the SKC or Student’s Cultural Centre. Historically this was a very significant institution as this is where Serbian and Yugoslavian conceptual art was born at the start of the 1970s. The famous Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovic was a key artist in that original scene (as was her former pre Ulay partner; the noted Serbian conceptual artist Nesa Paripovic). One of her early landmark and legendary performance art pieces, Rhythm 5, was performed here. For this performance she made a five-pointed star from wood and dowsed it in 100 litres of petrol. She then walked around it, cutting her hair and nails and throwing them into the flames. Whilst it was on fire she proceeded to lie down in the middle of the burning star.. The iconic German artist Joseph Beuys was in the audience and it’s rumoured that he saved her from the growing flames when she lost consciousness. All this awesome history aside, I had very little luck here. There seemed to be nothing happening. The two people at the reception of the centre resonated apathy and indifference, like I was wasting my time coming here.
The SKC (Student’s Cultural Centre)
Rhythm 5 by Marina Abramović
The Savamala district which I’ve mention in another post, has many art spaces (many temporary pop-up spaces it feels) and studios. The creative nexus of the area is the KC GRAD. As well as being a bar and a space for interesting live music and experimental events, there is an exhibition space upstairs. When I visited there was no exhibition on display but the KC Grad is a good place to frequent to meet creative people and establish connections in the area. I haven’t been to the following but from what I’ve read, art spaces to check in the area include Magacin, Gallery KM 8 and Zavod. Although the Savamala is one of the main creative hubs and exciting ‘up and coming’ districts in the city, I had a hard time trying to find some of the galleries I wanted to visit. That’s why I recommend maybe spending some quality time at KC Grad and networking there for insider info and where it’s all at.
The KC Grad
On the outskirts of the city is the Museum of Yugoslavia, which also houses Tito’s mausoleum. When I visited there was a temporary exhibition of black and white photographs documenting Tito’s many trips to Africa. In one photograph a group of young black Africans all in white shirts hold up in the air a placard saying ‘Long Live Tito Man Of Peace’. In another photo Tito’s wife Jovanka is pictured in Ghana dressed in local attire by a group of Ghanaian women. The next photograph to catch my eye shows Tito with the Gaddafi family in Libya sometime in the 1970s. Colonel Gaddafi is kneeling down and smiling on the left whilst Tito is sitting down on the sofa with two of Gaddafi’s sons by his sides.
The Museum of Yugoslavia
Photographs from the Tito In Africa exhibition at the Museum of Yugoslavia
If you ever do make it to the museum, try to allocate some free time to visit the nearby former home of the important Serbian/Montenegrin painter Petar Lubarda. His home has been immaculately restored and contains a solid collection of some of his most significant paintings. Some of his paintings were in very bad condition and even missing after he passed away but they have been restored very well. Lubarda was well known in his lifetime but over time seemed to have faded into almost obscurity. But this museum does a fantastic job in preserving his legacy. The first room I enter contains his striking red paintings. When you enter that room you immediately come face to face with his enormous rectangular painting entitled Man and Beasts from 1964. It is a magnificent painting. Like the Bayeux tapestry blended with the most nightmarish paintings by Goya and the English Romantic painter John Martin. I am in awe of this painting and it would look phenomenal in any spanking blue chip modern art museum. Another brilliant painting by Lubarda on display in another room is a large painting entitled The Battle of Kosovo from 1953. This is probably his most well known painting. The 1389 Battle of Kosovo was a very big influence on much of his work.
Man and Beasts (1964) by Petar Lubarda
Close-up of Man and Beasts
The Battle of Kosovo (1953) by Petar Lubarda
By the Studentski Square park in the centre of the city is a small gallery called Gallery KNU where there is a solo exhibition of paintings entitled Swimmers by Ivana Živić. In her realist and surreal dreamlike paintings, the interior of opulent palatial art museums are flooded in water. In the painting Museum (2017), a young lady in red (yes like the Chris de Burgh song) appears either lifeless like Orphelia in the iconic mid 19th century painting by pre Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais or in a blissful cosmic dream, like the kind of dreams you never want to wake up from. In another painting entitled Red Room (2014), the lines between dreams and reality are increasingly blurred to the point where the subject appears to be leaving her body and the physical world becoming at one with the metaphysical invisible world. It is a profoundly spiritual and powerful painting.
Museum (2017) by Ivana Živić
Red Room (2014) by Ivana Živić
On Belgrade’s main Knez Mihailova high street are a few interesting art spaces. My first port of call is the Zepter Museum. This is an excellent art museum with three floors of modern and contemporary paintings, photography, sculptures and installations by artists from former Yugoslavia. Look out for artist Ljubomir Ljuba Popovic’s epic and ethereal masterpiece Les Signes Du Déluge (2007). Other delights include Steven Knezevic’s off the wall (but firmly on the wall) painting Jitterbug (1966/74) and Vera Bozickovic Popovic’s Horizontal Composition II (1960) painting.
Les Signes Du Déluge (2007) by Ljubomir Ljuba Popovic
Jitterbug (1966/74) by Steven Knezevic
Horizontal Composition II (1960) by Vera Bozickovic Popovic
Afterwards I visit a smaller commercial art gallery on the Knez called Gallery ULUS. There was a solo exhibition of paintings by the artist Marko Antonovic when I visited. His paintings are bold, energetic with hard lashes of hot and cold rays and are reminiscent of the German Expressionist paintings of the Die Brucke movement artists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Paintings by Marko Antonovic
One evening I attended the opening of an exhibition of black and white photographs by the American film director David Lynch entitled Small Stories at the small art gallery of the Cultural Centre of Belgrade on Trg Republike just off the main Knez thoroughfare. His photographs are dense multi dimensional works with several overlapping narratives. Like interpretations of our wildest and most disjointed and unexplainable dreams, these photographs make them tangible. The opening of the exhibition is heaving with people and it’s only later in the night just before the gallery closes and there are less people around that I can freely walk around and look at the photographs undisturbed.
At the opening of the David Lynch photography exhibition Small Stories at the Cultural Center of Belgrade
Hello My Name Is Fred by David Lynch
On the same night there is another opening of a joint exhibition called In The Same Space at the Salon of the Museum of Contemporary Art featuring the artists Selman Trtovac and Vladimir Frelih. Both artists exhibit challenging and ambitious works.
Kat. No 13 041 664 (2005-17) by Vladimir Frelih
Frelih’s Kat. No 13 041 664 (2005-17) is an ongoing project comprising of 183 photos where each photo is a different shade of red. All the photos are individually framed and were developed in different photo studios across Europe over a 12 year time period.
Consequences – Magnetic Brain Stimulation (2017) by Selman Trtovac
Trtovac’s Consequences – Magnetic Brain Stimulation (2017) is a project documenting the artist undergoing a non-invasive magnetic brain stimulation, whilst creating a series of drawings, used to treat people with dementia and also used on pilots of the US army during training to help them improve the speed of their reflexes and reactions. Trtovac’s aim with undergoing this procedure was to tap more acutely into his mind and mental faculties and understand better the relationship between the mind and the creative process. These drawings creating during the procedure, entitled Spiritus Movens (2014), are also featured in the show.
I’ve just returned back to London after having been away in South Africa for five months. For much of the last two months of my time over there, I travelled around large swathes of the country and many of my last blog posts detail my travel experiences over there.
Yet for the first few months of my time in South Africa I was based in the Western Cape, where I spent much of that time working on my latest series of paintings. Below I am enclosing images of the fruits of my creative labour (put your back into boy! – hahaha) which I am enclosing underneath this post.