Much has happened in the past century. Sarajevo’s European integration had already begun with the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Austro-Hungarian Empire several decades before that fateful day in June, 1914. But Sarajevo never left its eastern and oriental influences behind. The Ottomans, ruling for over 400 years, had created the cultural footprint that still marks city today in the architecture of the old town, its cuisine, and unique worldview.
This at times confusing timeline mirrors the cultural DNA of this fascinating city. It is a layer cake of art, with each slice providing a unique taste and style of both east and west. The city is physically aligned in the same manner, running east to west along the Miljacka River, tucked below the towering peaks of the surrounding mountains that hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Film, theatre and music have been the traditional artistic trademarks of Sarajevo. They are the most visible products of the city’s creative identity. Danis Tanovic took home an Oscar for his film No Man’s Land in 2002 and was again shortlisted for the Oscar’s best foreign film for 2013. This year, his film, Death in Sarajevo won the Berlinale’s Silver Bear. Jasmila Zbanic won the Golden Bear at the Berlinale in ’06 for her film Grbavica, and renowned theatre director Haris Pasovic has won major awards from Edinburgh to Singapore. Aleksandar Hemon, both one of Sarajevo’s and America’s most heralded contemporary writers, won the National Book Award for his autobiography The Book of My Lives.
What few know of, however, is the brewing talent in contemporary art. As Duplex100m2 Gallery curator Pierre Courtin describes ‘There is a great disconnect here between art and economy. The contemporary art scene in Sarajevo is almost invisible yet the quality of art is easily on the level of any major European art scene. It’s easier to see Bosnian art in Berlin or Belgrade than in Sarajevo.’
Despite the diversity and richness of Sarajevo’s cultural scene, its very existence resembles the similar struggle for survival the country faced in the early 1990’s. Stagnated by political quagmire and a downward spiraling economy, Sarajevo’s cultural institutions find themselves in a battle for their lives. The National Museum, the first cultural institution of its kind in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has had its doors shut for over a year now due to lack of funding. The National Arts Gallery and other key symbols of the country’s cultural heritage face similar fates.
Sarajevan artists take nothing lying down, though. There is an inbred sense of resistance to destructive forces. That resistance is often most fierce in the cultural form. The Sarajevo Film Festival, now one of Europe’s must-do festivals, was born in 1994 in the midst of the longest siege in modern European history. SARTR, the Sarajevo War Theatre, produced plays, including Waiting for Godot with Susan Sontag, that were enacted by candlelight under heavy bombardment.
It is that spirit, marked from the traumas and triumphs of city under siege that has defined Sarajevo’s cultural scene today. Even if it is sometimes difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel due to the closures of major cultural institutions, it’s more than worth it to scratch the surface and dig for the many hidden treasures that Sarajevo holds.
Sarajevo has this undefinable charm to it. It is a place that, for me, twenty years after my arrival to a city under siege, quickly began to feel like home and I proudly call home today. It is a small but bustling capital with a café culture unmatched in southeast Europe. What pubs are for London, cafes are for Sarajevo – two fold. There are more café’s per capita than any other city in the region. The city takes its coffee seriously, whether it be a strong Bosnian/Turkish kafa, an Italian ristretto, or a classic cappuccino. Over coffee is where business deals are made, friends chat to catch up, the rituals of courting takes place, or artists brainstorm over their next creation. The artsy crowds tend to gravitate towards venues like Kriterion or Boris Smoje Gallery where they can not only get a coffee or stiff drink but also double as exhibition spaces.
Strolling through Sarajevo’s Old Town ‘Bascarsija’ towards the city centre is quite literally a journey through time. Wandering through Bascarsija’s craftsmen’s quarters one will find a labyrinth of small side streets with traditional coppersmiths hammering away at Turkish coffee sets reminiscent of Istanbul’s old trading quarters. The silver and goldsmiths of Zlatarska Street, highlighted by the unique jewelry creations of the Sofic family, have been praised from New York to Paris. There are also a handful of young artists, whether painters or handicraftsmen, carving a living for themselves in Sarajevo’s most bustling tourism area.
Saraci Street, the main artery in the Old Town where everything feeds off of, eventually leads to Ferhadija, where the narrow, stone streets transform into a wide promenade lined by secessionist architecture with modern store fronts that pays tribute to the Hapsburg’s four-decade reign in this part of the world. Many of the contemporary arts galleries are located in the mid-section of town, including Duplex100m2 on Obala Kulina Bana Street , the 11/07/95 Gallery next to the Cathedral, and the Sarajevo Centre for Contemporary Art. The Duplex100m2 Gallery has been invited by the Galerie du Jour Agnes b. in Paris to curate a 20 artist strong exhibition of Bosnian art called Memory Lane in June and July of this year, including installations from Maja Bajevic and Mladen Miljanovic. Courtin plans to bring this exhibition back to Sarajevo after a successful Paris debut in hopes of jumpstarting the lagging appreciation of the country’s superb contemporary artists by the powers that be. For the centennial commemoration, Duplex100m2 will host installations by Sejla Kameric and Radenko Milak in Sarajevo during the month of June.
Ars Aevi Gallery is located in Dom Mladi in the Skenderija Centre, the former press centre for the Winter Olympics. It is home to the largest and most valuable art collection in the Balkans and possibly all of Central Europe. During the conflict, dozens of world renowned artists rallied behind Sarajevo in a show of support. The collection, numbering in the hundreds, is highlighted by artists such as Marina Abramovic and Bruce Nauman. The idea was that the donations were to precede the opening of a new contemporary arts gallery. That project never materialized and after years of sitting in basements gathering dust, at least part of the collection has finally seen the light of day at Ars Aevi. Unfortunately, this gallery too is only sporadically open due to the economic woes that continually burden Bosnia’s art scene.
Charlama Depot Gallery, run by who many consider to be the father of contemporary art in Sarajevo, Jusuf Hadzifejzovic, is just a floor down. Literally across the hall is Sarajevo’s cult gallery Collegium Artisticum. With their new curator, Branka Vujanovic, this pre-war contemporary art powerhouse is beginning to emerge as the premiere exhibition space in the city. Although both are plagued by funding shortages, they have braved the storm and managed to keep their doors open. For now.
When I first arrived over two decades ago, the city was literally in shambles. It has risen from the ashes with a phoenix like ascent. Much of that I would attribute to the artistic soul of Sarajevo. The Sarajevo experience is gritty, raw and real one. Its art scene very much reflects that reality. They may not be the best at packaging, marketing, and curating their creations but if one looks hard enough the rewards most certainly outweigh the effort. The creative industry is one of the city’s most undervalued assets. Despite the negligence of the government in supporting the arts, the cultural front that is Sarajevo’s art scene understands the adage of Avigdoor Pawsner all too well “If you’re looking for hell, ask an artist. If you don’t find an artist, you’re already in hell.”