In Conversation: Contemporary Balkan Art in Post-Brexit London

What might contemporary Balkan art, informed by the experiences of fragmentation, economic uncertainty and rapid cultural and political change, contribute to our understanding of the wider changes happening elsewhere in the world in the wake of Brexit and Trump? Ana Russell-Omaljev, PhD, Creative Director of Contemporary Balkan Art (CoBA), on why contemporary Balkan art might be more pertinent now than ever.


 

INTERRUPTION

GROUP EXHIBITION

6TH APRIL – 11TH MAY 2017

LIBRARY on St Martin’s Lane, London, UK

The Interruption exhibition seeks to reflect the various forms of interruption which characterize the Balkan transitional period including fragmentation, economic uncertainty and rapid cultural and demographic changes. How is this reflected in the works of the participating artists?

CoBA’s Interruption presents social commentary together with a humorous take on the absurdities of modern life. Carefully selected artists deal reflectively with cultural, political and social ‘interruptions’ affecting the societies which they inhabit.  To give just a few examples, Mirza Dedac tackles both subjects of self-reflection of his multi-national identity and the relationship between the digital world of social media and the ‘analogue world’.  The works of Emir Sehanovic Esh explore the pagan tradition, superstition and the occult and include flea market pictures of Bosnian child brides. Jovana Mladenovic’s photographic work deals with the forgotten history of WWII monuments across former Yugoslavia. As was also said of Contemporary Balkan Art’s most recent exhibition in December 2016-January 2017 at Gallery 106 in Fulham, the humor and absurdity which is present is combined with a reflective darkness.

Marija Sevic
Marija Sevic

Brexit, the Trump presidency and the rise of Europe’s far right have brought the ‘Balkan experience’ of fragmentation, uncertainty and dramatic political change closer to ‘the mainstream’. Does the Interruption exhibition express and illuminate something of that experience, something people who are interested in art in London might better relate to now?

Art is there to encourage reflection, invites questions and seeks to deepen understanding. Art in the United Kingdom is increasingly politically aware, making reference to refugees, Brexit, the history of colonialism, truth and reality among other topics. Despite the difficulties facing the countries of former Yugoslavia, and in many ways because of them, the Balkan transitional experience can offer insights into fundamental issues of political ideology and identity. For example, our experience of division and feelings of displacement may give answers, in part at least, to the question of how Brexit and Trumps’ presidency will affect ordinary people. The upside, artistically speaking, is that cultural and political isolationism fostered the development of a generation of Balkan creatives who think outside the ‘box’ of commercial international trends. CoBA seeks to interrupt and disrupt the London art scene with their fresh, sometimes unsettling, work. This exhibition brings sixteen artists to the UK, including Lidija Delic, Aleksandar Dimitrijevic, Nemanja Nikolic, Marija Sevic, Romanian artist Dragos Burlacu and more than forty works including paintings, sculptures, photographs, videos, prints and graphics, making it one of the largest exhibitions of its type in London.

Mirza Dedac, Identity
Mirza Dedac, Identity

What are some of the general influences behind the Interruption exhibition that make it definitively ‘Balkan’?

From the inception of COBA in spring 2016, our aim has been to present the best young creatives from the Balkan to the United Kingdom, whilst avoiding the obvious stereotypes of the region, and to show that the Balkans can equal any other region in the World in terms of culture, art, design and intellectual output. We are confident that our artists, by speaking the universal language of art to international audiences, will turn these stereotypical perceptions upside down. Petar Mirkovic, for example, will showcase his impressive charcoal drawings that connect shady gangster underworld iconography with Hollywood hyperrealism and urban mythology. Like many of the featured artists, Petar’s works are influenced by surrealism with the result that they are, at the same time, both universal in appeal and also unmistakably Balkan.

Petar Mirkovic
Petar Mirkovic

The Balkans are home to Marina Abramovic, arguably the most famous living performance artist in the world. Do you think Abramovic’s international visibility has increased curiosity about art from the Balkans and, if so, why do you think she arouses such curiosity?

CoBA will host a discussion of Marina Abramovic’s autobiography ‘Walk Through Walls‘ on 11 May. We are eager to discuss her Method, her experiences as an artist and how her work responds to culture and society. Abramovic’s work, to a degree, reflects Balkan Pagan culture and conversely, she has pushed the boundaries of her physical capabilities in installations resembling quasi-religious rituals: her body was frozen on ice; she gave the audience the freedom to harm her in her famous work ‘Rhythm O‘ in Naples in the 1974; and nearly died in Rhythm 5 in a blazing, petrol soaked five-pointed wooden star, an echo of the communist red star. We will dig deeper into her comfortable Yugoslav upbringing, the 1970s art scene in Belgrade, and not to forget, spirituality and energy and clairvoyants.

Dragos Burlacu
Dragos Burlacu

Brutalist architecture, especially from socialist Yugoslavia, is something audiences outside of the Balkans seem to have been particularly drawn to. Why do you think this is, and are representations of this aesthetic incorporated into the Interruption exhibition?

In part, British public is drawn to Yugoslav modernist and brutalist architecture, because of important role that brutalist architecture played in post-war Britain. Interruption will showcase Jovana Mladenovic’s project Monumental Fear which documents 25 commemorative WWII monuments all over the region of Serbia that create the web of memory of victory over fascism. Jan Kempenaers’ much talked-about 2010 book Spomenik, presented images of such monuments, or spomeniks, in isolation and without any explanation of their origin or meaning, leading to the mistaken identity of these monuments. Monumental Fear seeks to quell that controversy with explanation, but opens deeper questions of how and why Yugoslav postmodernism differs from Soviet social-realism, why the monuments demonstrated such abstract symbolism and what they represented for local communities, schools and Yugoslav society more broadly. Monuments play a big role in national remembrance and the fact they are forgotten even by the inhabitants of nearby towns, signifies in what way partisan’s Yugoslavia is remembered. CoBA wants to contribute to the discussion with our Artist in Conversation event with Jovana Mladenovic on 25 April.

Partisan Kosmaj Detachment
Partisan Kosmaj Detachment

On 6th April CoBA will present Interruption at LIBRARY on St Martin’s Lane, showcasing 40 individual works from 16 Balkan artists including paintings, sculptures, photographs, prints and graphics. Interruption’s aim is to bring the Balkan’s rich artistic philosophy to Great Britain and will feature new works by artists from Romania, Montenegro, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Bosnia. These artists are the brightest stars of the contemporary Balkan art scene and are currently breaking into the American art market.

Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia. https://www.instagram.com/lynch.lily/

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