Urban Text, This Place Called Balkans

Introduction

Through the prism of urban space, the exhibition Urban Text — literally urban fabric in French — reveals the complexity of the Balkans as a multicultural territory with shifting definitions.

From the relics of the Ottoman Empire to the scars left by 20th century wars, cities have become a palimpsest of consecutive individual or collective rewritings of history and representations. Over time, the various political and social transformations of the region have left their mark on its architecture and monuments, through construction, concealment and destruction.

Inspired by memories and current events to create intimate, critical or dreamlike works, this selection of artists working in the Balkans offers a powerful and delicate take on the region. They underline the historical density of South East Europe, as well as the diverse influences that have shaped this region for centuries — as reflected in its peoples.

In a post-dictatorship — and post-conflict context for some countries — contemporary issues related to the democratic transition and the affirmation of single cultural identities are at the heart of the new narratives occupying the public space, now considered a shared space of freedom. The fifteen artists gathered in the exhibition Urban Text, This Place Called Balkans invite us to explore this vast field of possibilities.

To discover

551.35 – Geometry of Time, by Lana Čmajčanin
Merry Ramadan, by Stefano Romano
Bosanski ćilim, by Dženan Hadžihasanović (building’s façade)

Bosanski ćilim, de Dženan Hadžihasanović © Marc Domage

Rethinking Socialism? Different Contexts, Different Approaches

During the Cold War, despite shared Marxist ideology, strong political frictions burdened the region: with non-aligned Yugoslavia on one side, and Albania, Bulgaria and Romania on the other. From the mid-1960s, the possibility for Yugoslav citizens to travel without a visa, the large number of Gastarbeiters (« guest workers » from West Germany), and the rise of international tourism, resulted in the country’s growing cultural openness to the Western world. The difference with Eastern Bloc countries is especially discernable in terms of monument policy.

In 1952, Yugoslavia turned its back on Socialist realism in the artistic field and ideology was embodied in abstract or symbolic monuments celebrating resistance fighters’ triumph over fascism and the memory of its victims. These were erected on battlefields, in concentration camps and in places of victory against the German army. At the same time, in Albania, a cult of personality was created. Numerous monumental statues in the style of socialist realism flourished in the cities, glorifying Enver Hoxha, Stalin, Lenin, Marx and Engels. The regime was sending a clear message to the population: banned from practicing any religion, this was a strong demonstration of which figures they must venerate. 

Further political changes took place in the 1990s. The Federated Republics reassessed their cultural heritage to differentiate themselves from Yugoslavia. New memorial policies emerged and became a significant tool in the construction of these nation-states. Public commissions shifted, socialist monuments were destroyed, removed or forgotten, while new monuments filled the need for alternative narratives. Artists reacted to this, restating the importance of preserving the memory of the resistance against fascism, but also the need to recontextualize monuments glorifying rulers who trampled their citizens’ human rights.  

Milena Dragicevic Sesic

To discover

Leaders, by Ledia Kostandini
• Drawings and installation by Mrdjan Bajić
Restaging Monument, by Luiza Margan
Monument, by Igor Grubić
We don’t need another hero, by Alban Muja

© Marc Domage

After Socialism: A Transition Blighted by Confusion and Corruption 

The establishment of multiparty democracies in these countries is a long and complex process. Citizens’  expectations and their desire for change were quickly replaced by disillusionment and cynicism. Massive unemployment generated a vast black market and grey economy, leading to strong social inequalities. The population turned to the capitals where the number of unemployed inhabitants grew rapidly. The kiosk thus became the symbol of a changing city, popping up everywhere, on first floors or in the basements of buildings, along rivers, in parks and public spaces. Mostly clandestine goods were sold at kiosks: cigarettes, drinks and all sorts of gadgets. 

From the 2000s onwards, this « kioskisation » gave way to real estate investors who developed housing and office spaces in neighbourhoods that lacked the adequate infrastructure (access, parking, etc.). The impoverished middle classes sold their homes to developers in exchange for two apartments in the property they were building. Politicians saw these « towers » as an opportunity to illustrate their success, and municipalities granted building permits regardless of regulations, while corruption led to modifications in  urban planning to authorize high-rise buildings. These investors did not issue architectural calls for tender, not even for mega architectural projects in the city center. They thus began to reshape the region’s cityscapes, which have become increasingly similar to one another.

At the same time, anti-liberal populist leaders are emerging and introducing new national narratives. They are redesigning large public squares and erecting monuments following a policy of « antiquation » in Macedonia, « illyrization » in Albania, and « medievalization » in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Milena Dragicevic Sesic

To discover

Bigger than life, by Adnan Softić
What are you looking at ?, by Ivan Šuletić

© Marc Domage

Women Artists in Bosnia and Herzegovina After the War 

Over the past twenty-seven years, Bosnia and Herzegovina has redefined its cultural identity, shedding the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia to become a democratic, liberal and capitalist society. This process has led to a radical transformation of its socio-political organization and the rapid establishment of new influences from both the West and the East. 

In 1997, after the siege of Sarajevo, more than 200 artists wished to take part in the exhibition organized by the Soros Center for Contemporary Art. With only a handful of the twelve pre-war galleries left and established artists living in exile, this was an opportunity for the younger generation of artists to explore the consequences of the war. Themes such as trauma, identity, freedom (for women and men) and memory become prominent. Mediums vary, combining video, installation, photography, hypertext, conceptual art, mixed media and site-specific works, all strongly influenced by socio-political and post-war issues.  

In this context, a vibrant female art scene has emerged. Artists are exploring topics such as space, trauma, memory, and women’s new roles in a still strongly patriarchal society. Through performance, conceptual art, and video, they address collective emancipation, women’s liberation, and minority oppression. Often using the female body as an artistic tool, they seek to empower women while calling attention to their state of oppression and mistreatment. Through their works exhibited worldwide, these artists highlight the context of their changing country in order to raise awareness, instigate change for future generations, and heal the lasting trauma caused by recent wars. 

Senka Ibrisimbegovic

To discover

Red, by Šejla Kamerić
Frei, by Šejla Kamerić
Woman with a Candle, by Lana Čmajčanin
Viva la Vida, ny Selma Selman

© Marc Domage

Writing, Erasing and Rewriting Space Through Urbanism and Architecture

It is difficult to fully comprehend contemporary concepts surrounding urbanism and architecture without first understanding the significance of cultural identity. Architecture reflects the specific cultural identity of a region. It thus represents an inevitable and ongoing process, which labels spaces in terms of symbolic identification with memory and territory.

Located at the crossroads of various cultures from continental Europe and the Mediterranean, the Balkans are witnessing a radical transformation of their socio-political organization, while being subjected to new rapidly established influences in the region. Contemporary urban areas are visually ambiguous and hardly coincide with established cultural patterns. As a result, the notion of « place » is regularly subject to reinterpretation. Different outlooks and doubts are expressed through various means of intervention in space, including the persistent and evolving notion of modernization in the broadest sense. The urban environment’s appearance is reshaped almost daily by different socio-political groups who essentially project their aspirations onto the emerging architectural ensembles. These transformations have long-term effects on the process of creating a specific cultural identity.

Today, this sensitive issue deserves special attention, especially in countries where a transition process is still ongoing. It is necessary to answer the right questions: How is the identity of a given space determined? In what ways do architecture and urbanity influence the creation of cultural identity? Finally, how does a specific cultural identity become sustainable both locally and globally?

Senka Ibrisimbegovic

To discover

The Residual effect, by Yane Calovski

© Marc Domage

A Whirl of Shapes and Colors

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 also put an end to the hardships inflicted by the single political party in Albania, leading to freedom in the public space, in individual expression and in political opinions. The population had to rapidly adapt to a neoliberal system. Thus, contemporary Albania feels like it has been traversed by a whirlwind of opinions, forms and colors. The capital, Tirana, has become an open-air museum of contemporary art and architecture of the greatest eclecticism.

The country experienced a dictatorship based on a specific interpretation of Marx and Lenin. Well-established by the mid-1950s, this interpretation combined a Stalinist approach with nationalist practices aimed at strengthening the nation culturally, environmentally and socially. In terms of culture, the regime’s understanding of emancipation went hand in hand with homogenization and bans, including bans on religion — which was considered to be an oppressor of the poor and of women and children. In terms of public space, this meant more urbanization, security, cleanliness, green spaces, infrastructure and renovation of local heritage. However, movement of persons was entirely handled by the state. The regime could also arbitrarily decide the destruction and repurposing of religious buildings or even of entire regions.

Today, most of the younger generation has no recollection of this authoritarian period, no memory of the neighboring conflicts. Instead, they are confronted with a disparate political and cultural heritage, which they are still struggling to navigate. Yet these dissonances — reflected in the diversity of Albania’s beliefs and non-beliefs, in its mountainous landscapes and in the languages spoken along its Mediterranean coast — are increasingly seen as an opportunity for creativity and innovation.

Falma Fshazi

To discover

Kumbima, by Kumbima
• Let Us Meet In Between, by Ledia Kostandini

© Marc Domage

Between Art, History and Hope! 

Can the Balkans be understood through an emotionless and distant analysis of its intersections, contradictions, borders, limits, circulations, individuals, groups and grey areas? Is there, as Hayden White asserts, an element of fiction in all historical narratives? Is any synthesis temporary? 

How does public space reflect this?   

Following the Second World War and the establishment of totalitarian regimes in different countries across the region, an unfortunate confusion between equality of opportunity and absence of inequality was maintained. The majority of the Balkans experienced an organization of space directed by a single party. The period of transition — shifting from a system that imposed meticulous urban planning, and enforced morality through discipline, to a democratic and pluralist system — was too intense to truly consider new spatial, cultural, social and political infrastructures. Not to mention the memory of the wars was still too recent. This has led to different spheres existing side by side without really interacting: the intimate and family sphere reassures and protects, the collective sphere and society bring individuals together, the political sphere manages institutions.

Throughout the exhibition, the artists have created a dialogue between these spheres to invent common spaces rich with diversity. Between art, history and hope, they are rewriting representations of the Balkans as an invitation to rethink the region’s future.

Falma Fshazi

To discover

• No Wise Fish Would Escape Without Flying, by Driant Zeneli
Until a Breath Of Air, by Marko Tadić

© Marc Domage