Sarajevo... and what are we going to do now?!
by Pierre Courtin
A group of young, enthusiastic people from
Amsterdam asked me to write a short text about contemporary art in Bosnia and Herzegovina
today. I have only 48 hours to write it before it will be published. To write well, I will need at least a few weeks because the art scene in BiH is one of the most complex I know in Europe. I will deliberately leave aside a long explanation of the political and economic context of this country; others will explain this better than me.
Let us just remember that Bosnia was recognized as an independent country by the international community on March 6th 1992. This was followed by an atrocious war against the genocidal reek that we thought would never be seen again in Europe. For us Western Europeans, it was happening right next to us, only a few hours travel from most of our capital cities. We have done nothing or almost nothing. We watched them die. Finally, after years of absurd international diplomacy, the war ended in 1995 with the Dayton Peace Agreement that left no chance for Bosnia to rebuild itself properly.
Like many countries, Bosnia was born in war and in the suffering of people who live there. These people have always been committed to living together and defending universal values. The current borders are like the scars of old fights, and let’s be honest, we are still living in a divided country.
And yet during the war, right after the war and also today, the cultural scene of Bosnia and Herzegovina is active and inventive. Music, cinema, theatre, visual arts, poetry and writing; the country is full of interesting and innovating creative persons who are fighting for the arts. It is very hard for most of them but things are happening, more than we think.
Let’s go back to the topic that interests us; contemporary art in Bosnia and Herzegovina today. It is a personal point of view, but I feel that today we are part of a double-edged movement: on one hand, we have the desire to forget nothing of the past. On the other hand we feel the urgent need to think of something else and build the future.
Since I work in BiH, I am particularly interested in memory issues and in artists who explore the complex issue of individual and collective memory. These phenomena summon artists whose sense of belonging to a country is an issue: some of them have had to migrate at some point, physically or mentally. Besides, Bosnia as a country remains an unresolved issue. Personal and collective memory are the point of convergence where questions are raised, where certain answers confront each other, where words, images and ideas are born, where the meaning of memories surfaces, the meaning of concrete documentation material comes to life and emerge as the building blocks of a metaphorical balance sheet on the current state of affairs. Memory is like a second nation that overlaps with the real country. It offers multiple angles of refraction. Most of the artists I am working with were hit by the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina during their childhood or their youth. They are going back to it mentally, both by remembrance and by projection; memory is also a thing which informs the present and determines the future.
So here we are in a sense making a “gesture of remembrance”, which is necessarily manifold and fragmentary, and gives birth to works produced during a post-war era, where the country’s institutions are barred from studying history, doing justice, reconciling memories, and building a shared future. Artists are unquestionably part of the avant-garde of a civil society determined to shoulder these tasks, taking the lead ahead of the ruling powers and administration, but they do so with tools that extend far beyond politics. Their task is to offer new ways of perceiving reality by exploring what shapes it: its memory, its persistence, and the elements it suppresses.
The gesture of remembrance obeys the same principle of collective singularity and fractal realism. The artworks gathered are not judgements, they are not monuments to the dead, nor are they hackneyed statements on things past. With their sharp focus, and by building a close-knit network of essential, sensitive elements, they testify to a nationwide work-in-progress. They explore places of memory which also serve as fields of self-projection, public and private spaces, archetypal and mediatised images, the body of the artist, random objects, ghosts, and symbols of the recent past.
Today, however, it seems that a young generation of artists from Bosnia and Herzegovina have the desire to get away from these issues, to put the war aside, and to think about its future.
This is something that seems new to me, and today it seems essential to support. It is necessary to leave the young Bosnians the possibility of inventing themselves. They are the masters of their destinies, and it belongs only to them to succeed. And of course, they will.
To conclude, let’s remind ourselves that Winston Churchill rightly said that the Balkans produce more stories than we can consume. He was right, and he is undoubtedly even more right today.
We’ll see what the future holds for us. Do not passively expect it, but invent it the way we want it to be! The future depends only on us; there is no reason to complain, it is a too easy position!
Pierre Courtin, 2017
Pierre Courtin (1976, Lille) owner of Duplex100m2 (2004-2017), based in Sarajevo.