For many years, Sarajevo suffered from the after-effects of the Bosnian war. Now, driven by a small but committed art scene, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina is awakening to new life.
There it stands, a concrete monstrosity on the banks of the Miljacka river. Squatting on a red-paved square, its roof sloping upward at the edges like mighty wings, the Skenderija Cultural and Sports Center is pure Socialist-style Brutalism. It was built in 1984, the year the XIV Olympic Games were held in Yugoslavia. Back then, ice skaters competed for medals here; today, white smoke from a shisha bar wafts along ground-floor passageways, past crowded cafés and rows of empty shops.
This is remote Grbavica district, where Jusuf Hadžifejzović has his gallery, Charlama Depot. Dressed all in black and sporting boxy sunglasses over a mighty Karl Marx memorial beard, he disappears into the White Cube, his 200-square-meter realm of neon-lit contemporary sculptures, paintings, videos and photos.
We cannot spend our life in the war, we must create something new
Hadžifejzović, 61, has influenced the Sarajevan art scene like no other. In the summer of 1995, when the end of the Bosnian war was still uncertain, he returned from exile to find his home plundered, all of his works gone. Just three books still lay there, one each on the German artists Blinky Palermo and Joseph Beuys and a third on the history of painting in the United States. “I could sense the catastrophe that had lurked here just before I returned,” says Hadžifejzović, but instead of dwelling on the past, he soon started looking ahead. “We artists cannot spend our life in the war,” he proclaimed, “we must create something new.” Sarajevo was the perfect place, he recalls. “Young artists from Europe love the city; for them, it’s better than it ever was before.” Those who approach Hadžifejzović inevitably join his network.
Today, 22 years after the war, the gallerist looks out from his apartment onto restaurants, their terraces honey-yellow in the afternoon sunlight, and cafés that serve espresso and baklava. It’s a veritable picture of peace, but bullet holes still gape in the walls of the apartment blocks beyond the terraces. Sarajevo is more than an open-air war museum, though: Life in the city has reawakened. The Baščaršija, the Ottoman old town with its minarets and kebab restaurants, has been perfectly restored. The souvenir shops in the tiny, brown wooden cabins look straight out of Bavaria. Modern shopping malls are springing up on Ferhadija high street, and Arab tourists and European backpackers abound. From over 200 mosques, muezzins’ calls to prayer fill the air already fragrant with ćevapčići (long, grilled meatballs) and hookah.
Creatives are flocking to the city at the foot of the Bjelašnica Mountains. Bosnian returnees take inspiration from themes such as borders, identity and alienation. European artists have followed, bringing new impressions and an international feel. Together, the small, devoted group is painting a new picture of Sarajevo.
Hadžifejzović was already a member of the avant-garde under Tito – far removed from the well-behaved art subsidized by the state. Without a cent of funding, he organized Yugoslavia’s first national exhibition of modern art, studied under Joseph Beuys and Gerhard Richter in Germany and seemed poised to begin a promising career. Then came the war and with it exile, and ultimately, his return and a new beginning. “No one wanted to open a gallery in this city,” says Hadžifejzović, making circular movements with his espresso cup over the work of two Swedish photographers, “so I did.” Now he is planning new exhibitions in Sarajevo, opening doors and cultivating contacts with artists.
Just down the street, Pierre Courtin runs the Duplex100m2 gallery in a converted apartment in an old building. Inside, herringbone parquet floors and white walls; outside the windows, narrow bridges spanning the calm waters of the Miljacka, and beyond the river, Wilhelminian facades. Courtin, 41, says he is the first European who came to Sarajevo after the war and stayed, instead of leaving again, like many other young people did. “At first, journalists and other artists would drop by, wanting to know who was this crazy guy who had moved to Sarajevo,” says Courtin, a Parisian. While studying at the Paris Academy of Art, he decided he would open a gallery for six months in just ten square meters of space in Sarajevo, a city that at the time was still being bombed and was virtually comatose. Those six months turned into 17 years.
“We artists are a tribe in our own right,” says Courtin. He puts his tribe at around 300 members, a negligible number compared with that of his native country. But to him, it’s an advantage: “The city is like a big village. After three months, you know every artist in town. Distances are short, there’s less stress, and each year, Europe shows more interest in Bosnian art.”
Courtin has an exhibition opening at the Duplex this evening. He leaps back and forth between the makeshift reception counter and his visitors, a slender man with combed-back hair and a lit cigarette permanently in his hand. The atmosphere in the Duplex is casual bohemian; the red wine flows and endless discussions continue into the evening. Later, everyone goes on to a concert or a bar. Hadžifejzović is there, too, of course, enthroned on the sofa like the chief of the tribe – but not unapproachable. In Sarajevo, most people are on an equal footing. “Construction worker or professor, we all drink our coffee together. Go to a bar by yourself and 15 minutes later, you’ve made three new friends,” says Courtin.
Like Hadžifejzović, Courtin raves about the annual Sarajevo Film Festival in August. “We’ll have 80 000 visitors! Bars and hotels will be full to bursting, and for me, it will be seven days of virtually no sleep.” Everyone in Sarajevo makes new contacts, and artists sell more work than any other time. But Courtin is optimistic anyway: “More and more Europeans are coming, fascinated by the city. For them, everything is in place, all of the jigsaw pieces are laid out on the table.” Sarajevo has shaken off the war, and there are enough enthusiastic people with the will to piece the puzzle back together.
A day of food, drink and art in Sarajevo
Zlatna Ribica bar is furnished with velvet sofas and decorated with kitsch and antiques.
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Dine snug-style at The Four Rooms of Mrs Safija amid brick walls, wood floors and heavy drapery.
During the war, the only way out of the Serbian-occupied district was by tunnel, as can be seen here.
Ars Aevi was founded during the war. Its collection of modern art is a symbol of reconciliation.
The Academy of Fine
Arts regularly puts on festivals and arranges exhibitions for visitors.
The Heart of Sarajevo goes to the best film from southeastern Europe At the Sarajevo Film Festival (Aug. 10–17).