Saluting the Artists of Sarajevo
by Nigel Osborne
The Sarajevo winter festival has a few more days to run, but it has already been
overtaken by spring. There is bright sunshine and the fizz of the champagne air
that blows through Bosnia at this time of year. The peace is fragile and a little unreal: I am awakened by heavy automatic fire early in the morning on the
feast of Bajram, and a nearby mortar sends my coffee spinning. But the city is
transformed since I visited it last year in the darkest days of the siege. The
streets and squares are full of people, couples are necking and children and
dogs race around.
The evenings are still impenetrably black, with electricity only occasionally in
certain parts of town. I stumble through broken masonry and find the home of
artist Edo Numankadic. The family is crowded into a dim room. The flat has been
damaged by mortars several times, and embedded in a pine cupboard is a lump of
shrapnel which flew through the window when my friend Zlatko Lagumdzija, then
deputy Prime Minister, was badly wounded by a shell as he passed by.
Edo is from a "Muslim" family, and his wife is a mixture of "Croat" and "Serb",
but people in Sarajevo despise these labels, and are sick of claptrap about ethnicity and nation. "In the war we have become disciples of Duchamp", Edo tells
me, "living our lives like art. We have learnt to exist at the very edge of
things: of our resources, inventiveness and mortality".
We take a small gas lamp to look at some of the pictures: there is a war diary
of small abstract paintings, posters printed on the back of old JNA maps for
lack of paper, and a superb polyptych. In the flickering light, the background
seems a grainy white-grey, like karst. The figures remind me of the mystical
marks on the standing stones of Herzegovina. "I think art did quite a lot for
the city. It gave people some energy, the feeling of still being civilized, and
perhaps a little bit of self-respect".
Edo is one of the artists of Galerija Obala's Witnesses of Existence exhibition.
He tells me how important support from Edinburgh has been. Richard Demarco's
messages of encouragement and invitations sparked off the idea of trying to tour
the work. Then there were the visits of Edinburgh Direct Aid. He remembers meeting Christine Witcutt. They had parted, saying they hoped to survive to see each
other again. The next day Christine was shot dead by a Serb sniper as the convoy
drove past the PTT building on the road out of Sarajevo.
The story of Obala is worth telling. The Obala Theatre was destroyed by shelling
early in the war. The ruins became a public short-cut to avoid the snipers, so
Miro Purivatra, director of the theatre, decided to turn it into an exhibition
space. The results were extraordinary. Often objects and images were created
from the materials of destruction, like Mustafa Skopljak's stalagmites of shat-
tered glass and dolls' faces buried in sand, or Ante Juric's installations of
debris, mud and water. Here, it is as if the legacy of Beuys has becÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ¸ome a dark
prophecy, but the processes of the work are modernism in reverse. This has nothing to do with fragmentation, deconstruction or the atomic blast that scatters
meaning and reference. It is integrative and reconstructive: an almost sacred
act of nurturing and healing.
From this beginning came the Witnesses of Existence exhibition. Sarajevo-Edin-
burgh, the group formed to support Demarco's invitation, sparred for months with
the Foreign Office to bring the exhibition to Britain. John Smith, Paddy Ashdown
and senior conservative MPs supported the invitation, but the Government
dithered and stonewalled.
In the meantime, Witnesses of Existence was wrecked by mortar fire on Christmas
Day 1993. Purivatra narrowly escaped with his life, and as part of the same
macabre gift from the hills, the Youth Theatre and the eccentric, bohemian Cafe
Ragusa (one of the very few cafes to have stayed open throughout the siege) were
But art is long, and fascism and feebleness short-lived. The exhibition was rebuilt, Purivatra won support from the UN, and Witnesses of Existence has just
opened to ecstatic notices at the Kunsthalle and will soon travel to Scotland.
The role of theatre in the war has been well documented: from Hair to Pasevic's
National Theatre and Sontag's Waiting for Godot. But there are other stories to
be told. In the Kamerni Theatre, I bump into the bear-like figure of actor Miki
Trifunov, grey beard under black stetson. Miki is a "Serb" and has been the
sparkle in the eye of Sarajevo bohemia during the siege just as he was in happi-
er times. He presses a cassette into my hand. The rich voice has a sadness I
have not heard before. There are poems of Kostic, Andric, Dizdar, Kipling and
Brecht, and an introduction offering the readings as modest tokens of the human
spirit. I notice he has written a dedication for me on the insert: "For all the
things I do not want, I only had to be born".
The most vivid role in the war has fallen to my fellow musicians. After the
breadqueue massacre, in May 1992, the cellist Vedran Smailovic put on his white
tie and tails and played the Albinoni Adagio in the middle of the street.
According to many, this marked the beginning of the civil resistance movement in
the city. The image of Smailovic playing among the ruins and in the graveyards
under sniper fire became an icon for a city that chose to see itself as digni-
fied, cultured and European.
A number of musicians left early in the war, and there have been fatalities in
the profession, but Faruk Sirajic was still able to organise the War Philharmonic, there is an excellent children's choir, music education has gone on despite everything and the Sarajevo string quartet (Dzevad Sabanagic, Hrvoje
Tisler, Dijana Ihas and Miron Strutinski) has given concerts throughout the
siege, predominantly matinees and ad hoc events. Dzevad proudly shows me the
programme of the first evening concert of the war, for 9 March 1994, as part of
the Sarajevo Winter Festival. There is the Mozart Divertimento in D major,
Grieg's Op 27 quartet, a recitation of the text "Planet Sarajevo" by Abdulah
Sidran and Schubert's "Death and the Maiden".
I bring some strings and spare parts for instruments donated by the Scottish orchestras and a gift of bowhair from Withers in London. I am shocked that this
small gesture becomes an item on Bosnian TV news alongside the visit of Vitali
Churkin. Only in Sarajevo. . . I say that this is just the beginning and we now
have a proper list of musical needs. "But how will you get these things to us?",
asks the elegant young woman who interviews us.
"We'll use our wits"', I reply.
The musical miracle of the war is how composer Josip Magdic managed to create
electronic music in a city without electricity. Magdic is in his 50s, and has
gentle, humorous brown eyes. His voice is quiet, and there are the long pauses
of someone who has learnt to conserve persÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ¸onal energy. He lives near the top of
a burnt-out skyscraper, and some days he has 3,000 steps to climb to bring wa-
ter. He also carries his Revox tape recorder and Yamaha CX5 computer to find
electricity to work with when and where it becomes available.
Back in Edinburgh, I play his piece "Indoctrination" to my students, glad that
the tape has survived all the magnetic fields and surveillance on the way out of
Sarajevo. The work is sharpüedged, the colour constantly modulated. Some sound
envelope problems become apparent when the tape is played on good monitors, but
the piece is technically impressive, and I know it will enter the canon of elec-
tro-acoustic music as a challenge to the aesthetics of preciousness and the
answer to the question of what happens when the plug is pulled out.
Magdic also writes instrumental music. There is a wide sweep of "style" from orchestral works related to Xenakis and the Polish sonorists, to tuneful children's songs and a possible candidate for the Bosnian hymn. One piece is named
after the street where Magdic lives, The Street of the Blood Donors.
Here is the quintessence of art in Sarajevo: weight of content has pushed aside
form and style. The breadth of language has nothing to do with post-modern irony
and citation. It is art flowing like molten lava into every space it pours over.
It seems to me that something very strong has come from my colleagues in Bosnia.
While the world stood by and watched a holocaust on television, and while western art floundered in a collossal imaginative recession, the artists of Sarajevo
were on the frontline of European civilization creating a new inclusive art, refined in hell-fire, tough enough to deal with anything, and absolutely necessary.
I salute you, artists of Sarajevo!
Nigel Osborne is Professor of Music at the University of Edinburgh and an active
member of Scottish Action for Bosnia which is affiliated to the Alliance to Defend Bosnia-Herzegovina.He visited Mostar and Sarajevo in the second half of March 1994.