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Street artists in Banja Luka are lobbying the EU to have the city in Bosnia and Herzegovina deemed the European Capital of Culture in 2024, to help the region overcome its association with civil war. By Matthew Clayfield.

Street art in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bozko’s mural “Old Dude”, in Banja Luka.
Credit: Flaster

Even at magic hour, when it is perfectly lit and the city at its most attractive, it is difficult to know what to make of Banja Luka’s “Old Dude”. Painted by the Bulgarian artist Bozhidar Simeonov, or Bozko, on a wall in Borik, a suburb to the north-east of the city centre, the mural depicts a pale, seemingly waterlogged fish-man with webbed fingers and Dalí-esque moustache wearing a rowing boat as a tutu. He sniffs a flower with his purple, bovine nose while crows flock about his balding pate. It is an accomplished and unquestionably ugly work .

The “Old Dude” was not the city’s first piece of wall-sized street art. That would be the award-winning “Find Your Way to Fly”, by Croatian artist Lonac and Serbian artist Artez, which appears in the same area, and the large-scale portraits of international and local celebrities painted by local artist Stefan Mihajlović throughout the neighbourhood of Hanište pre-date that.

Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska – the autonomous Serb-majority enclave of Bosnia and Herzegovina formed after the 1992-95 war, which today wraps around the centre of the country like an encroaching fog – has long been home to young artists willing to ply their trade beneath bridges and in abandoned buildings. But Bozko’s “Old Dude” was a game changer.

“Everything kind of shifted after that,” street artist Marko Bilbija tells me over a coffee at a quiet cafe off the city’s central Gospodska Street. “There was an explosion of public opinion. People who had nothing to do with art were suddenly discussing whether it’s the role of art to be beautiful or to be an expression of the artist’s world view. Are street artists allowed to impose their art on people just because they work in a public space? Should art even be in a public space? People were discussing art day after day after day.”

The “Old Dude” was originally smoking weed and Bozko had to change it.

“It was painted near a kindergarten and some people couldn’t stand it – kids were seeing it. Everyone had something to say,” Bilbija says. “It was actually really good.”

It was the moment Banja Luka’s street art scene entered mainstream consciousness. That wasn’t an accident: Bilbija and others had been working for years to get their work on precisely such radars. After the death of the scene’s éminence grise, Tamara Cvetković, in a snowboarding accident on Mount Jahorina in 2010, her friends and colleagues set about memorialising her with a street art festival, the Flaster Jam, with the explicit aim of establishing their legitimacy. Workshops were run, and painting demonstrations in public parks. Artists from elsewhere in the region were called upon to play their part.

“We only called the best,” Monika Ponjavić says. “We didn’t want Flaster to be associated with work that wasn’t any good. It could be ugly, but it had to be good. It had to have meaning. I think that’s one of the reasons the project succeeded and became so important to everyone.”

An experienced event manager whom Bilbija drafted to help run Flaster Jam, Ponjavić knew that an air of legitimacy, even respectability, would be needed to make the project a success. As a result, instead of painting on walls, the first Flaster Jam artists painted on canvases. The imprimatur of the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art was sought and granted. The works were exhibited and a program replete with academic and critical appraisals was published. Politicians came to have a look. In 2014, the artists were legally granted a wall. Lonac and Artez’s “Find Your Way to Fly” was the result.

Bilbija, 33, and Ponjavić, 35, look every bit the emissaries for youth culture they are, the former with hipster beard and man bun, the latter with thick-framed glasses. They realised quickly that what they were doing had ramifications that went beyond street art: they were in effect helping to legitimise the various subcultures, such as hip-hop and skateboarding, that had emerged in the mid-1990s after the war.

“Before the project, we were seen as troubled kids, as vandals,” Bilbija says. “Now, five years later, people actually contact us to paint their buildings. ‘Can you do ours next? We want ours to be done.’ It really made an impact, and it inspired other cities in the region to do similar things.”

The artists are now determined to persuade the European Union that Banja Luka deserves to be named the European Capital of Culture in 2024. Bilbija is heading up the effort, which he says has the potential to change Republika Srpska’s reputation abroad. The region is still best known for producing Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb military leader who spearheaded the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre, and Radovan Karadžić, the republic’s first post-Yugoslav president, found guilty of war crimes by The Hague. The “culture” most often associated with the republic is that of revanchist Serb nationalism and genocide. Can the “Old Dude” replace these old men in the international imagination?

Bilbija and Ponjavić believe the war’s impact on everyday Bosnian Serbs has been overlooked. Bilbija had been made a refugee twice by the time the war was over, displaced from Split to Knin in 1992, and then to Banja Luka two years later, when Croatia launched Operation Storm, the anniversary of which is taking place as we meet. Ponjavić says everyone she grew up with on her street wound up living within spitting distance of one another in Calgary, Canada. She was only able to visit them after Bosnians were finally allowed visas. The pair are now internationalists, their project diametrically opposed to the region’s still mostly nationalist leaders. They say Flaster Jam couldn’t exist without the internet serving as a window on the world. “A lot of young people were suddenly able to come into contact with graffiti as an art form and they could view pieces from New York, and from Belgrade and Zagreb, which already had certain scenes,” Bilbija says. Even in the immediate aftermath of the war, the differences that fuelled it were beside the point.

“At the start, the strongest connections were between Banja Luka and Belgrade,” Bilbija says. “But that didn’t last. It very quickly became a sort of regional community of artists from all around the former Yugoslavia. In that way, you could say what we were doing was political, but in a completely different way than you might think.”

Bilbija and Ponjavić have been joined in their pursuit of European Capital of Culture status by filmmakers, theatre-hounds, writers and musicians. Not everyone thinks they’ll be able to pull it off. Local comedian Mirko Komljenović Mirkan, for example, says that what they’re doing is noble, but a pipedream. “I think this is more political than realistic,” he tells me later. “In Banja Luka, we need more theatre, more filmmaking, more culture. But we shouldn’t try to do it officially, through bureaucracy. We won’t be picked. People see us as Serbs. They see us as the worst Serbs.”

Mirkan concedes the submission might have one hope: the fact that Brussels occasionally awards the much-coveted designation to cities in countries that are not yet members of the European Union, but have plans to be. It’s one of the points on which Bilbija, too, is hanging his hopes. But even if the city doesn’t win, he says, the work that has gone into the proposal will have been worth it.

“They want cities that are actively trying to develop their cultural scene,” he says. “They want cities that are willing to take a step forward. And Banja Luka is. The cultural climate has changed here. The city has agreed to increase support for culture for the first time. The city wants the situation to change. Whether we become the European Capital of Culture or not, we can use our development plan.”

Ponjavić agrees. “Everything up until this point has been done randomly,” she says. “We did it ourselves. Republika Srpska didn’t have a plan before now. Now it has one. We helped them to make it.”

The “Old Dude” did, too. The debate that surrounded his emergence on a wall near a kindergarten is over. He doesn’t represent artistic decadence these days: he represents Banja Luka’s attempt to stand up. Ponjavić adjusts her glasses and smiles.

“People see hope in this.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 18, 2017 as "Mural network". Subscribe here.

Matthew Clayfield
is a freelance foreign correspondent.

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