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Marina Abramovic
Freeing the Memory, 1976Courtesy of Marina Abramović and the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade

The radical creatives who defined the former Yugoslavian art scene

These are the artists, who, in the embers of war, created works and ignited movements which set the course of Yugoslavian art history

Artists of the former Yugoslavian art scene were relentless; rejecting the idea of art for art’s sake, their work was unforgiving and heavily politicised. Art was a reflection of society. Under the harsh social and political conditions enacted by World War I and II, Joseph Tito’s dictatorship, and the Yugoslav Wars of the 90s – which are known as “Europe’s deadliest conflicts since World War II” – artists were frequently silenced by police and shunned by conservative societies. But in the embers of war, artists ignited their own movements, some of which set a new course of Yugoslavian art history. Such works and practices shone a light on the dark realities of life at the time and demonstrated how art could be a weapon for liberation for the Yugoslavian people.

While Marina Abramović is the state’s most well-known artist, Yugoslavian art history hosts a wide range of radical creatives who also went to great extremes to make and show their work. Spotlighting this art history is the Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCAB) whose latest exhibition, Sequences, charters over 100 years of Yugoslavian art in Serbia, from the start of the 20th century to the present day. Although the show takes place in Belgrade, MoCAB affirms how intrinsic former Yugoslavian artists from all states were to the formation of contemporary Serbian identity, so their inclusion is paramount to the show. “Yugoslav art heritage, in spite of politics of erasure from the past quarter of a century, survives as a common heritage and historical reference, without which it is impossible to rethink contemporaneity”, reads the Sequences catalogue.

The driving impetus of the exhibition is to open up this history to the wider art world, reminding us of the many important art narratives that lie beyond the Western canon. “The show’s intention is to show that the Yugoslav artistic space was plural, decentralised and multicultural”, MoCAB states in the show's catalogue, “and also that the art scene in Yugoslavia, particularly in the socialist one (where modern art system was developed), was not different from the scenes in Europe and the world.”

Drawing from the essence of Sequences, here are six radical artists and art associations that defined contemporary former Yugoslavian art.

NADEZDA PETROVIĆ (EARLY 1900s)

Serbia’s most famous impressionist and expressionist painter was a woman. While the west were celebrating artists such as Edvard Munch and Egon Schiele, Nadežda Petrović and her paintings (a blend of an autonomous use of colour and an exploration of her internal anxiety) were boldly leading Serbian art into modernism. As expected with the sexism of early 1900s art, the painter’s rise to glory wasn’t without criticism. Despite her retrospective success, after her first solo Belgrade exhibition in 1900, her work was met with controversial opinion from the conservative Serbian art world. Having studied in Munich, Petrović bought impressionist tendencies back to Serbia. Unbeknown to her, her audience was not yet ready for modernist innovations and they rejected her work. Outside of her art, Petrović was a powerful activist for Serbian women’s rights and social equality. She commonly held fiery speeches at Belgrade’s national theatre and in 1903 she co-founded The Circle of Serbian Sisters which was the largest female gathering in Serbia at the time.  

ZEMLJA (“THE EARTH”) (1929-1935)

Zemlja, which translates to The Earth, was a Zagreb based radical art association that started in 1929. The group was a mix of leftist painters, sculptors and architects, including sculptor Antun Augustinčić and painter Krsto Hegedušić. Founded at a time which was marked by the spread of capitalism and economic crisis which included the banning of workers unions and progressive political activity, and governmental censorship under the dictatorship of leader Karadorde Petrović. Under the weight of such tense political oppression, Zemlja’s mission was to reclaim art from the bourgeoisie and reaffirm its importance in reflecting and progressing social life. Under this motivation, the group vehemently rejected the idea of ‘art for art's sake’, and preceding movements like Impressionism. The association’s style fused Flemish 16th century painting with German New Objectivity (taking particular influence from German painter George Grosz), and the artists played a powerful role in introducing the idea of Naïve art into the modern world. That is, is any form of visual art created by someone who doesn’t have a formal art education - a strong characteristic of an art association that dubbed themselves ‘peasants’. Their mixed-media works were extremely sensitive to social problems, propelled the fight for equality of the classes and justice, and were widely provocative. An example of their signature blend is Augustinčić’s sculpture, “The Drunks”, which was made in response to the group’s official banning by police in 1935. The provocative work features two full figure male characters; a skinny man and a fat money-man, embraced, staggering and singing. Each which each personify two sides of Yugoslavia’s political regime. 

“The continual production of narratives that rewrite art history, “with names and events that appear, disappear, reappear and disappear again” (Boris Groys), is the legacy of...the postmodern abandoning a static historical perspective” – MoCAB

SANJA IVEKOVIĆ (1970s)

Sanja Iveković was the first Yugoslavian artist to actively engage with gender difference and the first Croatian to dub herself a feminist artist. She tackled the commodification of women and their representation in the media through a mix of cut and paste, pop art style images and performance pieces.

Iveković began studying at Zagreb Academy of Fine arts in 1968 – a year student protests erupted across Yugoslavian cities against the dictatorship of Joseph Tito. Harbouring the energetic essence of youth activism, students fought against officials for the right to political assembly and free speech, and against harsh economic reforms that resulted in high unemployment rates and drove many out of their homes. Their protests were met with violence, for example when students in Belgrade staged a seven-day strike, they were beaten by police who then banned all public gatherings. It's this political context and the rigour of Yugoslavian youth culture that ignited and remained ever present in Iveković’s work. Take her most provocative and most monumental performance piece, “Triangle” (1979) – an 18-minute performance that took place on 10 May 1979 as a comment on the oppression female reality in Tito’s dictatorship. In an act of defiance against a law that banned people from sitting on balconies during Tito's presidential visits, Iveković positioned herself on the balcony of her Zagreb apartment, with a book and a glass of whiskey as she simulated gestures that appeared as if she was masturbating. It wasn’t long before the artist stirred the reaction she was hoping for when a neighbour called the officials and she was ordered inside. 

THE BELGRADE SIX (1970s)

In 60s-70s Yugoslavia, a new movement emerged with conceptualism as its doctrine. The New Art Practise covered a wide range of new artistic phenomena such as performance art, body art, public space actions, and video art that rejected the idea of art as a commodity that could be sold and collected, like material paintings and sculptures. The movement, therefore, was aimed at breaking with the traditional values of high modernism, like the importance placed on aesthetic and object. This new wave of art redefined the parameters of modern creativity in Yugoslavia by using new media to provoke and question the structure and classism of the current art practice (which valued only aesthetics), and it's society in general.

Leading the movement in Serbia was the Belgrade Six: a generation of conceptual artists who graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts, Belgrade in 1971. The collective included Marina Abramović, Neša Paripović, Zoran Popovic, Raša Todosijević, Gera Urkom, all famous for their early conceptual art practices. The Belgrade Six valued it's mental state over material production, an impetus ever present in Abramović’s earliest performances which heralded themes of endurance and the outpouring of raw trauma. “What the six of us would talk about, obsessively, was a way passed (sic) painting: a way to put life itself into art”, Abramović states in her memoir, Walk Through Walls.

The collective was also key in establishing Belgrade’s Student Cultural Centre (SKC) that has been paramount in the celebration and acknowledgement of Yugoslavian conceptual art since its beginnings and is a key example of the powerful role that access to space plays in the proliferation of underground artists. The centre itself was given to Serbian students after they fought for their right to a space for cultural creation outside the state, which Joseph Tito granted them in 1971 after a series of protests. The centre still stands today.

SLODOBAN ERA MILIVOJEVIĆ (1970s)

Marina Abramović called Slobodan Era Milivojević, nicknamed ‘Era’, one of the most talented of the Belgrade six. He is a Serbian, cross-medium, conceptualist artist who works with performance, photography, collage and video art. He began his career at the start of the 70s after graduating from Academy of Fine Arts, Belgrade. One of his most iconic early works, “Tapping of the Artist” (1971), involves Abramović and was an impromtu performance that took place at the Student Cultural Centre. While the Belgrade Six was visiting an exhibition that Era had submitted a piece for (a mirror covered with tape intended to disrupt the traditional function of the mirror and distort how viewers could see themselves), Abramović decided to lay down on a table as she was tired. This inspired Milivojević to tape her body, mummifying her as the crowd watched on. According to Abramović, this moment turned her towards her artistic future. “I went along with it”, she writes in Walk Through Walls, “lying there, arms at my side, my whole body except for my head completely mummified. Some of the onlookers were fascinated, some repelled. But nobody was bored.”

TANJA OSTOJIĆ (1990s)

Art in 90s Yugoslavia bravely persisted against the backdrop of the Yugoslav wars. A grave decade in Yugoslav history, artists of this era were forced to create alongside great disturbances against Yugoslavian people including war violence, violation of human rights, state oppression, a destruction of the Serbian economy, which fell from $24million GDP to $10million GDP, and the force of international sanctions including NATO’s bombing of Serbia. Under the weight of such political and social turmoil, Yugoslavian art remained as radical as ever, this time using creativity to reflect on how ideology and power disrupts social life. Tanja Ostojić is a feminist Serbian performance artist who used expression to reflect on reality as a woman in 90s Belgrade. In the same vein as Abramović, Ostojić was unafraid to go to any length or extreme, commonly pushing the parameters of her body for artistic exploration. In “Personal Space” (1996), one of Ostojić’s earliest performances, the body and its intersection with society, law and the human gaze foregrounds her work. For 60 minutes, the artist becomes a statue covered in marble dust. Completely shaven from head to toe, she doesn't move as viewers gaze at her composure. Not only does this performance become a moment of stillness in the chaos of Serbian life, but the artist uses her body to reflect on images of the female form across art history and its inherent manipulation and fetishisation.  

Sequences at the Museum of Contemporary Art Belgrade is live now. You can find out more information here