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Marina Abramovic on Rhythm 0 (1974)
A still from Marina Abramovic’s Rhythm series (1973-1974)

10 artists who changed the face of culture in Yugoslavia

A new exhibition is shining a light on the artists who explored the rise of consumerism, women’s rights, punk music and drug culture

Following in the wake of Tate Modern’s recent blockbuster The World Goes Pop, Nottingham Contemporary’s current group exhibition Monuments Should Not be Trusted continues the surge of interest in art whose importance has been marginalised by the Western-centric canon. Curated by Lina Džuverović, an independent curator and lecturer at Reading University, the exhibition in Nottingham brings together over 100 artworks and artefacts that illuminate the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Using the politics of the 37-year presidency of Josip Broz Tito, the exhibition starts with the rise of consumerism during his administration in the 1960s, and ends a few years after his death in 1980. Previously Artistic Director at Calvert 22, the non-profit art space in east London, Džuverović has been part of the new curatorial wave profiling underrepresented work from Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Russia and Central Asia. This is the first time in the United Kingdom that creative practices from Yugoslavia have been shown in detail in relation to the social and political context that gave rise to it. Below are some of the most striking artworks from the offering.


The political and ideological shift from socialism to capitalism affected how women were perceived and represented. Due to the proliferation of tabloids and pinups, the nude female body became ubiquitous in the Yugoslav media. Women had a new role – the sex symbol. Sanja Iveković manipulated cultural aesthetics in order to address and explore abstruse issues related to the social construction of women as historically invisible. In Double Life (1975), Iveković juxtaposes photographs of herself and advertisements found in imported Western magazines to reiterate how consumerist power played a role in the construction of female identity. Black File (1976) criticised the media’s sexualisation of teenage girls. Images of models captioned with columns from ‘missing persons’ articles beg the question about whether even a missing girl could be manipulated into an erotic subject. Her video work, such as Make Up – Make Down (1978), focused on a ritualistic fascination with make up and cosmetic surgery. Despite being well received by the West, Iveković’s provocative and defiant work took many years to be appreciated by her home country.


Lutz Becker collaboratively made Kino Beleške in the Student Cultural Centre in Belgrade with a group of artists, curators and critics. One member of this group is a young Marina Abramović, whose performance “Rhythm 5”, which took place at the same centre a year previously, is also documented in the exhibition. The Student Culture Centre (SKC) was founded at the end of the 1960s by a generation fuelled by their belief in art as an agent of social change and emancipation. Recently rediscovered in 2007 after fading into obscurity, Becker’s film acts as an important historical testament to the vision held by the protagonists of that epoch. Merging voiceovers, performative gestures, and other formal experiments, each individual responded to a question about the role of art in society. Common themes were the importance of engaged criticism, the institutionalisation of ‘alternative culture’, and the tensions of dissenting in a socialist country.


Part of the burgeoning hardcore scene in the 1980s, feminist punk band Tožibabe exemplifies the anarchic spirit of women who refused to keep quiet about their dissatisfaction with the regime. Punk music unsettled the government and many musicians were arrested or watched by the secret police. The lyrics to “Dezuje” embody this paranoia and feeling of claustrophobia, translating to, ‘I can’t see / Can’t hear / Can’t feel … Trying to run / Trying to get away’. A selection of music videos by Tožibabe are shown in the exhibition alongside other artefacts and non art related ephemera that show a cross-section of creative Yugoslav society.


The films shot on Super-8 by the OHO group often used the music of The Rolling Stones or Cream as the soundtrack to their political content. Imagery of The Beatles also appeared on the work they made on matchboxes, using cheap and accessible materials as a way to harness consumerism and distribute work to a mass audience. Experimental films made with Naško Križnar, such as Red Snow, Lego and Project 6, all on show at Nottingham Contemporary, depicted how imported popular culture from the West had a profound effect on artists’ visions of local society and public space.


Shortly after the formation of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia in 1945, the Government proclaimed that the women’s question had been solved. Legislation was passed proclaiming equal rights to education, work and pay, but nothing was done to challenge the attitudes of general society towards the role of women. Katalin Ladik’s 1979 collages, March for a Partisan Woman and Pause in Revolutionary Work addressed the difficulty in negotiating between the patriarchy of the state and the patriarchy of the family sphere. Ladik demonstrated the expectation for women to remain domesticated, despite the formative and active role they had taken in the rebuilding of the country after WW2. Her collages create visual poetry, evoking elements of music or speech, and drawing on her experiences as a prominent performance artist and experimental poet.


Various counterculture movements were expressed through artists via DIY forms of art practice – such as music, video, screen-printing, and photo collage. Karpo Godina’s psychedelic film, The Gratinated Brains of Pupilija Ferkeverk, embraced hippy and drug culture, and was promptly banned by the government. The film shows Pupilia Ferkeverk, a Slovenian collective of poets, frolic naked in the water, while one plays on a swing. Interspersed with the live action are elements of graphic design that describe different stages of existence: ‘life’, ‘death’, ‘dictatorship’, and finally, ‘swallow LSD’. Godina lauded hallucinogenic drugs as the only universal truth in a society riddled with consumer culture and false advertising. The liberation of mind and body were used to signal a desire of political transparency and cultural openness.


“As an artist, I learned from both the East (socialism) and the West (capitalism)”. Mladen Stilinović is a conceptual artist whose works are centred on social and artistic critique. By the late 1960s, the economic inequalities between the ruling elite and ordinary citizens started to soar. Stilinović began to address the role of the artist and the value of labour under the Yugoslav socialist system. The Communist Party had failed to embrace culture as a central element in their creation of socialism; many politically engaged students at art academies felt marginalised. In his ironic text-based work An Attack on My Art Is an Attack on Socialism and Progress, he paraphrased a common political slogan and pointed to the discrepancies between the rhetoric of socialist ideology and the redundant illustrative value art held in Yugoslav society.


Želimir Žilnik was one of the major figures from the Yugoslav Black Wave film movement, which was at its height in the 1960s and early 1970s. Born in a Nazi concentration camp in 1942 and orphaned by the war, Žilnik began making short documentaries about poverty, child welfare and rising unemployment. Žilnik’s June Turmoil (1969) documents the 1968 demonstrations in Belgrade, showing solidarity with the student protestors. The Black Wave filmmakers were attacked for their pessimistic views and their perceived valorisation of anarchy. The state banned multiple films, forcing some members to leave the country. In Black Film, Yugoslavia (1971), Žilnik drew attention to the problem of homelessness, picking up a group of six homeless men on the streets of Novi Sad and inviting them to stay in his house. While they stayed with him, Žilnik filmed himself speaking to social workers, policemen, and strangers on the street about the issue, most of who turned a blind eye. The film embodies the Black Wave’s sense of personal responsibility, and their insistence on asking tough questions through their films as a way to make demands on the Communist regime.


Tomislav Gotovac began his career in photography, but soon started producing collages, experimental films and performance works. His performances tended to take place on the street, in the park, in the town square. By confronting the dichotomy between private and public space, Gotovac intended to uncover the politics of everyday interaction, and the effect of the state on the body of the individual. In Zagreb in 1980, Gotobac united four of his performances, “Reading the Newspaper”; “Listening to the Radio”; “Watching Television”; “Telephoning”, when President Tito was sick and the nation were awaiting news about his death, in a work called Homage to Josip Broz Tito. Although he refused to self-censor, Gotovac’s work exemplifies the tricky relationship people had towards Tito. Many artists were reluctant to directly depict him and a set of unarticulated rules dictated the acceptable artistic boundaries.


New Collectivism were a design group established as part of the radical collective, Neue Slowenische Kunst (New Slovenian Art). The use of German in the NSK’s name was in response to the complicated relationship Solovenes had with Germans, particularly the controversial memories of the Nazi annexation of Slovenia in WW2. In 1987, New Collectivism were the object of censorship after they designed a poster, in celebration of President Tito and ‘Youth Day’, which was based on a 1936 Nazi painting by Richard Klein called The Third Reich. They inverted the Nazi symbols into socialist symbols, changing swastikas to stars. The poster initially won acclaim from the federal jury of the Yugoslav Youth Organisation until the subversion was pointed out. Once revealed, the government attempted to put the group in jail. New Collectivism’s actions took place in a time of increasing political instability, which culminated in 1992 with the violent disintegration of the Republic during the Yugoslav Wars.

Monuments Should Not be Trusted is on show at Nottingham Contemporary until 4 March, 2016