History and culture is weaved throughout the region, and is celebrated and memorialised. Tršić is almost a walk-in museum, commemorating Karadžić. His former home now holds exhibits about his life and work with the Serbian language.
No more than 50 feet away stands a basketball court. A child, maybe ten-years-old, dunks a ball perfectly into the net; he dabs in celebration.
For a country which is often painted as stuck in the past, young people are keen to pull Serbia into the future. Internet culture leaks into the country, introducing its people to ideas from around the world, and through the arts, Serbia is trying to keep up.
“Serbian people love tradition,” said Katarina Bućić, a professional contemporary dancer. The arts festival we attended together showcased a variety of traditional dance, as well as a custom called Lilanje – loved by children – of setting fire to wooden sticks with dried birch attached, then waving them through the air. Lilanje was a Pagan ritual believed to ward off demons, or a symbol of Christian suffering and persecution, depending on who you ask.
Young Serbians still enjoy this tradition – the once a year occasion when they’re encouraged to play with fire. But like young people everywhere, they have access to the internet on their smartphones – and with that, access to culture from far away lands. “Because so many people post things on the internet and on YouTube, you can even learn how to dance,” said Bućić. The internet has introduced new ideas, new forms of art, and different genres of music. She shares videos of her dancing to K-Pop on Instagram.
The pace of change in the arts is slow, but it is happening. Kolo, Serbia’s national dance, is transferred from generation to generation, slightly changing each time. In clubs in the west of the world, you can hear Reggaeton, a fusion of hip-hop and reggae; in the Western Balkans, you can hear Turbo-folk, a fusion of traditional Serbian music and hip-hop beats.
Bućić is confident that Serbian people are ready for change: “We’re on the internet all the time; we see new stuff. I think people are open to something new, something different – but sometimes people need time to accept it.”
A cultural policy review from the Council of Europe (CoE) in 2015, criticised slow progress in modernising Serbian culture: “There is still too much emphasis on the promotion of folk culture. A modern Serbian cultural narrative needs to be developed.”
Having performed in countries across Europe, such as Italy, Bućić believes that arts and culture in Serbia aren’t respected as much as in other countries – “They’re more into the arts than we are. I think the problem is our education, there’s not so much education about the arts.”
Katarina Bućić: On being a dancer in Serbia and her workshops at Lila Lo festival.
Although the government shows a lack of financial support for the arts and sometimes a hostile environment to free speech, an even bigger hurdle is economics. Low wages leave most Serbians without disposable income to patronise the arts.
“People think, ‘if I get a ticket for free, then that is good’ … people spend money for basic things, for money, paying bills, going somewhere to drink coffee. They’re not going to spend money for a ticket for a show,” said Bućić, referring to a reluctance to pay for tickets at full price. She later recalled how one theatre had a sale on discounted tickets “there was a line for about two kilometres!”
The average wage in Serbia is the lowest in former Yugoslavia, standing at €426 (£378) per month, according to the Statistical Office of Serbia. For artists, money is even more difficult to come by.
“There is hardly any state funding for independent companies or individual artists,” said Tina Ellen Lee, Artistic Director of Opera Circus, which works extensively with artists in Bosnia and Serbia. “The major theatre companies are funded by the state, very poorly, but manage somehow.”
Select a country to see the average income. Blue logos indicate members of the European Union.
The number of people who want to make a career from dancing in comparison to the number of jobs in dance makes it difficult to be a professional in any country, “but in Serbia, it’s particularly difficult”, said Mila Stijak, a master’s student of Ballet Pedagogy at the Belgrade Dance Institute. “Being a ‘Commercial Dancer’ is the only way to earn money outside of established theatres, and the theatres have a limited number of dancers. That doesn’t change.”
Commercial Dancers are those who have made a living by appearing in advertisements, film or short-term project work. Even those in independent dance companies have to find additional work: “It’s incredibly difficult to get into any of those, and that would still mean only one project a year,” said Stijak.
Even within the major dance companies, there’s little opportunity for new talent to actually dance. The Belgrade National Theatre has 110 dancers on the payroll, some of whom are beyond dancing age, according to the CoE. They also state that is no training to enable retired dancers – those over 35 – to become teachers or managers. Young dancers have little scope to join, and the older dancers have no further progression. The report calls this “heavy and costly”.
This doesn’t prevent artists from showcasing their work – though they can only do so on a volunteer basis and only when they have savings aside. There’s “a lot of talent amongst the artists,” said Lee. “Belgrade is quite an edgy, avant garde city in many ways.”
Unassuming at first glance, Belgrade is as culturally rich as any capital city. In residential areas, grey, oppressive buildings tower overhead, but the centre is full of greenery and bustling life. The former capital city of Yugoslavia now hosts an internationally acclaimed film festival and is home to a number of independent arts companies. Funding to produce work is difficult to come by, but these companies manage to survive.
Teater Mimart is one such company. Founded by Nela Antonović in 1984, the alternative theatre’s birth preceded the break-up of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1992. Since then, Antonović has produced over 63 theatre performance and 400 art performances and has seen how the arts have changed in the country. “In the beginning, it was easy because of [financial] donors. Our view of the nineties was publicly recognised through political context, as the content often represented a rebellion against violence in a reserved political system.”
Different people in Serbia have their own version of the truth of the area’s bloody history, though tensions about the previous socialist rule and the violent nationalism which followed it are still high. On more than one occasion, history – sometimes going back as far as Turkish rule under the Ottoman Empire – dominated discussion. Within five minutes of meeting someone, they would tell you their feelings about Kosovo’s declaration of independence, what they remember of the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990s or their views about religion’s role in their history.
In her performances, Antonović uses a mixture of cultural and political identities to criticise politics. “It enables us to laugh to the statements of our politicians and representatives of the cultural authorities,” she said. Influence for her work comes from Greek tragedy, she argues that its importance is because “it questions the challenges of society, presenting a statement instead of hiding from the politics.” Through exploring political, historical and cultural themes, Antonović said, “Contemporary tragedy as well holds the power to inspire revolutionary ideas, changes in consciousness of the citizens, audience and the society.”
Despite freedom of expression being protected by international and domestic law, there is a history of suppression of free speech in Serbia. In October 2017, during the re-opening ceremony of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade, two artists were detained for using the president’s image in two separate performances. They were later released.
The hostile political climate is another barrier to artistic expression in Serbia. However, Antonović sees this as an opportunity to make meaningful art: “Theatre performances and physical theatre overpass all boundaries: lingual, political, cultural, religious, and geographical … ‘Political’ shows debate the repercussions of dissolving high-quality culture and marginalisation.”
In Loznica, we viewed a theatre performance about the World Cup in the years following the breakup of Yugoslavia. Through the occasional whispered translation and the physical actions on stage, I could just about make out the history of a region scattered with conflict and geographical politics.
The free performance was part of Lila Lo festival, a small folk-arts festival organised on a shoestring budget by volunteers and the local tourism organisation. A number of free performances filled the halls at several cultural spaces in the area, with extra chairs being added in hallways to accommodate people.
Anja Nikolic, one of the organisers, co-ordinated a cultural exchange with artists from the UK, Belgium, Bosnia, Italy and Romania. Nikolic achieved this on a non-existent budget, making up for the deficit through donations in food and accommodation and a crowdfunding campaign shared online in the artists’ home countries.
Anja Nikolic: “Most of these projects are self-funded… or just without money.”
The exchange introduced international and Serbian artists, who then collaborated on arts workshops for local young people throughout the festival in preparation for a joint performance. The final product included a song written in Serbian and composed by a London-based Kenyan artist, amongst other performances.
International collaboration isn’t limited only to those present at these workshops. Some Serbian artists have chosen to move abroad for more fulfilling opportunities. “The only prospect here is to teach dance to other people, which I have done for almost four years now. I find it quite unsatisfying to be a dance teacher at my best age for dancing,” said Ana Obradovic, a professional dancer at the IUI Transition Dance Company.
“What I find most problematic here in Serbia is the lack of opportunities for professional improvement and serious work. This environment is simply not stimulating enough for dancers who want to have a full dance career.”
Nikola Avramović sat down at his piano, removing his bracelet and placing it on top of the instrument in front of him. The room fell quiet, filled with people from his hometown of Loznica. They were waiting to see him perform after his return from studying at the Royal College of Music in London.
“The first time I touched the piano, I could see that it was going to be my profession,” Avramović told me after the performance. “In the beginning, I didn’t know what classical music was. We rarely have a chance in Serbia to hear classical music on the TV or on the radio. It’s not very well represented to us.”
Even with classical music being rare in Serbia, Avramović finds joy in introducing the music he loves to the people back home. “You need to find something more appealing to them… very popular classical music. Something quicker with more emotions. Just impress the audience.”
Whilst staying in the UK, Avramović was startled by the contrast in attitudes towards music. “It was such a difference, I was in Harrogate and every second home had a piano. They knew about the pieces I would play,” he said.
Nikola Avramović: “I grew up with a family of folk musicians, they just wanted me to be an educated musician.”
Leaving Serbia comes across as the end goal for a number of the artists I spent time with. Whether in search of paying opportunities or a more fulfilling career, leaving the country is a common route. ”I’m not planning to stay here, because there are no solutions for dancers in Serbia,” said Bućić. “Of course, it can be fixed. People need to say ‘let’s do it!’ and really do it.”
“I love my country, I don’t want to leave it forever,” Bućić continued, “One day, when I get back, I want to give everything I’ve learned to education.”