‘Everything here is Reality. Everything here is Politics’ – Curator Maja Abdomerović

DHM_Plakat-FreiheitWhen our Sarajevo exhibition was just about to open two weeks ago, Bosnia was struck with natural disaster. Most of the Balkan countries suffered from enormous flooding and our colleagues at the National Gallery in Sarajevo ran down to the basement every five minutes to check whether the art works stored there had been damaged. (And fortunately they had not).

Amidst all this incessant rain, fear of water damage and the installation of the exhibition the two curators of our exhibition still found the time to talk to us. These interviews were maybe the most difficult and most enlightening ones: In none of our other exhibition venues had people experienced and were influenced by war this directly in their youth and had to deal with the consequences up to now.

We tried to shorten the interviews but could not bring ourselves to actually do it. Interesting, fascinating, although a long read is what you will find starting with Maja Abdomerović. 

‘My name is Maja Abdomerović, I am a curator at the National Gallery of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I should be in charge for programming and temporary exhibitions, but since we are just three curators here, I do everything!

I studied history of art and Slavistic languages in Graz, Austria. I was eighteen when I left Sarajevo due to the war and went to Austria. I was lucky to have a family there and for my aunts it was out of question that I would stay with them. It was normal for me and my future to learn German and to study at the university. I was eighteen when I left Sarajevo and I was just finishing high school and I wanted to study history of art but I wasn’t ready to leave Sarajevo. The problem was that Sarajevo did not have a faculty for this field of study, only Belgrade and Zagreb had. It was like destiny or my life played with me so I had to leave Sarajevo and when I had to do it, I decided to fulfill my dream and study history of art when I had the opportunity.’

How long did you stay in Austria? When did you return here?

‘I went to Austria in November 1992 and came back in 1999 and I finished my study in 2000.’

What was the hardest thing about leaving Sarajevo?

‘Leaving Sarajevo.’

Did your family come with you?

‘No, only my sister and my grandmother. My parents and my friends and the rest of my family, they all stayed here. Just my younger sister and my grandmother, we left.’

Since when have you been working at the National Gallery?

‘I started here shortly after I got my degree and again I was really lucky or it was destiny or coincidence. Because there was a lack of art historians during those times in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the former director, Mrs Meliha Husedžinovic, grabbed me from the street! It was not exactly like that but she gave me an opportunity and I am really thankful for that. She helped me a lot; she threw me in at the deep end from the beginning. She was like a mentor for me; I learned everything from her and from Ivana of course.’

Was there a special moment in which you discovered art as something you wanted to work with professionally?

‘I really don’t know. I can remember that one of the most important books from when I was a child was a book with drawings from Leonardo da Vinci. And it was a very important book for me: his drawings and the way he wrote and his inventions and his artwork. But I am not sure that’s it. My mother, she is an architect, and I was familiar with art. Furthermore I am not good at mathematics or with technical things and so it was clear I wouldn’t be an architect. Maybe that is why I tried to go about it from a different perspective.’

What are the most rewarding and what are the most challenging aspects of being a curator?

‘Being here. In Sarajevo. It could not be more challenging than this. And staying here in this institution for almost fifteen years. That is a professional challenge, that is an insanity, sometimes I believe it is a mistake, sometimes I believe it is my mission, my call, my passion. I just love this institution, my work, my colleagues. I feel like home here.

So sometimes or most of the times we have financial problems and it is a really existential issue, it is an existential question of being here: Should I choose money and leave my passion or my love? Or should I try to manage, stay here and be happy and leave this material part aside. It is a dilemma that I have most of the times. But there are moments, like this project, when I feel really good and I see that there are people who appreciate my work, my knowledge, my position.’

Was there any point in time where you said or thought ‘I am just going to leave now’? An especially difficult moment?

‘Yes, there were a few moments. But after some moments of introspection, I always come back to what I told you: I am feeling well here, I love this institution, I love my job. I really feel that we are in the position of being keepers of this state, of the memory and I think that my job is very very important. Perhaps in the future. That’s it. I just appreciate the meaning of this institution and of what we keep here.’

Then tell us about the exhibition. What are you showing in the ‘Dossier Bosnia and Herzegovina’?

‘From the first beginning we decided that we are not going to make an extract from the original exhibition with our art works or artists. Because sadly, but it’s true, Bosnia and Herzegovina is a case, a dossier and we decided to show that. To be really part of this exhibition, to bring our country, our culture, our art into this European exhibition. So we decided to make a brand new exhibition with only Bosnian artists. We decided that we should be part of the chapter “The Realities of Politics” because everything here is reality and everything here is politics. Really everything. In Bosnia.

It was not very difficult to find artworks to show. The idea was to tell a story about the national identity or the lack of it. We do not have a national identity here, one Bosnian national identity. We have three, four, five, I don’t know how many identities here. We don’t have one like the German or French or British identity. And we just wanted to see why we don’t have it.

So this exhibition consists of two parts: One part is Damir Nikšic’s concept of Bosnian-Herzegovinian historical paintings. Like a tradition of nonexistence. The truth is, we don’t have historical paintings because we don’t have the 19th century. During the 19thcentury, when other nations developed a national identity, in Bosnia our neighbors influenced us. They forced their identities onto Bosnia. The consequences of that are still visible today and we are living with them. So Damir Nikšic developed a concept of these historical paintings. He wants to provoke a reaction of the public to see how they would react or if they were aware that we miss a part in our development as a nation, as ‘homo politicus’.

The other part we just wanted to show the whole absurdity of these three identities, three languages. Everything here is always times three. So we have a video from Igor Bosniak about Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian languages in deaf mute language and there is no difference between those three languages. And we have translators who translate from Bosnian to Serbian, from Serbian to Croatian, from Croatian to Bosnian, it is absurd really. And that’s it. That is the dossier Bosnia and Herzegovina.

And we chose the title ‘The Desire for Freedom’ because we all, we normal people, we have a strong desire for freedom, to be free of these national determinations. That was the idea behind this exhibition.’

Could Bosnia and Herzegovina with three national identities also be a model for multi-cultural societies?

‘It was a model. But twenty years after the war it could just be a model for how to destroy a country and its multi-nationality. The politicians teach children how to live next to each other, not with each other. That is the problem. One of the most important problems here and it is also my personal problem, is that I am ‘Ostali’, ‘the others’, because I don’t belong to any of the three nationalities. And I am not the only one. There are a lot of people who are ‘mixed’, we are ‘the others’. And also people who don’t want to be forced into one identity. That is why we need this common Bosnian identity. For example, in my perception you are German even if your parents come from let’s say Thailand or Poland. That is your identity.’

Do you think that the younger generations are changing that? Is the society on its way to one identity?

‘I really don’t know. I want to believe it, but I am not sure. Because it is in the school system. It is a structural problem. We discussed it at our second meeting. We just talked about the World Cup and we talked about Germany, what happened to the Germans during the World Cup, how Germans for the first time expressed their national identity and I just asked myself what would happen now because Bosnia is for the first time participating in the World Cup. So we started to talk about the national identity and the problems. It started with football!

That is why I look forward to what happens in June, but I fear that I will be disappointed again, that my expectations are very naïve.’

One last question: When do you feel most free?

I thought about this question and after careful consideration I have to say: I never feel free.’



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