The concept and term ‘Balkan’ is well known and oft-used in several academic and political arenas in the modern world. The Balkan region has achieved notoriety in the west in the flurry of books and media coverage on the Yugoslav wars during the 1990s. As a TV-viewing people, we westerners have recently become intimately acquainted with a simplified version of contemporary Balkan history. We, for example, know Slobodan Milošević by face. Within the past several years, the concept of Balkan has also been thoroughly researched and deconstructed by academics like Maria Todorova. The multi-layered understanding of the concept of Balkan as promoted by contemporary academics is becoming more widely used in the arenas in which the Balkans have traditionally been included, such as politics and history, breaking down our stereotypical preconceptions about the region. However, there is one area in which the concept of Balkan has not been thoroughly examined or deconstructed: the mainstream art industry is struggling to free itself from the archaic concept of Balkan that it still employs as a means to classify and identity art and artists from the Balkan peninsula. The art world seems to be rather reluctant to adopt a less sensationalized and simplistic version of what is termed Balkan into its discourse. In fact, little research or literature on the subject of Balkan (as it will be referred to in this essay in order to simplify the use of this term and the characterizatoin it recieves) in the mainstream art world has been produced. Clearly there are questions left to be addressed. Why does Balkan art remain marginal in the art world? What role will it play in the contemporary art world in years to come? Surely these questions are important to the very idea of how the collective Balkan identity is to be perceived by the Western world.
In a review of a 2002 book titled Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art since the 1950s, Martina Pachmanová notes that ‘for a long time, art in East Central Europe has been placed on the periphery of interest of most academics in the West’.1F During the past five years, several art exhibitions have addressed the concept of Balkan, displaying works of art that explore everything from identity to feminism to censorship using sundry mediums. However, rarely has an art show attempted to decipher on a critical level the constructs of Balkan identity that inform these art exhibitions. This essay will serve as an introductory survey to some of the general problems that Balkan art faces in the mainstream art world due to the general acceptance of the concept of Balkan without regard to the impact that this concept’s western presence has on Eastern European—Balkan—artists. The following disucussion will hopefully have the effect of raising an introductory awareness about the current state of the concept of Balkan in Balkan art.
In both the west and east, the concept of Balkan has become a stigmatizing label, which carries with it notions of blood feuds, backward primitiveness and, most recently, the inability to live in a multi-ethnic/multi-cultural state without fighting. In an interview prior to the launch of her book, Imagining the Balkans, Maria Todorova gives a succinct description of the term Balkan and the stereotypical light in which the Balkans have been cast:
First of all, what one understands by the Balkans nowadays is usually a synonym for southeastern Europe and it covers several countries: Greece, Albania, Bulgaria, Rumania, part of Turkey and all of the lands of the former Yugoslavia. [….] Historically, the word Balkan is a Turkish word which simply means “mountain.” It was a neutral term and was not used pejoratively in any sense until the end of the 19th century when those countries began to reappear from within the Ottoman Empire as independent entities. [….] Even after the most uncivilized violence was perpetrated by the Germans during the Holocaust, Europe continues to view the Balkans as barbaric and always warring. […] The Balkans are “white;” they are part of Europe; they are mostly Christian. 2F
The persistent lumping together of Balkan countries has a long history in popular western discourse and understanding. In ‘The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention’, Todorova explains that this phenomenon dates back to ‘the German geographer August Zeune [who] was the first to use the term “Balkan peninsula”’.3F Even though Todorova in many ways exposes the concept of Balkan for the academic construct that it is, the ‘barbaric’ concept of Balkan seems to dominate in the art world. In the past, there has been a shared legacy in this part of the world, and it is easy to see how some might think the concept of Balkan simply pertains to a shared history and culture of the geographical region of South Eastern Europe. This shared past was called Yugoslavia. However, no matter how strong the nostalgia for Yugoslavia might be in certain circles today, that ‘shared’ Balkan history ceased to be reality during the 1990s, some would say earlier. In fact, one is hard-pressed to find an exhibition that does not use the word Balkan instead of specific Balkan countries or movements in the exhibition titles, thus illustrating that the pulp conceptualization of Balkan peoples is not limited just to academia, but extends to popular art and artists as well. In the context of popular art and understanding, it seems that Balkan artists are limited to the stereotypes and contexts imposed on them by the west, pinning down their individual merit as artists in their own right.
The habit of grouping the region’s artists under the umbrella title of ‘Balkan’ or ‘former Yugoslav’ is, indeed, evident in the titles of the exhibitions, which showcase art from South Eastern Europe. In a review of the exhibition Blood and Honey— The Future’s in the Balkans (Kosterneuberg 2003) for the website Art Margins, Nicole Haitzinger says that ‘the curator Harold Szeesman collected in his journey throughout numerous countries representing contemporary art – an external view on the art in the Balkans’.4F Szeesman embarked on an investigation that was akin to an archeological dig to unearth the art of the Balkans, searching for the gems of a shared heritage that bordered on extinction. The titles of this and other recent exhibitions from this area are strongly indicative of the attitudes that have formed in the western art world, take for instance the significance of the aforementioned: Blood and Honey—the Future’s in the Balkans (Kosterneuberg 2003), or others such as, Imaginary Balkans (Sheffield 2002), Beyond Belief (Chicago 1995), Balkan Matrix (Nottingham 2003), In the Gorges of the Balkans (Kassel 2003) and In Search of Balkania (Graz 2002). Each show acknowledges the concept of Balkan, by simply making it the first thing that the audience sees as part of the title, before they are exposed to the content of the exhibition. The effect of this labeling on the general public is neither as ephemeral nor subjective as the interpretation given to the actual material. Whether it is photography, painting or collage, the medium is no longer as important to the art-going public as the definitively Balkan context given to the art objects. This amounts to a categorical misrepresentation, resulting in a prejudgment and stigmatization that may have insipid consequences.
1. Tomas Pospiszyl, MoMa Symposium ‘East of Art: Transformations in Eastern Europe’ transcript, 23 March 2003
2. Interview with Maria Todorova, ‘UF Professor Explains How Balkans Got Their Reputation: Following is an interview with Maria Todorova, professor of history, who has been researching the history of the Balkans for the past 20 years’
3. Maria Todorova, ‘The Balkans: From Discovery to Invention’, Slavic Review, vol. 53, no. 2 1994, p. 464.
4. Nicole Haitzinger, ‘BAL-KAN—The Irritation of Lingua: A Few Notes on the Exhibition Blood and Honey—the Future’s in the Balkans’ (Vienna June 2003), Art Margins Reviews,