The Legacy of the Balkans

Tijana Mišković believes that art can convey painful experiences of war and displacement, even to those without first-hand knowledge of them. She has arranged an exhibition featuring Danish artists with roots in the former Yugoslavia.

Tijana Mišković in front of work by Ana Pavlović at Connections – Danish artists from Ex-Yugoslavia, opening tomorrow at the National Gallery of Denmark. Photo: Niels Mortensen/SMK.

In the 1990s, the Danish authorities leased the ferry Norröna, which used to sail between Denmark and the Faroe Islands. Anchored at Islands Brygge in Copenhagen, the ferry spent the next years acting as a temporary refugee centre for the many who arrived in Denmark as refugees from the war that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991.

The 20,000 arrivals from the former Yugoslavia were the largest group of refugees ever received in Denmark from one specific place at one specific time. Among the refugees on the Norröna was 10-year-old Tijana Mišković, who went on to grow up in Viborg. She graduated from The Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in 2008, and since then she has worked as a freelance curator, art advisor, and teacher with a particular interest in the art of the Yugoslav diaspora.

Mišković is currently a PhD fellow at the University of Copenhagen and The National Gallery of Denmark (SMK), and in this capacity she is the curator of the exhibition Connections – Danish Artists from the Former Yugoslavia, opening at SMK on Friday.

Connections marks the 30th anniversary of the arrival of the large group of refugees who came to Denmark during the war in the Balkans. The exhibition comprises works by seven artists – Alen Aligrudić, Amel Ibrahimović, Ana Pavlović, Ismar Čirkinagić, Nermin Duraković, Suada Demirović, and Vladimir Tomić – all of whom have roots in the former Yugoslavia. Some came to Denmark as children, others are descendants of migrants from the Balkans. The exhibition explores connections between the cultural heritage of the former Yugoslav region and Danish migration policies, always aware of the multicultural identity they all have in common.

All along the glass-covered Sculpture Street connecting the old part of the museum with its newer extension, we find artworks that take us back to the refugee ferries in Copenhagen harbour, inside a typical room in a Danish refugee centre, or on a road trip back to the Balkans, where the ruins of socialist Yugoslavia stand side by side with hyper-modern architecture. One work lets us hover above the farthest border of the EU, now found between Bosnia and Croatia, where present-day dramas prompted by current refugee policies are unfolding. As Mišković says, these stories are not just specific to the Balkans in the 1990s, but touch upon something universally human.

What characterises the seven artists’ approaches to working with cross-cultural themes?

The contributing artists are all graduates from art academies in Denmark and have roots in the former Yugoslavia, but they arrived in this country at very different times. Some of them came in the 1990s as a direct consequence of the war in the Balkans, others came later, and one was born here in Denmark to parents who migrated in the 1970s. Those differences greatly inform their approaches.

There is a huge difference between how you perceive the world when you are 10 years old and when you are 18. Ismar Čirkinagić came to Denmark at the age of 18, and his works revolve very much around the war itself. On the other hand, Vladimir Tomić was 12 when he arrived in Denmark, and his work is about the experience of being a refugee in this country.

Some of the artists were even younger upon their arrival and have no first-hand recollection of the war or of their first years in Denmark, but have had stories and narratives passed down to them by their parents. Their works revolve around being part of a diaspora and having cultural affiliations of which you have no personal memory.

Vladimir Tomić, Flotel Europa, 2015, Video still. © Vladimir Tomić / VISDA.

I did not set out to create a themed exhibition specifically about refugee stories. Rather, I have taken the individual works as a point of departure, responding to these seven specific practices and the stories behind them. In order to fully unpack these works, you need to adopt two perspectives: one being the very specific outlook concerned with the artists’ background in the former Yugoslav region’s cultural heritage and their personal stories, the other being the wider perspective that deals with migration history in general. I hope that the end result is an exhibition that also draws parallels to other conflicts, other times and other geographical places in the world beyond the specific events in the Balkans during the 90s.

When the refugees from the Balkans arrived in this country, Denmark had never before received such a large group of refugees all at once. How did this affect the way people were received?

The refugees from the Balkans have had an enormous impact on Danish migration policy and its development. Back in the 1960s, when the Danish welfare state as we know it today was first taking shape, foreign workers were invited there as so-called “guest workers,” but this was group of people who came because Danish society needed them. In the 1970s, attitudes began to change because the immigrants who began arriving by this time were, by contrast, in need of help from Danish society. Since then Danish migration policy has focused on whether and to which extent migrants should have access to the welfare state and its benefits. When the Bosnians came in the 1990s, the situation changed again, partly because this was the largest group of refugees that had ever been received all at once, and partly because the people who arrived came from all walks of life.

The authorities were at a loss; no-one had any idea what to do with all these people, and so most of us spent a very long time living at the refugee centres before we were funnelled out into society. During the average period of three years that most of these refugees spent in the centres, a sense of community was built between them, which probably also made it easier for them to retain some of their own culture. In some ways, this community still exists, and you may find it reflected in this exhibition.

What was the biggest culture shock about coming to Denmark for you?

I came to Denmark when I was 10 years old. Or, rather, I arrived at a refugee centre in Denmark at that point, but I didn’t really come to Denmark until three years later, when we moved out into society and had the opportunity to be integrated. So the kind of violent culture clash many imagine refugees experiencing when they first come here never happened to me because I did not feel that I was part of Danish society for the first three years.

Our first home was a ship. At that time there were two refugee ships, the Flotel Europa, where Vladimir lived, which was at anchor at Krøyers Plads [in the Christianshavn district of Copenhagen], and Norröna, where I lived, which was at anchor at Islands Brygge, also in Copenhagen. There were four of us living in a cabin in the hold, meaning that it was underwater and had no windows. There were two bunk beds that folded out, and when they were fully unfolded, there was no room for anything else.

We could go for walks across Langebro and into the centre of Copenhagen and see how the Danes lived, but it felt like there was a glass pane between them and us. We weren’t allowed to go to school at first, and had no money, so we couldn’t even go to the supermarket. Our opportunities to interact with Danish society were severely limited.

Suada Demirović, Home – the terrible beauty of unbelonging, 2021. Photo: Suada Demirović. © Suada Demirović / VISDA

These three years were spent in a state of limbo, and I think back to that time as a strange intermission in my life: between the war and my childhood in Yugoslavia and my new life in Denmark. When I think about what cultural affinities and belonging means, I also think that that period is quite central to me. One of the main collective experiences shared by many former Yugoslavs is that of living in an asylum centre. This is a frame of reference we have in common: Yugoslavia, Denmark, and the non-place that is the refugee centre.

I was very interested in art and was given a place at a visual arts school in Viborg while we were still living in an asylum centre outside the city. I remember how the other kids, who arrived after their regular school hours, were completely unengaged while I had been preparing all week. I took it really seriously, probably also because I had nothing else to do. Still, I had a similar feeling later when I began attending school. I had to work much harder than the others because I had to learn the language and how to go to school in Denmark while also tackling the actual curriculum. I thought the others were far too flippant about it, and for me this was probably the main culture shock I felt.

I know you have been interested in the question of why one finds such a relatively high number of artists with roots in the former Yugoslavia on the Danish art scene. Did you find an answer to that?

When you look at the statistics, the former Yugoslavs make up the most highly educated refugee group in Denmark, and there may be several reasons for this. First of all, these people come from a culture that really values ​​education and where art has played an important role.

When Yugoslavia had to be rebuilt after the Second World War, the state regarded art and architecture as an important aspect of building a society; for example, it had a well-developed art support system. The refugees took this outlook on the importance of education and art with them when they arrived in Denmark, and this is undoubtedly also why you see few self-taught artists with roots in the former Yugoslavia. There, you were brought up to adhere to the established path. If you want to be an artist, you apply to the most prestigious art academy you can find. In Yugoslavia, being an artist was prestigious, and you would never be asked the question, which is always the first response you get in Denmark: “Oh, really? Can you make a living from that?”

Do you see a commonality, a distinctive aesthetic or mode of expression, among artists with roots in the former Yugoslavia?

No, I wouldn’t say that. Many works in this exhibition are based on a specific situation in the 1990s, but can – and should – be read from a more universal perspective. For example, Čirkinagić has created a work that consists of three sails sewn out of clothes that used to belong to victims of fifteen different conflicts around the world. These clothes were donated by the loved ones they left behind, and you can see how some of them are worn or have taken shape after the body that once wore them, making this a work about loss, about memory, and about war on a more abstract level. He was inspired by John Donne’s [1572–1631] poem ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’, which describes how the death of any one human being takes a little bit away from all of us. In Čirkinagić’s work, humanity is a unified organism full of internal connections.

Tijana Mišković next to work by Ismar Cirkinagic at the National Gallery of Denmark (SMK). Photo: Niels Mortensen/SMK.

The same applies to Amel Ibrahimović’s contribution, which incorporates a prefabricated coffin of the kind that was handed out after the war when mass graves began to appear everywhere. The coffin is smaller than a traditional coffin because you rarely find whole bodies in the mass graves, only fragments. Ibrahimović has placed the elements very neatly on a podium, as if he were trying to find some logic or system to explain the abstraction that is death. I think everyone can relate to that, regardless of whether you have any first-hand experience with mass graves or not.

Several works touch upon elements of Danish migration policies as they existed in the 1990s, but does the exhibition also address the way refugees are treated today?

The exhibition encompasses many different approaches to themes associated with war, migration, asylum policies, multicultural identity, and belonging. Some of the artists take their own stories as their starting point, while others never use elements from their own lives. Correspondingly, some of the artists, such as Čirkinagić, aim primarily at arousing emotions, while others, such as Nermin Duraković, make clear points about migration and border policies. He has created a video work that lets us float above the border between Bosnia and Croatia, which also forms the EU’s furthest eastern border. We see how all vegetation and trees have been removed in a wide belt around the border, making it easier to spot any illegal refugees trying to get across. Of course, the work is also about an ethical boundary: who gets to define who is in or out?

Several of the works featured in the exhibition are based quite directly on the artists’ own experiences with war and migration. What does one need to keep in mind as a curator when addressing such difficult problems?

In her 2003 book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes about the issues involved when you try to understand and empathise with other people’s suffering. She was not convinced that it is even possible to convey such experiences to an audience that has not experienced the same thing, but I believe that it is possible.

Obviously, certain works – such as Tomić’s video, which is based directly on his own experiences as a refugee child in Denmark, or Ana Pavlović’s installation, which speaks very directly about her own marriage migration – involve some very specific references to Danish migration policies, but I believe that they can also be understood and appreciated more generally. Pavlović’s work is also about the feeling of being alone, about missing one’s family, and about how even love can be political.

I think it is easier for me to work with these stories because I share the same cultural background as the artists. We have a relationship of trust; several of them are even personal friends, so they know that I am not out to expose them in unfavourable ways. For me, this is not about doing an exhibition with some minority artists so that the museum can check off that box. I am invested in this project, partly because I myself share the same background.

Installation view, Ana Pavlović, Paper Theater, 2019, National Gallery of Denmark, 2022. Photo: Thomas Andersen © Ana Pavlović / VISDA.