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30 Jan 13

Battle Rages on Over Bosnian Cultural Icon’s fate

While Sarajevo art lovers celebrate their victory over the Skenderija centre management’s plan to hold a turbo-folk concert, the struggle over the destiny of this emblematic institution is far from over.

Amina Hamzic
BIRN Sarajevo
Poster announcing Theatro Show at Dom Mladih Hall, Skenderija

Bosnia culture lovers are seeking a permanent ban on what they see as vulgar “turbo-folk” concerts at Sarajevo’s once prestigious Skenderija hall.

After protesters took to the streets, a performance scheduled for December was called off.

But the activists fear it could prove only a single battle won, if Bosnia’s cash-strapped state doesn't find extra money to finance the Skenderija out of state budget.

The centre’s management tried to resolve the issue themselves in past year by evicting users who were behind with their rent and bills.

After eviction of Ars Aevi art museum was attempted in May, another cultural place, Charlama art gallery was ordered to leave Skenderija in December.

One cash-raising venture involved bringing in well-known Serbian “turbo-folk” stars whose music is popular among many Bosnians, not just Serbs.

While this turned out to be a step too far for many Sarajevans, the fate of the Skenderija remains unclear, as management and the local arts community still hold opposing ideas about the future.

While artists see their latest victory as the start of a new era for Skenderija, the management considers it a temporary setback.

If the government does not offer long-term financial support to the culture and sports centre, they intend to press on with evicting non-paying users, and with organizing more commercial programmes, such as turbo-folk concerts.

The director of Skenderija, Hajriz Becirevic, told Balkan Insight that they were fed up with empty promises from the authorities.

The City and Canton of Sarajevo had pledged to invest some 5.5 million euro, in order to cover the debt to the centre of Ars Aevi alone, he said, but had paid up only 475,000.

“The remaining millions are all the rents and bills that my predecessors [as managers] didn’t demand,” Becirevic said.

He explained that the total owed by various renters to Skenderija now came to some 8 million euro, of which 5.5 million was Ars Aevi’s debt in unpaid rent.

A centre in decay:

The centre, named after Skender Pasha, who built a trade centre on the site in 1499, was built in 1969 with two large halls.

The Mirza Delbasic and Dom Mladih halls hold 2,000 and about 7,000 seats respectively.

While Dom Mladih has a history of hosting culture events, Mirza Delibasic Hall is a venue for sports matches.

The first event held in the complex was an international table tennis championship in 1969.

Skenderija has since hosted other international championships, basketball, handball and boxing matches and rock concerts.

In the Winter Olympics of 1984, the figure skating and ice hockey competitions were also staged there.

But since the 1992-5 war in Bosnia, more and more of the stores in Skenderija have closed, giving it a sad, empty look.

Artists have tried to counteract this by staging exhibitions and performances in the empty sites.

It was under these circumstances that a contemporary arts gallery, CeKa Charlama, gave a 10,000-euro down payment to use space in the Skenderija to the former director, Suad Dzindo.

Under the agreement, they were not obliged to pay any more rent until the end of 2013.

When Dzindo was replaced, problems mounted. The centre could no longer pay its bills, and almost had its power cut off.

This tough financial situation placed the debts of Charlama and Ars Aevi to the centre under a spotlight.

While Ars Aevi’s debts are expected to be settled, finally, by the City and Canton of Sarajevo, the Charlama cannot count on such support.

On December 3 the centre’s management asked the Charlama to vacate the Skenderija, because of unpaid utility bills.

Luckily for the gallery, two days later, the canton’s Ministry of Economy agreed to settle the 20,000-euro debt, which temporarily marked the end of that conflict.

Art vs turbo folk:

Meanwhile, the centre’s more commercial ventures have caused outrage among some art lovers.

A so-called “Teatro show”, which aimed to bring in the Serbian turbo-folk stars Milena Ceranic, Dejan Matic, Nemanja Stevanovic, and OK Bend, was cancelled after a public protest in front of the centre on December 8.

Banners reading: “We will not allow turbo-folk” and “We don't want ‘Splavovi’”, referred to the Belgrade river clubs well known for their turbo-folk events.

As a result, the cantonal Ministry of Culture ordered Becirevic, to cancel the whole programme.

While the management of the Skenderija obeyed orders, the decision has not quietened the row over the future direction of the centre and over its management.

Becirevic says that the Skenderija earns less than 100,000 euro per year, and only new projects can generate enough fresh cash to pay staff salaries.

“My employees and I want to earn enough money to rebuild some parts of the Skenderija and provide salaries, which we can only do with projects of this type that are popular and easy to sell,” he said.

Becirevic recalled that Skenderija is treated as a commercial enterprise, and does not receive state funding, except for a small grant from the canton, which expects it to make a profit from rents and projects.

Becirevic said the centre needs some 190,000 euro a month only to pay salaries and bills.

At the same time, artists facing eviction from the centre have continued fighting for the right not to be kicked out.

Jusuf Hadzifejzovic, director of the Charlama, says the administration of the Skenderija does not understand the basic concept of the centre.

“This institution is called a sports and cultural centre and, as its name suggests, it should be promoting culture,” he said.

“The space was made for that, not for other economic activities,” he added.

Gallery Charlama

One of Charlama’s founders, Sasa Bukvic, said that true artists are needed to help the Skenderija “refresh its grim spirit with everyday cultural events and performances.

“I dream that the Skenderija will one day become a large art gallery, a hotspot of Sarajevo culture, as it once was,” he added.

Bukvic, along with Hadzifejzovic and Mesud Rizvo, organizer of the anti-turbo protests, say staging more turbo-style events there would be “a cultural catastrophe”.

Serbian sound:

Turbo-folk emerged as a hybrid pop-folk musical style, mixing Arabic, Turkish, Greek and old Serbian folk genres.

Simple and easily understandable, its critics dismiss it as vulgar in and even as junk music.

It also has a political subtext, as the genre was strongly promoted by the Serbian nationalist regime of Slobodan Milosevic during the wars of the 1990s and thus became partly identified as the popular musical vehicle of Serbian nationalism.

Since the wars of the 1990s, turbo folk has continued to expand beyond the borders of Serbia into Bosnia, Croatia and other Balkan countries.

Rizvo says it was wrong to try to organize such concerts in such a venue, as well as to attempt the eviction of known cultural institutions.

“I won’t allow them to organize concerts of turbo-folk and kitsch in a famous urban space like the Skenderija,” he said.

Poster announcing a performance of Serbian folk singer Dzej

Hadzifejzovic believes turbo-folk is damaging in itself, not just for the Skenderija. “It is a phenomenon which is disastrous for the youth brought up in this spirit,” he declared.

On the other hand, Becirevic maintains that it is up to people to decide whether they want to go to these concerts.

“I blame the mentality of our people who want to listen to that type of music and go to those concerts,” he said.

He criticized the fact that while the authorities had reacted over the “Teatro show”, two other turbo-folk concerts took place elsewhere in Sarajevo during the same month.

Becirevic said he suspected that people from the government had a financial stake in the other concerts, which is why they were allowed to go ahead.

“It’s not my fault that young people listen to turbo-folk, but if we need the money fast, I have to opt for this,” he said.

“It’s important for the government to state its wishes. Will it help us financially?” he asked.

“If not, we will have to solve our problems in this way,” he concluded.

This article is funded under the BICCED project, supported by the Swiss Cultural Programme.

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