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29 Jan 18

Bosnian Town's Woodcarvers Maintain Slice of World Heritage

 

UNESCO's decision in December to recognise the unique woodwork of Konjic as part of the world's heritage will give an extra boost to a business that was already enjoying success.

Igor Spaic BIRN Sarajevo

It looks so simple, watching the woodcarvers of Konjic in central Bosnia. They cut the patterns into the wood so fast that the naked eye can hardly follow. It’s hard to believe they never hit their hands with the chisel.

But nobody’s nail is blue from bruising in this shop. For generations, they have been carving their flower and leaf patterns on every piece of furniture that the town’s famous shops produce.

Four generations ago, when Konjic counted less than 5,000 inhabitants, Armin and Orhan Niksic’s great grandfather, Gano Niksic, took up woodcarving as a hobby after getting familiar with the hand-carving techniques of a nearby village.

Today, the two cousins have woodcarving shops right next to each other in Konjic.

While Armin Niksic's shop continues to make souvenirs and pieces of furniture that the family has produced for about a century, Orhan's shop headed into a new direction and courageously broke the mold of both traditional and modern design, combining them into a popular new style.

Business is booming for both of them, however, and is expected to grow more since the UN's cultural arm took note.

In December last year, Konjic's woodcarving was added to the UNESCO List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.

“We are expanding a lot right now. People love good craftsmanship, the artistic part of it. Everyone wants to have something hand-made,” Armin Niksic said.

The smell of sawdust fills his shop, as a few workers hammer and carve away at the wood and transform it into different shapes and sizes.

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The carving technique has remained unchanged for generations, and requires a steady, skillful hand, with years and years of experience.

“You need many years to learn a craft, and still you can only truly master it near the end of your life,” Niksic said.

Konjic woodcarvers have been presenting their traditional Bosnian furniture at international fairs since the 19th century.

The small town, on the border between Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the mountain creek Neretva turns into a real river, already boasted a number of woodcarving shops, each known for its own specific pattern.

During the seven different empires, kingdoms and republics that ruled this patch of Europe over the past 150 years, Konjic had its ups and downs, and so did its woodcarving.  

Gano Niksic’s son, Salih, was the first one to open a Niksic family woodcarving shop in 1919, named “Rukotvorine” [Handicrafts]. In 1927, his brother Adem, Orhan and Armin’s grandfather, took over and business grew.

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The Niksics’ woodcarving workshop was one of the two largest and most popular ones in the region between the two world wars – the other one belonging to the Mulic family.

For a short period after World War II, when the new communist regime did not tolerate private firms, the shop was nationalised.

But as time went on, the state eased up, and Adems’s sons, Besim and Mukerem, reopened their shop in the 1950s, continuing their father's tradition.

“It was a small shop in their family home, where they employed a handful of woodcarvers who mainly produced souvenirs,” Orhan Niksic told BIRN.

Adem andOrhan Niksic with father Besim. Photo courtesy of Zanat

The shop again expanded and that is where brothers Orhan and Adem learned the basics of the craft.

“We would work for pocket money in the shop after school. Usually, we did some of the dirtiest jobs, like cleaning up,” Niksic told BIRN.

Shortly before the 1992-1995 war in newly independent Bosnia broke out, Mukerem Niksic’s son, Armin, also opened up his own woodcarving shop, “Brothers Niksic”.

Business then stopped for a while as a war devastated the country and, once again, interrupted the family tradition. 

Orhan started working for a US humanitarian organization and in 1994 received a scholarship from Stanford University.

Back home, his father reopened the workshop as soon as the guns fell silent and Orhan’s brother, Adem, took it over after he finished his architecture studies in 2001.

Globetrotter Orhan, meanwhile, completed his masters’ degree, worked as an economist in Los Angeles, for Bosnia’s international administrator in Sarajevo, then for the EU in Kosovo, for the World bank in Sarajevo and then went to Jerusalem working on the economy of Palestine.

But all this time his mind was in Konjic. “During my time in Palestine, we figured out what we wanted to do with our family company,” he told BIRN.

“I was always interested in the entrepreneurial side of our company – how do we make an international brand out of our woodcarvers shop?” he said.

He had a vision, and the company took a new direction, launching a new brand, “Zanat”.

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Rukotvorine began to merge modern, mainly Scandinavian, design with the traditional handcrafted decoration. The modern furniture is decorated with motifs carved using the same technique used a century ago.

They joined forces with locally known designers, such as Salih Teskeredzic and Jasna Mujkic, and soon also began cooperating with international designers, mainly from Scandinavia.

“Modern design is minimalistic in form, shorn of any kind of decoration, and Scandinavian design is somewhat known for that. But we did not see a problem in merging that design with what we do here,” Niksic said.

It was a great success, and soon won international recognition, with two products receiving the Interior Innovation Award at the Cologne Furniture Fair in 2011 and 2012.

A new concept was born, which Niksic named “Manulution” – “a revolution of craftsmanship for the modern era”.

So what is the recipe for the brothers’ success?  Other than a unique product of great quality, Niskic emphasizes the importance of presenting the product to a wide public.

“We participate in leading international fairs, and also represent our work through electronic promotional campaigns and in catalogues,” he said.

“What we have in Bosnia is quality craftsmanship, but not many local companies understand the market outside of the country. Our craftsmanship has a much greater value when it is combined with design and good marketing,” he explained.

“We can make great products here, but they have to be shown to the public and to potential distributors who can recognise this as quality and sell it. That is how you establish a distribution network,” he added.

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Another important thing is the service the company provides. “Our service is also very important to our customers and distributors. They want to receive the product timely, properly packed up, without any fuss,” he said.

Because of rules hampering exports from Bosnia into the EU, Niksic established a company in The Netherlands, so it can import the products itself, saving distributors the trouble.

“They don’t want to deal with this stuff, even the transport. They place an order and we transport it to them,” Niksic said.

This is how the company sells its products across all of Europe, the US and Australia.

The company also provides hope for youngsters in Bosnia, a country suffering high rates of unemployment.

“Last year, we trained and employed 15 young people, all of them under 30. We keep growing, and I think we might employ another five people this year,” Niksic said.

The company also continues to work with local designers and has some 150 local suppliers. It also cooperates with small local craft shops that provide parts Rukotvorine does not produce, such as the metal and leather parts of the products.

All of the raw material, the walnut, maple, cherry, oak and ash wood, comes from Bosnia.

“Being included in the UNESCO list means a lot to us, our town, and our country. It is recognition of the generations of woodcarvers from Konjic who maintained their craft,” Niksic said.

“We have a lot of other material and intangible heritage in Bosnia that may have not yet received such recognition, but I hope this is an inspiration for others to start work on protecting and promoting it,” he concluded.