Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 06 Nov 15 Critical Voices ‘Erased from Macedonian Arts’

Macedonian artists exploring controversial themes disapproved of by the state are being silenced through direct and self-censorship, claim critics.

Aneta Risteska

In Double for Every Family – for the Benefit of Macedonia, artist Irena Paskali questioned why citizens paid twice rather than object to being double-billed by utility companies. | Photo by Irena Paskali, digital printing, 240 mm x 440 mm, co-curator: Maja Cankulovska Mihajlovska

When artist Irena Paskali created a billboard poster questioning why many Macedonians had chosen to pay twice for utilities rather than object to being double-billed, she didn’t quite get the reaction she expected. 

Irena Paskali, Macedonan artist, author of the bilboard Double for Every Family  

Her billboard was to have been included in the 2014 exhibition Billboard Art 2: Procrastination organised by the Institute for Culture and Art (Ars Acta) and held in the streets of the capital Skopje. 

To Paskali’s surprise, however, the exhibition organisers couldn’t find a Macedonian printing house willing to print the billboard, which she had entitled: Double for Every Family – for the Benefit of Macedonia.  

“This case was an indicator that if the art piece does not support government policy there is a chance it will be censored. Specifically, my work was banned from this exhibition, because one of the companies didn't want to print it fearing that they would be fined by the authorities, or enter into conflict with them,” she says. 

Macedonia and claims of art censorship

2015: An exhibition featuring nude life drawings and paintings was cancelled in July in the Macedonian Culture Capital Veles following concerns the works were inappropriate as the gallery also served as a venue for weddings.

2014: Irena Paskali’s billboard Double for Every Family – for the Benefit of Macedonia was excluded from an exhibition after printers declined to print it.

2013: An installation called All Beauty Must Die by young artist Velimer Zernovski became the focus of attacks purportedly from outraged Macedonian citizens.Erected in central Skopje on Independence Day, the work featured a series of statements and questions in pink lettering challenging sexism and perceived Macedonian identity issues. Zernovski later described the attacks published by media outlets as “the propaganda machine… working so diligently that it seemed the country faced some military threat”.

2012: The OPA billboard satirising claims a church fresco had miraculously cleaned itself was torn down within hours of installation, allegedly by religious citizens.

A sculpture of the mythical hero Prometheus by Tome Adzievski entitled Woman Fighter was partially covered with bronze after a women’s rights organisation complained that the statue’s genitals were too graphic.

2009: The Skopje city authorities painted over a giant yellow cross painted in the main square by artist Igor Tosevski, despite the fact he had already obtained approval from the city to create the work. The cross was situated on the planned site for a new Orthodox church and was widely interpreted as criticising the appropriation of public space for religious purposes.

2008: A billboard created by Atanas Botev used to promote his exhibition exploring the fiercely disputed events surrounding the mass exodus of Macedonians from Aegean Macedonia in Greek territory was removed. The work featured a Greek flag that had been morphed into a swastika, inviting comparisons with Nazi-era Germany. 

“A huge number of families in Macedonia got the double bills, not only from the water supply company but also from others that have monopolies. Nowhere did I mention any protest or revolt among the citizens. No matter how many times you give it [the bills] to some Macedonian families, they will pay it and be silent out of fear. Is there another country where this is so?” 

Paskali works from both the Macedonian capital Skopje and the Germany city of Köln. Doing so has, she says, made her well aware of the differences between the two countries when it comes to freedom of speech and handling criticism. 

While the Macedonian government has embarked on a multi-million euro monument-building spree in Skopje, arts and culture commentators say that artists producing work that is critical of or questions the dominant societal norms and political environment have effectively been silenced, by both direct and self-censorship. 

In particular, art works exploring the country’s national identity – a hot topic given Skopje’s dispute with Greece over the name Macedonia – much-debated historical events, sexual orientation, patriarchal societies, orthodox religion and even governance issues have, say critics, quietly disappeared from public art in recent years. 

The organisers of the Billboard Art 2: Procrastination exhibition say the refusal to print Paskali’s work is an example of censorship. They also note it is somewhat ironic that a printer refused to publish a work warning of the dangers of unquestioning civil obedience and fear because they were, they believe, afraid of the authorities. 

“The direct approach in the illustration of the society’s philosophy of how things should work caused censorship of the work at the very root, even before it was printed and brought to the intended location,” says Igor Sekovski, artist and member of Ars Acta in behalf of the organization. 

Public art removed or defaced 

Other artists have been refused exhibition space during recent years, while some works have even been removed or defaced. 

Back in 2012, the OPA (Obsessive Possessive Aggression) arts group created a billboard, also for an Ars Acta exhibition, that poked fun at claims a church fresco had apparently cleaned itself. It was ripped to shreds just hours after being installed by religious citizens. 

A billboard by Atanas Botev that explored the controversial, and fiercely disputed, exodus of Macedonians from Aegean Macedonia – part of modern day Greek territory – following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire was removed in 2008. 

Botev’s family was forced to leave Aegean Macedonia and in a deliberately provocative piece designed to spark a public debate over an issue he says is frequently brushed under the carpet, he depicted the Greek flag morphed into a swastika. The Macedonian city authorities took the billboard down. 

More recently, an exhibition of nude life drawings and art works was banned in the central Macedonian city of Veles this July after the gallery decided the subject matter was unsuitable because it also serves as a popular venue for weddings. 

Such a controversy over nudity in art raised eyebrows given Veles is the Macedonian Culture Capital for 2015. 

In addition to alleged direct censorship, critics say many artists simply self-censor in order to continue working as artists and to benefit from government arts and culture grants which they claim favour works that uncritically celebrate Macedonia’s history and will attract tourists. 

The authorities have strongly rejected accusations of censorship, with the government alleging these criticisms are simply the result of mendacious claims by opposition parties seeking to undermine its credibility. 

When asked about the alleged censorship of Paskali’s billboard, the Macedonian Ministry of Culture issued the following statement at the time: “We consider accusations of censorship as frivolous, tendentious and unfounded. This is a desperate attempt by the opposition to defocus the public from the successful implementation of the National Strategy for the Development of Culture.” 

The ministry statement also said that opposition parties had shown their “indifferent attitude toward culture” by failing to “realise any significant culture projects’ during their time in power. 

In a written response to BIRN’s questions about how funding is allocated, the ministry insists it respects legislation and the principles of transparency in awarding grants. 

“We believe that in recent years… doors are not closed to a single artist regardless of their political orientations and other affiliations,” the ministry says, stressing annual programmes support projects of national interest and that a funding report is published annually. 

“This document, which is publicly and transparently published every year, is an argument that there is no discrimination or favourite projects and artists, and that there is even less censorship. Many artists who are fierce critics of the government are part of this programme, part of the theatres and other institutions’ programmes. The Ministry of Culture supports projects according to criteria of quality, not by party and other affiliation,” concludes the ministry. 

However, many from the arts scene are not convinced. 

‘Political control’ of Macedonian culture 

Art historian Zlatko Teodosijevski

Zlatko Teodosijevski, an art historian working at Macedonia’s National Gallery, says that while the OPA fresco and Paskali billboard cases show how serious the threat of censorship is, the most worrying concern is over how artists are selected for state grants. 

“If you look carefully at the annual programmes for financing of public interest culture, every year you can see the names of the same party members or followers, while not one from the independent cultural scene or from those that are close to the opposition can be found,” he says. 

Teodosijevski sees this as complete “political party control” of Macedonian culture, and claims that there are blacklists with names of people that cannot appear in any of the official cultural events or projects financed by the culture ministry. 

“Only in the past one or two years, and after significant pressure from the public, were directors such as Slobodan Unkovski and Aleksandar Popovski given the possibility to stage theatre shows in Macedonian theatres. And those are also some low budget productions,” he says. 

The result of all these pressures is, says Teodosijevski, a decline in critical art that seriously questions and challenges prevailing social and economic norms. He also worries that citizens generally become less willing to express their own opinions in such an environment. 

“If there weren’t for some rare independent artists such as Filip Jovanovski, Velimir Zernovski, Gorse Jovanovik, or The Corporation, Macedonian art could be identified with some bourgeoisie salon or provincial quasi art that touches no one,” he says, while dismissing the government’s Skopje 2014 project as an example of kitsch that no conscientious, socially-aware artist could have produced. 

While Teodosijevski says various arts associations in Macedonia could do more to raise the issue, others claim that critical artists are subject to serious pressures and negative propaganda that can deter even the most strong-minded creatives. 

Culture theorist and writer Robert Alagozovski 

Culture theorist and writer Robert Alagozovski says that while some particularly determined artists occasionally manage to produce works that circumvent the attention of censors, others end up self-censoring. 

According to him, many artists who were once seriously socially-engaged have now adapted to the “new rules”, and are producing less critical works that fit within the confines of the government’s culture strategy. 

‘Self-censor or lose funding’

Alagozovski explains that there is a wide spectrum of unwelcome artistic themes, including the government and its policies, gender equality, homosexuality and transgender topics. In particular, he says the political leadership is keen to fund artists whose work supports the government’s preferred version of Macedonian history and identity.

“One of the sensitive topics is also the issues of identity… if they are not in harmony with the revisionist policies of the government,” he says, estimating that more than half of Macedonia’s artists produce government-friendly works. 

“The current government asks that art be ceremonial, glorifying, to reflect identity, to praise history, attract tourists, to have an interest in origins, to be in love with itself, narcissist and megalomaniac,” he says, condemning artists who have abandoned their critical stance and become loyal to the authorities. 

He believes a greater range of alternative sponsors and donors would help by supporting independent artists. 

Nebojsa Vilic, an art history lecturer at the St Cyril and St Methodius University in Skopje

Nebojsa Vilic, an art history lecturer at the St Cyril and St Methodius University in Skopje, acknowledges the pressures on critical socially-engaged artists, but takes a more upbeat view. 

“For a true artist there can be no fears and pressures. An artist is immune to them, if he is touched by them at all. I think that the pressures and fears should be an additional reason for creating,” he says, adding that “unhealthy censorship” will backfire and result in inspiring more and more artists to create great work. 

It’s a sentiment that Paskali would likely agree with, as she remains determined to produce works that challenge the status quo and demand her audience question the most pressing and difficult economic, political and social issues facing Macedonians today. 

Comparing the situation in Macedonia with Germany, where she feels there is a heightened awareness of the dangers of unwavering civil obedience and silence from fear, Paskali says critical art is vital for any society to develop and flourish. 

Macedonians need, she says, critical contemporary arts in order to become more questioning and engaged because “throughout history our mentality has never changed”.

This article is funded under the Invisible Art project, supported by the Prince Claus Fund.

Talk about it!

blog comments powered by Disqus