Bos/Hrv/SrpShqip 29 Jun 15 Enthusiasts Keep Alternative Arts in Macedonia Alive

With little money or state support, the fuel of the independent arts scene in Macedonia comes from enthusiast who connect up artists, the community and local businesses over their mutual goal –  presenting an alternative to the cultural mainstream. 

Maja Nedelkovska

Dragi Nedelcevski, 57, from Tetovo in northwest Macedonia, is no ordinary tie-and-suitcase attorney. After he puts aside his stacks of administrative papers and leaves his office he returns to his passion – photography.

A long-time member and establisher of a local group of some 70 photographers, called “Chkrap!”, for 37 years he has roamed the streets of his town, trying to freeze the life of passers-by that obliviously rush past, unaware.

Over the past 12 years, Nedelcevski has stubbornly spread this “virus” of photography in his hometown, planting a seedling of a future cultural scene in an environment where it has become almost completely extinct.

“Major exhibitions of Chkrap! and Nedelcevski”

1.Dragi Nedelcevski, Life in a box, solo, 2009, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Switzerland

2. “Together”, group exhibition, 2014 (it travelled in Veles, Kavadarci and several cities in Macedonia), photographers from Photo Kino club Bitola and Photo group Chkrap

3. “Photographies 2010”, Tetovo, Macedonia, group exhibition of members of “Chkrap!”

4. “Photographies 2013”, Tetovo, Macedonia, group exhibition of members of “Chkrap!”

5. Dragi Nedelchevski, “Photographers/ies” (Фотографи(и), solo, 2014, Skopje, Macedonia

6. “Photographies 2014”, Group, 2014, Tetovo, Macedonia

For the younger photography fans who make up Chkrap!’s membership he has become a kind of guru, sharing his knowledge and giving free tips. The result: a group that numbers 15 active members has so far exhibited 500 photos at 10 group exhibitions.

Nedelcevski’s group is just one of a number of independent artistic initiatives scattered across Macedonia, which are the sole motors of culture and art in their surroundings, and function without any local or government support.

What cultural funds there are in Macedonia mostly go to the capital, Skopje. Hundreds of millions of euro are being spent, far from the independent cultural scene, in the grandiose revamp of the city called Skopje 2014.

However, the lack of funds and general neglect on the part of the state does not take away the independent art scene’s motivation. On the contrary, individuals like Nedelcevski keep pushing their cultural mission forwards.

In following video, Nedelcevski explains his need to influence his surroundings, create art and teach people photography:

The price of Skopje 2014

While independent artistic initiatives have to run on enthusiasm, the massive construction project called Skopje 2014 runs on more solid fuel, consuming hundreds of millions of euro from the state budget.

The government estimated in 2013 that the price of the capital’s new grandiose monuments and baroque-style buildings was 208 million euro but the opposition Social Democrats ad other critics claim the real price is far higher. 

BIRN research from 2012 has shown that the original price was blurred with annexes to many construction contracts.

A wave of new independent cultural and artistic initiatives, festivals and centres has sprung up in Macedonia in the past couple of years. Without any institutional or donor help, driven only by their enthusiasm, faith and values, the people behind these initiatives are true revolutionaries in changing society and the quality of the arts scene.

Lice v lice, KuLa, Theatra, AKSC, Kooperacija, Akto festival, Intimate theatre, Kontra kadar in Bitola, Loja in Tetovo, the Bosh festival in Gevgelija and other similar initiatives are making a serious contribution to cultural life in Macedonia.

The actors in this scene see these initiatives as the new pillars of arts and culture.

Another example of enthusiastic cultural activity are the young artists from Struga behind the Initiative for Independent Cultural Activism, INKA, who help organize poetry readings, promotions, exhibitions, debates as well as festivals, even when there is no funding to do so.

Kristina Todorska Petroska, 35, the programme manager of INKA, explains that this group of artists, experienced in performing arts, theatre, music, photography and design, came together three years ago when they felt the need for a cultural change in the town.

TODORSKA PETROSKA: We want to keep young people in Struga

"I am one of those people who look into the past and wish to follow the examples of those initiatives that grew into great institutions, such as the Struga Poetry Evenings. As a modern generation, we should pioneer modern trends, which is not the case with the older festivals, which are elitist and in a way put on for closed circles.

On the other hand, young people are leaving Struga. They do not have any motivation to stay here, although it is not only a nice place to live, but there is also a kind of creative spirit going on here among people. The idea was to keep these people here and give them chance to remain within this core. In a way, the town has lagged behind. There have been no major investments in continuity. On the contrary, the town lost much of its appearance and the idea was to make some changes, or at least to offer some example - practical small examples - on how to make the community a bit better, and inspire it.

The festival (DrimOn) has gathered numerous people into the organization, although we are all aware that we do it without any financial means. The entire support is firstly ourselves, who give our personal contribution by volunteering for six months in order to organize the festival, and contact people we know in order to participate at the festival. We also use our resources – we open our homes and living rooms to house the participants. I`m happy that all the participants, no matter where they come from, agree to those minimal conditions that we can provide them with, and that they have encouraged every such move we made."

Kristina Todorska Petroska, the programme manager of INKA

So far, DrimOn - a play on words referring to the river Drim that runs through Struga - organized by INKA, has run for two years, organized entirely with the enthusiasm of the volunteers. But, as Todorska Petroska says, it can hardly grow into something bigger if it is carried solely “on their back”.

“Our enthusiasm is still alive and we can continue to organize DrimOn in the following years. But, what I see as a problem is that it is designed to grow into a bigger, European festival. For one or two more years, we will surely have guests from Macedonia who will answer our calls to take part on a voluntarily basis, but what happens when we exhaust all those resources in people from the independent cultural scene in Macedonia?” Todoroska Petreska asks.

She adds that she and her team believe that they will put on a few more “reserve” editions of the festival after which it will be recognized by all the stakeholders in the cultural sector in the country, and by foundations and sponsors.

For Nedelcevski, it is not difficult to organize a promotion of his new documentary “Hair”, which is the story of a local musician. Everyone who supports art events is willing to help, so a café owner is “lending” his locale, and friends and family come to celebrate and to support. INKA has friends in every field in Struga. When they need accommodation to put up festival guests, the neighbours are here to help. They also need food and drinks, and the restaurants and cafés are willing to provide the same. They all know that it will do well for them. They do not see it as an expense, at least not for the moment.

Nedelcevski believes that art that changes society stays on the margins in Macedonia because of the dominance of populist culture, mainstream culture, turbo-folk culture and so on, but that this is no reason for artists to give up:

“The effort of the civic artistic initiatives, of enthusiasts and groups that are in constant battle for true values in the arts and culture, eventually pays off. It is said that you sow seeds once and harvest them another time, never at the same time. We should not be impatient but give our best. I’m sure that it will root somewhere and grow into something beautiful and valuable”, he says.

System ignorant of the independent scene:

Ivana Vaseva a curator who works for several independent initiatives and organizations, sees differences in both quantity and quality in terms of the general situation regarding the cultural and artistic initiatives and events happening as part of the annual programmes of the Ministry of Culture.

“The distribution of funds for culture illustrates the situation – the authorities give small slices from the cake, which leads to bad results without any experiment and vivid, alive art,” Vaseva says.

In such circumstances, she adds, it is logical to expect alternative, independent initiatives to stir the pot and stimulate participation in art events, projects and research that have inspirational and aesthetic values. 

“Partly because of the pressure that exists because of the tight cultural scene, these initiatives emerge not only in Skopje but also in smaller cities in Macedonia, which is welcomed and supported by the cultural public.

“The problem with these initiatives is that they can’t remain active over a long period because they don’t find funding and don’t have a plan.”

Vaseva adds that it is important for these enthusiastic initiatives to find a way to function over the long term and in a more strategic and structural way.

Robert Alagjozovski, a cultural analyst and an expert in the field of arts and culture, says the real independent cultural initiatives, especially those in smaller towns and cities, are “thousands of embryos which later develop a new cultural life in the country.  Some are dying, some are transforming, and some grew into serious, established organizations and institutions”.

He recalls that all of today’s top culture events, like the Struga Poetry Evenings, the Skopje Jazz Festival and the Youth Open Theatre, emerged from independent cultural initiatives.

“Those initiatives were autonomous from the start, so they bear original artistic and cultural visions and often determine the spirit of the time, but also future trends, because of their great creative potential.

“They act with small budgets, great enthusiasm and with voluntary efforts,” he says.

Alagjozovski explains that a smart cultural policy on a local and central level would demonstrate a better level of care and understanding for such initiatives, and incorporate them into its own support systems.

“On both levels, grants in small and medium sized amounts should be allocated to these initiatives. There should also always be a place for them in program orientations and in the development strategies of institutions,. This doesn’t have to mean money, it also means providing infrastructure, help in technical and professional resources, program cooperation and coproduction, and use of public space without compensation,” Alagjozovski says.

This is happening, but only partially, he adds. When it does so, however, he continues, “It comes down to incidental relations, clientelism, the accidental generosity of responsible actors and similar things.

“A smart cultural policy should support independent initiatives as part of its own strategic priorities - and this should be not only in official documents that nobody reads; it should be practice in the cultural field of operation,” Alagjozovski explains.

For now, official policies ignore such initiatives:

“Lack of recognition and concrete support deeply frustrates cultural workers. The authorities see them as citizen’s organizations, which is not right. On one hand there are these artistic initiatives, and on the other, there are activities of certain organizations. You can’t mix an urban festival like DrimOn with some fair of beekeepers, with a folk event of some local ethno section, or with a commemoration of war veterans.

While these enthusiastic artistic initiatives continue to work, produce and act, the Jadro association of the independent cultural scene has come up with a new form in the Macedonian context - a model of an institutional public–civil partnership. The Association’s model incorporates a balanced, shared and organized structure and resources for all actors in the independent cultural sector.

Although the Ministry of Culture has merged this initiative into the action plan of the national strategy for culture, the process proceeds with all the difficulties that are typical of the system of state institutions and their administrative way of working - which is not the case with the rhythm of arts and culture.

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

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