Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 22 Oct 15 Montenegrin Art Group Spurs Cultural Revival

Meet the young artists challenging the status quo by promoting new talent and revitalising the local arts scene in Niksic.

Jelena Kulidzan
PUNKT exhibition at the House of Yugoslavian Army, ruined cultural centre in Niksic Montenegro | Courtesy of PUNKT

The House of the Yugoslavian Army in the town of Niksic, in western Montenegro, shared the same destiny of many buildings that once belonged to socialist-era Yugoslavia: broken windows, spaces filled with garbage, and floors strewn with used syringes carelessly discarded by junkies.

Once the cultural and social hub of the town, the building that had been a venue for concerts, events and celebrations of all kinds fell into disrepair following the collapse of the former Yugoslavia.

At the beginning of 2015, the building looked much like cultural life in Niksic. The town, home to 60,000 people, badly needed space for exhibiting and organising events. Culturally, Niksic was on its deathbed.

Old, ruined, forgotten, located in the centre of the city, just a few hundred metres from the municipality building, the former cultural centre was an eyesore. But Zdravko Delibasic, a 30-year old master of graphic design who works at the Faculty of Fine Art in the university town Cetinje, saw it is an ideal exhibition space.

Zdravko Delibasic, a 30-year old master of graphic design who works at the Faculty of Fine Art in the university town Cetinje

Along with friends and colleagues, Delibasic cleaned up the building and returned it to its original purpose, staging several events that had much impact on the town.

Delibasic, who was born in Niksic, and friends established PUNKT at the beginning of the year, an art group that would create spaces for younger generations to promote their work. PUNKT also set out to tackle other problems that have beset the country’s cultural scene: the prevalence of older, well-known artists, the lack of public interest in art, and the dominance of commercial content and mass media.

Launching an exhibition at the House of the Yugoslavian Army was their first project. Their aim was to help young artists develop their careers and, in doing so, boost the local cultural scene that was, according to Delibasic, almost non-existent in Niksic.

“Young artists were forced to find alternative ways to exhibit – like coffee shops or clubs,” says Delibasic, who now acts as PUNKT's artistic director, as he explains why he set up PUNKT, an organisation that now employs nine people in is operational team, ten artists in its Art Council and dozens of volunteers.

He says that since the group was formed, it has staged several events at the old Niksic cultural venue that created much interest among residents and led to younger artists receiving career-boosting offers after they had participated in the project.  

By choosing the dilapidated army cultural centre, PUNKT also symbolically revived the town’s cultural life which had also gone into decline after the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. The project was well-received by the authorities and the public.

Events staged at the House of the Yugoslavian Army were visited by the municipal president and representatives, officials from the culture and science ministries, and cultural stakeholders in Montenegro.

The home of Tito’s pioneers

Sculptor Marko Petrovic Njegos, a 35-year-old from Niksic

Sculptor Marko Petrovic Njegos, a 35-year-old from Niksic, remembers the first time he visited the House of the Yugoslavian Army. It was back in the time when he was one of ‘Tito’s pioneers’, and he says the building always brings him back to his childhood.

In the former Yugoslavia, schoolchildren became one of ‘Tito’s pioneers’ at the age of seven and so – equipped with a red scarf and a hat bearing a red star – were officially on the path to being a model Yugoslav citizen.

Back in those days, the building was a multifunctional hall, where theatre performances, events and poetry evenings were organised, and it was a symbol of Niksic’s then vivid and colourful cultural life.

“I played flute here with my school orchestra. That motivated me to create an art installation presenting an orchestra here,” Petrovic Njegos says, recalling the work he made for the first exhibition staged there by PUNKT. 

(Artist Marko Petrovic Njegos makes a sculpture of wood representing members of the orchestra with the picture of Josip Broz Tito next to it | Photo by PUNKT)

“I used impregnated wooden beams, which were used for construction cranes and stored in the basement of The House of The Yugoslavian Army. They were worn out and cracked, but ideal for the decrepit surroundings in the house. With minimal corrections, I made figures for each orchestra member, including the conductor. The installation was completed with an old photograph of Tito, which I also found in the basement,” he says, proudly describing his work.

Ahead of this first exhibition, held on February 20, PUNKT organisers invited young painters, sculptors and musicians from Niksic to join them and show what a town can do when there is the will. As a result, nine artists were selected to showcase their work – free of charge – at the rejuvenated cultural centre.

Marija Vemic | Courtesy of PUNKT

Painter Marija Vemić, 24, also took part in the first exhibition. She chose one grey room, gave it a fresh coat of red paint and then painted eyes all over the walls.

“Together with my colleagues, I painted walls in red and then added numerous black eyes. During the opening of the exhibition, the house was watched and it was watching! We wanted visitors to feel watched and made them start thinking about it,” Marija explains.

Marko Janjusevic, a painter and musician, presented his installation called Open Space, after which he performed with his punk-rock band Manitou. He believes it was the best concert the band has ever given.  

“With amazing surroundings and a fantastic audience, I didn’t have the feeling I was in Niksic. I had the impression that we were playing in Berlin or somewhere like that,” says Janjusevic.

Despite the fact several hundred visitors came to the event out of simple curiosity and love of art, vandals broke into the building only two days after the opening ceremony and smashed all the art works to pieces.

“They expressed their ‘creativity’ and destroyed my installation,” Petrovic Njegos remembers with sadness. ”But they did not discourage us. This just motivated us more to continue our mission.”

Photo: Mural at the wall of one of the oldest houses in Niksic | Courtesy of Punkt

The event at the House of the Yugoslavian Army was the first, but not the last, PUNKT project. They also organised the March 8 exhibition in cooperation with a local gallery, where nine female painters presented their art work, as well as a music theatre show in April and a vintage bazaar in June, during which one of the oldest houses in Niksic got a new mural.

After these initial events, PUNKT left the army house location. They say the project was temporary and had served the purpose of raising the issues around cultural life in Montenegro. The town is now planning the construction of a kind of a business and science centre called Technopolis on the site.

Giving hope to young artists

The founders say that PUNKT represents a new cultural energy in Niksic, which gathered various local artists who share the same vision - to support the cultural and social life of their community.

“PUNKT is a base for promotion of talent, creative work and original approaches to art. PUNKT is not just the organisation, it is more the way we treat problems and challenges in today's local culture,” Delibasic proudly explains, adding that the organisation has, from the beginning, received support from sponsors such as the Fund for Active Citizenship (FAKT) and private companies and donors, and this allowed them to achieve their goal.

After the first exhibition at the army building, Dukley European Art Community offered two painters the use of an art studio in the Montenegrin coastal town of Kotor free of charge for two years, which is for Delibasic an additional motivation for PUNKT to continue its mission.

“When we manage to successfully present and launch at least one artist per show, we are very happy. That is the essence of our organisation’s existence,” he says.

PUNKT is planning new projects but they do not want to reveal them yet. The organisation wishes to expand and have a greater impact on society and their local community. Young artists who were part of the centre’s beginnings, also want more.  

Marko Janjusevic, a painter and musician from Niksic

“I hope that PUNKT will bring together as many artists as they can. Together we can help society raise its cultural awareness. We have already set significant changes in motion,” says Janjusevic.

Vemic, the painter who took part in the first show, points out that PUNKT is the only organisation of its kind in Niksic, maybe even in the whole of Montenegro, which is the smallest former Yugoslav republic with a population of just 600,000.

“PUNKT gave me an opportunity to be part of a project that I would not otherwise have undertaken myself. It was always something new, different and inspirational. I strongly believe that every city in Montenegro needs a PUNKT-uation,” she says.

‘Good art stays invisible’

While satisfied with results of their work, PUNKT members remain, however, unhappy with the general situation of art and culture in their country. What angers them most is that good art usually stays invisible to the public. 

“I believe that Montenegro has numerous young artists who deserve attention. Some of them are in the place where they are supposed to be, but many never get the chance. The reasons are countless,” says Vemic.

She is under the impression that the same artists are usually in the spotlight.

“The older colleagues or self-proclaimed artists often do not give a chance to younger ones to present themselves. I admit that everybody should stand up for their art, but not everyone has the same opportunity to do that,” she says.

Janjusevic blames the system. With rebellious passion, he believes the system only approves intellectually and spiritually-limited artists who are not always strong willed.  

“Young artists will get great opportunities if they comply and do what mediocre society asks. If an artist wants to do something different, to influence the youth, the system becomes the biggest obstacle. PUNKT, on the other hand, helps those artists bring their work to life,” Janjusevic says.

Petrovic Njegos takes a more pragmatic view, saying artists face the same problem as other people – lack of money.

“After graduation, reality clips young artists’ wings. Most of them start working in completely different jobs, just to survive. The problem is when you get off the ‘art track’, you start losing creativity and inspiration as time goes by,” he explains.

For Delibasic, the main challenges for artists today revolve around the dominance of commercial content, mass media and the public’s lack of interest in real art.

“Art products that young creators offer usually do not align with regular routines and values; it is not commercial or trendy,” he says.

The general situation in society does not help either, according to Delibasic.

“A large percentage of the population in Montenegro is unemployed, the standard of living is poor and in a society like that, you cannot expect people to be interested in art, or to buy a painting, when they do not have enough money for basic needs,” he says.

“Nowhere is easy for young artists, especially here. But the situation is not hopeless, which our projects prove.”

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

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