Bos/Hrv/SrpShqipМакедонски 30 Sep 15 Serbia’s Disabled Artists Fight for Visibility

A handful of artists battling serious health conditions in Serbia are breaking down the stereotype that says their art belongs only in exhibitions ‘for the disabled’. 

Branislava Lovre
Darko Babic, academic painter at the age of 32 (2001) | Courtesy of the author
Darko Babic, academic painter at the age of 46 (2014) | Courtesy of the author

Darko Babic, a 46-year-old painter from the town of Pozega in Serbia, last year got the chance to exhibit his works after 12 years of absence from galleries and painting due to progressive multiple sclerosis.

This life-threatening illness struck Babic while he was finishing his basic studies and starting his masters at the University of Arts. It not only interrupted Babic’s education but took him away from the canvases for more than a decade.

“It was strange and insidious. One day I would be able to work but the next day not. I would tire quickly for reasons that were unknown to me at that point,” he said.

“I enrolled for a masters degree in visual arts in 2001 but slowly realized that something strange was happening to my body,” he added.

During these long years, Babic gradually lost hope of professional career until one day in 2013 when the manager of the gallery in his hometown invited him to stage an exhibition that he would create for that purpose.

Coming back to Life:

The topic he chose was appropriate: portraits of children with disabilities. The title, “Restart”, paid tribute to the spirit of human endurance and dedication.

Babic’s struggle to create while battling a cruel and incurable illness became the theme of a film, also called “Restart”, directed by Dejan Petrovic.

“Since the movie was released, I have wanted to contribute and help people with less opportunity to show their wonderful abilities and talents through creation and the visual arts,” he explained.

Apart from the exhibition and the movie, what brought Babic back to creative life was the offer from the local Association for Disabled Persons to hold painting workshops twice a week to children and youngsters between eight and 30 from Pozega and later from nearby Arilje, where he received a similar offer from the organization Impuls.

The faces of these children also became the subject of his comeback exhibition.

Focus on the art, not on disabilities:

Psychologist Aleksandar Sibul from Novi Sad told BIRN that disabled people should enjoy equal treatment to others in art, as in any other profession.“The accent should be on the art and personality of the artist – and not on his or her abilities or disabilities,” he said.

Sibul mentioned the example of this year’s Eurovision participant, Pertti Kurikan Nimipaivat from Finland whose members have Down Syndrome, but who have repeatedly stressed that they didn’t want people to vote for them out of compassion.

“Their participation means that Europe is opening itself up to people who have been marginalized so far, which is a signal that as a society we should do more so that we can all have an equal possibility to express our talent,” he concluded.

Babic - and his students - presents a rare example of a breakthrough among artists with disabilities, most of whom work away in solitude and store their art where no one will see them, except family members.

Whether disabled people create their own limits in terms of their affirmation as artists, or whether society does it, the result is the same. Few get a chance to exhibit, and, when they do, they present their works only within events that deal with the art of disabled people.

Babic’s example is crucial in showing how disabled people need not be treated as patients or as groups with certain rights on paper, but can be fully included in wider society to the benefit of both society and themselves.

“The joy of these young people I worked with and made art workshops with in Pozega and Arilje, and their pride when they felt that their work was beautiful and important… and when the world of ‘grownups’ and ‘healthy people’ buys it – is a huge satisfaction for me that I can hardly describe,” he said.

The World Health Organization assesses that about 15 per cent of people in the world live with some form of disability. In Serbia the number is around 10 per cent. No one knows how many disabled people paint, direct, act, or practice some other kind of art. Their talents are rarely exploited by cultural institutions and remain invisible to the wider public.

Artists with disabilities marginalised:

At 28, Jelena Jakonic is much younger than Darko and her health is even worse. But what connects these two is their passion for visual arts and an urge to create despite huge obstacles.

Jelena is almost totally blind. Struck by a subdural haemorrhage at birth, it caused an atrophy of the optic nerve and a mild retardation. Many people would find her condition unbearable but she is cheerful and full of life, spending her days painting and trying to communicate her world to other people.

She “sees the world in colours and not in shape,” she explains. Sometimes she spends whole days trying to capture that world with her brush, a discipline she got interested in after taking part in workshops and programmes last year in her northern hometown of Kikinda.

However, her works seemed unlikely to decorate the walls of any gallery.

Jelena’s tutor, Dragana Latinovic, a visual artist and an art educator, who was thrilled with her talent and enthusiasm, tried to organize a solo exhibition for her in Belgrade a year ago.

She was advised to take her show to an association of disabled people.

“Situations like this make you realise that art among people with disabilities is marginalized; they do not have the same chances as other artists,” she says.

Latinovic, who has organized numerous workshops for visually impaired persons, thinks Jelena’s works are “remarkable, high quality, and extensive enough to support several solo exhibitions”.

However, with no formal art education and with her disabilities she has been unable to enter an art world that is not ready for her.

“They would probably be accepted much more if their art was easier to institutionalize,” Latinovic says.

Sensationalist media don’t help:

Media expert Ruzica Skrbic says the media in Serbia are not contributing positively to changing the unfavourable position of people with disabilities.

“The media’s reporting on people with disabilities is pathetic. They are hungry for sensation, which means that they focus more on the feelings and emotions of readers and viewers than on publishing the news correctly.”

According to her, in journalism in Serbia, big tragedies and misery attract more of an audience, which makes people with disabilities reluctant to speak publicly about their problems.

“People with disabilities are rarely shown in a positive context, and mostly as part of stories that deal with social issues. Sometimes sensational headlines glorify the courage of individuals with disabilities, but there is no continuity,” Skrbic said.

Latinovic says that while many events are organized by organizations for blind people, such as poetry evenings or theatre plays, the wider community rarely visits or sees them.

“We cannot present works in front of a serious audience, media and art critics, not because of the lack of quality, but because institutions and media do not view events like this as culture,” she says.

Jelena’s mother, Zeljka, explains that painting meant a step towards her daughter’s integration into society but now she no longer has the assistance of a mentor, and even materials for painting are almost impossible to obtain as they are beyond their means.

She has often wondered if her daughter’s talent is destined to remain between walls of her room.

However, despite such setbacks, these artists are stubbornly dedicated.

Indeed, Jelena has continued to exhibit works at shows for people with disabilities, including at the first creativity fair for the disabled, which was held in Belgrade late last year.

Thanks to that, Jelena's work drew the attention of the director of the Museum of Naive and Marginal Art, Nina Krstic, who selected her works for the exhibition “Art in spiritual exile,” which opened on May 29. That was Jelena first real exhibition.

Visibility is hard to achieve:

Milesa Milenkovic is the author of documentary movies and director of the festival, “Uhvati samnom ovaj dan” (“Seize this day with me”).

Young, ambitious, and hardworking, she suffers from a form of muscular dystrophy. But it has not prevented her from achieving her goals.

So far, Milenkovic has made two movies “Between the lines” and “Moment of Joy” (2014), and is completing a doctorate at the University of Novi Sad Center for Gender Studies. She is always ready to start a new project or learn new skills, she says.

“People with disabilities have various talents, but there are many areas where it is hard for them to achieve affirmation and become visible,” she says.

“This is especially the case in dramatic arts, among actors, directors, where there are no disabled people as far as I know,” she adds.

Moment of Joy” deals with the stories of four women with disabilities who retell their experiences of motherhood.

Milenkovic made the movie on a small budget, doing several other jobs in the process.

“Having in mind that I am a disabled person, with no art school education, the question of my reliability was brought up – would I be able to do it?” she recalled.

“But my mentor convinced them that I am persistent, which made the filming possible,” she added.

TRAILER: Movie “The Moment of Joy”:

The Milesa Mienkovic’s film festival, which has run since 2012, this year had its 13th edition bringing new characters such as Kristina Zivanic an awarded dancer in a wheelchair in the movie “On tips of wheels” (2011), and a woman from Banjaluka who plays basketball, sings and paints although confined to a wheelchair after a car accident.

Milenkovic regretfully says that it is hard to gather funding for the festival. “Topics like disabilities are not a priority in state competitions for culture or for social policy,” she said.

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

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