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25 Oct 12

Serbian Art Scene is Opening to the World

Mobility and networking are the keys to survival on the modern art world, the curator of Belgrade’s first private-owned international gallery, Zara Audiello, tells Balkan Insight.

Andrej Klemencic
BIRN Belgrade

Italy’s Zara Audiello opened Beoproject, the first private international exhibition space in Belgrade, in May, convinced it will help young Serbian artists who have not had the chance to present their work outside the local context discover their potential.  So far, the gallery has hosted exhibitions by four young Serbian artists and enabled them, via the partnership project 22:37, to present in Italy.

Q: What made you come to Belgrade and open a gallery?

A: As a curator my work has focused on conflict areas. By conflict I don't mean just war, but different kind of social and national conflicts. I was attracted to this part of the world when I once visited Venice, which in a way borders the Balkans, and met a lot of artists from various cultural institutions. At that point, I became interested in Balkan culture. This coincided with my private life, which at that time had me move to Belgrade. Sometimes it is hard to say if you move somewhere for professional or for private reasons. For me, it is a mixture of both. Otherwise I would not have a gallery in my apartment. I guess that makes me a sort of militant curator.

Q: How did the art scene look when you first came in 2009?

A: It was winter. My first impression when I moved here three years ago was of an immense artistic potential that was not being used appropriately. That’s why I decided to create this project. Beoproject is a part of an international project 22:37, a Berlin-Barcelona-Venice association that promotes the mobility of artists. Berlin, where I lived for a while, helped prepare me for Belgrade, because you can feel Eastern Europe there. I believed I needed to introduce this artist mobility project to a place that is perhaps less developed in the sense of artistic infrastructure, but where the relics of the East were still strongly present. At that time I started collaborating with Aurora Fonda, director of the Slovenian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. We did a project together involving three young Serbian artists, and I got to know the Serbian contemporary art scene.

Q: How is Beoproject financed?

A: I had no financial support when I started this project, which was conceived as a project room. I knew I couldn’t wait indefinitely for that kind of support, so one day I opened this space. If you work a lot, people here know about you, and investments, hopefully, come. So, I decided to open this Serbian-Italian art space. This is the first such project in the region.

Q: What is the key benefit for a young local artist in exhibiting at a gallery with an international profile?

A: In former Yugoslav times there were many international art projects. But Serbia was then hit by the economic embargo and the closure of borders. Now, with [Serbia’s visa-free access to the EU’s] Schengen [zone], mobility has increased. Mobility, for me, is in the centre of everything. If you give people the opportunity for mobility, you increase awareness in people about the state they are in. My project, for now, involves only Serbian artists because it is financially less of a burden because we do not have to pay the travel expenses, accommodation, etc. In future, I would like to make one residency program here in Belgrade. So far, there is only one such program in Serbia, in Zrenjanin. In Belgrade, there is none.

Q: What would this project look like?

A: First, I would like to invite Italian artists, because it is easier, given my connections with Italy. But generally, I would like to have artists from all over Europe. They would stay here for a month, which is the average duration of a residency. At the end, we would preferably organise an exhibition. But an exhibition is not always necessary, because the product can have different forms. I would also like it if Serbian artists can get an opportunity to show their work in Italy and Europe. Beoproject recently presented seven Serbian artists at a video show in Bologna along with seven Italian artists. Unfortunately, Serbia did not pay for their travel expenses, so the works travelled to Italy, but the artists stayed at home.

Q: How significant is the opening of this space for the city itself?

A: All such projects are in fact small treasures. This means that you can have in a local context a global perspective. Many things have changed in Belgrade since I came, not just my gallery. There are many great projects, like Mikser, or KC Grad at Savamala. That area, for example, changed completely in a period of three months. All the infrastructure that has developed there is down to young, creative people who developed their own ideas. Institutions did not do much for this to happen. In Serbia, even if you are in talks about some kind of state support, a change of government happens and then all the support is blocked. This is a difficult situation, because cultural projects are not getting funds from the state.

Q: Do foreign artists find Belgrade accepting when it comes to presenting their work here?

A: Let me answer that with an anecdote. I have a friend, an artist from Japan. She wanted to move to Belgrade. She came two years ago and stayed two months and went back. Why? Because she didn't find a network that would have enabled her to stay here. But I am sure that if she came back now, she could stay, because something has changed. The city became more open. There are a lot of events. I think that now young artists started to organise, and we have a new reality.

This is interesting, because the people say that if you have problems with the economy you don't tend to deal with culture. Serbia has for a long time been experiencing such problems, but this one fact that enabled people to travel without visas was enough to cause change. Artists from Serbia can now go to other countries and see what their colleagues are doing. They come back and have more ideas. The solution for survival in the artistic world lies in networking. Many of my friends come to visit me, and are amazed to learn how many cultural events Belgrade has on offer. There is great potential, but it needs to be used better. The same potential, if used only for making fast money, can be dangerous, because the capitalist system always puts culture in the slow lane, and people end up opening restaurants rather than galleries.

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