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Feature 07 Dec 17

Serbian Artist Gives Turbo-Folk a Makeover

Turbo-folk is widely reviled and despised for its perceived links to crime as well as its kitsch sensibility - which has not stopped Belgrade painter Aleksandar Denic from giving it a whole new look.

Siri Sollie

Aleksandar Denic at the Belgrade Book Fair painting a picture on location. Photo: BIRN/Siri Sollie 

Turbo-folk has experienced something of a revival on the Serbian art scene during the last few years, a result of experimentation by multiple artists, musicians and DJs across the Balkan region.

Among them is Aleksandar Denic, a 34-year-old painter who lives and works in Belgrade. Denic is known for painting famous personalities, from musicians to politicians, and also for combining various genres from pop art, icon painting to cartoon-style images.

“In a sense, I see art as a mission to make the world more beautiful. In my case, I wanted, through painting, to show the quality of pop-folk culture. To bring forth the quality of ‘narodnjake’ [contemporary folk music] to be part of art… and for them to be recognised in the art world. That was my goal,” Denic explains.

Turbo-folk was at its prime in Serbia during the 1990s, thanks to artists such as Ceca, Aca Lukas and Lepa Brena. It reached mainstream popularity in Serbia and the Balkans generally but has also been associated with pornographic kitsch and the glorification of crimes and war crimes.

Serbian artists today, however, know how to repackage the often reviled soundscape into something new.

Vice Serbia recently released the documentary Turbotronik, featuring several DJs, musicians and artists, including Denic, who all share one thing in common: a fascination with turbo-folk and an ability to use pop folk music for their own artistic expression.   

Denic told BIRN that he combined his love of portraiture and folk music, and started in 2010 to make pop icons portraying the artists he adores so much.

“For instance, like someone would make a picture of Jimi Hendrix or the Rolling Stones, I would in the same way paint Mitar Miric [a Serbian pop-folk singer] like a music idol,” he says.

“Nobody was doing that at the time… It often happened that these artists were painted with irony, in the sense of ‘bad culture’, but I wanted to paint them without irony, just what they are, a singer, Aca [Lukas], [Zdravko] Colic.”

During the last few years, the folk-music-inspired painter has been exhibiting at various galleries and festivals at home and abroad. Belonging to what one might label an ‘alternative’ group of artists, Denic instead characterises himself as a “non-aligned” painter, having nothing against going mainstream.

“I don’t make a difference between underground and mainstream. Maybe people connect the underground with being narrow, and that has it own value, but there is no difference. It is not like underground is so much better than mainstream.”

Some of Denic’s work was recently published in the book Deniceva Godina (Denic’s Years), a black and white collection of pieces where he combines both writing and painting, presenting famous figures from politics and the music scene.

The Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, portrayed with the former Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, in the book "Denic´s Years". Photo: BIRN/Siri Sollie 

Next to the somewhat cartoon-like portrayal of famous figures, one can also trace the influence of fresco and icon painting in his images.

”I am very interested in a technique that resembles fresco-making… I don´t know fresco techniques, but I am trying to work as similar as possible to [it]. Those broad strokes, [and] the simplicity, those methods are very favourable for working,” says Denic. 

As Denic’s popularity has increased in the last couple of years, he is now able to live, although humbly, on his art work. However, he still remembers how he went through a stagnant period after finishing design school in 2006 and didn’t then really paint at all. 

Luckily, having some artist friends, Denic was again inspired to paint and in 2007 he slowly picked up his brush again.

“Before that I was just sitting home, going to school. And then, around two to three years ago, I met these people from Matrijarsija and then I started to work even more, going to festivals, making exhibitions.”

Matrijarsija is an art collective located in the Zemun neighbourhood of Belgrade. The group create their own cartoon strips, mainly using silk-printing techniques. Denic has for the last couple of years been using the premises as his work space and often collaborates with other artists living and working there on various projects.

“I realised we had the same interests, that we think the same in terms of music, and that they were a crazy gang.”

Since then he has participated in events organised by Matrijarsija, including Fijuk Sajam, a monthly art fair at IMAGO CUK (the Centre for Urban Culture) in the centre of Belgrade, as well as activities at Mikro Kulturni Centar –MKC Kombinat in Zemun.

While Denic is happy that festivals and small exhibition venues offers a way to earn money from his art, he stresses they are not enough to succeed as an artist.

“You have to organise yourself… to find your space in those galleries and to be part of an official art scene such as Studentski Grad and Dom Omladine… but your own initiative is also important, that you will make your own works, make your own exhibitions, to alone produce something and sell if you can.”

“I mean, for people who want to do everything, everything is easy,” he says, referring to the old maxim ‘If there is a will, there is a way’.

“Many things can be organised for very little money, Zemun [Matrijarsija] is a concrete example.  

“You shouldn´t expect money from the government or some private investor. For instance, if you want to paint go and buy a canvas, if you don´t have money for a canvas, you can paint on a carton.

“You shouldn’t be whining, you just need to work.” 

This article was published in BIRN's bi-weekly newspaper Belgrade Insight. Here is where to find a copy.

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