12 Apr 11

Turn the Lights On

Christine Bednarz

A friend and fellow expat living in Sarajevo told me he might transfer to a different city next year. “I like Sarajevo but there is hardly any cultural life,” he said, and complained about the lack of concerts and weak alternative music scene.

An argument ensued, and I defended Sarajevo’s cultural honor in relation to its size, discussing festivals, concerts, and museums.

In fact, it was culture that led me to this city in the first place. A few years ago, I attended an exhibition and lecture by Sarajevo-born artist Braco Dimitrijevic in Philadelphia, and later noticed his sculpture in between visits to the History and National Museums during my first trip to Sarajevo.

Walking through Bascarsija one of those balmy summer evenings, I sat in front of the National Library after stumbling upon an outdoor concert across the river, and fell in love with the city.

After moving to Sarajevo, I found the diversity of films included in the Sarajevo Film Festival very impressive and listened to many more outdoor concerts during the summer Baščaršija Nights.  

The Bosnian Cultural Center was completely filled during the Sarajevo Jazz Festival, and the audience welcomed an enjoyable young Serbian classical music group during the Sarajevo Winter Festival.

Despite the presence of larger festivals, the situation is far from perfect: Ars Aevi, the contemporary art collection is open by appointment only, and a nonexistent concert hall has apparently been planned since 1999.

Many times after paying the small museum entrance fee, I realize I am the only visitor inside, or a museum employee must walk ahead of me to turn on lights.

As I found my way around, I realized that the Braco Dimitrejević sculpture is one of only two examples of public art in the city – the second being a large-scale replica of canned international food aid distributed during the war, located nearby.  

Small galleries are practically invisible, and I do not find myself in the theatre as often as I should.

So when I read in the news that on March 31, the cultural budget in Sarajevo Canton has been significantly cut yet again, I feel extremely disheartened.  

These institutions were already struggling but the worst part, however, is the complete lack of citizen response to these cutbacks. I am forced to recall my argument and question: Is Sarajevo’s cultural scene really worth defending?

Despite a time of hardship and apathy, this art-loving foreigner still believes in the city’s cultural offering, although frequently out of the spotlight.  

Although I can only reference stories, culture was vital during the siege of Sarajevo. Bosnian film students proudly explained to me how the film festival actually began in 1993 during the war when the city had no food, water or electricity, let alone projectors and screens for films.

Called “Beyond the End of the World,” Haris Pasović managed to collect about 200 films from the international community and print the program in the newspaper. Hundreds of people waited out front of the National Theatre for tickets, despite the constant sniper fire around the city.

Images circulated around the world of the Cellist of Sarajevo, who risked his life to play music in rubble for 22 consecutive days, boosting spirits of his fellow citizens. The graphic design group Trio also worked during the war, designing the “Enjoy Sarajevo” logo seen on souvenirs, and other initiatives to raise awareness about the siege.

One Bosnian friend said she always went to the theatre during the war, but rarely goes now as the offerings seem less interesting.

Another explained how people attended exhibitions, plays and lectures when possible in order to forget, even just for a brief moment about reality around them. These cultural events provided a sense of normalcy during the war and in a small way, helped people to survive.

Despite these stories, Bosnian people today seem to overlook these cultural cuts, citing bigger issues like the economic crisis, high unemployment, and a government struggling to form.

Museums remain dark as Bosnians worry for the future. As proven during the war, however, there is a fundamental need for the arts, even under extreme circumstances.

Funding for cultural institutions is an investment into the future to develop the community, re-brand the city’s image, and to connect people.  

Placing value on culture today, by government officials and citizens alike, will ensure a better tomorrow by instilling a sense of pride in the community once again.

After all, most people from this city can remember a time when culture played a small yet not insignificant role in survival.  Perhaps it is time to turn the lights back on.

Talk about it!

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