It’s kind of an odd feeling to be the only American in a room where a retrospective of anti-American artwork was being showcased. The locally known Sarajevo graphic artist seems to have built his career on various desecrations of a Coca Cola can. He also made liberal use of likenesses of Tito as puppet of the CIA (though the puppeteering was most likely the other way around). It wasn’t all anti-American but the pieces with Old Glory involved definitely got the most eyeballs.
Zoran and I slowly made our way around the wide open gallery space under a low-slung ceiling, carefully looking at each piece. Zoran was the son of the bartender from the drunken afternoon the day before and his English was pretty damn perfect. Admiral, the poet I had met in the same bar, told me to meet him back there at 6:00pm the next day if I wanted to attend the exhibition with them. I said I would as I had nothing else to do and before I knew it, I was being introduced to denizens of the Sarajevo art establishment as “George, from New York”.
Despite attending an exhibition that resented American cultural hegemony, I would always get the same impressed look when it was revealed I was from New York City. Since I moved to the city, I get that reaction in any foreign land my worn New Balance sneakers have stepped foot on. If introduced as an American, it’s been my experience, that you can read the mixed bag of perception on the face of the person I’m being introduced to. But many times, once I say I’m from New York, I’ve seen the other person step back, their eyes enlarging. They will repeat the words ‘oooohhh, New York’ with the same mix of awe and reverence as if the pope was standing next to me.
For being an American, it’s almost like a pass. If you consult maps that are even 200 years old, you’ll find that New York is still physically a part of the United States. Try it if you don’t believe me. New York has a cache that other places just do not have even though it is geographically attached to a country that many people on the planet, both justifiably and not so, dislike.
Zoran and I eventually left what I have to say was a pretty good exhibition. We had lost Admiral to the drink and we decided to go off and lose ourselves to the same. Zoran, a fellow graphic artist, was also a talented painter who had spent many years studying it in Milan which explained his also perfect Italian. Born in Sarajevo, he was more than intimate with the city which meant, of course, that he knew the best places to get a good tipple.
One place in particular, whose name I won’t divulge, was a cultural history lesson in itself. Tucked away in his neighborhood at the top of the west bank of the river, we had to climb up a series of steps and hills to get to it. But the climb felt great, especially in the comfortably cool night air. Besides, he had taken me to another fantastic bar prior and cherry brandy was already coursing through my veins. We finally came upon a nondescript building which of course I never would have found on my own. As we walked, Zoran had told me this place was a snapshot of 60’s era Yugoslavia. But unlike bars that try to contrive a time period or style, this place actually was Yugoslavia during its brief golden age.
Once inside, I saw what he meant. Everything from the wallpaper to the light fixtures was authentic. The wooden bar itself along with all of the cabinetry and shelving behind it were the real deal. Yes, there were some things that were modern like some of the cheap metal frames on the wall but their subject matter wasn’t. Local sports heroes of yore and album sleeves for 80’s Yugoslavian pop bands filled the picture frames. Images of Slavic celebrity, both political and otherwise, surrounded us as we took on some rakia. As has happened on more than one occasion in the Balkans, the bartender took out a bottle without a label and poured its clear contents into a short glass. In the States, you would question what comes out of a label-less bottle. In the former Yugoslavia, you just hoist your glass and cheer.
We eventually moved to beer and onto conversations about politics, anarchy — he was an anarchist —art, working for the “man” in order to be able to make art and on how art doesn’t really pay anyway. Zoran was the right guide to Bosnian and Yugoslav culture. A warm and open person who could express himself in English, sarcasm and all, and wasn’t afraid to give his opinions about capitalism, art or anything else along with a well-placed “fuck you.”
Eventually, the anarchist had to get up for work the next morning and the Arab had a bus ride the next day so we parted. Slowly, I descended the hill toward Sarajevo’s watery spine toward my guesthouse. I was riding a nice buzz and though I was going down I couldn’t help but look up. Many cities are attractive during the day but some cities knew well how to showcase themselves when the sun retires. The way the bright moon poked through navy blue sky to, along with artificial sources, color the downtown cathedrals and minarets was maybe the best exhibition Sarajevo had on offer.
WHAT: The iconic Catholic Cathedral of Jesus’ Heart lit up at night
WHEN: June 7, 2012
WHERE: Sarajevo, Bosnia-Hercegovina