Methods of Reconciliation in the Face of Suppression: A brief look at the state of artistic rebellion in the Serb Republic / Manca Bajec

The Yugoslav Wars manifested a problem that has appeared and remains present in other spaces as well, of neighbors becoming enemies and a bloody civil war with no victors. The results are areas of post conflict spaces that have unresolved ideas of commemoration and little or no attempts of reconciliation. Furthermore, these divided spaces remain without a collective history[1], and without the possibility of creating monuments and markers, of these and other events, in the public realm.

The counter monument as coined by James E. Young appeared as method of building monuments at a moment when ‘traditional’ or rather conventional methods of monument building seemed to have lost its purpose. It arose almost as an act of rebellion against methods of remembrance that created a possibility of collective forgetting through the instating of the responsibility of remembrance onto the object, the monument, rather than proposing that the memory of the events is to be remembered by the people.

Post-war Germany had an exceedingly charged environment of a never before experienced post war guilt. As Young explains, in the post WWII, post-Vietnam era of the memory boom, German artists returned to ideas of the monument in a desire to contradict and re-appropriate the idea of the traditional monument building, removing it from the symbolism connected with the history of the Third Reich. In a moment when boundaries between the Eastern/Western divide started breaking and the memory boom was already in place, a group of German artists started exploring this ‘method’ or perhaps ‘movement’ that desired to interrupt a potential forgetting of the dangerous past. The movement, according to Young, necessitated a move away from aestheticized objects as representations. In this way questioning the potential of representation of violence, pain, and conflict, these objects rather became present in their absence. This appropriation of the idea of the present absence became a leading concept of the movement. Presenting the absence of a monument or an invisible monument as a representation of the Holocaust seemed, as Young describes, a more valid form of presenting the loss of a people. This style, or rebellion against traditions, already appeared with Maya Lin’s famous Memorial to Vietnam Veterans, where the young architect made a bold proposal that appeared as a scar in the park designated as the site of the Memorial. This conceptual duality of the Memorial both standing as a place of remembrance while equally being a statement of critique, was also seen in the work of the German counter-monumentalists.

While the state of monument building was never suppressed by the state, there was an inability or confusion of how to represent the massive amount of deaths which were strapped as a weight of guilt on the shoulders of generations that had lived through the War and those to come.

The state of monument building in Former Yugoslavia specifically the Serb Republic, within Bosnia and Hercegovina, faces the problem of an inability of forming unified, collective methods of memorialization. The war of no victors, left a great division between not only the generation that suffered the war but the following generations that have been subjected to a suppressing silence that encourages an aspect of fear to remain as a dividing border between the ethnic groups.

In this way perhaps the possibility of a re-adaptation of the counter-monument can be considered. The question would then be what form could this counter-monument present itself as?

The region was severely affected by the war and the population in a state of uncertainty that has remained present and continuous, with little if no reconciliation having happened between the different ethnic groups that were on opposite sides during the war, now return to live side by side since the end of the conflict. As in the case of Rwanda the war was localized, in the sense that civilians took up arms, as well as, an existing militarized battle. Unlike in Rwanda there has been no Truth and Commission or a state approved and enforced programme of reconciliation.

What is specific is that since the Nuremberg Trials of WWII, there has not been an international court set in place to deal specifically with a conflict. The Yugoslav Wars have the International Court for Transitional Justice of Yugoslavia, they also had regional courts however there was a lack of support to deal with the consequences of civilian-on-civilian brutality. These seemed, to many, to have a quality of performativity similar to that of the Dayton Agreement, apparently presenting a unified decision that results in progress but in reality proving to create long running Cold War-like symptoms.

The result of this lack, gap, in the process of the post-conflict space created a situation where there is a division, amongst the people and their historicisation of the events that took place during the war. Each side presenting their own truth.

Prijedor which is in the region of the Serb Republic is subjected to a state supported denial of some of the most horrific events of the conflict. Therefore, there are no monuments in spaces that the victims, of that region, feel they are entitled to present as important sites of their victimhood.

The region has seen a consistent flow of artistic initiatives, NGOs, journalists, and scholars entering and exiting the space. As a case study it is specific in the sense of remaining almost functional despite of the static and absolutely incapacitated state of collective history. By this I am referring to the fact that despite its state of being out-of-conflict, the conflict has been transferred onto a different plane. There is now a battle for history and the story which will be victorious is one that will remain as the official narrative, the other will always remain on the sidelines of history.

Amongst the groups, that have been working in the area, I will focus on some examples and more specifically on one groups, Four Faces of Omarska. This group centers its activities towards artistic or multi-disciplinary practices, in this way almost functioning as collectives and their projects as artworks.

Four Faces of Omarska is a collective that observes:

the strategies of memorial production from the position of those whose experience and knowledge have been subjugated, rejected, and excluded from public memory and public history. In short, it is an ongoing investigation of a complex vortex of historical dynamics in a particular site in the former Yugoslavia. The title Four Faces of Omarska comes from four constitutive layers in the history of this mining complex in northern Bosnia. It was established in socialist Yugoslavia as an iron ore mine (Prijedor, Omarska)  at the beginning of the 1990s wars, Bosnian Serb forces and local authorities transformed the mine into a concentration camp for ethnic Muslims and Croats; after the war, in 2004, ArcelorMittal, one of today’s largest multinational companies, assumed majority ownership of Omarska mine and resumed commercial mining operations; finally, in 2007 it was used as a film shooting location for Saint George Slays the Dragon, the historical ethno-blockbuster (First World War) co-produced by film companies from Serbia proper and Republika Srpska.[2].

One of its founders, Milica Tomic, was also a member of the Monument Group, which was conceived in 2002 as a discussion group that focused on questioning forms of memorialization in Former Yugoslavia and whether the state can take on the responsibility of building monuments that can represent the victims while also presenting insight into their own role in the violence. In this way also mapping out the power relations. It was an attempt to further understand how to build a culture of collective memorialization and instigates methods of implementing a unified history. As one of the member Srdjan Hercigonja, explained that it is about the methodology of production, non-production, about members of the group taking on different roles and weaving a transdisciplinary way of thinking.

The group, Four Faces of Omarska, applies artistic strategies, behaving almost as the agent through which ideas can be implemented. Coming into the space as outsiders from the victorious Nation, Serbia, that is glorified in Serb Republic (Republika Srpska), they, members of the group, initially had certain privileges or rather were approached with a certain respect. In this way, they were able to perhaps perform a role that others could not, taking on the idea of soft power and instead using it for its own purposes. Using artistic strategies and appropriating state strategies in order to create the desired political outcome. In some sense these groups behave through a re-appropriation of soft power. Appropriating the roles that the State should have set into place but through this presenting their own ideological positions. The group does not create or function as a collective whose primary or even secondary role would include production, they behave more as supporters of local initiatives.

In an excerpt from a recent Q&A[3] Hercigonja explains;

Basically in our approach in Omarska, we never actually advocated for the monument, but we asked the question of what a monument would actually do, would it solve the problem, will it reconcile the different social or ethnic groups? Of course not, so there must be something more to be done than a monument. The monument is needed in our opinion because there is a need for the victims to have an object…literally an object, something that is touchable, tangible. As a proof that in that locality, in that mind, in this place, they suffered and that something bad happened. This was the case with the White House in which case they are literally touching the walls, grabbing, in need of a physical object to prove that something happened there. There is a need from everyone who is involved for that.

For me it is very interesting that we were the first Serbs that came to the commemoration in Omarska in 2010. But it is also interesting that as an artistic collective we never produced anything and we did not aim to produce any kind of piece of art. It was our very presence that was productive in a way that it opened a political space for locals to get involved, for other people from Serbia to come, because no one had come before us. It was an ice-breaker. It wasn’t easy. The most difficult part was that we had to adopt an identity that was forced upon us and we accepted it despite the enormous difficulties but basically we realised that it was needed in order to gain a greater social acceptance or greater social inclusion. So that everyone can work together not just as a polarised organisation.

Q: So you do in a sense produce just not objects?

Yes, we have these so called working groups where we discuss media, memory, trauma, memorials, human rights, different artistic practices in relation to post-conflict, post-war, post-Yugoslav spaces and so on and we do consider it as a form of performance, one which is open for everybody to participate in, so it is not only us, we do not moderate but we just give a space for the audience and public to participate.

We have gone every year since 2010.

Q: So would you say that your presence in the space, once a year, is a form of performance?

Yes, the ritual of coming. This year it will be the 8th year and in itself that is a form of production and also of performance.

Q: People coming to the space, many from a different cultural generation associate memorialisation and commemoration with a tangible object with the tradition of building monuments. But for one moment in a year there is a physicality, a physical mass of people in that one space, so for that moment create a physical object that is formed with that mass of people?

Yes, for 3 hours the memorial exists, always the same time from 10am to 1pm.

(End of Q&A)

This adaptation of strategies in order to construe ideologies has become the only method of functioning in the area.  Testing the boundaries of local governments by using the support systems of the ‘foreign’ hero in order to be able to implement certain ideas that the local suppressed community would not be allowed to forward themselves.

Could these methods be proposed as counter-monuments[4], as non-monumental monuments that are not structures that stand as aestheticized objects but rather present themselves in an ever changing form that shifts to adapt whatever shape it needs to. A chameleon or shape shifter, in this way avoiding a destruction from those who wish to continue to suppress. In this way almost becoming the absolute re-appropriation of soft-power.

Or as Hercigonja explained, “There is production of alternative knowledge which is not possible in academia, which art gives you and provides opportunities for many things within a marginalised space.”

This paper presents some views I have been exploring as part of my practice-led doctoral thesis at the Royal College of Art, which explores the re-adaptation of the counter-monument in specific areas within Former Yugoslavia.


[1] Although I strongly believe that the idea of a collective history and memory yields the grounds for nationalism, in the case of spaces such as certain areas of Former Yugoslavia a certain collective recognition of the events of the wars is the only method of sustaining peace.


[3] The excerpt is from a Q&A in March 2017.

[4] In his essay, Transnationalism in Reverse: From Yugoslav to Post-Yugoslav Memorial Sites, Gal Kirn points out that memorialization in Yugoslavia started with transnational monuments, which can be divided into three aesthetic types. The third type developed in 1960s when Yugoslavia began to feel the first effects of liberalism, such as didn’t exist before and were not meant to be part of the socialism that was being practiced. With growing gaps in social classes, and unemployment, these artists faced the task of creating monuments that were meant to speak of a future of unity not solely based on the victimization of the past but rather evoke a thought in the audience of a bright future.

Kirn claims that with these monuments, which explored a more socialist modernist aesthetic, many of which were built on the exact sites of the events, which they commemorated, and were larger than life in size, some expanding into whole parks, spaces for people to gather became the true first counter-monuments, which later on James E. Young described in his observation of developments of memorialization in Germany.

Kirn, G. Transnationalism in Reverse: From Yugoslav to Post-Yugoslav Memorial Sites, in Transnational Memory (eds. De Cesari, C., Rigney, A.) De Gruyter: 2014. p. 313-338.