A Subjective atlas of Serbia

February 1, 2009

By Annelys de Vet, Volume Magazine , 2009 #1 ‘Architecture of Hope”

For several years Belgrade was regarded as the epicenter of war and aggression. It was a war nobody wanted, but one with which every citizen had to deal then and continues to deal with today. Today the city is home to a million and a half people each of whom have opinions on their history, identity and future. Last year I visited this loaded ground to make a ‘Subjective Atlas of Serbia’ with Serbian artists and designers. They were invited to map their country in their own way: politically, critically, culinarily, romantically, negatively or positively. Personal involvement was a starting point and the aim was to produce human, unconventional and honest images. 

The interviews I conducted about the artists’ work directly touched the soul of society. This experience was a crash course in Serbian culture which was far more complex than I had expected. Yet what I experienced with relief while talking with every designer is that Serbians have a great deal of political awareness. They are far more conscious of the collective element in society than we. There seemed to be no room for egotism or individualism. People help and support each other. One of the youngest participants in the atlas, Simon Kuzmanovic (1985), explained proudly that Serbians are actually a very colorful and energetic people; even if you lose them all you still need a lot of energy to start six wars! This is a remarkably disarming way of looking at something with which most others do not know how to deal.

When asked what his contribution to the atlas could be, designer Milan Vukelic answered: ‘I don’t know yet. I don’t know what personal is, what I am, who I am, what Serbia is. All borders change continually, everything changes from day to day. Nationality, identity; I don’t know, I don’t know what it is…’. It almost appeared that most people were ashamed of their own culture, or at least could not or did not want to identify with it. National identity seemed to be taboo. ‘That’s what started wars’, a journalist told me, ‘isn’t it a very dangerous project you’re doing?’

More than thirty designers and artists contributed to the ‘Subjective Atlas of Serbia’ with very touching, sometimes cynical and critical and at other times very personal and vulnerable stories that deal not with politics, but with people. The contributions take an entirely different view of a nation whose identity is split. They do not relate opinions, but show human observations. In mapping cultural identity this way the publication becomes a tool to understand contemporary society at this time, in this place, at this moment.