Lejla Odobašić Novo ⎥ 12.4.2021.
Conversation with Claudia Zini
Since its opening in 2018, Kuma International Centre for Contemporary Art in post-conflict Society has expanded its program and aside from its annual art summer school it now also includes field trips, workshops and an architecture program. It connects artists, scholars, curators, historians, students, architects within different cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH) but also internationally. What started as a one-week program turned into something much bigger and perhaps it can be seen as an alternative model for dealing with trauma through contemporary art in post-conflict country. Behind this initiative stands Kuma International’s founder and director Claudia Zini. Claudia is an art historian and curator, who found her way to Sarajevo from Italy via the UK.
Claudia gained her first experience as a curator of the exhibition The Imaginary Pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2009 in Verona, Italy. Between 2012 and 2013 she worked in the A plus A Gallery in Venice, curating the exhibitions of Bosnian artists Ibro Hasanović and Mladen Miljanović, among other projects. In Sarajevo she has collaborated with Duplex100m2 gallery and Ars Aevi Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2018 she founded Kuma International Center for Visual Arts from Post-Conflict Societies. In 2019 she was one of the curators of the Pavilion of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the Venice Biennale. As mentioned above, she now lives and works in Sarajevo.
Claudia’s educational and professional background speaks volumes and without a doubt she could engage in the curational role anywhere in world and yet she has chosen to stay in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to base Kuma International in Sarajevo. Through Kuma, Claudia keeps expanding the network of collaborators and in many ways, she is connecting artist both within the country but also within diaspora. She has also created a collaborative relationship with many other institutions all around BH including KRAK centre for contemporary culture in Bihać where she visited with her students in August 2020.
What brought you to Bihać last summer? Was this your first visit? How do you see Bihać in the context of contemporary art scene in the country?
With Kuma we love to organize field trips in the region. We were in Bihać in the summer of 2019, on the occasion of Mladen Miljanovic’s exhibition The Didactic Wall hosted by the City Gallery. Such a great experience of our students to be there. We had plans for summer 2020 too, but those plans had to be rearranged because of COVID-19. In the end we were able to travel to Bihać in September with a small group of enthusiastic art students. There, we visited Garavice Memorial Park, the City Gallery, we met the artists from the ULU Zarez collective, we met Selma Selman in her studio, and of course we went to KRAK and met their lovely team.
One of the main reasons I love visiting Bihać is because of Irfan Hošić and his family, who are very dear friends of mine since a long time now, after we met in Venice for the first time years ago. I visited the city for first time in the winter of 2015, while I was a PhD candidate in London, and I was doing research in Bosnia. It was a great occasion to spend time with Irfan and get acquainted with his job at the university and the local art scene. I believe Bihać has enormous potential in developing the contemporary art scene of the country. Krak is proof of it. There we met so many young and enthusiastic people, they have great energy and are ready roll up their sleeves, work and get engaged. There is a lot of potential in the surroundings and I can only foresee the best things for KRAK and the area. Bihać is also the venue of a very important monument by architect Bogdan Bogdanović, the Gravice Memorial Park. Not so many people know about it, but the exhibition Toward a Concrete Utopia: Architecture in Yugoslavia, 1948-1980 hosted at MOMA a few years ago displayed information about this magnificent monument too. As I said, there is a lot of potential, a rich and interesting art scene, but most importantly committed people ready to work.
Your organization Kuma International is based in Sarajevo, however, you have collaborated with artist and curators from many other cities across the country including Irfan Hošić from Bihać and Mladen Miljanović from Banja Luka for example. Can you tell us a bit more about some of those collaborations? Why do you think it might be important to establish a creative network among different cities in the country?
I love collaborations, working in different cities, environments. I am blessed with great colleagues and friends from all over the country. As soon as I have the occasion to work and connect with them, I take it. We’ve known each other for many years now, we worked together during several occasions and projects, in Italy too. I see people like Irfan and Mladen as driving forces. They inspire me daily. I never hear them complaining about all the challenges that this country is facing. And when they do talk about challenges, it is always because they already have a plan to overcome them. That is one of the many reasons why I like to work with them. Bosnia and Herzegovina is such a small country, which should make it easier for people to establish strong networks and collaborations. The most interesting projects flourish when people collaborate, get to know each other, exchange ideas and perspectives. It would be extremely boring for me to only work in the same place, with the same people.
What drew you to contemporary art of Bosnia and Herzegovina? Where did the enthralment begin and how did it subsequently unfold?
By chance. In 2008 my mother told me about the opening of a collective exhibition with artists from Bosnia in Trento, my hometown in Italy. At that time, I was a MA student at the University of Venice, studying contemporary art, with no previous knowledge about Bosnia. I will never forget that exhibition, and the artists I met there, some of them are still very good friends of mine, we work together sometimes. I think it was such a great experience for me because I am very curious person, and I love to meet new people, learn about places different from mine. Those artists were my age at that time, they were full of enthusiasm, they wanted to tell me about the art scene in Bosnia and learn about the art scene in Italy. They also wanted me to get involved in the art magazine they were developing; they were interested in a collaboration. We spent days talking and discussing about art, those are some of the best conversations I remember. I am not sure how we communicated, as my English, and theirs, at that time wasn’t perfect, to say the least. But we understood each other so easily. So much so that they invited me to Bosnia for New Year’s Eve a few months after. That was my first trip to the country, one of many others. In the summer of next year, I had the honor to co-curate a collective exhibition in Verona, Italy, called The Imaginary Pavilion of BiH together with Slovenian curator Aurora Fonda. One of the projects I am most fond of. Subsequently, I worked on many other exhibitions with Bosnian artists, I was involved in the organization of the Bosnian pavilion in 2013 I wrote a PhD about contemporary art from Bosnia and was one of the curators of the Bosnian pavilion in 2019.
What is your experience with Bosnian and Herzegovinian diaspora artists and their relationship to its contemporary art scene?
Some of BH diaspora artists that I know are people I consider to be my best friends, people with whom I was immediately able to relate to and connect to in a very deep level. It’s hard to explain. Their art practice deeply inspires my thoughts and practice as an art historian and curator. We do have very different life experiences, of course, but I am also someone who left home many years ago and travelled a lot, always longing for a place where to deeply feel at home, safe, myself. Their nostalgia, attachment to the past, pain sometimes, would always speak to me. Other than this personal reason, I was surprised when years ago I met some of them in Sarajevo, they were back for a few weeks, and I looked closely at their art practice, during long coffees and chats. In Bosnia some local artists would tell me “the war is over, let’s move away from this topic, it’s been 20 years”. Then I found out that in other parts of the globe, Austria, United States, Canada, just to give you a few examples, artists from the Bosnian diaspora have just recently started to deal with the past, the war, the displacement. They only recently produced some of what I consider be masterpieces and pioneering works concerning memory, trauma and the past. Some of them are only still attempting at looking back at their past now. I think this is an important phenomenon that hasn’t been studied or analyzed properly yet. I myself only touched upon it in my dissertation. It certainly requires so much more research. Irfan in this regard is one of the pioneers in this field of study, since he’s been working with Bosnian diaspora for a long time now. Again, another reason to collaborate with him.
Could you please tell us a bit more about your organisation which goes by the full name of Kuma International Centre for Contemporary Art in post-conflict Society? What is its main mission? Who is involved in the organisation and who is it aimed at?
Kuma International was born in 2018 in Sarajevo as an NGO, its founder being Irfan Hošić, Izela Kešmer and myself. Kuma is the first research center of its kind dedicated to visual arts and architecture in the aftermath of war and violence, war memories, trauma and identity from post-conflict societies, focusing mainly on Bosnia-Herzegovina and former Yugoslavia. The original approach of Kuma is the intersection between academic research and a concrete platform for exhibition projects and community engagement which creates a unique synergy between researchers, academics, curators and visual artists on one side and the local community on the other.
It took me three years to come up with such an idea, since I officially moved to Sarajevo in 2015 while researching for my PhD thesis. There were different reasons to establish such a research and educational center: I wanted other people like me, researchers, students, art historians, curators, and such, to learn about contemporary art from the country. I wanted to share with them my knowledge about the subject, and give them the opportunity to travel to Bosnia and most of all to meet in person the protagonists of the local art scene, which I always consider this to be an enormous privilege, to meet people first-hand, as this is not something that usually happens inside the university, to learn about the history of art from the artists themselves. This for me was a life-changing opportunity. So, I wished more and more people could have the same experience and learn how the war in the country in the early nineties radically transformed the aesthetics, contents and techniques used by local artists, giving birth to new artistic vocabularies.
Since its beginning, Kuma International engaged in different educational activities, working closely with scholars and artists. The primary focus of Kuma’s first educational step is the post-war artistic production from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was analyzed in detail during the first Kuma International Summer School that took place in Sarajevo in June 2018. With the patronage of the Italian Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we organized a one-week intensive course focusing on post-war artistic production from Bosnia and on how artists from the region have been affected by the political turmoil of the 1990s and how they processed the fall of Yugoslavia, the 1992–1995 war and its consequences through their artistic practices. Students also had the unique chance to meet local artists, explore the city’s museums and art galleries and visit artists’ studios.
It was incredibly successful, exceeding all my expectations. A program like that, focusing on artists reflecting on the traumas of war through their art, their autobiographical artworks telling personal stories, rather fragments of memories, which are often lost or purposely excluded from the official narrative, did not exist before.
I still remember when I started receiving the first applications, I was so excited. We ended up hosting twenty students coming from thirteen different countries, which I am proud to list here: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Italy, France, Slovenia, Germany, Poland, Greece, Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and the United States. Bosnian students came from the cities of Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Mostar, and Trebinje.
Also, I invited as guest lectures artists and professors from the country and abroad; we had a great local and international line of speakers, another reason why the school was so successful, scholars from University of Bihać, International University of Sarajevo, the Courtauld Institute of Art (UK), UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (UK), Salem State University Center of Holocaust and Genocide Studies (USA) and RMIT University (Australia) joined the summer school along with around fifteen visual artists, photographers and filmmakers from Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian diaspora (Austria, United States and Canada).
I will never forget that first summer school. So the idea was to focus on education mostly. Addressing contemporary visual art produced in the context of conflict and trauma, Kuma’s first summer school and its local and international lectures provided a glimpse into the impact of war on local artists’ aesthetics and narrative.
Kuma International Summer School was the first international program entirely dedicated to the contemporary art scene from the Bosnian region. One of the main goals of the school was also to address the deeply divided education system of the country and to offer a different and more inclusive narrative of the last conflict, inviting scholars from different parts of the region and diverse backgrounds.
As of today, we have a wonderful international team working with us on different projects: Ajla Borozan, Enrico Dagnino, Hannah Fillmore Patrick and you, Lejla, of course. We also rely on a group of amazing graphic and web designers, social media experts video makers and accountants, such as Adriana Drljepan, Hannah Delić, Adna Muslija, Almir Abaz and Eldar Medarić. In the past few years we hosted interns from Italy, Spain and Czech Republic, Alice, Angela and Katerina. We hope to host more and more interns in the future.
The world today is very different from the way it was during the first two editions of Kuma summer school. How has the pandemic affected your work? What adjustments did you have to make? What is in the plan for Kuma for the upcoming year?
The first six months of 2020 when the pandemic became more and more real and forced us to cancel plans for the first half of the year were devastating somehow. Our main goal has always been to welcome people from all over the world, including the Bosnian diaspora. Learning that this would not be possible anytime soon was hard to accept. I am mostly grateful to Damir Šagolj, the director of the WARM Foundation in Sarajevo, for the first very productive meeting of 2020, I still remember it, when we discussed about the possibility of running together an educational event, combining together Kuma summer school and the WAR Academy, instead of canceling them. It turned out to be a beautiful and successful event that gave everyone hope back. We only welcomed a few international students, but we had great participation from the locals, it was great. Students thanked us for being brave enough to organize such event despite all the challenges. I want to also thank you, Lejla, for insisting to move the Architecture program online. I was skeptic about it at the very beginning, I didn’t like Zoom. I thought moving Kuma activities online we would lose that special Kuma atmosphere that we all like, and that the talks and discussions would be less effective. I have to admit, going online with the Architecture Month was great. We hosted around 250 people on Zoom, and the video recordings of the lectures that we uploaded online afterwards reached thousands of people. Definitely in the future we will try and keep the two formats, in person and online. For this upcoming year we are planning to implement our education programs, schools and workshops, field trips, focusing on Bosnia and Herzegovina and other post-war countries.
For the end, to come back to your visit this summer to KRAK centre for contemporary practice in Bihać. In your opinion what is the significance of having such centres in places like Bihać? Do you have any future plans for further collaboration between Kuma and such institutions and perhaps KRAK centre more specifically?
If you look at Bihać from a Bosnian perspective, it might be surprising to some that such an ambitious project like KRAK was born in Bihać, and not in the capital city, Sarajevo. I am looking at Bihać from a different perspective. Bihać looks at Europe, giving its proximity to Croatia, Italy, Austria. I believe it will easily develop in one of the most interesting contemporary art spaces of the area and when COVID-19 will allow people to travel again I am sure many artists and professionals will travel to Bihać and engage enthusiastically with KRAK. It such a wonderful thing that such place exists. It is only the beginning, so the whole project carries a great potential. So many possibilities. Bihać isn’t perhaps so developed in terms of arts, but this makes it a perfect place for new ideas, it offers space and opportunities for anyone to jump in and contribute to a better development of a cultural and artistic scene. I do hope and I am sure KRAK and Kuma will collaborate in the near future, Irfan and I have already many ideas. Looking forward to it!
Claudia Zini and Kuma International students in KRAK, September 2020. (Photo: Sead Okić)