Ups and downs of culture and values

Ups and downs of culture and values – Art and Protest in Croatia

by Tina Keserovic

The text will be commented by the political scientist Isabell Lorey and discussed by the collective Dziewuchy Berlin and the Collective Collages Féministes Marseille during the event “Local political spaces and translocal solidarity – feminist and aesthetic interventions”. Feel invited to join our online event on October 18, at 6 pm.

Growing up in Austria as a migrant child from former Yugoslavia exclusion, the feeling you don’t belong to the society you are surrounded by, in general is a familiar issue to me. My teenage personality thought I could cope with this by engaging and giving more to this society, in a way to prove them wrong by being a “valuable member”, “fully integrated”. My plan and dream, and I guess I share this with many migrant children, was to step up from the unfortunate destiny of my parents being declassed after Yugoslavian war. Which in their case meant the identity transformation from being teachers in a state which does not exist anymore to arriving in Austria in order to avoid a war and to becoming cheap labor in Austrian factories.

At the age of six I discovered my big enthusiasm for acting and theater. It became more than a hobby, it was a place where I felt accepted, treated equally and where my talent, not my background was regarded. Also it went along with my plan to contribute to a better society. My naive goal was not to become a prominent actress, rather I saw theater as an opportunity to educate about the struggles of minorities and fight the fights which were needed in my opinion, under the roof and protection of an art institution. And all of this through collectivism and creativity. After being accepted to a very sophisticated acting academy in Munich, it seemed my dream was about to become true and bigger than I wished. I saw myself becoming a voice and representation for matters of the working class, which for my understanding, as a female and child of a multi-ethnical neighborhood also meant including in my work topics like racism and sexism. Considering my life experience up to this point, art which is not dealing with these subjects in my eyes was pointless. Art which is not able to empathize with the misery of the majority of world’s population I consider as empty aesthetics and narrations entertaining the rich. All the more I was happy to soon be part of a so-called “high” cultural scene, which I with my 19 years appraised as a group of intellectual and artistic people with high moral values. 

Very soon this illusion of art institutions being a safe space vanished. With participating in the academies program and every other offered job I understood more how misogynistic and racist the structures are within the artistic field. My disappointment and exhaustion became bigger with time. Today I can say that at one point I even became bitter. Me, an Eastern European woman only being offered the role of a prostitute or cleaning woman, my turkish colleague only being offered victims of “honour killings” and black women only being offered slave characters in movies or theater shows – it was the moment I realized that it is not only discrimination  against us as individuals. This sort of stereotyping in the media, creating images and narratives of the inferiority of groups which are not of german origin is contributing to the idea of a superior white, Western European race and enabling any progress for “The Others”. But this point was important for me to understand that I need to make a radical change. No longer I wanted to participate in that kind of storytelling. 

Having in mind that it was not an easy task for my parents to afford my studies, it was no option for me to step down from my career. They invested in my personality, so I needed to invest further. I decided to do my master degree at the University of Performing Arts in Sarajevo. Moreover, it was a possibility to understand more about my heritage. Coming from a mixed marriage (my mother being Serbian and Croatian, while my father is of Bosniak origin) Sarajevo, the Capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the embodiment of Balkan multiculturalism appeared to be the perfect choice for my longing for belonging. Back in the times of Yugoslavia this town was known for its artistic avant garde as well for its significant movies with mainstream success, not to forget its famous and rich musical scene. There was an awareness that after war the situation changed and that it is not easy for cultural workers to flourish in such an environment but what I found during my stay was so much worse.  Paralysis is a word with which I would describe the condition of artists and activists and their attempts to articulate themselves in this part of the Balkans. It is no wonder, living in such a dysfunctional state like Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Signing Dayton Agreement, 1995, author: NATO

With the Dayton Peace Agreement signed 1995 by the leaders of the three ethnical groups the armed conflict stopped but the construct of a democratic state comprising two Federations, three entities, one self-governing unit and a massively complicated set up of governance that allows corruption to prosper, segregation to grow and economical progress to be terminated, arised from this significant event. The youth unemployment rate in Bosnia for years is one of the highest in the world, to name only one of the consequences of such an administrational crime. 

Witnessing this reality I fully acknowledge this paralysis. I will give here a symbolic example from my master studies: after getting the information that it is normal and common knowledge for professors at the university not to be paid for the last 5 months, I understood why they fulfill only 20 % of their pedagogical duties. 

Despite or maybe because of these difficult circumstances I was able to gain knowledge and skills which enriched my artistic work and brought me to a point where I could finally express my political views within my artistic field and engage in social issues without having to be dependent on an institution and its hierarchical structures. 

During ongoing protests in 2014 that escalated in a burning governance building for the first time I took part in interdisciplinary collaborations among different artistic disciplines mostly in public spaces. Thereby I experienced how art can be a tool for expressing resistance and solidarity while recipients are not a middle-class audience who pay tickets, actually this time the gaining ones of the artistic contribution have been  the very people who have been  addressed in the art piece itself, in this example: the unpaid workers which protested on the streets in front of the parliament in Sarajevo BiH 2014.

2014 March 08: slowly dying – performance instructed by Thomas Steyaert during protests, photo: Irma

During these troubled times many projects by different groups of engaged people from Film Academy Sarajevo, local visual artists, actors and musicians happened and a network of artists and activists emerged as a valid voice and support to the struggling population. As Sarajevo has many expats and guest students, international connections and partnerships were realized. Among them the one that is still ongoing is TYNA collective. Together with the polish conceptual artist Martyna Miller we formed a feminist duo in which we thenceforth are combining our professional and private skills and knowledge with a focus on healing situations and positions caused by toxic patriarchal patterns. Within our project prctyna – reviving the logic of a reverse middle finger called “PRC”- we provide workshops to young women and offer possibilities and researches on how to successfully deal with sexual harresment in public space by trolling the victim-perpetrator position and through this form a culture and archive of female resistance tools.

In 2016 I moved to Zadar, my birth town on the Croatian Coast. Here I must mention that already the act of moving there and planning a life in my very hometown felt like or was a gesture of protest. By my last name locals can assume that I am either of Bosniak (muslim) or Serbian (orthodox) origin and this could cause safety issues. Keserović is not a typical Croatian (catholic) name. Zadar’s mostly far right inhabitants can not imagine that my identity is based on all three religions which in fact all existed in Croatia before the war. Furthermore they would never come to the idea that I was even born there, not by accident, indeed the Croatian part of my family is native to this coastal area. No, I correct myself, the younger population would not come to the idea.  The ones who have been old enough to witness or even participate in ethnic cleansing and have stayed silent about it, do know but don’t enjoy being reminded of it by my presence as a fellow citizen and in addition a public figure who is not hiding its Yugoslavian identity. Impressed by this attitude and in the lack of cultural workers in my hometown, the only remaining independent and progressive contemporary art festival Zadar snova invited me to accept the position of the artistic director of this low budgetary but old, well-known and important festival. Soon it became a controversy. Under newspaper articles announcing and presenting my persona as the new head of this manifestation one could find a huge range of irritating comments. Here I will quote or freely translate the one triggering the most: 

A bosnian came to shit out of her mouth to us about culture. My dick she knows.”                            

Unknown individual typing freely in the web

Besides all this unveiling of low intelligence and lack of shame the announcement of the staff changes also caused encouragement. Really not a lot, only one but in a quality way. An architecture student from Switzerland contacted me and expressed her full support. Also, she told me that her family is from there, that she was born and raised there. And that she was forced to hide her Serbian identity although her father was in the Croatian army during the war. Those were all reasons why she decided not ever to come back after her studies. And that the circumstance that I, the child of a mixed marriage, was a theater director in her hometown gave her hope. I invited her to participate in the festival in the position of a curator and producer with a project that will issue this tabu. Together with a queer, Serbian-Russian Croatian street artist from Zagreb they created a city-guide tour through the old-town of Zadar. This project tagged and through visuals and text descriptions on walls told the story of Serbs of Zadar who were hiding their real names and changing it to catholic/croatian names when appearing in public situations.

“Razvoj strategije” – Strategic development by Jagoda Cupać and Nastja Kljaić (Artikal)

For me to talk about the situation in the state of Croatia is a hard task to do because first of all I, for personal and historical reasons, have problems recognizing this newly created democracy as a Croatian nation. The term of a croatian nation I consider either a post Yugoslavian construct, because what today is known as Croatia was never a region with a homogenous population of katholic croats,  or to put it even worse through my glasses nowadays Croatia is the continuation of ‘The Indipendent State of Croatia’ (NDH) a puppet state of Nazi Germany. Of course one can not compare the happenings in Yugoslavian war to the crimes which were made during WWII on this territory but not dealing and ignoring the ethnic cleansing or attacks on muslim civilian population in Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Croatian army in the 90s is not a condition of a state that I agree on. 

Additional to the silence on its own war crimes comes the tendency to normalize the narratives and symbols of the fascistic NDH (The Independent State of Croatia) even by the, back then still in power, head of state Kolinda Grabar Kitarović. Only three years ago the official greeting of fascistic Croatian NDH, which is a pendent to the Hitler salute, was forbidden by law. Before that, the Croatian president did her best to avoid this, claiming that this greeting has nothing to do with fascism and is only a traditional Croatian way of greeting. Another symbol which is legally forbidden is the fascistic NDH crest on the Croatian flag. But as it is very similar to the current one civilians, right-wing street artists, organizations, food-ball-fanclubs and even small businesses are using it in public space without having to fear any consequences.

Cret with first white field: The Independent State of Croatia  

Cret with first red field: Republic of Croatia

But not only the forbidden crest is a popular and frequently tagged visual. Also the Croatian sign of NDH together with the swastika is commonly present all over walls in public space. The so-called Zadar Bronx, it is my neighborhood, is full of it. 2017 two months before the festival was about to start I discovered a huge swastika with a diameter of 3 m at one of the walls in our yard. All this time was not enough for anybody to remove this. For this reason we opened our festival with a counter event, where I invited the Balkans most famous rapper to have a concert. He directly addressed this issue by opening his concert with his song “No Pasaran”. It was an all-day community event where a break-dance crew from Hamburg offered workshops to the kids from the hood, a break dance battle was organized, and the catering was provided by an organization of Syrian refugees.  And as a highlight the hip hop crew from Hamburg oversprayed the swastika as a sign of resistance. Of course the town administration tried everything to prevent this event and I had a lot of stress and tension organizing such a big happening without being given official permission but the outcome was definitely worth it. After the Bronx-Block Party unknown kids started to overspray other fascistic signs in their area. Also the people living there were very thankful that finally also their kids were offered some cultural input. 

Next to the tendency of openly sympathizing with fascism Croatia has another highly problematic issue which is not very well-known by outside parties. As they share the same language and culture with Bosnian and Serbian people, the biggest aspect of setting their identity apart from being actually South-Eastern-European is their religion. After announcing the Republic of Croatia as an independent state in 1991 the catholic church became a huge political influence. It gained power in an economical sense, the Croatian church was gifted enormous amounts of real estate; it gained direct political influence by administering Croatian takeover of land in Bosnia and Herzegovina; it gained in relevance as the main communicator of values for Croatian patriarchal society. They are co-organizing carnival events where they, to mention only one incident, burn huge cardboard figures which represent homosexual couples. 

It is common knowledge that christian institutions are keen to demonstrate their misogynist positions by supporting the pro-life movement. But in Croatia we have the very obvious situation of the church being the loudest and biggest promoter of this movement while using hate speech against women in public speeches by high clerical figures. Being the main financier of all pro-life events, demonstrations, praying in front of hospitals, putting huge billboards with traumatizing visuals and so on, they are doing a pretty impressive job mobilizing masses. Oppositional to this kind of events the counter demonstrations barely mobilize 20 people. To enrich the impact of the small feminist oppositional movement in my hometown and as well to put the focus on the racist motivation of the pro-life movement I decided to troll the situation with an intervention and march within the pro-lifers in May 2019.

I hope that through my description I didn’t leave the impression of a not existing or a barely noticeable oppositional movement from this area. There are of course individuals and small groups in Croatia who try to make a difference through guerilla actions and activist work within associations. With some of them I cooperate from time to time.

Nadin.ArtikalA sustainable, feminist and anti-fascist fashion label launched by street artist Nastja Kljaić and Tina Keserović in order to spread awareness and honer partisan Heroin Nada Dimić.

During my recent stay in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, I had the opportunity to run a 3 month pop up gallery in which I tried to gather artists and activists in order to have a place where common knowledge and resistance tools can be exchanged. Exhibitions and discussion panels took place issuing sexism and homophobia. As I was shooting a movie with a very big female cast during this time, my wish was to also invite actresses of all ages to have a public conversation about the #metoo movement. Unfortunately the many actresses I approached were happy to hear about such an opportunity and assured me they have a lot to say but no one of them was ready to meet up even in a private circle. 

BB Gallery – Friends and perspectives of a Balkan Bastard

My impression or conclusion about the lack of resistance and progressive thinkers in Croatia has its roots in a problem that weakens the whole society. Since Croatia became a member of the EU we have witnessed a vast amount of brain drain. This means that young, educated citizens, capable of working and realizing that such a mental environment like we find in Croatia is not healthy for their life, are migrating to Western Europe. How can we work towards developing a stable and democratic society in South Eastern Europe if the main ingredient for this is finding its way towards better opportunities somewhere else. The acidic side of this story is that, yes these people manage to escape from the oppressive system in their home land but suffer from another one by for example not being recognized in their capability and therefore are being used as cheap labor in different sectors of industrial countries like Germany, Great Britain, Austria, etc., who again profit from this disbalanced occurrence. Maybe it is considered a daring thesis but I would like to at least put up the question if we can call this condition found on the Balkans a side-effect of neo-colonialism. And here I will come back to the beginning of my explanation about my activistic/artistic work. I am a child that was forced to migrate, decided to remigrate, understood it can not make any change in its homeland because of very powerful oppressive structures of which the Western industrialized world is benefitting. Therefore, in my work I am applying the revival of movements that are part of my antifascist heritage. AFŽ and NAM movements are two phenomena on whose relaunch I together with kindred spirits are currently working on. 

Even before the partisans were founded, the “AFŽ / Antifašistički Front Žena ” (English: Antifascist Women’s Front) had formed. They were not only involved as armed forces in the partisan fights against the Nazis, they were a form of pioneers. The AFŽ functioned informally, it was not a club or an institutional organization, rather it was a network of women from the area of ​​the former Yugoslavia who supported each other in different ways. They acquired knowledge from each other, for example about their rights, they taught illiterate women how to read and write or trained women in trades so that they could be independent of men. Many art students and activists were part of the AFŽ. One might think that there is no such thing as AFŽ anymore – but through my work and with a large number of women together we try to maintain a very similar network of women who support each other through anti-fascist activism, anti-fascist art and private care, across the entire Balkans and its diaspora. Participating in current AFŽ meetings we figured out a new strategy of how to get rid of the paralyzing structures in our homeland. Experiencing that neither migration nor re-migration helps cracking up oppressive patterns, we came up with the solution of “circulative migration”. This way of operating allows us to take resources that we earn in rich countries and invest them in educational projects on the Balkans.

A network that goes even further than that of the AFŽ is NAM. An anti-colonial movement founded during the Cold War by the leaders of Yugoslavia, India, Egypt and Ghana and later became a relevant alliance of the global south. Just as Yugoslavia networked with the non-aligned states in the “NAM / Non-aligned movement” at the time, I anticipates a feminist network across borders: Yugoslavia and the non-aligned states, so to speak, but without patriarchy. “Bratstvo i Sestrinstvo!” (English: fraternity and sisterhood) instead of “Bratstvo i Jedinstvo” (English: fraternity and unity).

“The founding Glieder of NAM”, 1961, unknown author, source:,Yugoslavia,_1961(01).jpg