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Serbian Artist Uses Belgrade Streets To Question Progress, Remind Public It’s ‘Always The Minority’

Andrej Josifovsky’s latest artwork, meant to be viewed from a sidewalk in downtown Belgrade, invited deep thought from passersby.

An unreachable, undulating, blue-lit room inside an otherwise empty gallery (pictured above) that urged his countrymen in landlocked Serbia to go “to the SEA,” it held a hidden reminder that “the sea is our sea.”

“Masks are required, as are beach props!” it admonished in a final play on the linguistic tendrils between the pandemic and the sea.

The rest of its title, FRAUDULENT Summer ’20, alluded to the national elections that were dominated by President Alyaksandar Vucic’s ruling Progressive Party (SNS) and its allies on June 21, the summer solstice.

“We were officially deceived the day that summer came,” the 29-year-old Josifovski, who works under the name “Pijanista,” told RFE/RL recently.

His recent exhibit is just the tip of the iceberg for Josifovsky, a trained architect whose guerrilla art has erupted onto the streets of Belgrade during a turbulent 2020.

“I wish people could get enlightened and learn already that they are always in the minority compared to the authorities,” he said. “The message is for the both of them: like people, like authorities,” he added in a pun on the old father-son adage.

Serbian architect and artist Andrej Josifovski

Serbian architect and artist Andrej Josifovski

In addition to the elections, Josifovski has found inspiration this year in the intensification of state surveillance in downtown Belgrade, devoted multiple works to “progress” in society, and brushed a likeness of Novak Djokovic onto a tennis court to push back against international outrage over the Serbian star’s failed Balkan tennis tour amid the pandemic.

“My work has always been inspired by social phenomena, and my duty as an artist is to stand up for progress and point to what stands in its way,” he said.

Josifovski’s mounting body of artwork on the streets of the Serbian capital and their echoes on social media mark a doubling-down on his work designing flood-resistant buildings and teaching urban architecture at the University of Belgrade, where he studied architecture.

His posts have earned him tens of thousands of followers and plaudits as a creative artistic force who’d already exhibited in Paris and Venice and won Fresh Talent and Youth Hero awards in Serbia.

But perhaps more importantly, they have boosted Josifovski’s influence as a street and public artist who can propel discussion over the direction of Serbian society at a key juncture in the country’s history.

“In the context of a static citizenry, or a citizenry that has been too tired to deal with another crisis all over again, he has a certain vital force in himself to invest his own resources and to make a contribution to society and to make visible things that otherwise are not strong enough to utter, to say, to vocalize,” Maja Ciric, an art critic and curator who lives in Belgrade, told RFE/RL. “He’s pointing to the symptomatic points of contemporary Serbian society and he articulates them by the means of public and street art.”

Eyes On Society

One of Josifovski’s most controversial artworks was a huge cutout of Jesus Christ that he hung as if it were crucified on the poles of new closed-circuit security cameras at a Belgrade intersection in May.

The cameras were part of a high-tech security strategy that was rolled out while most Belgraders were locked in their homes to slow the spread of the coronavirus, and the government had to fend off criticism that it was turning Serbia into a police state.

“CCTV is our new religion!” was among the messages he used to tweet word of the stunt, called New Faith.

“There was a certain media hype, and he made a point with it,” Ciric said of New Faith. “Because all of a sudden we woke up from the quarantine with a complete new surveillance ontology all around the city. And without our consent. And without the manual of instructions for [its] future use. And nobody mentioned our rights, the citizens’ rights. People…viewed it as a media meme, but they appreciate what he did.”

In January, Josifovski installed a giant toilet brush on a hill and asked Serbians in an accompanying tweet, “Are you ready for a deep clean?”

On June 21, he revived a trash-dumpster theme that had previously been used to question the choices offered voters. It showed three dumpsters painted silver, gold, and bronze standing side by side on a grubby street in Belgrade.

“It’s election day,” he told browsers, “and in our region you can choose between…. Vote.”

Last month, after the 33-year-old Djokovic’s reputation took a pounding over his organization of a traveling tennis tournament for charity that abandoned distancing and other anti-COVID-19 measures, Josifovski and friends took up brooms in his defense.

They swept a likeness of Djokovic — who contracted the coronavirus while playing in his tournament — on a Belgrade clay court to express support for “a great athlete and a pure-hearted man” who has donated considerably to youth and humanitarian efforts, including after flooding in Serbia in 2014.

‘Silence Implies Consent’

Critics in and outside the country accuse President Vucic and his allies of abusing their dominant political position to usher in elements of authoritarianism, fueling questions about Serbia’s commitment to democracy and the rule of law.

The onset of the coronavirus epidemic in March interrupted more than a year of street protests in which thousands of Serbs accused the authorities of corruption and “state capture.”

Then, following a state of emergency brought on by the spread of COVID-19, campaigning for June’s election was dramatically hindered by anti-pandemic measures and an opposition boycott.

Street protests that erupted when Vucic warned of a reimposition of anti-pandemic curfews in July were met with tear gas and police batons in Belgrade and other cities.

Josifovski has been careful not to explicitly take sides in his work. But he is clearly alarmed at some of the actions of Serbia’s leaders.

“We say that silence implies consent,” Josifovski said, “but it’s also the result of people not being able to have a say, somehow the authorities are always louder. Since hope dies last, for those who are about to get on the stage, it is a new hope.”

Josifovski at his Let's Go To The Sea exhibit in Belgrade

Josifovski at his Let’s Go To The Sea exhibit in Belgrade

His outlook has also been shaped by a 15-year legal battle pitting his whistle-blower father against the state.

Borko Josifovski was the head of emergency services in Belgrade in 2005 when he spoke out publicly against alleged fraud and corruption between doctors and funeral homes. Instead of prosecuting those accused of wrongdoing, officials targeted Josifovski.

A Serbian court recently finally exonerated the elder Josifovski, but the state has appealed and his legal nightmare continues.

A source in Belgrade art circles suggested that the younger Josifovski’s art is “more naive than what his father did” but emerges from a similar “goodwill to mold a better society…and to point to the necessity for justice as a value in our society.”

When asked about the influence of his father’s whistle-blowing, Josifovski told RFE/RL he was “proud of my father for making a huge sacrifice fighting for truth and justice.”

“I’m standing shoulder to shoulder with my father because, no matter the cost, fighting for one’s ideals is an honorable fight,” he said.

The fact that “we still haven’t been allowed to know the truth” points to a problem on Serbia’s political scene of “watching the same theater ensemble with the same people playing different parts in this show for the people.”

Distinctly Unfunny

One of Serbia’s most celebrated artists and a doyenne of conceptual and performance art around the world, Marina Abramovic, in her 2016 memoirs quoted the Dalai Lama’s advice that “You can tell the most terrible truths if you first open the human heart with humor.”

Abramovic herself told a journalist that “In my country, jokes are always about survival. Heavy.”

The Balkans’ place as a historically vital pathway between Europe, the Middle East, and Africa along with its confluence of religious traditions have fed many conflicts over the centuries.

And memories of the bloody wars that accompanied Yugoslavia’s dissolution in the 1990s still variously unite and divide many of Serbia’s 7 million residents.

Josifovski cited “war games” as a way of life in the Balkans, where eastern and western interests have clashed, outsiders have divided and conquered, and “divided nations have always suited the conquerors.”

“My mission is different,” Josifovski told RFE/RL. “It’s for people to finally let down that guard of theirs, and is there a better cure for that than laughter?”

Some of his early murals included a huge “message in a bottle” or a “hand of salvation” rising from the Sava River; a rotting banana described as a “coat of arms” and a huge likeness of a Japanese-American comic-book heroine known for overcoming her reluctance to distinguish herself.

Ciric says Josifovski’s and some of his artistic peers’ public challenges of authority are “an act of bravery” and she warns against confusing humor with a lack of seriousness.

“He is serious in the sense that he is capable of using the populist strategies that are so omnipresent in contemporary Serbia and using them to his advantage to articulate the topics that are not promoting the local politics, as [the populist efforts] are. Rather, he tries to challenge them, and he gets a lot of attention for that.”

And despite all the public attention he attracts, Ciric wouldn’t say he’s “recognized in the visual arts community or what we would refer to as the conventional art world.”

But maybe that’s just fine.

There is a “very rigid” lens through which most contemporary art in Serbia is evaluated, with its emphasis on a “very narrow academical means of the visual arts,” Ciric said.

Josifovski, she said, “never aims at being evaluated by the parameters of art criticism and the art system as it is.”

His talents and strategies, she said, confer on him “much more resonance than many of his contemporary artists.”

The Serbian contemporary art community “cannot and does not want to deal with the same kind of strategies that the populist government deals with.”

“His aim is just to produce some value in the public domain, which is much, much wider and much, much broader in a populist country like Serbia today.”

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