New order

European arts - Tony White on the sharp-edged culture emerging from the young Balkan republics

In town and city squares across the former Yugoslavia, the territory now known as the "western Balkans", stands a host of distinctive statues sculp-ted by the artist Ivan Mestrovic. In the early 20th century he was compared to Michelangelo and Rodin. Now he is largely forgotten. A shepherd boy raised in Dalmatia, he became a leading inter-national cultural figure and played a part in the movement to create a unified southern Slavic state (Yugoslavia) from the fallout of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires. Mestrovic's sculptures fused expressionism with art nouveau and neoclassicism and he saw his art - monuments to historical and mythic figures from Slavic history - as a means to create a unified culture for a people who had been riven by conquest.

Now that Yugoslavia no longer exists, Mestrovic epitomises the worst problem for artists and writers in this part of the Balkans: that they and their works can be held hostage by their own history. Some contemporary artists have tackled this problem directly. A photomontage by the Bosnian artist Sejla Kameric, entitled Bosnian Girl, has become an iconic representation of the international prejudices that the wars of the 1990s exposed, and it has lost none of its resonance. Published around the world, as well as fly-posted or reproduced on postcards, the work uses the familiar visual language of magazine advertising, but combines a photographic portrait of the artist with a highly offensive, semi-literate graffito left on a wall in Srebrenica by an anonymous Dutch soldier: "No teeth . . . ? A mustache . . . ? Smel like shit . . . ? BOSNIAN GIRL!" That such a statement could have been written, as it seems to have been, by a member of "Dutchbat", the battalion charged with protecting the refugees at Srebrenica and Potocari prior to the genocide of 1995, almost beggars belief.

Writers in contemporary Croatia have spoken with frustration of an international expectation that they should write about war, but artists and writers face new challenges in all the Yugoslav successor republics. These young countries are in differing stages of reconstruction and reintegration with mainstream Europe, making cultural exchange between them (let alone with the outside world) very difficult. Books published in Croatia, for example, are prohibitively expensive in Serbia and therefore impossible to import, while works by leading contemporary Bosnian authors are almost unknown outside their own borders. In Serbia, there is a popular saying: "Govori Srpski da te ceo svet razume" ("Speak Serbian so the whole world will understand you"). However, as the Belgrade-based author Zoran Zivkovic wryly suggests: "When you write in Serbian, you don't write at all." Zivkovic is a science-fiction writer in the mould of Stanislaw Lem or Italo Calvino whose novel Hidden Camera has just been published in the west by Dalkey Archive. With most books in Serb having a print run of no more than 500, the pressure is on authors to increase both their audience and their income by publishing in translation, especially into English.

After a decade of sanctions, there is an acute hunger for new foreign literature in Serbia (and, to a lesser extent, in Croatia, which is more rehabilitated internationally), but this is an appetite that is hard for the cash-strapped domestic publishing industries to satisfy. Both Zivkovic and his wife, Mia, are highly experienced translators of English literary fiction. When I met them a couple of years ago in Belgrade, however, she was translating The Devil Wears Prada for the Serbian market. The escapist value of such books, and global English-speaking popular culture generally, may be apparent in a country where average monthly earnings are E200. Similarly, I once asked an author from Kosovo what his literary influences were and he proudly replied, "Guy Ritchie!"

Yet Balkan writers and artists are still painstakingly reaching for a sense of what it means to be Serbian, Bosnian, Croatian or Kosovar today. To do this, they must tackle not only the monsters of the recent past, such as Ratko Mladic, but also their relation to their historical inheritance. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Belgrade last autumn presented a major exhibition by the artist Ivan Grubanov, who spent two years in the press gallery of Courtroom No 1 at The Hague drawing Slobodan Milosevic from life. The selection of 158 drawings that went on show in Belgrade is astonishingly affecting: a salutary reminder that power, abused or not, can just as easily slip away as be assumed.

Meanwhile, the talks on the future status of Serbia's autonomous province of Kosovo are taking place against a backdrop of destruction: as Unesco recently reported, many of Serbia's most important medieval monuments and monasteries were destroyed in the riots of March 2004. That this unique storehouse of Byzantine and Orthodox culture should be so much at risk is a defining irony of Milosevic's legacy. He shamelessly adopted the grievances of the Kosovar Serbs to kick-start his expansionist project to salvage a Greater Serbia from the wreckage of Yugoslavia in 1989. Yet not only did that project fail, it has come full circle: the tiny Serbian minority that remains in Kosovo is increasingly isolated and at risk. Many of these Serbs are currently without electricity or telephone services, and are in a far worse position than they were in 1989.

Yet, despite a decade of war across the former Yugoslavia, some of the unique sculptural heritage of Ivan Mestrovic survives. And with art historians also rediscovering works that have lain hidden for decades in museums across the UK, we may soon be able to see Mestrovic's sculptures with fresh eyes. As it is, they stand as a reminder that the best art and literature can outlive the circumstances of its production and speak to new generations.

The culture of the Balkans, whether contemporary or historic, is something about which western Europe remains woefully ignorant. This is not lost on a writer such as Zoran Zivkovic. "All I ask," he said, handing me a translated edition of one of his books when I last saw him, "is that you read it." With EU membership a reality for Slovenia and beckoning for Croatia - and ultimately the other Yugoslav successor republics - there is an open invitation to discover what this misunderstood part of Europe has to offer.

Tony White is the author of Another Fool in the Balkans, just published by Cadogan Guides

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