From open conflict to open-air gallery: can street art help heal Mostar?

A mural entitled “Let’s talk about gender” by Maja Sinclair. (Una Čilić)
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina

This year marks the seventh edition of the Mostar Street Arts Festival which is running across Bosnia’s fifth largest city until 21 June. Bosnia and Herzegovina is not a country traditionally renowned for its graffiti culture, but in the wake of the 1992-1995 conflict that devastated much of the country, street art became a way to “commemorate victims, show defiance, or distract people from the unrepaired damage.”

The organisers of the Mostar Street Arts Festival want to do something a bit different. “We are not that much focused on ‘issues,’” says Marina Mimoza, who has been one of the festival’s organisers since its inception in 2012. Mimoza, a DJ, became involved in the medium of street art as a youth worker with the Youth Council of the City of Mostar. She wanted to be part of a movement of people working to show another side to Mostar and transform the city’s narrative: “We want to work with art and the nobility that it brings to society. We want to make the platform of street art even stronger in our city.”

Since the first edition in 2012, artists from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as further afield, have taken part. Rikardo Druškić, Saša Peševski and Muhamed Baručija are just some of the artists from Bosnia and Herzegovina that have participated in the festival, while Camilo Núñez from Uruguay’s Colectivo Licuando worked with the Barcelona-based artist Jorge Polmar to produce a series of stunning murals on Šantić Street, a central street that represents the city’s unofficial ‘dividing line’.

Visitors to this year’s festival will have the opportunity to see the creation of hundreds of graffiti pieces, murals and images that will remain on display across both banks of the Neretva River long after the festival has finished, cementing Mostar’s burgeoning reputation of being an open-air gallery.

Along side the main festival, which will host local and international street artists, there will be a number of side events including workshops, concerts, club nights and exhibitions.

Fittingly for a city that still bears the physical and emotional scars of war (Mostar was the scene of some of the worst violence during the conflict and suffered the most profound destruction) this year’s theme will centre around ‘the future of public spaces’.

In the early days of the festival, organisers were motivated by the desire to revamp the city’s crumbling grey walls and battle-scarred buildings, as well as erasing the nationalistic messages peppered with hate speech that lurked from the city’s facades. But the Mostar Street Art Festival is not the only festival trying to change perceptions of, and realities in, Mostar. The Mostar Blues and Rock Festival, which has been going since 2003, is a beloved summer event, while the ancient coming-of-age tradition that required young men to dive off Mostar’s iconic Stari Most (Old Bridge) has led the city to host the annual Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series.

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Positive reactions, unique challenges

Organising anything in Mostar is difficult, let alone a street art festival. Bosnia and Herzegovina is home to what has been described as “the world’s most complicated system of government”. The country comprises two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Republika Srpska, not to mention the self-governing district of Brčko. Mostar, like the national capital of Sarajevo, is part of the Federation, but its politics are no less complicated than the country it resides in.

Even though there are no borders or checkpoints, the divisions between the city’s Bosniak and Croat population are generally clear. The two groups live on different sides of the banks of the River Neretva, the city has two official telecom operators as well as two separate electricity companies, and Bosniak and Croats children are educated in divided schools.

It is against this backdrop, in this so-called ‘grad slučaj’ (case city or divided city), that the festival organisers are trying to bring people together.

“Art that affects people’s emotions, inspires thinking and attracts tourists as well as passersby. It’s true, that [nationalistic] vandalism is still present in Mostar, but we do not pay a lot of attention to it. We are focused on our own development and action.”

Sabina Maslo, a fine arts professor and audio-visual artist, has been involved with the festival since the beginning. She says that most of the murals and graffiti made during the festival remain intact, although sometimes they are vandalised, and unintentionally destroyed. But for her, this represents the transient nature of the medium.

“Some of the murals are on destroyed buildings. Just like in the case of Glass Bank [a tall former bank building that became a sniper tower during the war], that will be renovated now, all the murals and graffiti there will become history. But that is the part of street art. Nothing is predictable, especially when you work in a public space,” she explains.

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The Berlin of the Balkans?

Another local artist who is contributing to this new image of Mostar is 26- year-old Maja Sinclair, a sociology student and the co-founder of Brain Fart, a company that makes custom T-shirts and bags. Fed up with narratives about the city that focus on division, and inspired by conversations with friends, last year she created a work of art on the outside wall of the Glass Bank that garnered lots of attention – a pink mural with a portrait of a woman that read: “Let’s talk about gender.”

“I wanted to offer a different picture of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I wanted to show that there are people in this country who are not living in the past; that in spite of all the things that have happened here, there are people who are trying to work on themselves and focus on other things.”

Mimoza agrees that street art can provoke one’s thinking and help debunk stereotypes: “There are hundreds of murals in this city. You cannot see them and be left feeling indifferent,” she says.

“They have more significance and value than the doodles written by some kids whose heads are filled with stereotypical ideas.”

In a country where the budget for culture is always the last thing on agenda, and where non-governmental organisations had to work with citizens to help reopen the National Museum in Sarajevo after years of closure, to have the energy and desire to put on a multi-week festival is no small feat. For the first time this year, the organisers of Mostar Street Arts Festival have decided to run a crowdfunding campaign in order to secure the additional funding needed to help it grow. The hope is that with people’s support, Mostar will stop being a ‘grad slučaj’ and will have a chance to become the new Berlin of the Balkans.

“The Street Arts Festival is an event with the sole purpose of bringing art to the streets of Mostar, and by doing that, it will support all young people, regardless of their gender, religion, nationality or sexual orientation,” says Maslo.

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