A Reborn Sarajevo Serves as Muse to its Young Designers

Posted inFeatured
Thumbnail for A Reborn Sarajevo Serves as Muse to its Young Designers

By: Charlotte West | January 26, 2010

Up until 1992, Sarajevo was perhaps best known as the city where the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914 spurred the outbreak of World War I. But in the mid-1990s, the world’s eyes turned to the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina as Serbian troops held it under siege from April 5, 1992 to February 29,1996, a period during which more than 10,000 of the city’s residents were killed.

During this time, the international face of Bosnian design was TRIO, made up of Bojan and Dada Hadzihalilovic and Lela Mulabegovic Hatt. Heavily influenced by punk and pop-art, the three graduates of the Sarajevo Academy of Fine Arts drew attention to the plight of Sarajevo with a series of wartime postcards that played on Western brands and pop culture icons and slogans, such as “Don’t Cry for Me, Sarajevo” and“The Disunited Nations of Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

don't cry for me, sarajevo
Poster by TRIO.

“Our intention was to design and make by hand postcards and posters with a single message: Sarajevo, my city, my life,” says Bojan Hadzihalilovic. “We could see on surrounding hills people who were trying to kill us with guns and starvation. Our city was becoming Guernica, and as a designer, you are trying to fight back with the best shot you think you have—and that’s your creativity. We decided that in designing these postcards we would use their—the outside world’s—language, their symbols, their brands, and somehow design into them Sarajevo’s ongoing tragedy. The world would not be able to say ‘We did not know,’” he explains. More than a decade later, Hadzihalilovic is now a professor of graphic design at the Sarajevo Academy of Fine Arts and teaching a new generation of Bosnian graphic designers, the ones who grew up during the war. “They were born just before the war and they spent their childhood in basements and in fear,” he says. “They had no chance to just be boys and girls. The only thing that survived the war and the years of political chaos since then was their spirit, their soul.”

Some of these designers appear to be putting the war behind them and many, such as Nina Knezevic, are finding creative stimulus in the urban fabric of Sarajevo itself. But her inspiration is in the present-day version of the city, not the war-torn one. “Sarajevo was also the inspiration for many artists and designers, but unfortunately their inspiration stems from the war that took place 15 years ago,” she says. “The war has become too branded and it’s not being looked at from a normal perspective; everyone is looking for a way to exploit the information about the war in Bosnia. There isn’t much creativity in that.”

Dingbat font by Nina Knezevic
Dingbat font by Nina Knezevic.

In 2007, Knezevic—a graduate of the Academy of Art in Cetinje, Montenegro—was invited to create an exhibition on the “redesign of the city” for the Sarajevo Winter Festival, an annual cultural event. After photographing local architecture, she designed 65 different stylized symbols of Sarajevo using vector files she converted into Dingbats. “Sarajevo has a lot of elements that can be used as symbols. There are many different cultural and religious motifs, food, architecture. I did not want to repeat symbols that have already been used and commercialized,” she says.

Knezevic says she avoided using traditional icons of the city and focused instead on ordinary buildings and common objects like street lights and trash bins. When she put the exhibition together, she placed pre-cut labels in the shape of the fonts on the glass windows in the gallery. “The idea was that an observer standing inside the gallery feels like he/she is standing in the city, surrounded by the city symbols. That city is Sarajevo, but at the same time it also becomes some other city because Sarajevo, in that moment, is being experienced in a different way.”

Ajna Zatric’s Urban Calendar
The month of August in Ajna Zatric’s Urban Calendar for the City of Sarajevo.

Another young designer who sees the Bosnian capital as her muse is Ajna Zatric, a former student of Hadzihalilovic. After graduating from the Sarajevo Academy of Fine Arts last year, she is now enrolled in a masters program in arts and media theory at the University of Arts in Belgrade, Serbia. In May, she won gold at the 11th International Festival of Creative Communication, also known as the Magdalena Festival, for her project, “Urban Calendar for the City of Sarajevo.” Zatric describes the the city as a “self-portrait of the people living in it.” She continues: “Sarajevo is a postwar city, creatively hyperactive while struggling for its new identity. When you come here, you are greeted by a vibrant and soulful atmosphere.” She thinks of the calendar as “a public art project, consisting of 12 typographic messages carefully integrated into the urban fabric.” It is accessible to all, regardless of age, gender, religion or ethnicity, in an attempt to create an image and identity of Sarajevo as a modern city. “My Urban Calendar tries to help the city gain a contemporary image, speaking to its inhabitants and to the cultural scene of the world. It is imagined as the city’s attempt of making a new promise to its people,” she says.

Zatric’s message is one of hope and optimism for a city that has struggled to define itself since the end of the war. Historically, Sarajevo has always been a multicultural city with a peculiar mix of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian architecture, with Catholic cathedrals side-by-side with Islamic mosques. But the war resulted in a major demographic shift between the ethnic groups living in Sarajevo. In 1991, when the last official census in was taken, Muslim Bosniaks made up nearly half of the population. The second largest ethnic group were Eastern Orthodox Serbs at 38 percent, and Roman Catholic Croats made up around 7 percent of the population. Today, although there are no official statistics, more than two-thirds of Sarajevo’s residents are Bosniak, while the Serbian population has dwindled to a little more than 10 percent.

Human poster by Nina Knezevic.
Poster by Nina Knezevic.

The old diversity and pluralism of the population, however, remains in Sarajevo’s creative culture. As Hadzihalilovic puts it, “There is a lot of energy, or more precisely, there are a lot of different energies. Maybe it’s because Sarajevo sits in the middle of no man’s land, so to speak, between East and West. It’s a place where different worlds and times meet. Sometimes you can watch Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations live, from your window, not just on TV. Maybe it is because people are tired of political and economic hardship and are using art to escape that unpleasant reality. But the fact is that Sarajevo art—and its art com
munity—is very vivid, almost chaotic.”

Hadzihalilovic describes his students as “rebels with a cause.” “I think that they are more creative than my generation was. They see things in a different way. Design is their instinct, their language, and their strength. And they need to perfect all that in order to survive as artist—and not rent their talents to artless commercial campaigns.” Hadzihalilovic says that the world has become very different from the one he dreamed of as a young designer, but the city has remained a place of contradictions: “Sarajevo looks just like it did before (the war): tragic and funny, tough and desperate, irresistibly attractive, and completely lost. This is the best and the hardest place to live. We used to say Sarajevo is not a place of birth, it’s a state of mind.”