Symbols of Yugoslavia are left to decay
Discussions about the cultural heritage of former-Yugoslavia today, are often isolated to banal comments on websites and in coffee shop conversations. There is lack of want, a kind of intellectual laziness, to treat this historical period and its effects in a more serious manner, where the tools for debate are more objective than asking, “Is this heritage Albanian or not?” or “If we support the protection of this heritage, are we patriots, or not?” Reducing the debate over this period to pejorative terms like “traitor” and “non-Albanian” from the outset misinterprets the period of Yugoslavia by displacing and depriving it of its historical context. Such simplification also denies the role of Albanians in Yugoslavia’s construction
"I dream of a Europe without monuments, that is, without monuments of death and destruction. Perhaps monuments to love, to joy, jokes and laughter" Bogdan Bogdanovic
Former Yugoslav monuments, streets, parks and squares, are not simply Serbian: They are Yugoslav. And because Albanians were part of it, these monuments remain part of our heritage.
So, then, what are these monuments that make up our heritage? Are they important to us? Do they have a historical or cultural value?
The separation of Yugoslavia from the Eastern Bloc alliance in 1948 and the soured relationship between Tito and Stalin had more than just a political effect in Yugoslavia; it also greatly influenced art and culture. Socialist--Realism, a doctrine almost unquestionable in the Eastern Bloc, was immediately replaced by a new conceptual and aesthetic approach. Unlike in the Soviet Union and Albania, this new milieu did not have the rigidity of Socialist Realism, allowing for a freedom that led to abstract forms, deeply influenced by the Modernist current in the West.
Even though, the topics that these monuments represented remained entirely within the framework of socialist ideology, such as, memorials dedicated to soldiers of the anti-fascist World War II, the square celebrating brotherhood and unity in the center of Prishtina called “A monument dedicated to the fallen fighters” designed by Miodrag Zivkovic in 1961. In Mitrovica, the monument by the architect Bogdan Bogdanovic is dedicated to Albanian and Serbian partisans in the anti-fascist war, the form with which these topics were created was fresh. Bogdanovic acknowledged that Tito was not culturally imbued and did not know trends in art. But the leader was eager to engage artists who would break from the Soviet template, Bogdanovic said in an interview. Tito wanted a new movement to represent the memory and identity of the Yugoslav federation. After Tito saw Bogdanovic’s abstract works, with floral motifs and totemic shapes, he commissioned his work continuously over the years.
From 1948 to 1980, Yugoslavia’s monuments were outside the typical classification of either Western capitalist or Eastern communist styles. This style was deeply influenced by the modernist ideas of the time, and Yugoslav architects were free to explore the ideas of modernist architects such as Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe, as well as surrealism and other trends of the time. This unfettered creation allowed ideas from elsewhere to filter through the locality and the social and cultural specifics of Yugoslavia. This period produced monuments undoubtedly specific to the former Yugoslav regions.
This was also when Kosovo experienced a dramatic move forward in its conceptions of art and architecture. Without this period, we would not have had the period of modern art characterized by the works of Muslim Mulliqi, Xhevdet Xhafa, Nysret Salihamixhiqi et cetera.
From the political and ideological perspective, Yugoslvia was a supranational federation, and as such, it aimed to create a visual language and a collective memory that would encapsulate all of its nationalities within it. If there was something anathema to Yugoslavia, it was the return to old nationalist sentiments and animosities. Furthermore, this was the ideological and political context of post-World War II, where positions of the Left and Right were more important for political and social organization than nationalism and national identity.
Therefore, applying frameworks of analysis only of the present tense today to an analysis of the cultural heritage of Yugoslavia is engaging in historical revisionism. Conclusions about the past should not be based exclusively on political, social or ideological sentiments of the present, they should, first and foremost, consider the dynamics of the past and the historical context within which the Yugoslav period came about.
It is clear that these monuments today, are not considered Serbian, Croatian, Slovenian, Montenegrin, Macedonian, or Albanian. One need only notice that they are neglected by their host countries and left to crumble in all the regions of the former Yugoslavia. We are all ambivalent, if not outright antagonistic, toward these monuments. Resurgent nationalist sentiments leave no room for monuments with no national identity. There’s no space for these relics when so many are busy rewriting history, as is Macedonia with kitsch and historically incorrect monuments. Who needs monuments that are neither Serbian nor Albanian, and yet they are both? Ironically, it is more than correct to deem these monuments as “futuristic”, as they have been deemed by observers. These monuments are in a sense without history. They simply have no space in the historical precedent we value today. At most, they are leftovers, aberrations in the flat and linear flow of our history.
On the other hand, these monuments can be viewed at least from the perspective of art history, as testimonies to Kosovar modernism. They can be sources of inspiration and knowledge for a new generation of artists and architects. Maybe they will even endure — if the Prishtina Municipality doesn’t follow through with getting rid of the former Brotherhood and Unity Square to build a much-discussed parking lot.
* Commissioned by Kosovo 2.0, Spring issue “Public Space”