Now we are stuck, behind a police patrol car on a highway ramp. The city highway was supposed to take us back to the center of Belgrade. But we couldn't budge an inch. The blue light flashing on the police car threw color into the interior of our car. I was sitting in the back, half on the floor, half on the backseat. On my left was one blue face, and two to my right. Two more in front. Six blue heads and bodies squashed into a small car. I lost feeling in my legs, and someones elbow was jabbed into my ribs. We ducked the best we could, while the compact car with its over-crowded cargo of six photographers from all over the world crawled behind the police car. Some of us passengers had met only a few hours earlier at a vernissage at the edge of town. Now we were joking around together excitedly in English with various accents, a selfie was taken, and suddenly the cops in front of us were gone. It was Saturday night, and off we went to kick-off the weekend of the "Belgrade Photo Month" (BPM) photo festival.
The chauffeur of this unforgetable ride was David Pujado. He is the initiator and curator of the photo festival now taking place for the fourth time in the Serbian capital. David, a Catalan native from Barcelona, came to Belgrade seven years ago on a visit. At that time, as a photographer and art aficionado, he felt a new energy and thought it would be the right time to organize exhibitions for young photographers. After first commuting between Barcelona and Belgrade, he settled in Belgrade in 2013 and opened his gallery "Бартселона" (Barcelona) in Belgrade's design district in 2014. He has meanwhile shown 70 exhibitions with local and international photographers in his gallery. After traveling to Paris for the "Paris Photo" exhibition, David returned to Belgrade convinced that his home away from home should have "something similar". Amazing how quickly the Photo Month established itself from an idea and concept. "Still missing are the city's major museums and institutions, which are partners of the program," he says. Nevertheless, with 50 exhibitions in 40 different locations, the "Belgrade Photo Month" is now an indispensable cultural event in Serbia, which brings many international visitors to the city.
Hence, the passengers of the small car, besides its Catalan owner, were a Russian, an Austrian, me a German, a Dutchwoman and a Chilean woman. We all came here to present our art at the photo festival, to hold workshops and attend artist talks. Over the course of the following weeks, artists would come and go, and there would be daily vernissages and events.
For photographer Debbie Schoone from Holland and photographer Nikita Svertilov from Russia, it was the first festival ever. They are two of the three winners of the Young Talents Award for photographers under the age of 25. Third place winner Nikita Svertilov researched instructions on how to make private sex toys. "Custom Pleasure" is his graduation thesis, and in Russia, sex in general and sex toys in particular are still taboo. Nonetheless, people try to experiment with the subject by crafting their own adult toys at home. For his research, Nikita combed Internet forums, studied instructions on making sex toys and created his own models which he then photographed. He wants to analyze the sexuality of present day Russia. Why do homemade toys still exist? Are people afraid of stigmatization or do they just wish to own a unique dildo?
The series "Custom pleasure" was exhibited in UK Stari grad, one of the most important reference points of contemporary culture in Belgrade. Every day, the cultural center offers films, theater and music, supports festivals and invigorates the local cultural scene. It is located in an impressive Art Deco building, built in 1925, with visible influences from the late Viennese secession and Czech cubism. During my four-day stay, I visited UK Stari Grad several times. It was also where my artist talk "21st Century Woman" took place the day after the opening of my exhibition at Galerie LauferArt, a beautiful white cube near where the Sava meets the Danube. The gallery is focused on photography and exhibits, for instance, the work of internationally renowned Serbian photographers Boogie and Dušan Reljin. David Laufer, owner of LauferArt, supports the BPM as a partner and generously provided his gallery space for my exhibition "Re-Searching Identity", my first in the Balkans.
In the 1990s, I worked as a model and thus as a subject in front of the camera. Years later, I radically changed my position within this constellation. I became a photographer, taking control of the representation of myself. This resulted over time in an extensive self-portrait collection, a topic I am still dealing with to this day, always questioning the position of the woman as a subject in relation to the camera lens. In this endeavor, I explore the images that we as artists present to the public, and try to fathom whether we could possibly reposition ourselves in this context by exploring our own identity.
How does today's selfie culture relate to the exploration of identity through self-portraits? Is there a difference between the way we present ourselves in social networks and the way we do it in art galleries? Do all these selfies and self-portraits still represent "us"? Are these still "us"? What in our eyes is perfect? Is it still creativity even if the photos are only taken to be posted and clicked on the Internet? These are questions that were raised in my exhibition and also during my artist talk by my guest, art historian Marija Jovanovic. Jovanovic also wanted to know who this 21st-century woman was, from the title of my book? A man, I answered. Because for me, feminism only has a future through community.
Art historian Marija Jovanovic is both an activist and a pedagogue. She is the founder and president of the Center for Social Balance (CESBA), which aims to improve the general education level of young Serbs by means of various forms of non-formal education. CESBA organizes projects on gender equality and the abolition of all forms of gender-based violence and discriminatory ideology which promote violence. It wants to contribute to economic empowerment through professional and informal education and to increase regional cooperation among women. It supports young artists and scientists with workshops, publications and exhibitions. Which is why it was no coincidence that Marija Jovanovic hosted my artist talk. Gender equality and the detection of gender-based violence are topics that can not be discussed or brought before the public enough and that are ubiquitous in my work.
Afterwards, Marija and I visited "Vracar", an area in the center of Belgrade. I was amazed by the Art Deco buildings, which reminded me a lot of the Art Deco design of the former French Concession in Shanghai, where I lived a few years back. The streets are lined with trees, and there are small cafes and boutiques everywhere. The global chains that serve us coffee and try to feed us the same food have not arrived in Belgrade yet. Individualism is practiced both in art and in the cityscape. And, compared to other capitals in Europe, the rents are still affordable – so the artist's heart was wondering if Belgrade is the new Berlin? Nonetheless, Serbs are extremely dissatisfied at the moment. Thousands demonstrate silently against the government every Saturday in the center of Belgrade. As we continued our stroll through the idyllic neighborhood and down the well-known Krunska Street, we started talking about the first Serbian filmmaker Soy Jovanovic, who had a positive influence on many young compatriots after the Second World War. She said:
“Nemoguce ne postoji, izgovora nema!” (Nothing is impossible, no excuses!)
Marija wrote this sentence on a sheet of paper. We bought a lily from the flower merchant on the corner, and then Marija posed for me with it in front of a enormous wall at the intersection where "Борба" (battle) was written in gigantic letters. I could not have asked for a better portrait and motif from Belgrade.
Susanne Junker, April 2019
Definitely GoSee : belgradephotomonth.org