The spirit of Serbia’s Roma people shines in Glendon exhibit

Some segments of society are virtually invisible to the mainstream because they make us uncomfortable and because acknowledging them might require some sort of action on our part to change their circumstances. One of these communities lives in a small group of makeshift shelters huddled among the high-rise offices and apartment buildings of modern downtown Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

This dilapidated shanty-town, perched on a garbage dump and constructed from cardboard and a variety of discarded materials, is the subject of Boja Vasic’s media installation which opened at the Glendon Gallery on Oct. 23. Titled Parallel World – the Architecture of Survival, the exhibition, which Vasic created in collaboration with his visual artist wife, Vessna Perunovich, consists of 99 photographs and includes a recreation of a hut, erected in the centre of the gallery. It documents this "neighbourhood" and offers a window into a world that is destitute and yet hopeful. Originally built by refugees from war-torn Kosovo, it is now predominantly the community of another disenfranchised and sometimes despised group: the Roma, pejoratively known as the Gypsies.

Right and below: Images of the Roma settlement in Belgrade taken by Boja Vasic

Commonly held prejudice has cast the Roma as shiftless, nomadic and unwilling to integrate into mainstream society. In reality, the group documented by Vasic in these photographs consists of solid families who are working, even if their work is at the lowest skills level. They make their meagre living as recyclers, by collecting paper, glass, scrap metal and other materials for resale. 

Vasic is a Toronto-based media artist and photographer, with a BFA in film and television directing from the University of Belgrade. His photographs have received acclaim at numerous venues, notably the 8th Havana Biennial in Cuba (2003); V1 Yugoslav Biennial of Youth Vršac in Serbia (2004); the 13th International Art Biennial of Vila Nova de Cerveira in Portugal (2005); and Third England (2006). His videos have been received with acclaim at festivals in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Chicago, Denver and Toronto. He has won several international awards including the Chris Award at the Columbus International Film and Video Festival, a Bronze Medal at New York Festivals and the Gold Award at Dallas HeSCA Media Festival.

His current project is a travelling exhibition which came to Toronto after shows in Thunder Bay and Quebec City. Following the Glendon Gallery exhibition, it will be displayed at the Alternator Gallery in Kelowna, BC.

“I emigrated from the former Yugoslavia to Canada," said Vasic, “but I have been back a number of times. During my first visit about 20 years ago, I took note of this settlement – in the immediate neighbourhood of modern high-rise apartments – a sort of ‘favela’ which is home to people rejected by mainstream society.” At that time, Vasic held the same "romantic" misconceptions as the majority of his compatriots, that the Roma were nomadic, ungovernable and living in these circumstances by choice. His documentary, projected continuously at the exhibition, dates back to the 1980s and reflects these beliefs.

In 2005 he returned to have another closer look. By that time, some of these people had lived and worked there for over 20 years. He learned that when the local government tried to integrate them with other communities, the residents of those communities were vehemently opposed. Ignorance and prejudice have helped to keep this group marginalized, in the most backward, basic circumstances. Yet even though they are not accepted, they are self-sufficient, working, ordinary people, said Vasic. 

“Their goal is the same as everyone else’s," said Vasic. “They would like to have running water, bathrooms, regular kitchens and kids in school.” But many of the children don’t go to school, explained Vasic, because they are needed for work in order to help support the family. This perpetuates their outsider status and their basic living conditions, since education is the key to finding a way out.

“Amid the cultural and economic boom that is happening in Serbia," added Vasic, “small steps are being taken signalling hope for the future of these people.” The Serbian government has established a ministry responsible for the Roma, addressing their specific needs and issues. There is also discussion of opening schools in these settlements, with the recognition that education is the best means for leaving the vicious circle of their circumstances.

The photographs shown at the Glendon Gallery witness the terrible conditions in which these people exist. But they also reveal a joy of living, and a search for normalcy and acceptance that is a moving testimonial to the human spirit.

Right: Glendon director of artistic and cultural affairs Martine Rheault (left), gallery curator Marc Audette and artist Boja Vasic in front of the hut at the exhibition

“This project was my way of attempting to change myself, to address my own prejudices," said Vasic. “Through this process, I am also hoping that in some small way I can change their circumstances and position in the world.”

His next project will focus on another marginalized group. It will be a full-length documentary funded by the Ontario Arts Council about the lives of the wives of imprisoned Cuban dissidents.

Parallel World – the Architecture of Survival will be shown at the Glendon Gallery untilNov. 16. The Gallery’s next exhibition opens on Nov. 27 displaying the work of Expo ’67 artists Ann Roberts, David Sorensen and Tony Urquhart, as well as artifacts from that landmark event, with the title Footprints of Expo ’67. The Glendon Gallery is dedicated to contemporary Canadian art and the promotion of Canadian artists. For gallery hours and future exhibitions, visit the Glendon Gallery Web site.

Submitted to YFile by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny.