Art & Identity In Migration

Every time someone asks me where I’m from, I give them the same answer: “From the country that doesn’t exist anymore”. Oblivious to what that might reveal about me. Only caring about the truth. My truth. That I am from Yugoslavia and that my country does not, indeed, exist anymore.

For years my answer got unremarkable responses, leaving people mostly nonplussed if sometimes amused. Until a few years ago when an unsuspecting woman gasping in horror said: “WOW! What did THAT do to your identity!?!”

Yes, er, hmm….helped me reconstruct it?

If I’m not Yugoslavian anymore, then what am I? Serbian? Montenegrin? British? By law maybe all three but which one do I feel like? None, I say. Or better yet, all three at once. And more. Cos don’t forget to add to my mix some Croatia and Macedonia, lots of Bosnia and Slovenia, Italy and Israel, traces of Russia and Africa, and a bit of America. Now, THAT concoction of a nation I could relate to.

Because you don’t just switch sides.

When your history — your language, the familiar landmarks — is banished, your genesis rewritten, and your home turns on you, you unravel fast enough. And you get angry. A lot. And you mourn. A lot. But at the end when all the sadness is gone, a deep hole is revealed where a sense of belonging once was. Waiting to be filled up again. But this time with a story written by you. Line by line. Paragraph to chapter. A whole novel. Or collection of short stories.

Or canvases.

Like the ones of my friend artist Tomislav Terek.

Between 1995 and 2015 Tomislav wove his story, thread by thread, pulling off fragments from broken histories suspended somewhere in between countries new and old, remembering long forgotten dreams and reconstructing them.

As I stepped into that small but cosy space of We Serve Art gallery in Harrow & Wealdstone what surprised me and gave me the most pleasure was the mixture of styles showing in his work.

Sure, there were pieces with shared tone, format and themes but there were at least five such groupings in that tiny space. “I get easily excited” explained Tomislav in English so that my partner could understand him too. “I get an idea in my head,” he said, “and then throw myself into it with all I’ve got not really worrying if it resembles anything I’d done before. If it does, fine. If it doesn’t, fine again.”

Now, how exciting is that?!
Creating art without expectations, so refreshingly unpretentious.
More real. And personal.

Who we are is so fragmented, fluid and elusive. To define it neatly or express it in a homogeneous style is to do it injustice. So when an artist exhibits his work that appears stylistically inconsistent it’s a rare and precious thing. It’s a VIP invitation to enter his intimately eclectic interior and make yourself feel (un)comfortably at home.

Go Home Van — a children’s toy satirising British foreign policy — made me laugh. That is, until one of Britain’s most exported catchphrases took a dark turn tightening my throat where that laughter came from: Keep Calm and Go Home.

Next, I was transfixed by the elegant beauty of an ivory wishbone set against a black background. Fragile like the dreams once shared and broken; a dignified survivor.

Few camera clicks later, I was in front of a photo, set in a frame within a frame, which took me back to the time my country ceased to exist. But it wasn’t very clear (what is ever though?). My mind tried some filters for clarity — nostalgia, sharp blow, watery eyes — but the image only grew out of focus.

I had to quickly look up (the emotions welling up inside me needed to subside) when I spotted a small white canvas covered in short black hairs. They could be dog’s. Or not…. And I was laughing again.

We mingled for a while longer, then left. I felt spent but inspired.

I wish there were more exhibitions like it.

With bumpy stylistic terrains full of sharp and unexpected turns. That cracked open your heart and stimulated the brains out of you.

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