From the Streets of Savamala: Belgrade’s Street Art with A Conscience.

 

Belgrade isn’t a city with the same romantic connotations as Berlin, Paris, or London. Upon hearing the name, people rarely react with “oh, it’s got such great energy” or, “the culture is incredible.” Rather, the most common response I get when telling people that this is the city I spend my holidays at is: “sorry where?”

“Any reservations I had have vanished. Instead, I’ve discovered its vibrancy, with its incredible, and cheap, food, great secret little bars and restaurants and a truly unique art scene”

My mum moved there in 2013, to start a job at the Finnish Embassy, and I must admit, I was hesitant at the start. When I found out that Serbia was where my family was relocating to, my initial reaction was fears of how dull it would be there. I pictured a rather desolate scene – the industrial, grey landscape of the suburbs of post-Soviet St. Petersburg suburbs came to mind, in spite of the fact that Serbia was never under Soviet rule, and was, frankly, quite prosperous under Tito. Now, having spent a fair amount of time in the city, any reservations I had have vanished. Instead, I’ve discovered its vibrancy, with its incredible, and cheap, food, great secret little bars and restaurants (and I mean secret – they’ve rarely got signs outside), and a truly unique art scene. The area surrounding the main shopping street, Knez Mihailova, is littered with small galleries displaying local art, and from what I’ve gathered, the late 80s and early 90s were a rather exciting time in terms of music and literature.

However, what really struck me three years ago, and what really makes Belgrade an enchanting city, is the street art in the Savamala district. Savamala, too, like many creative neighbourhoods across the globe, is undergoing gentrification. In fact, a ‘secret’ vegan restaurant, Radost Fina Kuhinjica, is located not too far from here, and a new, multi-billion euro waterfront construction is in the works – much to the dismay of the locals. The area is rife with cool bars and clubs, and has often been identified as the ‘creative hub’ of the city. It’s located in the older part of Belgrade, very close to the Bohemian quarter. The street art is by no means unique to the neighbourhood – if I wanted to discuss all the art I’ve found on the streets of Belgrade, it would have to be in a book, not an article. Either the city has very lax laws about painting on buildings, or then people simply don’t care – in any case, the entire city is covered in art, ranging from your usual 90s-era Brooklyn-esque tagging to memorials for deceased loved ones. I’m most familiar with the art in Savamala for the simple reason that it’s close to where we live, as well as being right next to the city centre and the Kalemegdan fortress. In the case of Savamala, the art is more organised thanks to the artist centre Kriška – there are unified themes, commissioned murals, and much of it reflects the spirit of the neighbourhood in itself. The buildings are reminiscent of the baroque architecture you would find in Vienna or Budapest, only completely unrestored, even derelict at times. It is here, near a bridge that goes across the river Sava that you find what I like to think of as one of the most unique art museums I’ve ever been to. Like the hidden restaurants, these pieces, too, are elusive. One of my favourites, the somewhat gory black-and-white image of intestines, was painted onto a garage door across a junkyard, and I stumbled upon in very much by chance as the street itself was a dead end. I’ve also seen some great work done on a very small scale, almost at street-level – so keeping your eyes peeled is definitely something to keep in mind here.

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There are two massive murals around the bridge – one of them, La santa de Beograd by Glom Olbi Remed, is a black and white icon-like reflection of the turbulent past of the city. In an interview for the Still in Belgrade, the artist notes that the city has been destroyed and rebuilt 38 times. This juxtaposition of war and peace is seen in the mural, as on one side, you can see guns, and on the other, a white dove holding an olive branch.

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The second mural, depicting a mouth with buildings for teeth chomping away at trees, can be found by going up the stairs of the bridge, past a recent homage to the late Robin Williams. This one is by the Italian artist, Blu, whose pieces can be found in Berlin and London, and the symbolism couldn’t be clearer. The manner in which urbanisation eats away at nature is more than a pressing issue, as the pollution levels are high in the city – we have to keep our windows closed during the winters due to the smog. Another piece of interest is the Ghost People of Savamala series, by Tijana Tripkovic and Barbara Dimic. The paintings are scattered throughout the district, so you really have to keep an eye out for these adorable white figures, which, despite their cartoon-like appearance, discuss the issues the neighbourhood faces. The Ghost Panda, which differs in appearance from the rest of the series, represents the voiceless and marginalised of the area, and was painted to show that they too have a place in the community. This could be a nod of allegiance towards the gay rights movement, which is still, sadly, more than lacking in support in conservative Serbia.

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The Savamala district and its artistic community feels like something that is almost necessary in a country still dealing with the ramifications of the Second Bosnian War, the Kosovo War and its culmination in the NATO bombings, representing a new, more tolerant, direction for the nation. Here’s hoping that the new waterfront development doesn’t completely rob the neighbourhood of its unique atmosphere.