Memories of the war, less than two decades behind us, are not hard to find - bombed buildings in central Belgrade deliberately remain as shells, damaged bridges in Novi Sad, remind everyone of the conflict, so destructive, so recent. No wonder some of the people I met from the culture sector look back with what they call "Yugonostalgia" to a time when Tito's constructed federal nation existed and thrived as the acceptable face of post-WW2 communism. I remember driving through it as a young student around 1970! And there are plenty of black and white photos in the British Embassy (Churchill, Eden, Tito and so on) harking back to those years.
Happily, new kinds of multilateral collaboration are starting to grow in the nations of former Yugoslavia, which gives the British Council's "cluster" approach to arts and the rest of our programme in the Western Balkans a particularly neat relevance. We shall, for example, be running a Western Balkan season in the second half of 2018 to coincide with a Western Balkan summit in London. Hence my short visit - my first to Belgrade, also to check out the Grayson Perry show in Novi Sad, and meet the team associated with preparing that small city for its stint as European Capital of Culture in 2021.
There is plenty of evidence of cultural growth in Belgrade, now a buzzy, quite cool city, with smart restaurants (albeit with smoking allowed!) and a chic clientele....it's cheap too! There are creative innovation hubs, arts venues in found spaces, many of which work with us in partnership. Some of the state museums and galleries are closed for renovation, with various projected dates for reopening. The Museum of Contemporary Art, however, is fairly close to a reopening - totally refurbished from the 60's, and a brand new concert hall for the Belgrade Philharmonic is planned.
Seventy miles to the north lies the small, but sophisticated city of Novi Sad, not only destined to be Europe's Cultural Capital in 2021 but also home to EXIT, a thriving music festival held each summer in the grounds of the nearby castle, with huge crowds and multiple stages and genres. It was set up as a kind of artistic protest festival in the last years of Milosevic's rule and has now been going almost twenty years.
Perry's wonderfully evocative post-Hogarthian tapestries "The Vanity of Small Differences" are on show in the art museum, attracting a large and young audience. I was there to introduce a special evening hosted by a famous Serbian writer and playwright Biljana Srbljanovic, who gave a 60 minute virtuoso tour of the show, making energetic and insightful connections between Grayson's work and art of previous generations.
My blogs wouldn't be the same without some reference to wine, and I am happy to report a very favourable impression, not only on Serbian cuisine but also on Serbian wine, which I'd never tasted before. I doubt you'll find it in the UK yet, only Croatian wine is known a little here, but I don't think it'll be long! Cheers!