Boris Kralj photographed in West Berlin Cafe, December 2012.
An Interview with Boris Kralj:Author of ‘My Belgrade’
IS:: This book is obviously a very personal project for you – can you tell me about some hidden ways that you have embedded yourself within it?
BK:: There are elements of the book that appear decorative, but there is always a personal symbolism behind these motifs. The endpaper, for example, is a strange shade of turquoise. As a kid, I used to spend my summers in Serbia, and all the windows were covered with a drape to keep the sun out that was the same color. When I was a kid I would ask my mom, “Why are the windows covered with this strange color.” I used to find it spooky. When people who are familiar with Yugoslavia look at the book, they usually pause at the endpaper and wonder why that shade is so familiar to them…
The book and the endpaper.
IS:: I know you were born in Germany to Yugoslav parents. At what point did you start making the photographs that would eventually make up My Belgrade?
BK:: After the war ended, I started returning to visit Yugoslavia after many years away. People often say to me, “But Boris, you don’t know what it was like.” And they are right, but, I did live the war vicariously through my family’s experiences. When the war came it was very difficult for me. My uncle was killed, and my family was torn apart. All of a sudden another uncle became ‘Slovenian’ – he had a new passport and a new national identity. My family had many quarrels… After the war, when we could come to visit, emotions were running so high, everyone was laughing and crying all the time, as opposed to Germany – were things were more sober. I was brought up Yugoslav, but socialized as a German.
IS:: What was it like to return after the war ended?
BK:: My grandparents live only a few kilometers from each other, in a triangular zone where Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia meet. When I was young, we used to travel back and forth freely. After the war there were armed police officers who enforced a border between their homes. There were different flags everywhere – and we were allowed to cross the border only for a period of 24 hours at a time. Everyone had lost so much, people were extremely desperate, and I had so many questions. I was 14 or 15 at the time. At night, I could hear the bombings in Bosnia. It was like Yugoslavia had vanished. You couldn’t even say the word. Sometimes the word would slip out of my mouth, and people would shush me, saying, “It is Serbia now, don’t use that word…” I started making a few photos. When I went to visit an aunt in Belgrade, I came into the city, and when I got out of the bus, I entered through the arches of this huge building, through these imposing gates, and all of a sudden memories of walking through the same building as a kid flooded back to me. When I was little it seemed like the highest building I ever saw; it was like New York for me. I tattooed New York on myself because of Belgrade.
A photograph from the book.
I grew up in Stuttgart, in Germany, a very flat city with only half a million habitants. When I returned, many memories came flooding back. When I was in the city center, I saw a sign that said Yugoslav Public, illuminated on one of the buildings. I got so excited and asked people why the word that I could never utter out loud was still there…No one really knew why. I think it will eventually be torn down, there’s just no money to get rid of it now. No one seemed to care, but for me it was a big deal. My questions turned into conversations, I started asking people about their memories, and then I started interviewing people. I asked a bunch of people where the Yugoslav spirit went to – and it was fascinating to hear all of their different answers.
A short film by Boris Kralj where he asks Belgraders if there was a Yugoslav Spirit left in their city….
IS:: What is the Yugoslav spirit?
BK:: The Yugoslav spirit refers to an emotional state of being, something that has faded since independence. It’s a longing for unity, a sort of apolitical cultural nostalgia that isn’t rooted in Communism. Under Communism no one had money, but people were connected. You could ring people’s doorbells and you’d be invited to eat with them. Today, people struggle to provide for themselves, and money has become a primary concern. I never lived through Communism, I don’t long for Tito’s return. Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, are all different culturally, but I don’t see why they should be separate. I think that interesting and beautiful things happen when different peoples come together. Now Croatia is Croatia, Serbia is Serbia, but once it didn’t matter. A Belgrader could go to Zagreb, or Sarajevo. Back then, Sarajevo wasn’t the biggest city, but it was the coolest. They used to say that if you want to make it as an artist you had to go to Sarajevo, because in Sarajevo all three ethnic groups lived together – Catholics, Orthodox, and Muslims – if you could make it there then you could easily succeed in any of the other regions. Once the country encompassed beautiful beaches and alps – today Serbia is a ‘nothing’ in the European Union.
IS:: Is this wave of nostalgia is a response too these failed promises?
BK:: It’s a new feeling that has emerged since independence has failed to live up to its initial promises. People thought that with independence a lot of their problems would be solved. Ironically, with independence, they have become more vulnerable and dependent on foreign aid. Capitalism has made everything available, but nothing is affordable. Back in the days of Yugoslavia, people may not have had much, but today, Serbia is hopelessly dependent on America and Europe. This idea of ‘independence’ proved to be a myth. People are saddled with debt.
IS:: What is Belgrade like today?
BK:: The suburbs of Belgrade are filled with Cube like communist looking structures. Today it’s a very cool city. There are many Italians and Americans visiting. After finishing the book I felt like I needed a bit of space, and I’ve spent less time there. I’m not very happy with the political situation. The new President, Tomislav Nikolić, is a nationalist, and I think this is the last thing that this country needs. The third attempt to host a gay pride was crushed, because there is no authority willing to guarantee safety for those marching…There is still widespread homophobia, and lots of poverty.
IS:: I noticed a picture of graffiti that you mentioned was homophobic…
BK:: There is an image in the book, I took a picture of an old department store in Belgrade – the funny thing is that several people who saw the image told me how much it looked like the new Prada store in Tokyo – I wonder if Rem Koolhas copied the structure thinking no one would ever know. I photographed the building because of the graffiti on it. It says, “We’re waiting for you” in Serbian. Before they cancelled the gay pride, hooligans were writing this graffiti all over the city – as a message to the gays – to let them know they are not welcome. As opposed to during the Yugoslav period – where of course it was taboo to talk about homosexuality – there were many singers, artists, and performers who used to dress as a different gender – it was widely accepted. Now it’s spoken about, and homophobia is a big problem.
A spread from ‘My Belgrade’ alongside an image of the Prada shop in Tokyo.
I also included another image of graffiti that says ‘Death to the Gays.’ I placed the image next to it of a photo that I took when I was visiting a watchmakers shop. I was struck by this picture of a mother and daughter that he had pasted on the wall. I asked him who they were – he told me they were clients of his – probably he tore it out of some magazine. Meanwhile, she looks like a drag queen posing with her son – I thought it fits so well with the graffiti – probably they are homophobic too…
A spread from Boris Kralj’s ‘My Belgrade.’
IS:: You mentioned that you were unhappy with the political situation today. In which other ways?
BK:: Over half of my friends have studied for many years to become doctors and lawyers, and they earn between 250 and 300 Euros a month – whereas the prices are the same as in Berlin – a pair of Adidas can cost up to 100 Euros. No one can afford to live in there own flat. People until the age of forty are often living with their parents.
IS:: It’s interesting and really depressing because this trend seems to be growing all over the world.
BK:: Everyone hoped for independence, for a better future, but things only seem to be getting worse. Croatians were initially the most excited for their independence – but we are now seeing a lot of Yugo-Nostalgia in Croatia. Eighteen-year old teenagers who never lived in Yugoslavia are nostalgic. In Germany we call it ‘Yugosphere’ – there are many films, and documentaries dealing with this phenomenon. Tito has a mausoleum, where his body remains, and in Yugoslav times, thousands of people would come on a daily basis – you couldn’t stay for more then a few seconds in front of his grave. After the War, there was talk of closing it. No one came to visit. Nowadays more and more people are filing in. In many ways ‘My Belgrade’ could be called ‘My Yugoslavia’, and this is precisely the point. I found the Yugoslav spirit by accident in Belgrade, had I found it in Zagreb, I would have called it that way.
Josip Broz Tito was a Yugoslav revolutionary and statesman, serving in various roles from 1945 until his death in 1980.
IS:: I notice lots of pop culture references in the book. Tell me about this pop star whose album is featured next to Madonna and Iron Maiden.
BK:: The music scene was very big in the 70’s and 80’s – lots of pop, gothic, and punk scenes. The image you are referring to is of Lepa Brena – one of the most famous singers from Yugoslavia. Lepa Brena means pretty Brena. She has this one song where she sings about how she has blond hair like the corn from (a region in the south), blue eyes like the water from the Croation coast, long legs the trees from the north of Yugoslavia – She is through and through a Yugoslav woman (lol). When people get drunk they all start singing this song. It has become an anthem. My mother gets crazy when she hears this song – she starts to cry. She was as famous as Madonna and Iron Maiden…Back then she would cause as much of a commotion. When people from Yugoslavia see this photo they all react. Somehow she has come to stand for for Yugoslavia.
Lepa Brana’s music video.
Lyrics: Where are you from, pretty girl? Who gave birth to your blue eyes? Who gave you the golden hair? Who made you so passionate? My eyes are the Adriatic Sea my hair is Pannonian wheat wistful is my Slavic soul I’m a Yugoslav woman
Where are you from, pretty girl? Where have you grown up spring flower? Where is the free sun warming you while you are dancing so seductively? Where are you from, pretty stranger woman? Where have you stolen the rays of sun? Where were you drinking honey wine while you are kissing so sweetly?
IS:: It kind of reminds me of Marianne – the symbol of the French revolution. This idea of a woman somehow embodying an entire nation. I did a photo shoot for my upcoming book where I transformed myself into Ms. Israel. I was thinking of what kind of a woman might embody Israel. Tell me about one of the portraits.
BK:: This was one of the first portraits I made. I was looking for a Yugoslav boy, and I saw that guy on the street – and thought that’s the guy – I just asked him if I could make a photo of him. His lips, and cheekbones are very striking, but there is also something tacky about him, but also something handsome. He looks urban, yet somewhat rural – he is like the quintessential Yugoslav for me.
A boy from Belgrade.
IS:: Why did your family leave Yugoslavia?
BK:: In the 70’s there was a labor shortage in West Germany that resulted from large industrial booms in the country. The West German government invited workers from poorer surrounding regions like Turkey, Southern Italy, and Yugoslavia to work in West Germany. My parents came as ‘gasbeiter’ or guess workers. Yugoslavia was communist at the time, but it was open, so there was a large wave of emigration that followed. At the time my father was a car mechanic and an electrician. He was offered almost twenty times his previous existing salary… He took my mom with him, they worked in West Berlin in a factory and made money. Almost none of these guest workers returned – they accrued debts, had children, bought cars, and Yugoslavia could not offer the same opportunities.
IS:: Did you grow up in a Yugoslav community in Berlin?
BK:: Not really. Unlike the Turkish guest workers, the Yugoslav’s were considered European, and I think for this reason their integration was much easier….I was sent to Yugoslav school for a few hours a week because my parents were sure at the time that we would return. I learned how to read and write. I remember our teacher, Olga Matyna, said, “One day you will go back to your beautiful country…” It was so schizophrenic for us, the books we were read were so patriotic, it was like, “The most beautiful country is = Yugoslavia! Tito was the biggest man! We had to learn all of these songs that went like, “Tito, we will give our lives for you…” I grew up in Stuttgart, in the South, but there are Yugoslav clubs in almost every German city. My parents used to go on Saturdays to watch movies, meet other expatriates, eat Yugoslav food. I used to love to go as well. And then the war came. From one day to the next everything changed. Suddenly my father became a Croat, and my mother became a Serb…I remember her once saying how she refuses this change, insisting, “I will stay Yugoslav, I am proud to be a Yugoslav, I will never call myself a Serb.” For us it was very confusing. I didn’t understand why my parents were arguing, or why certain friends stopped coming over to our house.
IS:: Your parents reacted differently to the War?
BK:: My father doesn’t like to talk much about the past. He wants to leave it as it is. He doesn’t care where people are from, but he identifies as a Croat. My mom, on the other hand, celebrates the 29th of November every year with all her girlfriends. She goes crazy posting pictures of the former flag, and of Tito (the former leader) on her page… We had a little statue of Tito on our TV in the living room. From the living room, he was sent to the kitchen to be with my mother, as my father didn’t want to see him anymore. Then he was moved to the cellar. After the cellar he went to the dining room. Now he is back in the living room. I think now many young people feel a sense of nostalgia for the past.
IS:: It seems like we never learn the lesson that nationalism is an outdated concept that keep us from remembering that the richness of a society is tied to pluralism. The differences between us don’t have to be obstacles that keep us from connecting and unifying. I am from Quebec, and I spend a lot of time in Israel – so I am intimately versed with these dynamics.
BK:: I am nostalgic probably for different reasons. My longing is for a time and place that I never knew. It is more a longing to be immersed in my roots. If I hear a Croat or Serbian word on the street, I always want to approach them and ask where they are from, but I have to be careful, because it’s a very sensitive subject. The war created so many lost souls. I recently founded a Yugoslav movie club in Berlin, where we show films from the 70’s and 80’s, a time when the Yugoslav film industry was very big. It’s helped me meet many interesting people who come to the screenings. It’s such a pity because there are many interesting people from the former Yugoslavia living in Berlin who are disconnected from their past.
Boris Kralj’s photo book ‘My Belgrade’ tells a story about a country which does not exist anymore. Belgrade represents the artist’s personal point of view on the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Foreword by Joerg Kochs and an Interview by Kevin Braddock. Published by Die Neue Sachlichkeit, ISBN, 978-3-942139-12-0.To order a copy of My Belgrade click here.
An old sign in Belgrade that remains from the Yugoslav period.