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Bosnian collective adds colorful energy to Sarajevo's war-hit quarters through art

MEHTAP ÖZER ISOVIC
SARAJEVO
Published
Bosnian collective adds colorful energy to Sarajevo's war-hit quarters through art

The 1992-1995 Bosnian War brought major changes to Sarajevo, creating abandoned, idle places without color. The Sarajevo-based collective Dobre Kote departs from the idea of transforming such public spaces into functional ones with the help of locals and children, all becoming a part of their project

A collective of 67 volunteers, Dobre Kote is transforming public spaces and people's attitude toward the idea of public space in Sarajevo. The collective takes its name as the plural form of "dobra kota," which is a commonly used local slang in Sarajevo for ramshackle places with the implication that "it is a good place to hang out."

Dobre Kote is a very wide group ranging from first or second grade high school students to some professional architects who are 45 to 50 years old. The collective is getting help from members in different fields that they are trying to integrate into their projects.

While reimagining and redesigning public spaces in Sarajevo, Dobre Kote is also strengthening the connection between this evolving city and its people.

As a Sarajevo-based activist and artist, Smirna Kulanovic, 21, is the person behind the Dobre Kote projects. Shouldering lots of tasks ranging from designing their logo to programming art workshops in Sarajevo's newly revitalized public spaces; Kulanovic deserves the most credit for the success of Dobre Kote.

Aldijana Okeric, who is the legal brain of Dobre Kote, is another avid activist and lawyer from Sarajevo. She has been making a big effort to make the current laws in Bosnia and Herzegovina go greener as well as working in creative arts with Smirna.

During the course of our conversation, we discussed Dobre Kote's past and current projects, the role of art and children in urban transformation, and the challenges they face while implementing their urban revitalization projects.

Aiming to integrate art into public places, Dobre Kote started its work at a garage rooftop in Grbavica, Kota 1, which was abandoned and destroyed during the war.

"So the first thing we did was doing questionnaires with 250 people from the apartments that surround this space giving them a chance to write how they imagine this space. Eighty-five percent of the people wanted us to create a park for children to play in because the children had got injured a lot due to metal things and some really dangerous things that they found on the garage rooftop," Kulanovic said.

Last year, the garage rooftop was reopened followed by a public exhibition.

Local photographers sent their photos on the subject of "Walls in Sarajevo," the walls that have put Bosnians both apart and brought them together.

"And the interesting thing is that we said to people that they could take the photos home if they liked them because we wanted to get rid of this elitist approach to art that exists usually in galleries. The photos disappeared in five minutes. We made a new project which tried to trace where those photos went. Some of them went to Serbia [and] Slovenia really good," Kulanovic added.

Kulanovic said the collective is open for everyone that is willing to create a new project or do whatever they like. What is more important is that Dobre Kote is where each member can freely move without any hierarchal step.

"We feel like we're a family. I couldn't ever imagine myself or Aldijana above the others in any sense. People, who live here, especially young people, are taught in the school system just to obey authorities and never voice their own ideas. So a lot of people, when they enter Dobre Kote in the beginning, are very scared to suggest new ideas and I always try to break down that approach," Kulanovic said.

Children have also become a part of Dobre Kote as the space in Kota 1 is now their playground where they come anytime they want.

"So, we developed a certain way of working within that space that would connect us to the children. Because it's part of my profession, I am doing lots of projects with anarchist approaches to education, like liberating children at a young age and make them express themselves more. Through working with them we realized the importance and need for children in urban public space. It's really hard to change people's attitude toward public space when they are older. In order for Sarajevo to become more aware of public spaces and more aware of what we are working for, we need to educate children at a young age," Kulanovic said.

To fund their projects, the collective has tried all of the possible ways. Apart from institutional funds like that from the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, the collective receive help from locals and will start online funding campaigns like Indio and Kickstarter to reach a larger audience as many Bosnians are still in financial hardship.

Answering a question on how the collective chooses a public space for transformation, Kulanovic said they are specifically looking for bad and dirty places where nobody ever hangs out. They also examine the area to see whether there is any other public space nearby.

"If there's one then we don't have to work there because people can hang out there," Kulanovic says.

"And the most important thing for our assessment is the people who live there. Because we've learned that if the people who live there are not willing to help or if they don't want the space to be recreated then we are not doing anything," she continues.

In 1993, the most horrible year of war in Sarajevo, a community garden was created in the city where the people were able to endure the war by consuming the vegetables grown in that garden and the well they dug out there. Years later, Kulanovic and her friends found two photos of the garden in a magazine.

"That's the way we found the community garden space 'Bastica,' Kota 2, which had been abandoned for 20 years after the war. There were instructions about how everyone can make their own community garden and survive the war and there were recipes about how to eat snails! Really crazy. Now we feel like the project has additional value to it because we revived something that saved lives during the war," Kulanovic said.

Unfortunately, the garden had become a land of trash as people began to throw their waste there. They spent one month to clean it. All the neighbors agreed that they would like it to be a community garden again; especially the residents who survived the war and have those memories of what it looked like before.

Kulanovic said a successful public space must be a safe place for everyone from children to old people, men, and women. The second important thing is the visual attractiveness, the image followed by sustainability and giving people the opportunity to do various activities there.

There are also some times that the collective members had to cope with stressful problems that they took lessons. At those moments some volunteers were afraid and left Dobre Kote.

"But I think that's the most important thing to try to change those angry and scared people through changing spaces and through changing the relations with the neighbors," Kulanovic adds.

One of the most important things in Dobre Kote is conflict resolution and peaceful ways of resolution. The core of Dobre Kote is not just about the reintegration of people but the reintegration within small communities starting from the neighborhoods.

In this collective, art has a powerful tool to unite people, help them to get to know each other while have them liberate and express themselves. Although they are not professional artists at all, the local community enjoys the chance to be a part of an art project during a series of workshops.

"I tried to make these alternative workshops where I tried to make them express themselves in any form possible. It has shown most beneficial to do abstract art workshops with kids. I was fascinated by what they created. Because of the educational system here we perceive art as something elitist, something they cannot do because they don't have money or they are not talented. People here also perceive art as being only realistic," she adds.

When looking at people's lives in Sarajevo, especially after the war, they seem to have the feeling of "possession" much more than before. They thought they were losing their lives, houses and families during the war and after the war they started to "possess" spaces much more than they did before. Kulanovic agrees on it.

"There are a lot of factors influencing this. One of them is the change of the regime from the Yugoslavian socialist regime in which everything belonged to the government. Especially older people have a problem with resolving like 'how come public space, all of sudden, belongs to us?' Because they still believe that public space belongs to the government and the government decides what's going to happen in public space," Kulanovic stated.

Indeed, Dobre Kote has exerted great effort to explain that we would bring a regulation by saying, "This is a community space that you should all share like community property."

To illustrate, the community garden is not public space and in legal terms, it's shared property. It equally belongs to each resident that lives around it.

"Also I think because of the war some of the people really want their own space and they're afraid. Not only do they want to possess things more because they've lost them but they're afraid of other people; they're afraid of their neighbors. Because in the war neighbors started to kill each other," Kulanovic said.

From a country where the memories of war are still alive, Dobre Kote believes that all abandoned places in Sarajevo can be colorful again with art, children and hope.

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