Sarajevo today isn’t much like the city that Tanja Softić remembers from her childhood. “We had these amazing kindergartens where we were studying music and English, we had these great teachers,” she recalls. She also remembers trips to local museums, libraries and cultural attractions.
“Now imagine all of that is gone. There are certain qualities of life that have been lost,” Softić says.
Bosnia, one of several small nations formed in the early 1990s with the break-up of the former country of Yugoslavia, endured a brutal civil war from 1992-1995, as well as the Srebrenica Massacre, where more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered. The civil war was ended by the Dayton Peace Accords, signed in late 1995, which led to the establishment of two separate governments, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska.
“The war caused wholesale destruction of cultural property for reasons of hatred and ideology,” Softić says. But in her view, it was the corruption of the two separate governments that hindered progress in rebuilding. “The two sides can’t agree on anything except to raise their own salaries,” she says. “They won’t vote for a national museum, because that acknowledges the sovereignty of the country.”
So the museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions continue to sit in a state of disrepair. Several have closed, and for the ones that remain open, employees haven’t been paid in months, but still show up to work. For Softić, the daughter of a museum curator, who now works as a professional artist and teacher, it is particularly disheartening.
Softić returns to Sarajevo each summer to visit family, and when she arrived there two years ago in the summer of 2013, she was exhausted. “I had just finished up a term as chair of the art department, and was now on sabbatical, but I had no idea what I was going to work on while I was away,” she says. She began to take photographs of the devastating condition of museums and libraries throughout the city, and as she talked with the people who ran them, she slowly discovered her next project: Sarajevo worth preserving.
The end result is an exhibition of photographs that Softić describes as “a personal essay in photographic form,” and an online essay on the topic.
Catalogue of Silence: Sarajevo’s Museums and Libraries After the 1992-1995 War opened at the Museum of Literature and Performing Arts in Sarajevo earlier this summer to an incredibly warm reception. “The interest in it, the number of people who came to see the show, the publicity I got over there, it warms my heart,” Softić says. “It tells me this is something that people really care about. They miss their museums.”
Now Softić is bringing Catalogue of Silence to Richmond’s campus, where it will be on view in the International Center Gallery throughout the fall semester. As she planned the exhibition with Joe Hoff, associate dean of international education, they both began to dream bigger. “We thought it would be a shame to just have an exhibition, so we added a video monitor with the online essay,” she says. “And then we thought, it would be great to bring in a speaker, and slowly it grew into something larger.”
Softić called on colleagues in political science, English, and religious studies, and they worked together to create a full semester’s worth of programming that will explore the civil war, the Srebrenica Massacre, and the state of culture in Bosnia today. The series, 20 Years After Srebrenica: Bosnia and Herzegovina Today, will bring two academic experts, as well as three poets and an artist to campus to share their point of view.
“I’m hoping to bring Bosnian culture and Bosnian reality — the good, the bad, and the ugly — here,” Softić says. “We have a large Bosnian-American community in Richmond, and several Bosnians working on campus. This is something I can do.”
Softić also hopes to highlight the differences in how culture is supported in the United States and in Bosnia. “As Americans, we engage in a lot of discussions about whether government should support the arts and culture,” she says. “I want to show the example of a country where the arts are not supported at all, to have people see how dire the situation is, and to show how important the arts are for the future of a country.”