|A few notes about our
Dr Tim Brook
Nobody outside Canberra knows that Canberra has a culture. It’s hidden. Journalists come from all over Australia to report on their politicians in the parliament but nobody reports on Canberra. There’s nothing new in that. But it gets more interesting…
Nobody knows what Canberra’s second language is. It’s hidden. Even people who speak the language don’t know its unique significance to Canberra. We’re discovering the fascination of this language and the culture that surround it. We call it ‘Our twice-hidden culture’. It’s not ours, but it is ours! We have no family ties with the people of the Balkans, but the more we find out about their lives, the more we find out about ourselves as Canberrans.
This story begins in 1949 at the start of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, an enormous feat of engineering that required the work of thousands of laborers and technicians who arrived from all over the world. Eventually more than 100 000 people arrived in the mountains. It was no surprise that large numbers of these people came from the area that was then called Yugoslavia. Many Yugoslavs were already familiar with contemporary methods in engineering and construction, and they had a long history of coping with the hardships of living and working in harsh mountain terrain.
In the decades that followed, Canberra was growing, and people were drawn from the Snowys to Canberra’s gentler environment and wider opportunities. Canberra became a multicultural city and workers from the Snowy Mountains Scheme ensured that a significant contribution to Canberra’s culture came from Yugoslavia. Of the many Yugoslavs who had arrived in Kalgoorlie in the early 1900s, most had lost their language after a couple of generations; in contrast, their language and culture have remained alive in Canberra. The painful dissolution of the former Yugoslavia and its painful transition to capitalism have both contributed to a flow of new arrivals in Canberra and continuing links with their homelands. According to the 2006 ABS figures, Canberra is the only major city in Australia where their language is spoken in more homes than any language other than English.
We began to stumble on parts of this story in the early 1990s. We started looking out for films from the region and I began to learn a few words of the language. And then, in the late 1990s, I heard about Montenegro. There was no reason for me to become interested—I have no family ties with Montenegro and at that time I hadn’t even met a single Montenegrin—but I had an irrational urge to find out more about the country and its people.
I noticed two advertisements for documentary programs about Montenegro on SBS television. The first program was a true story that sounded like a fairytale. A prince who was living in Paris was visiting his home country for the first time and being welcomed by generous and friendly people. It struck me that Montenegro must be a country with a complex history and culture. I was fascinated; I was determined to visit the country, but it took a long time to make it happen.
The second television program was about a group of people making a film about a hot-air balloon flight from Montenegro. I wasn’t very interested in the hot-air balloon but the mountain scenery was magnificent. (I think it was probably near Durmitor.) The balloonists had employed a local guide to help them understand the mountains they were trying to fly over. He was the most interesting character in the documentary. He sat in a director’s chair and was referred to by the film makers as ‘Stanley only Stanley’ because there had been some misunderstanding about his family name. (I don’t think the film makers spoke Montenegrin.) Imagine our surprise when, years later, on an evening walk in Žabljak, we were greeted with a friendly ‘dobro veče’ from this very same man—and he was still calling himself ‘Stanley only Stanley’ when he spoke English!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Many things happened before that.
I was determined to visit Montenegro. I attended some language classes. I spoke to everyone I could think of. I searched for ‘Montenegro’ on the Internet. I visited the embassy of Serbia and Montenegro and spoke to the cultural attaché. Over several years I tried everything I could think of, but nothing seemed to work. I didn’t want to spend two days in Montenegro as a tourist; I wanted to spend a good length of time living in one place, getting to know people and seeing the country.
Eventually Ruth found a colleague whose father, Gary Smith, was working in Montenegro. Gary is a Canberra man who is an expert in financial matters. At that time he was working in Podgorica as an adviser to the government in preparation for Montenegro’s independence. I sent him an email and he agreed to meet us on his next visit to his daughter in Canberra. We met a couple of months later. He told us how much he liked working with Montenegrin people and how much he was enjoying life in Montenegro. But the exciting part for us was that he offered to contact people in Montenegro and find out what might be possible for us.
Gary did exactly as he had promised. The people at the University of Montenegro told him to contact Professor Nataša Đurović at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Cetinje, so he travelled to Cetinje and spoke to her about our interests. He put us in contact, and Professor Đurović and I began to exchange emails. [If your version of Word doesn’t properly display letters with diacritical marks, you can have a look on http://hingstonbrook.com/10crna/ for the correct spellings of people’s names.]
In the past, both Ruth and I had worked as artists-in-residence in places thought to have particular cultural significance. Most residencies in Australia are awarded by a managing group after an established process of inviting applications and assessing them. This is not the usual way to do things in Montenegro, where the idea of an ‘artists’ colony’ is more common. Nevertheless, Professor Đurović was keen for international artists to visit her faculty and she was open to the idea of an extended residency.
On 28 February 2007, Professor Đurović sent us an official invitation to be ‘artists in residence in our department at the University of Montenegro in September and October 2007.’ We were delighted.
Early in our stay, Ruth and I each gave a talk for students and staff at the Faculty to explain something about the art that we make. Throughout our stay, we learnt progressively more about Montenegrin contemporary art. We saw a number of exhibitions of both contemporary and traditional work, including a fine retrospective exhibition of the work of Petar Lubarda. We visited several artist’s studios. We admired the work of Cetinje artists Nataša Đurović, Lazar Pejović, Ana Matić, Anka Burić, Milivoje (Miško) Babović, Mihailo Jovićević and their students.
Professor Đurović helped us to rent a small flat in Ulica Vojvoda Boža, near the statue of Lovćenska vila, a short walk from the Faculty of Fine Arts. Each day we would walk to the Korzo for lunch, where Lidija Pavićević and her staff would provide good company, fine Montenegrin food and a glass of excellent Montenegrin wine. And on most days we would drop in to the Faculty of Fine Arts, where Irena Poček and Sanja Lakićević were never-ending sources of help and information.
At the start of our residency, Professor Đurović expressed great skepticism about my claims about the use of black in Montenegrin art and the portrayal of sunlight in Australian art. She remained skeptical but she was had a surprise when she first took us to the flat. Some earlier tenants in the flat had painted a large cupboard completely black and then painted a number of slogans on it. These slogans included ‘Manje je više’ and, significantly, in English, ‘Not all is black as it seems, it’s even blacker’!
We made car trips out of Cetinje. We drove to Rijeka Crnojevića, to Skadarsko Jezero, to Kotor and Perast and to Žabljak and Durmitor. Everywhere we met generous and friendly people. Everywhere we saw beautiful countryside.
All the time, in Cetinje and on our trips, we observed—Ruth made drawings and I took photographs. It takes time to see things in a new place. I walked past one street sign every day for two weeks before I started to wonder about it. I’m not good at reading Cyrillic text, but I could tell that it didn’t say ‘Ulica —’ (— street). Imagine my surprise when I worked out that it said ‘noć je spaljena’ (the night is on fire)! Ana Matić explained that it was part of a site-specific art installation and that, if I looked carefully enough, I would see street signs in other parts of Cetinje that said ‘the well is on fire’, ‘the piano is on fire’ and so on.
‘Crna Gora’ didn’t seem black to us. Our Australian eyes saw plenty of sunlight—both literally and metaphorically. And Ruth was entranced by the clean washing on the facades of the building and the smart clean clothes on the people as they walked through the town. In the end, Ruth and I made a collaborative work about Montenegro called „Nije Crna”. We showed it first before we left Cetinje, as a work in progress, in the ‘Velika Sala’, the grand ballroom of the former Russian Embassy, which is now the building for the Faculty of Fine Arts. Later we installed the completed work at the Manuka Arts Centre in Canberra as part of the 2008 photography festival. You can see pictures of the work if you go to http://hingstonbrook.com/10crna/hb1001.htm and select slide show .
Another result of our residency is an ongoing commitment to fostering cultural links between Canberra and the countries of the former Yugoslavia. For a start, we want to bring Montenegrin contemporary art to Canberra. Montenegro doesn’t usually appear on the radar for Canberrans—the population of the whole country is only twice the population of Canberra—but their art is fascinating. We have so much to learn from each other. I know I’m oversimplifying but I still think we understand sunlight and they understand black—again both literally and metaphorically.