Jovan  Balov


by Lena KIlkka


Look deeply inside every individual and you can find their story.
Jovan Balov, founder of Prima Center Berlin

Taking Berlin to the Balkans and vice versa with the Prima Centers

Jovan Balov is an artist, historian, as well as founder and program manager of the Prima Center Berlin, a non-profit gallery space in Berlin-Wedding dedicated to promoting Balkan art in Berlin. The roots of the Prima Center were fertilized when four international Berlin-based artists started joking around: "A German, a Russian, a Macedonian and an American are sitting on a plane to Skopje. They start discussing which country is the richest in the world, and then the German turns and says…" (now fill in the blank with a witty response). These opening lines were calculatedly turned into an exhibition concept and then a reality in 2000 when Jovan Balov, the Macedonian, and his three colleagues, the Russian, the German and the American, flew together from Berlin to Skopje to present their joke exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. They called it "Multiple Choice".

However, these four comedic artists were also side-swiped by several frustrating local administrative problems in Skopje, with budget, bank account, finding somebody to present their works, applications, and so on. "So the idea arose to start an organization in Skopje that could be a base to support our connections in Berlin - and that could make some kind of bridge, culture and exchange, between Skopje and Berlin." And that’s how the NGO Prima Centar Skopje came about. "I cannot say I created it, because other friends actually created the center - but the registration for the NGO hadn’t even been sent off at that point." And so Jovan kind of jumped in, got involved, and helped give it the push it needed to come to fruition.
Through Prima Centar Skopje they were able to start regularly presenting Berlin-based artists in Macedonia's capital. By 2001, the same year as Macedonia's conflict, they had three shows including at the National Gallery Skopje.
"And all of this was a wonderful experience and a success. There was a lot of interesting stuff going from Berlin to Skopje. And in Skopje it was also a great opportunity to have information about what was going on in Berlin. To this day, every year I still bump into people who visited these shows in Skopje who say that these exhibitions changed their lives, because it taught them that you don’t have to think local. I’m happy to say that these exhibitions from Berlin to Skopje helped many young artists in finding their own direction."

Balov was also a young artist finding his way when he came to West Berlin, West Germany from Skopje, Macedonia, Yugoslavia, back in early 1989. Shortly after Germany’s reunification he moved to Amsterdam to work as an artist until 1995, after which he returned to Berlin.
By the time 2002 rolled around, from his residence in Berlin-Wedding, Jovan took notice of what he calls a "kind of cultural movement" in Berlin. "It was this process of the gentrification of Prenzlauer Berg, of Kreuzberg, Friedrichshain and Neukölln…But this part of Berlin was a place they forgot. And the prices of the flats in Wedding stayed quite cheap. So other people from the other less well-off parts of Berlin came into Wedding to find cheap places. And with that also came more social issues… But then I also noticed that there was an effort to change things here; a kind of movement to improve things. I know several artists who had found places in Wedding at the very beginning and then took the initiative to get things moving here. So for two years I just quietly observed what was going on around this neighborhood. And after that I started to speak with my colleagues from Skopje about the possibility of finding or creating a space in Berlin. To make double-way exchange, not just to send people to Skopje, but to send people from Skopje to Berlin. And not to be expensive, so that young artists have a chance to come to Berlin, to visit the museums, to have access to first-hand information about studying here and so on. And, you know, just to help them try and work internationally."

It was actually an independent move on Herr Balov’s part to get the space, which he did. And a few months later he was in contact with Skopje to figure out what to call it, how to network it, and so on. "They said great, let’s call it Prima Center Berlin...And then the applications started arriving for exhibition projects."

And so from its beginning in 2004 until recently, Prima Center Berlin was officially a branch of Prima Centar Skopje, while also being a member of the kolonie wedding association, which has a program of 10 open exhibitions a year during their gallery crawl, generally taking place on the last Friday of the month. And although Prima Center Berlin is still associated with Prima Centar Skopje, it will be so more loosely in the future. "I’m trying to become completely independent and to run my own projects, with my own ideas, and my own contacts; For Prima Center Berlin to be independent from Prima Centar Skopje in running some of the projects from Macedonian Ministry of Culture. Plus, more generally, I would like to make Prima Center Berlin more of an alternative space for young artists, ages 25 and under."

Because of the only limited amount of exhibitions coming in through the Macedonian Ministry of Culture, Jovan took the initiative to start creating possibilities for artists from the other Balkan countries as well. "Because, as an artist, I was very active during the Yugoslav days and have had a lot of shows around Zagreb, Belgrade, Ljubljana, Sarajevo. And I’m in contact with a lot of friends around these countries now. And so then I just started to re-activate my network and to develop the idea of opening the space, a big open space for artists from the Balkan countries. And the interest is still very great. As you see now I have a show from Vojvodina, before hers, there was a show from Croatia, artists from Montenegro, Albania. Actually I’m open for artists from anywhere, but I would say about 80% of the programs come from the Balkan countries."

"I work with various associations from the Balkans, for example I started together with the Academy of Fine Art from Novi Sad, Academy of Fine Art from Nis, then some independent organizations from Belgrade, some interesting exchange projects with Slovenia, I’ve started to work with Alkatraz Gallery and others from Slovenia…There are 5 or 6 independent video art programs a year, where I show a lot of artists from Turkey, from France, from Greece, from this complete Balkan area."

Between all of these shows, however, Jovan also features artists who already live in Berlin, fostering Prima Center Berlin’s local involvement. Additionally, he sees it as his creative duty and responsibility to utilize his position within such an established and far-reaching artist network to help connect others. "Some of the artists from Prima Center Berlin go on to present in Moscow, or to video institutions in Amsterdam, video art festivals in Bitola and Novi Sad. Media festivals from Europe and far from Europe. I take a lot of artists from these different countries through the Prima Center to other festivals. I send a lot of people from here to there. I mix the artists between Berlin and the Balkan countries and beyond. Next January we will even be flying to Hong Kong. …"

Herr Balov is open and dedicated to helping Balkan artists in expanding their network and would like to offer Prima Center’s space to those who need it. So don't hesitate to contact him with your ideas.

Jovan with two of himselves from his "Ego sum, qui sum" series 

 Jovan Balov: the artist

"In my works, it was important for me not to just be an artist closed in the studio, but to be one who can say something about what is happening in the world; the crisis in the Balkan countries, the demonizing of the Balkan cultures. So I was really active in this way between 1997 and 2007, those 10 years." But before ’97 Jovan dealt with the more formal aspect of geometry in his paintings. "Because I spent 5 years in Holland I was deeply influenced by this style moving around there – and by Russian geometrism and futurism from Italy." When he moved back to Berlin from Amsterdam in 1995, he says, "I really started to open my mind and to see what was going on around me. I mean my period of producing of the geometrical works maybe was the period when I wasn’t prepared to hear about the real world, truth and history. And a lot of ugly stuff happened in ex-Yugoslavia at that time. But when everything was over I was stronger. And I said, oh stop, I would like to say something." 

And so he started working with the comparison of German history over the last 150 years with the history of the Balkans, "I find never-ending connections. I started to produce some videos, some photos - reactions. My first work coming after my isolation as an artist was a series of paintings, the eagle works from Berlin. I found more than 140 places in Berlin where you can recognize eagles from the three different epochal periods: I showed the stereotypical eagle from the First Reich, the stereotypical eagle from the second Reich, and the stereotypical eagle from the Third Reich. Actually, the oldest eagle from Berlin comes from the Roman coins. And the connection between the Roman eagle and the eagle in Prussian Germany are very strong. They follow this Roman line of symbols. And then after that I painted a huge series - I found eagles from the arms of the world. I found 35 countries that use eagles on their own arms. … And then I also created digital paintings and images and photos in a very complicated series called 'Ich in Berlin', which is created from the monument in Nikolaiviertel where St. George fights with an evil dragon. And I put the questions through this sculpture: who am I? Am I George? Am I an innocent horse? Or am I the evil dragon? And what is Berlin? Is Berlin the George? The innocent horse? Or is Berlin the evil dragon? And these relations between me and George and these three characters and Berlin and the three characters, trying to find an answer. And so actually I created the reality of my connections: Berlin and Balkan.”

Thus politics and history played a large role in his work until he noticed that it was enough for him and that he didn’t really have anything else to say about the current political movement. He was "sick about that news about what was going on in the Balkan countries", and so in around 2007 he changed directions, which included dedicating himself completely to painting.

"Actually I was a bit angry about what was going on at a lot of global art presentations. I see that a lot of artists choose a way to be clever in art. But only to be clever in art, that’s not enough for me. You know, art shouldn’t be just a formal work but it should try to change something, to say something, to give a reaction about this reality, you know."

 He adds that there are different paths or concepts he finds that art travels down or follows: the way of the politician, of ecology, of history, and of science. "And I said, why not to take the path of psychology. Then I went back to portraits and I tried not just to paint the portraits, but to go more deeply inside the faces. To see the people with different eyes. To mix the emotional reflections of the people in one painting. Half of my portraits are funny, the other half are sad, you know, they are crying but on the other hand still waiting for something, you know. I’m always mixing these different emotions together into one portrait. They look very realistic, strongly photo-realistic. But if you come closer, you’ll be surprised that you can actually find the story of this model. You will discover a life inside. And that is my motivation behind the art: Look deeply inside every individual and you can find their story. That was the idea. And I’m happy about that. I made the right decision. And actually I just finished a new piece today!"

There are a lot of exhibitions in planning for the rest of the year in various locations, but for sure we’ll get to see some of Balov’s works here in Berlin in an upcoming group show called "my erotic identity". Also coming up in October is an exhibition in Ljubljana, Slovenia. 

Jovan Balov on the (hi)story of becoming a "certified" Balkan Hero

It’s also funny for me! I was invited to the Triennale exhibition in Tallin. Actually the context of this exhibition was some kind of provocation of nationalism and neonationalism. The curator organized a separate show especially for this issue. And they selected my work called Demos, which tried to connect the place of Hitler in Macedonia and the place of Macedonia with Hitler. And actually, I used the old Macedonian map from 1913 - the same map Hitler discovered on the table when he checked the archive from Weimar Republic in Germany, probably. And I just played with these historical fictions. But you know for art it doesn’t matter if I play with the facts or play with the fiction. I put my fiction in these facts and then I create my works. But these works explained a lot about the old saying that goes: the friend of my enemy is my enemy and the enemy of my enemy is my friend. And just imagine - Hitler had a plan to connect Macedonia again after the separating of Macedonia in 1913. Not to give the historical parts of Macedonia to Bulgaria, Tsar Boris, or Mussolini, but just to unite Macedonia and call it a loyal country of his Reich. And through Macedonia to have access to the Mediterranean. But the idea was most likely called off because of the discussion with Stalin. But if Hilter were to collect all of the pieces of Macedonia into one country, he’s technically not supposed to be my enemy any longer, right? He’s "supposed" to be a friend” in shadow, you know. That happened with Croatia. Because Hitler created an independent Croatian country. The same things had probably been planned for Macedonia. But it didn’t happen. 

I had taken photos of this famous eagle head from the front of Airport Tempelhof. It’s on a special pedestal; this very big, wonderful, Bauhaus, demonized eagle head. Actually you can find the complete body of this eagle in the military museum in Boston. But after some strong legal maneuvers, the Germans succeeded in having just the head of this sculpture sent back to Berlin. And I took a photo of this eagle, from the front side and went around until the back side, where you cannot recognize any kind of eagle – nothing has a touch of symbolic of Nazi, Germany – it’s just a kind of innocent bird. Maybe it looks like a bird, maybe not. But it’s at least something very innocent. Then I play with these rotations with the eagle of Nazi Germany, two faces, you know. And I put down there the images from Macedonia before the Macedonian territory was cut into four and given to the four countries. And so I played on this nationalism in this case…

And then awhile after that I received some kind of email saying that I had been selected to be pronounced a Balkan Hero in Greece, in Athens. And that the Greek government will present and promote all of the medal winners of the Rigas Feraios award. President Papulias will be there, and Parvanov and even Tadic.

I read this and I thought: Microsoft lottery, spam, delete, you know. First mail, second mail, third mail. A few months passed, then 6 months. And finally came some telephone call from the Greek embassy. ‘Every 5 years we have a special ceremony to announce the Balkan Heroes’. The criteria is that the selected Balkan people have to have been living as immigrants in the diaspora for more more than 10 years - and during these years to have been working in promoting and presenting Balkan cultures and science. 

Rigas Feraios is the person who was the inspiration for this Riga's Charta prize. He was a member of the first government of the Paris Commune. He was a famous writer, wrote wonderful poetry. He had a plan to meet Napoleon in Trieste, but he was sold to the Sultan where he was killed in Belgrade. Because the Sultan of the Ottoman empire had called him the state enemy number one. Feraios' plan was to connect the people who live in the Balkans, to wake up this (pan-Balkan) identity, away from the Ottoman empire… to organize a mass revolution against the Ottoman empire. To make some kind of independent Balkan federation. 

And so they told me that I had to go to the Greek embassy here in Berlin. But for me it was an interesting experience. I had enough time to study more about who exactly this Rigas was, what his real plans were, to check everything out. Who this organization was that would be presenting my works there. I found everything to be correct and very professional. They were nice people. And so I accepted this prize. 

At that time, usually a person with a Macedonian passport had to wait 3 weeks to a month to get a Greek visa. At the embassy in Berlin they gave me a one-year visa in two days. That was in 2007.

And then a few months later I flew to Greece, to Athens. Everything was very professionally organized. Scientists, musicians, a lot of very interesting people there. There were about 2000 people there in the hall for the ceremony! A delegation from Macedonia was there with me. The Macedonian government had written a speech for me. But I didn’t want to read it and I gave it back. I don’t want a written speech. I’m an artist not a politician. I’ll be there and say at that moment what I’m feeling. And I did. 

When they called me on the stage they didn’t announce that I was originally from "FYRoM" or some stupid stuff, they just said "our northern neighbor". It was great and enough for me. 

And then at the microphone I said that I was very delighted, very proud to be there for the medal because it’s good to be associated with Rigas, a person who had a vision to create a Balkans without borders, that it doesn’t matter which nationality you come from. And I told the crowd that I would be very happy if this happened between our two countries (Greece and Macedonia) - moving around without borders, without a visa, without anything. And then I invited the whole audience to come visit me for tea in Skopje! 

Perhaps a Berlin Flohmarkt would be the place to find a tea set for 2000 Balkan guests?...

Lena Kilkka 
20th June 2012