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Kuma & Mahala — Synergy Between Researchers, Academics, Visual Artists and Community

Author: Hana Tiro

In the following interview, Claudia Zini (Founder of Kuma) and Selver Učanbarlić (Creative Director of Mahala) share information on formation of Kuma, future plans, and how past developments led to the creation of Mahala.

Kuma International is an organization which empowers how the arts can encourage constructive dialogue on human rights and justice, civil society engagement and democratic participation. As a founder, could you tell the readers how Kuma story began?

Claudia: Kuma International was born in 2018 in Sarajevo, while I was still writing my PhD thesis about contemporary art from BIH with a focus on the impact of war and genocide on the local contemporary art scene.

I envisioned Kuma as a research center dedicated to visual arts and architecture in the aftermath of war and violence, war memories, trauma and identity from post-conflict societies, focusing mainly on Bosnia-Herzegovina and former Yugoslavia. The original approach of Kuma is the intersection between academic research and a concrete platform for exhibition projects and community engagement which creates a unique synergy between researchers, academics, curators and visual artists on one side and the local community on the other.

It took me three years to come up with such an idea, since I officially moved to Sarajevo in 2015 while researching for my thesis. There were different reasons to establish such a research and educational center: I wanted other people like me, researchers, students, art historians, curators, and such, to learn about contemporary art from the country. I wanted to share with them my knowledge about the subject, and give them the opportunity to travel to Bosnia and most of all to meet in person the protagonists of the local art scene, which I always consider this to be an enormous privilege, to meet people first-hand, as this is not something that usually happens inside the university, to learn about the history of art from the artists themselves. This for me was a life-changing opportunity. So, I wished more and more people could have the same experience and learn how the war in the country in the early nineties radically transformed the aesthetics, contents and techniques used by local artists, giving birth to new artistic vocabularies.

Since its beginning, Kuma International engaged in different educational activities, working closely with scholars and artists. The primary focus of Kuma’s first educational step is the post-war artistic production from Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was analyzed in detail during the first Kuma International Summer School that took place in Sarajevo in June 2018. With the patronage of the Italian Embassy in Bosnia and Herzegovina, we organized a one-week intensive course focusing on post-war artistic production from Bosnia and on how artists from the region have been affected by the political turmoil of the 1990s and how they processed the fall of Yugoslavia, the 1992–1995 war and its consequences through their artistic practices. Students also had the unique chance to meet local artists, explore the city’s museums and art galleries and visit artists’ studios.

It was incredibly successful, exceeding all my expectations. A program like that, focusing on artists reflecting on the traumas of war through their art, their autobiographical artworks telling personal stories, rather fragments of memories, which are often lost or purposely excluded from the official narrative, did not exist before.

One of the projects which grew from the Kuma community is Mahala Magazine. You published the first issue a couple of months ago. Are you planning to maintain the life of Mahala Magazine?

Claudia: We published the first issue in February 2021 after a two week workshop with Italian photojournalist Enrico Dagnino, while the second one came about in July, Le Monde journalist Remy Ourdan and Bosnian photographer Velma Babic worked with us as guest editor and guest photo editor. We are now about to complete the 3rd issue which will come out in January 2022. It will depend on funds, but sure, the plan is to continue with Mahala Magazine and hopefully have 3 other issues published in 2022. The enthusiasm with which the magazine was welcome is amazing and motives us to go further. There are so many interesting stories out there to collect.

Visual of the magazine looks different from most of the magazines in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As a creative director, what was the idea behind the style of Mahala?

Selver: Firstly, I always like to say that Mahala is not a magazine. That’s why it doesn't look like any other magazine we see. If I needed to describe Mahala I would describe it as something organic, something that changes but still has a descriptive line to it. As the creative director I tend to nicely pack the idea of Mahala and send it to the world, in a visual language that everybody understands and finds interesting.

As a creative brain power behind this story - are you currently maintaining any other projects?

Selver: I really love to put as much creativity as possible into every project I work on, even though sometimes it can’t be linked with the creative field. In terms of my academic past, I’ve finished my degree in the field of architecture which gave me a lot of new creative and management skills that are really helpful today. Besides architecture, I enjoy photography at most but I don’t consider myself as a photographer at all, because I still have to learn a lot, but Enrico, our chief editor, is a big support and a person you can look upon. Recently we created a postcard of Sarajevo, as a part of our donation campaign, where we want to send to all of our supporters and lovers of Sarajevo a little emotion of the city.

“Rememory 1992-2022” project is a series of 6 workshops on Art and Remembrance and a documentary film about the city of Gorazde. Could you tell us more about the emerging ideas behind it?

Claudia: Sure, we are very excited about this project that we are running together with our partner Brodac Gallery in Sarajevo and that is supported by the International Relief Fund for Organisations in Culture and Education 2021 of the German Federal Foreign Office, the Goethe-Institut and other partners.

Commemorating 30th anniversary since the beginning of the Bosnian War (1992-2022) the project focuses on Sarajevo and Goražde and involves artists, photographers and photojournalists in order to offer a highly local context-sensitive perspective on the consequences of the past and the importance of remembrance, and a reflection on the role of the arts and culture in social transformation.

The workshops were run from September to November 2021 by six local and international artists and photographers (Smirna Kulenović, Ziyah Gafić, Enrico Dagnino, Mak Hubjer, Aida Šehović and Velibor Božović) on the theme of memory, remembrance and contemporary forms of memorialization. Together with selected participants, our guest lectures worked towards posing and answering a number of questions about the nature and varieties of memory, such as: how do we remember the past and what is the role of art and photography in that process?

As for the documentary film, it will be presented next spring in Gorazde and Sarajevo. Titled “UNSAFE AREA Goražde” it is an on-going documentary project on the Bosnian enclave of Goražde, the only city in Eastern Bosnia that was not conquered by the Bosnian Serb Army during the 1992-95 war, telling the stories of those who survived the war and defended their city from the aggression. We will also organize a photo exhibition around the same time, in spring 2022, showing a number of personal stories by war survivors from Goražde, together with unique archival material.

The “Rememory 1992-2022” team in Goražde, October 2021

Workshop with Aida Sehovic at Brodac Gallery, Sarajevo, October 2021.

Selver: I’m currently dedicated to the ‘’UNSAFE AREA Goražde’’ documentary, which will be not your typical documentary but more of a statement to all of the citizens who gave up their normal life routine and had the strength to endure all of the bad things that happened there. Also, it will show how all of those people started living again, from zero, which I think will be a great inspiration to mine and younger generations.

Gorazde, Romi's Diary: Mirsad Vodic, Romi, a former scout from the Bosnian army. During the war, he used to take columns of refugees out of Goražde via the mountain trails of Grebak and take back food and ammunition in the besieged town. «I kept a journal for the whole duration of the war, also writing poems and songs to escape the horrors of the war». He is about to publish his diary for the benefit of the young generations. Photo by Enrico Dagnino

You have a lot of projects on your plate! How do you keep your schedule running so tight?

Claudia: Enthusiasm, love and gratitude for what you do are the key!

Selver: As Claudia said, love and gratitude and empathy before all of other ‘business’ characteristics.

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