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Parallel World – The Architecture of Survival at the Glendon Gallery

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Some segments of society are virtually invisible to the mainstream because they make us uncomfortable, and because acknowledging them might require some sort of action on our part to change their circumstances. One of these communities lives in a small group of makeshift shelters huddling among the high-rise offices and apartment buildings of modern downtown Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.


Glendon director of artistic and cultural affairs Martine Rheault, gallery curator Marc Audette and artist Boja Vasic in front of the hut at the exhibition

This dilapidated shanty-town, perched on a garbage dump and constructed from cardboard and a variety of discarded materials, is the subject of Boja Vasic’s media installation which has just opened at the Glendon Gallery on October 23rd, with the title
Parallel World – the Architecture of Survival.

The exhibition, which Vasic created in collaboration with his visual artist wife, Vessna Perunovich, consists of ninety-nine photographs and includes an actual recreation of a hut, erected in the centre of the gallery. It documents this ‘neighbourhood’ and offers a window into a world that is destitute and yet hopeful. Originally built by refugees from war-torn Kosovo, it is now predominantly the
community of another disenfranchised and sometimes despised group: the Roma, otherwise known as the Gypsies.

Commonly held prejudice labels this group as shiftless, nomadic, unwilling to integrate into mainstream society, lazy, dishonest and at the edge of morality. In reality, the group documented by Vasic in these photographs consists of solid families who are working, even if their work is at the lowest skills level. They make their meager living as recyclers, by collecting paper, glass, scrap metal and other materials, and selling them.

Boja Vasic is a Toronto-based media artist and photographer, with a BFA in film and television directing from the University of Belgrade. His photographs have received acclaim at numerous venues, notably the 8th Havana Biennial in Cuba (2003); V1 Yugoslav Biennial of Youth Vršac in Serbia (2004); the 13th International Art Biennial of Vila Nova de Cerveira in Portugal (2005) and Third England (2006). His videos have been received with acclaim at festivals in Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Chicago, Denver, and Toronto. He has won several international awards including the Chris Award at the Columbus International Film and Video Festival, a Bronze Medal at New York Festivals, and the Gold Award at Dallas HeSCA Media Festival. His current project is a travelling exhibition which came to Toronto after shows in Thunder Bay and Quebec City. Following the Glendon Gallery exhibition, it will be displayed at the Alternator Gallery in Kelowna.

“I emigrated to Canada from the former Yugoslavia”, said Vasic, “but I have been back a number of times. During my first visit about twenty years ago, I took note of this settlement - in the immediate neighbourhood of modern high-rise apartments – a sort of ‘favela’ which is home to people rejected by mainstream society.” At that time, Vasic held the same ‘romantic’ misconceptions as the majority of his compatriots, that the Roma were nomadic, ungovernable and living in these circumstances by choice. His documentary, projected continuously at the exhibition, dates back to the 1980s and reflects these beliefs.

In 2005 he returned to have another closer look. By that time, some of these people had lived and worked there for over twenty years. He learned that when the local government tried to integrate them with other communities, the residents of those communities were vehemently opposed. Ignorance and prejudice have helped to keep this group marginalized, in the most backward, basic circumstances.

Yet even though they are not accepted, they are self-sufficient, working, ordinary people. “Their goal is the same as everyone else’s”, commented Vasic. “They would like to have running water, bathrooms, regular kitchens, kids in school.” But many of the children don’t go to school, because they are needed for work in order to help support the family. This perpetuates their outsider status and their basic living conditions, since education is the key to finding a way out.

“Amid the cultural and economic boom that is happening in Serbia”, added Vasic, “small steps are being taken signalling hope for the future of these people.” The Serbian government has established a Ministry responsible for the Roma, addressing their specific needs and issues. There is also discussion of opening schools in these settlements, with the recognition that education is the best means for leaving the vicious circle of their circumstances.

The photographs shown at the Glendon Gallery witness the terrible conditions in which these people exist. But they also reveal a joy of living, and a search for normalcy and acceptance that is a moving testimonial to the human spirit.

“This project was my way of attempting to change myself, to address my own prejudices”, said Vasic. “Through this process, I am also hoping that in some small way I can change their circumstances and position in the world.” Through his work, Vasic hopes to engage professionals with the skills and power to improve the physical and social conditions of this outcast community. His next project will focus on another marginalized group. It will be a full-length documentary funded by the Ontario Arts Council about the lives of the wives of imprisoned Cuban dissidents.

Parallel World - the Architecture of Survival is shown at the Glendon Gallery from October 23rd to November 16th. The Gallery’s next exhibition opens on November 27th displaying the work of Expo ’67 artists Ann Roberts, David Sorensen and Tony Urquhart, as well as artifacts from that landmark event, with the title Footprints of Expo '67. The Glendon Gallery is dedicated to contemporary Canadian art and the promotion of Canadian artists. For gallery hours and future exhibitions, visit their website at www.glendon.yorku.ca/gallery.

This article was submitted by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on October 29, 2007