In Sarajevo, rekindling a long-lost flame

By Patrick Roberts
Sunday, January 16, 2011; F06

Edin Numankadic extinguishes his cigarette. "If you look at the history of Sarajevo in the 20th century," says the affable 62-year-old as we chat in his office, "people know about the beginning of the First World War, they know about the siege [1992 to 1995], and they know about the 1984 Winter Olympic Games. The Olympic Games is the only positive, and that's why we care about this cultural heritage."

Numankadic is director of the 24th Winter Olympics Museum in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It's a small, sleepy gallery tucked within the chipped concrete walls of the Zetra Olympic Center, one of two large ice skating stadiums built for the 1984 Olympics, and the site of American Scott Hamilton's gold-medal-winning performance in men's figure skating that year. Because it's some distance from Sarajevo's bustling city center, the museum is easily overlooked by tourists captivated by the cafes, souvenir shops and historical landmarks of the exotic, Ottoman-flavored Bascarsija tourist district.

But the Olympic Museum is well worth a taxi ride. Admission is free, and although you may, upon arrival, find a gallery darkened to save electricity, Numankadic will greet you like an old friend and happily turn on the lights. For the Olympic Museum is no ordinary museum of sports memorabilia, and Numankadic, essentially its sole employee, is no ordinary museum director.

"I'm an important Bosnian artist," he tells me with a modest chuckle, showing me a black-and-white photo of himself that Annie Leibovitz took in Sarajevo in 1993, during the siege.

"You know," he says in slow English thickened by a charming Balkan accent, "when we lived in the period of socialism, you had only two chances to be an individual: to go into art or to go into sports. All my generation went in these two ways."

Numankadic chose art, and in 1983 he was asked to help organize and direct a museum to commemorate the Sarajevo Olympics. After it opened in 1984, Numankadic went on to enjoy an international reputation as an artist.

One of his most famous works is an installation piece consisting of the table and two chairs and the small sundry items that comprised the material limits of his artistic life during the siege. In that four-year period, after the breakup of communist Yugoslavia when Bosnians and Serbs battled for control of the city during the Bosnian War, more than 10,000 men, women and children were killed in Sarajevo. And Numankadic never stopped working as an artist.

"When you have horrible destruction, you must be constructive to survive," he reflects. "So art was like health, like mental energy that gives you some hope to survive."

A series of paintings he created after the war, he tells me, are his depictions of literary texts. And who wrote these texts?

"People who have suffering," he replies. "During the war I say, 'My God, which opinion can I believe? Only artists who have suffering. They will give me the truth.' "

Like most of Sarajevo's many small museums, which struggle to keep going in a difficult economic and political environment, the most remarkable thing about the Olympics Museum may be the fact that it still exists at all. In 1992, enemy combatants shelled the museum's original building, a 1903 beaux-arts house that once served as the American consulate, into ruins. Under dangerous, chaotic conditions, Numankadic and a handful of others spirited the collection away to the Zetra. Soon after, the Zetra itself was bombed, and its grounds later served as a temporary morgue and graveyard. Stored in the building's basement, most of the Olympic Museum's collection survived. With the help of the International Olympic Committee and the European Union, the Zetra reopened in 1999. The Olympic Museum followed in 2004.

Half a dozen cigarettes and one cup of strong coffee after my arrival, Numankadic leads me into the museum gallery and turns on the lights. He shows me a short, moving documentary film that carries me from the glory of the '84 games through the death and destruction of siege-stricken Sarajevo and into the hopeful promise of peace and rebuilding.

After the film, we walk through the exhibit, which is chronologically arranged to tell that same hopeful story. In glass display cases lining the walls are all the items one might expect to find in a museum dedicated to the Olympics: Photographs, medals, equipment, uniforms, costumes and souvenirs. Near a partially melted gold medal that Numankadic found in the ruins of the old museum is a poster depicting the Olympic rings as circles of dripping blood. It was created in 1994, "in the middle of the siege," Numankadic reminds me, to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Sarajevo Games.

Though the extensive presentation of Olympic paraphernalia is impressive, it is the museum's unexpected art collection that commands the room. Numankadic first shows me a collection of prints specifically commissioned for the games, including originals by Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Milton Glaser. Perhaps more impressive is the display of more than 30 original paintings and sculptures donated by artists representing the republics of the former Yugoslavia. It is an extraordinary collection of contemporary art from the western Balkans, with most pieces dating from before the '84 games. That such a collection survived the war is another testament to Numankadic's tenacious belief in the power of art and sport to unify through expressive individuality and creative challenge.

"You know, in the Olympic movement, art and sport are very near," Numankadic says. "For healthy body, you must have healthy spirit."

Back in his office, another cigarette in hand, the director patiently sums up the analogy that defines both him and the museum.

Artists and athletes push the creative and performance limits of humans, he reflects, spiritual on the one hand, physical on the other. And in a country where physical and spiritual endurance have been tested by war and the hardened divisions of ethnic and political difference, it is an analogy loaded with meaning.

"This museum was built," he says, "because it has human value."

And he smiles, the smoke hanging upon him like wreaths of ivy.

Roberts, a professor of education at National-Louis University in Chicago, was a 2010 Fulbright scholar in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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