On the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, the Bosnian painter Safet Zec is exhibiting his opus Exodus in a former battery factory in the village of Potočari. During the war, the factory became the United Nations Mission’s headquarters — where most of the 8,372 Bosnian Muslim men and boys lived their last moments in July 1995 before they were executed by the Bosnian Serb military and police forces. At the time of the massacre, Srebrenica was a UN “safe zone,” which meant that its civilians, many of whom were refugees from other parts of the country, were under the protection of the UN peacekeeping mission.
“How to understand this nonsense of horrific crimes, genocide, in which people persecute and kill their first neighbors? This is what I carry within me and what Exodus is talking about,” said Zec at a press conference held in Sarajevo ahead of the opening of the exhibition. “Yes, I feel obliged to have these works come to this place as my voice and artistic language. I think that artistic messages have different lifespans. They speak better about tragedies; they have content.”
Today, the former factory and UN Mission headquarters is part of the Srebrenica Memorial Center, founded in 2003. Alongside Zec’s work, the memorial center is exhibiting other artists’ work, including the American photographer Ron Haviv.
Zec, who lives in Venice, Italy since the end of the Bosnian war, has been working on the Exodus series (which is divided into “Tears,” “Embraces,” and “Hands to Hearts”) for the last 20 years. The 22 large-scale paintings (which measure between 32 and 10 feet by seven feet) that will be exhibited in Srebrenica are directly inspired by the Srebrenica genocide, the life under the 1992–1995 Siege of Sarajevo, and by the countless others from around the world, especially children, who are forced into exile and displacement. His triptych “Child” depicts the drowning of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy of Kurdish ethnic background.
There is a recurring motif across Zec’s paintings: a mother’s hands gripping a baby wrapped in a rag. The artist shared that when he was a newborn in 1943, his mother carried him in her arms away from the danger of World War II, and into a life of exile. “That living or non-living being” in a mother’s arms, described Zec, conditioned and determined all of his paintings and artistic loves, views, understandings, commitments, and beliefs.
During the press conference, the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center and a genocide survivor, Emir Suljagić, spoke of the center’s efforts to acquire and exhibit more artworks on the theme of genocide and the atrocities that took place during the war.
“Apart from verdicts and genocide research, art is our strongest ally on the path to spreading the truth about Srebrenica,” said Suljagić.
Over the past two decades, the UN-backed tribunal in the Hague and Bosnian regional courts have sentenced 40 people, whose individual sentences amount to 700 years in prison, including four life sentences, for Srebrenica-related crimes, including genocide. Despite this, denial of genocide and other war crimes is widespread in Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to the 2020 report by the Srebrenica Memorial Center. Besides Serbian political elites, the report cites one of the 2019 Nobel Prize winners for literature, Austrian author Peter Handke, and the American scholar and McArthur Fellow Jessica Stern, as examples of genocide denial entering the international academic and literary discourse. The report accuses Handke, a known apologist for Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, of “rewriting history.” As for Stern, the report alleges that her 2020 book about Radovan Karadžić, a Serbian war-time political leader serving lifetime for genocide and other crimes against humanity, is “a flagrant attempt to humanize one of the Srebrenica genocide’s most unrepentant perpetrators.”
Although Exodus had its official opening on Tuesday, July 7, most of its viewers will see the exhibition on July 11, when a collective burial will be held, yards away from the exhibition venue. “It is as if the paintings address the souls of martyrs buried in the field across the road,” Zec told Hyperallergic.
For years, the remains of victims have been routinely taken to the Identification Center in Tuzla, then transported to Visoko, a town nearby Sarajevo, for funeral preparations. The remains this year will be transported to Srebrenica on July 9, in a truck that will make a stop in Sarajevo, in front of the Presidency, where the families of the victims and citizens will pay tribute. This year, eight victims will be buried. The families of another 37 victims didn’t give consent for burial because the exhumed remains are incomplete. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the fact that family members living abroad are unable to attend the funeral and burial, six other families have decided to bury their family members next year. To this day, the remains of more than 6,000 victims of genocide have been buried.
Safet Zec’s Exodus series will continue at the Srebrenica Memorial Center (Potocari bb, Srebrenica 75 430) through September.