YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Milosevic's Critics Survive in Art World : Serbia: President known for his heavy hand allows small-time painters and actors to hurl barbs.


BELGRADE, Yugoslavia — The sold-out auditorium in a downtown trade union hall rocked with laughter when Slobodan Bicanin darted on stage.

Adorned in a black dress with red pumps and an oversized bow in his hair, the actor was a dead ringer for Mirjana Markovic, the influential wife of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic--except, of course, for the mustache, gait and baritone delivery.

"The story you are about to see has been invented," the loudspeaker blasted. "Any resemblance to real people is due to the fact that these people have no connection to the real world."

The crowd of 1,800 howled again. The production of "The World or Nothing" was underway, and once again, its biting political satire about Serbia's ruling elite was playing to a packed house. Tickets have been among the hottest commodities in Belgrade since opening night two weeks ago.

In the course of the next 90 minutes, Milosevic would be mocked as a bumbling, insecure turncoat, his wife as the "real man" in the first family and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic as a pathetic warrior, sacrificed to the West to atone for the sins of his Belgrade brother.

All of it in the heart of Serbia; all of it by actors who also work for state-owned radio, and all of it at a time when Milosevic is desperately trying to recast his image here and around the world as an honorable and reliable partner to the West.

The performance, coupled with a scathing exhibit that opened last weekend by painter Ratomir Gligorijevic depicting Milosevic as a nationalist warmonger, spotlights one of the least understood riddles in Serbian political life.

Though Milosevic rules Yugoslavia, which consists of dominant Serbia and tiny Montenegro, with the authority of a dictator, he is not a textbook despot.

Milosevic won the presidency in multiparty elections. His ruling Socialist Party of Serbia controls the Federal Assembly only with the backing of a coalition partner. And he frequently allows actors, artists and some journalists to scream at the top of their lungs from any street corner they choose, even if they make him look like a fool.

Last month, he even permitted his right-hand man, Boris Jovic, to publish damning political memoirs that expose the Serbian president's role in starting the war, something Milosevic would prefer everyone forget. Jovic lost his party job, but the tome remains in bookstores.

"We serve as a kind of escape valve," said Dragoljub Ljubicic, who portrays Milosevic in the Belgrade theatrical production. "In bad times, people need a release of pressure. Maybe Milosevic would find it more dangerous to forbid things like this."

Gligorijevic, 77, who has painted 50 antiwar works over the past four years, has resorted to smuggling canvasses and supplies from Bulgaria and Russia because of shortages at state-owned shops, but his painting has never been interrupted because of threats from censors or the authorities.

The intensely political nature of his art upsets many people, including his 97-year-old father and villagers near his studio outside Belgrade. A Serbian television crew filmed him at work, but when they saw paintings of raped Muslim women and millions of Serb corpses, they left.

"I am trying to find my own truth," said Gligorijevic, who is now painting works inspired by the Dayton, Ohio, peace talks. "There can't be 100 truths. There can't be our truth and their truth. There can only be one truth."

One painting, "Requiem for Yugoslavia," depicts the six leaders of the former Yugoslav republics before the breakup of the country. All of them are carrying flowers, except for Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.

The Serbian president is cloaked in medieval armor and wields a sword, while Tudjman clutches a small knife. The scene is meant to assign blame to those most responsible for the violence that consumed the crumbled federation for four years, Gligorijevic said.


Another painting, "White Angel of Peace," shows Milosevic sitting on a marble grave lined with skulls of Serbian war victims. Painted in the style of a 13th century fresco that is well-known in Serbia, the work shows Milosevic holding a decapitated black dove in his lap and a white dove in his hand. The pose symbolizes the heavy price Serbs have paid for Milosevic's war and peace, Gligorijevic said.

"I will keep painting until democracy, order and peace come here, if I live that long," Gligorijevic said. "I am not afraid."

Eighteen of the paintings are being exhibited publicly for the first time by the Center for Cultural Decontamination, a year-old arts group with an anti-Milosevic bent that nonetheless has been leased gallery space by Belgrade municipal officials.

Los Angeles Times Articles