19 Oct FIERY GREETINGS, 2015
Fiery Greetings, Ana Adamović
In mid 2011, Katarina Živanović, at that time Director of the Museum of Yugoslav History in Belgrade, invited me to look at the photo albums Josip Broz Tito received from Yugoslav citizens for more than thirty years, period in which he was lifetime president and undisputed leader of this country. Photo albums were sent by official institutions, organizations, city administrations, municipalities, sport and art collectives, but there are also albums sent by individuals from around this country which doesn’t exist anymore. These photo albums are actually just a fraction of the rich collection kept at this Museum, probably the only one of its kind in the entire region of the former Yugoslavia. For a long time, they were the part of the Museum’s archives that was least accessed, studied and displayed, and even not long ago in 2011, digitalization of this valuable segment of its collection was still pending. When the Museum invited me, the intention was to examine and curate this part of its collection, in cooperation with contemporary artists, and to present it to the public. In Serbia, the cooperation between cultural institution such as museums and contemporary artists is rather seldom, and when it does happen, the initiative usually comes from the artists, not from the institutions. During three years spent on studying and working on this project, the curators at the Museum of Yugoslav History kindly dedicated their time and invested their knowledge into this project, and one of the first initiatives that came from the Museum’s new director, Neda Knežević, was to digitalize this segment of the collection, task that was successfully completed in mid 2014. Without this cooperation, the project Fiery Greetings would have never been possible.
The collection at the Museum of Yugoslav History includes around 2,300 photo albums given as gifts to President Tito. Most of them are albums with photographs, but there are also several hundred albums containing only drawings, literary essays, press clippings, urban development plans, diplomas and certificates of honour. Among them, there are 260 photo albums Tito received from primary schools, pioneer organizations and other children institutions around Yugoslavia. These albums were the focus of our research.
One of the first albums that I had in my hands was the one Tito received for his birthday in 1951. The album was sent by pupils from the First Girl School for Manufacture, for schoolgirls aged 14 to 18. From the dedication written in it, we get to know that most of them were either war orphans or came from extremely poor families. With those photographs sent to Tito, the girls wanted him to see their life at that school where school officials looked after them like their parents would. That’s what new socialist state and, needless to say, Tito himself, provided to them. Along with best wishes for Tito’s birthday, the pupils from the First Girl School for Manufacture in Belgrade also sent him “fiery greetings”. And it was not only in 1951 that he received such “fiery greetings” sent by children from all around the country. Although it was not used that often, this expression appears in dedications in many photo albums sent from all the republics over decades. In one of the pictures from the albums, these words are seen on a giant banner displayed above the stage on a ceremony held in Varaždin when the Baton of Youth passed through that town in Croatia.
What kind of system was it when children were expected to send fiery greetings to the President? What kind of future could such a country and such a system have? And is that really the only picture of that country? Or perhaps there were different paradigms which plainly coexisted in that “country of socialism with a human face” in parallel, side by side? How do we remember our childhood and the country in which we grew up? What was that country (really) like? And, lastly, what meaning does it have today, if we can even think about the country beyond the box of the notions of territory and nation? These questions provided the starting point for the work on the project Fiery Greetings, with cognizance of the fact that none of them can be answered.
The first albums President Tito received from children of Yugoslavia via school, pioneer, sport, cultural and other institutions responsible for taking care of children date from 1945, and were sent from recently liberated territories. Among the first was the album sent to Marshal of Yugoslavia from Slovenia, from the Home of Bosnian Children in Kamnik. Children on the photographs were war orphans from Bosnia – Serbs, Croats and Muslims who, in the words of Raif Nikić, Pioneer Battalion Commissar, written to Tito, loved each other like brothers, and were united by blood that their parents shed for their country’s freedom. The last album from the archives of the Museum of Yugoslav History dates from 1982, and it was sent from the town of Kragujevac. At that time, Tito was dead for two years already, yet the albums were still pouring in to celebrate the Yugoslav Pioneer Games which after Tito’s death were held under the slogan Let’s Grow up under Tito’s Flag. In the period between those years, Tito received 260 photo albums that show the activities of Yugoslav children. They include several thousand photographs and hundreds of messages. Today, it is almost impossible to figure out how decisions were made about who was to make such albums, when was the time for a school or other children institution to send them to the President, or if there was a particular model of album-creation applied by these institutions. Likewise, it remains a moot point how many of these albums were made but never sent or received.
Just like most of the gifts now kept at the Museum of Yugoslav History, these albums given as presents to Tito for the most part arrived on the occasion of May 25th, when Tito’s birthday and the Youth Day were celebrated. From the very beginning, the albums stuck to a fixed scenario which was, more or less regularly, repeated in all of them, year in year out. The albums almost invariably open with a dedication or a birthday greeting to the President, followed by a photograph of the institution sending the album, group photographs of teachers and schoolchildren (when album-sender is a school), and photographs of diverse activities, classes, events, sport contests. Photographs are usually accompanied with short texts giving description of the scene on the picture. Sometimes they are written in the form of slogans (“The first task we have is to learn.”), but oftentimes they are written in a warmer, more intimate fashion (“Empty playground – we went for a walk” or “After fresh air, tasty lunch does good.”). Meticulously composed, these albums definitely give a representative picture of institutional growing up in Yugoslavia after World War II. The photographs are addressed to the President, composed to conform to his point of view, his judgment and his opinion. At the same time, they possess a much more intimate quality of family photo albums which are sent to the father in the hope that he would leaf through them in serene evening hours, tenderly smiling at the pictures of his children.
These photographs are representative documents of an era, but what distinguishes them among thousands of others kept at the Museum of Yugoslav History, and at many archives throughout the former country, is the fact that their authors are for the most part anonymous amateurs, such as school staff, instructors who teach technical skills and the children themselves. Namely, in Yugoslavia, in most of the schools extra-curricular activities included courses in photography, so it is very likely that a good deal of the photographs from these albums were taken by schoolchildren who took photography classes. Therefore, these photographs are not only a portrayal of the institutional world of childhood in socialist Yugoslavia, but in like manner of the institutional world of children as seen from children’s perspective. Hence, we can assume that, under the watchful eye of teachers who were (probably) responsible for the concept and the final layout of these albums, it was children themselves who shared responsibility for deciding how to present themselves in the best possible way to their undisputed leader – to show their work, creativity, assiduousness, strength, ingenuity, togetherness, achievements. They show him how children play, learn, work, dream about future. They are the architects of socialism, peace and brotherhood between all the people. They believe in justice and freedom, they live in a free country created by heroes who gave their life for it, where it is “wonderful to be young”. They are pioneers, they sing in choirs, they march on parades. Best part of the scenes on the photographs will be familiar even to those born in Yugoslavia in the last years of Tito’s life, those who never made nor sent such albums. For the former Yugoslavs born prior to the 1980s, it is an easily recognizable world, the world of his/her childhood spent at school, various sections, excursions, visits to places that commemorate important events from the national liberation struggle, children resorts around the former country. It is a well-known world of children who have faith that the promises the adults made about the future might come true.
Once Yugoslavia started falling apart, the ideology of Yugoslav socialism was jettisoned as a lie which kept the people of that country enslaved for many decades. Representative photographs of childhood that are part of the albums sent to Tito have been interpreted as evidence that from the earliest age children underwent ideological indoctrination by a sinister, totalitarian, communist regime. New countries and new social systems have been established, while Yugoslavs from these and similar photographs had to realize that they grew up in a lie, and to accept apparently new values of that free world they were about to join – to be hard-working, honest, diligent, to foster solidarity and unity, to protect the environment, to invest their free time in the community. As if they hadn’t known it all before, as if they weren’t taught all that in that country which was progressively disappearing from the face of the earth, as if so many photographs from these albums sent to Tito provided no evidence to the contrary. Personal experiences of citizens from the former Yugoslavia have been slandered as being tainted by the totalitarian regime and the cult of personality, and no credit was given to the modernizing, emancipating aspect of that country which was crumbling and being consigned to oblivion. Tito’s portraits that hung on the wall in every classroom and rather bizarre rallies that celebrated his birthday overshadowed all other aspects of sociability, education and everyday life of Yugoslav children and Yugoslav society.
However, there are many people now who retrieve and look into these and similar photographs, documents, models and practices carried out in socialist Yugoslavia. Apparently, it is not because nostalgia for the past times is so strong, but rather because the present is so lacking in ideas, so wrong, so bad. Perhaps the aim is not only to find the breaking point when everything started going downhill, but also to look for the questions about a more just society that have never been properly answered. Not to find the lost socialist utopia, but to regain the possibility to think up a positive future for the present society. That was the intention behind the project Fiery Greetings that prompted us to research the photo archives, and more specifically the photographs related to the construction of childhood, bearing in mind that it is primarily into children that society instills its idea of future. We believed that the picture of institutional childhood in socialist Yugoslavia is precisely the sphere where one can see what that country wanted and strived to be. And it seems to us, it was not only Yugoslavia, but the whole world in the wake of the World War II. And it makes manifest what both have failed to become.
The project Fiery Greetings has been conceived as a reexamination of the socialist Yugoslavia, its structure, character and legacy, through the prism of construction of socialist childhood, which is revealed on the photographs from albums sent to Tito. The first stage of this project, the exhibition Fiery Greetings, which was held at the Museum of Yugoslav History in March-April 2015, presented works made by nine artists from the region of the former Yugoslavia. Their works were either created through research of Museum archives or exhibited in direct dialogue with those archives, with the aim of examining the character and the contents those pictures have at present moment. The second stage of the project involved historians, anthropologists, culturologists, art historians, and writers from the region whose texts paint the historical context necessary to analyze the childhood in socialist Yugoslavia, while at the same time they give a perspective on the legacy of socialist Yugoslavia different from the usual, binary, simplified view, which is all too often encountered in works dedicated to this matter. In their works and their thinking, all of these authors provide a valuable contribution to artistic research of archives, which underpins the whole project Fiery Greetings, thus making room for a new and distinctive reading and interpretation of the socialist Yugoslavia.
Design: Isidora Nikolić
(Fiery Greetings, Ana Adamović (ed.), Kiosk, Belgrade, 2015, Serbo-Croatian – ISBN 978-86-84977-11-5; English – ISBN 978-86-84977-12-2)
Full PDF file of the publication available on request