Aleksandar Rafajlović – The Twelfth

Aleksandar Rafajlović foto: Milovan MilenkovićAleksandar Rafajlović foto: Milovan MilenkovićThis exhibition is a materialized self-preservation instinct. Each story has its own beginning. My search for the icons of my predecessors, eleven of them in five generations, who were active over nearly two hundred years, and the work on documentation about their work, frescoes and icons, came about because nobody else in this, or any other country, has ever made.

At one point, everything fell into place because all that was needed for this kind of expedition was for my professional photographer Aleksandar Milosavljević to have a car and photo equipment. There was I also, bringing the necessary information, blessings, shooting permits, phone and address contacts. We also carried a power unit because many churches did not have electricity.

At first, I thought of doing it because for decades no research into, nor presentation of, their achievements has been done but not only did anything new in relation to my ancestors emerge, but nothing much else happened in this country either. We are in the story from its very beginning up to the present day. Unfortunately, nothing has been done for the heritage to be acknowledged. On the other hand, nothing has been done for my work to be recognized either. I have been an artist since the 1980s, which is an insanely long period of time. It takes a lot of effort for a man, here and now, to focus on work knowing that he/she will be ignored, that communication will be disconnected in every place possible, that he/she will have to make a huge financial investment out of their own pocket for the work that will have to be stored away somewhere after being displayed at an exhibition, if a place for it was found.

The Bokokotorska icon painting school mentions eleven of my ancestors together with Maksim Tujković. The founder, Dimitrije daskal had no surname, just his title. Dascalos is a Greek term for a teacher, and a maestro, and Dimitrije was both. He was a disciple of maestro Radul, one of the greatest Serbian painters of the second half of the 17th century. Dimitrije learned the trade from his elderly teacher and was his travelling companion and helper. There is an assumption that frescoes at Praskavica monastery were not only the last work done by Radul, with Dimitrije's help, but it is believed that some fresco fragments were painted by Dimitrije himself.

The family, it is believed, originates from around Morača monastery. At the time when Dimitrije was assisting Radul at Praskavica, he decided to move to Risan and start a painting workshop. The workshop was probably close to the town church, beneath the cemetery. The church houses the first four icons which carry a master signature style. Sometimes, jokingly, I say that they could be displayed in the third room, next to Rublev. Naturally, I am a little partial but these are four most beautiful icons where Dimitrije expressed all his knowledge passed on to him from Radul, and also his personal artistic style and first signature dating from 1680. And this is how the never-ending story began. The workshop had all four sons of Dimitrije working in it; Gavrilo, Danilo, Rafailo and Djordje. They adopted the surname Dimitrijević after their father's name. Gavrilo, the eldest, who was a monk at Morača monastery, was a woodcarver. It is still unclear whether he worked as a painter. I am not an art historian, eager to gather an adequate amount of information in order to put forward a hypothesis, but judging by the artist's style of several icons I tend to believe that they are the work of Gavrilo. Djordje left two signatures so that several icons can be credited to him. Rafailo was the best and most prolific icon painter. Regrettably, a lot of his work on iconostases and icons was destroyed and did not survive to the present day. As for Danilo, there is only one piece of evidence testifying that he fresco painted the church in the village of Glavati, in the area of Donji Grbalj, which was demolished at the end of the 19th century. There are a number of icons which Danilo could be credited for because they differ, from the icons made by his brothers, but only as regards the painting analysis since none of them are signed. There is not much information about the icon painters because they only used to be craftsmen who used their sinful hands to paint God's providence. An icon is a God's providence. Hands of a painter are used only to convey the thought. Given that, any kind of individuality, self-awareness or personality is taken away somehow and is overlooked and they, as craftsmen, are not acknowledged anywhere. Biographical data about them are non-existent. Only information regarding the last two painters is available and the dates of their births and deaths, as well as their resting places, are know. At the time only biographies of successful and rich merchants existed, but not those of artists. And it is not just my ancestors that are an issue here. Not a single word about the great 16th and 17th century artists, Longin and Georgije Mitrofanović, exists either. Master Jovan, who left only one coded signature and is the subject of debate by a team of art historians, experts on the period, has finally been acknowledged not as Kozma, nor Jovan Kozma, but simply master Jovan. We know nothing about the artists from that era or their lives. Outstanding painters, they are our Caravaggios and Botticellis.

Icon painting is continued in the family workshop by Rafailo's sons Petar and Vasilije who derived the surname from their father's name. That was the time when the custom of adopting surnames from fathers' names was done away with, so generations which followed also bore the surname Rafailović. After 25 years of being a painter, Petar moved to Corfu while Vasilije's sons, Djordje and Hristofor, continued the decades-long family tradition successfully which will, during the second half of the 19th century, come to an end thanks to Hristofor's sons, Jovan and Ivo.

My expedition was based on catalogue information left by Professor Rajko Vujičić in his doctoral thesis. He obtained his Ph.D. on the subject of Bokokotorska icon painting school, in Zadar, in 1983, and made a daring act by being the first to deal with all the eleven painters.
Up until there, only a few texts were in existence, one fairly comprehensive study about Dimitrije daskal written by Pavle Mijović, and that was all. Since then smaller articles kept appearing, and up until now everybody has been copying Rajko Vujičić's doctoral thesis, simply because it has not been published and cannot be entered in footnotes. This is another sort of world altogether and I'd better not go into that.

Our documentation comprises not only the obvious photographs which are reproductions of pictures/paintings but are also the photographs of the communities where these churches, vaults, museums, or monasteries can be found. Take a church for example; we would take several photos of it to show how it was built and whether it had any particular features on the facade of the belfry. Then, there would follow the pictures of an iconostasis, then single icons with lots of details. We took a large number of photographs of, up until now, unknown and undealt with icons. Only a small number of icons remained undocumented, but the work continues.

The complete material may be accessed through our web site; www.bokokotorskaslikarskaskola.rs

The making of the site was based on the idea I'm taking you on a trip. First, you take a road man. A trip always starts with something important which tells you where everything is so you can later see what it looks like. Secondly, when talking about iconostasis, it is, in modern language terms, a full concept. An entity had to be made to hold itself together not only from the point of view of iconography, but also artistically, linguistically and stylistically, which is the concept that is modified with every new benefactor that the church is dedicated to, or is following the wishes of a person commissioning the work. The painters have always been in search for better solutions.

Although their icons can be found in the biggest monasteries of Morača, Piva, Savina, Praskavica, Nikoljci, or the old Orthodox Church in Sarajevo and the Patriarchate of Peć, those painters worked mostly in small village churches. I believe that this is explained by their strong connections with the local land, its people, the architecture of small churches with dim lights which determined their style; strong, very expressive drawings and powerful colour contrasts. I always find them totally magical. They succeeded to bring together all their energy while the link with the local land and its people is still visible. I sometimes tend to think that what the very simplified iconostases represent is not just the minimum but an adequate amount of religion that an ordinary believer should really have.

This part of the country saw a lot of destruction in its time, having been exposed to continuous wars. One enemy came, another followed, Austrians, Venetians, Turks.... Suffering was enormous even during the times when those artists worked, and also later. I am not completely convinced, but I doubt that even one third of what they made survived until our days. In the end, after all the plundering and selling of icons to foreigners, and various contemptible evil-doings, a strong earthquake in 1979 caused damage to a lot of churches and icons in them. After the earthquake, the Institute for Preservation of Cultural Heritage, in Kotor did a great job, with long lasting effect. There are still many icons and frescoes that are waiting to be preserved and restored. After reparation, some icons were returned to their original locations, while some are still waiting to be sent back but not all the churches have been renovated yet. The question arising now is whether sending them back to the almost deserted villages would be a good idea at all. After the quake, people were given money to repair their houses but instead of doing that, they built new houses, in new places, hoping the new locations would be better in the long run. Many villages are almost completely uninhabited. There, however, still remain lots of icons and iconostases which are in need of urgent repair and preservation work.

The current photodocumentation consists of 13.000 photographs. There hovered, for a long time, an idea about producing a general-type catalogue which would include all photographed icons. Apart from all the material printed so far, with however little or minimal coverage of the subject, there would now appear a catalogue will all the icons, and not just a mere choice of them. I should really sit down, in autumn, and put down on paper my personal experience. Me, as an artist. It would not be a piece of writing produced by art historians, but something written by me, with a very personal touch.
I had to do quite a bit of reading about various topics, to get to learn as much as I could, and fill in gaps in my knowledge with missing explanations. I also had to make a data catalogue for the photographs, indicating the whos, the whats, the whens.....I had to write the name of the icon, its size, the name of a likely author and the possible time of its origin.

An exhibition of icons from the Bokokotorska icon painting school will open, I hope, at the Gallery of the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences. The opening has been postponed three times already and it is still not known when it will take place, what it would be like and if it will happen at all. It was to coincide with my own exhibition. The scenario was, in fact, perfect: my eleven predecessors were to "appear" in the beautiful SANU Gallery with me opposite them, on the other side of the street. I, the one who sorted out their documents and records, alone, the twelfth. After my great-great-grand father Ivo, the next three generations of the Rafailović family produced no artists. Then I appeared on the scene, but I am not an icon painter, not a painter of that era, I don't get commissions, nor am I interested in something like that. I am an artist who lives and works here, and tries to do something that he believes he can do better than somebody else, and wishes to share that will others.

The entire exhibition The Twelfth is, in a way, connected to the missing information about them. Given that, I, being an artist, wanted to use the facts and figures from my own era which abounds with it, to make a series of works which are relevant for my biography. With a joint title "Biographical data", the works were made in various mediums. With three pieces of work, I tried to paint as they did in order to get a glimpse into their world from the practical point of view. I understood what they had to get through during the long process of icon making, from sanding wood planks, preparing them, painting, gilding and coating them with lacquer...I did not use the egg tempera technique to make proper icons, but in two of them I made pictures with friezes which depicted hands that paint and sign, while in the third icon the whole story that spans two centuries can be seen together with the way the work was done, and how the family palette was being passed on from one generation to the next. This piece is called "Now then, look here, and smile". They are my divine painters and I, from down below, make pictures and photographs of them.

I am a top contributor to the national culture and I speak about it with a very clear intention. The tabloid treatment of the concept of awarding prizes for the most outstanding accomplishments, or "national pensions" as ordinary people call this, is concerned mostly about scandals and never about the people who are actually worthy of the prize...To me this, in fact, is something that serves to determine a status. First I was a member of the artists' association, the next twenty years I was an accomplished artist. Nevertheless, with every biography I wrote, I had to include a list of exhibited works, places of exhibitions, prizes I was awarded, and had to mention whether I joined any art colonies... The status of the top contributor to the national culture allows me not to have to concern myself with details any more but simple write the top contributor. The rest is implied.

A piece of work on which the heading above the main headline from the "Blic" newspaper was printed, announces the interview "Institution are like bad parents" from 2002. Compared to the present age, this was an optimistic year in which people still believed something positive would happen in this country. In the interview, I go on expressing my thoughts by saying that, because of small budget spending on culture and the rest, a bunch of layabouts in state institutions was more than happy with the situation which provided them with an excuse to repeat the same phrase "there's no money, can't do any work" like a mantra and be perfectly content with not having any work to do at all but still be paid for not doing it.

Aleksandar Rafajlović foto: Milovan MilenkovićAleksandar Rafajlović foto: Milovan MilenkovićSadly, the institutions do not function. We are now in Knez Mihailova Street; let's have a browse around the biggest bookshops in the street, in Belgrade as a matter of fact, and try buying monographs about Studenica, Sopoćani or the Patriarchate of Peć. I'll give you as much shopping money as you need. But, you won't find any of the books. Now, when the cultural heritage, Byzantine and post-Byzantine periods are talked about, and when the magnificent monuments from those days which we find in our country are also on the UNESCO world heritage list, books about them cannot be found.

The living are being treated in the same way. The same story; repeated. It's like we are not alive. That is how artists here are treated. It's like a period time has to go by, or somebody's life has to come to an end, before anything happens. Life is a serious occurrence; it ought to be lived seriously. I painted my ancestors, the icon painters, in their working poses in heaven while I made paintings and photographs of them from the ground. Maybe they are working in another world. Still, there is no other world unless you have run a course of your life in this. However, whatever different religions teach you, I stand by what I said before. Live here and now, be free and happy; maybe not happy, just cheerful sometimes. Do you know how difficult it is to be free? In my life, I am free for only a few moments and I am proud because of that. You must, first, put yourself in a position free on any calculations.

The piece entitled "Window", carries the subtitle "You know, you can, you want" which very nicely describes the main sentiment which, I am sure, is not only mine but is a dominant feeling shared by Serbian artists. All you know, you can, you want and wish to share with others is generally impossible. There's a barrier, somewhere, that stands in the way. Making a better living out of this work would be very nice, but working better would be even nicer. In fact, my cry is primarily about better and more conducive working conditions.

There is one more piece of work from the exhibition which can serve as a biographical fact, the film "The Twelfth" which has only one name in the closing credits; mine. Lots of ensuing comments went along these lines: "What an egocentric, what an ego-tripper". My answer to all of this is that I am not an ego-maniac but extremely lonely and I must do everything by myself. After so many years of being active, every time you start a new job, you still feel like you have just come out of the kindergarten or the arts academy. No help from anywhere and from anybody; nothing. Whatever you have done up until that moment, there's nothing to help you climb the next step which would make the subsequent job easier, better and more meticulous.

This text is edited version of transcripted conversation which
Vesna Milosavljević took from Aleksandar Rafajlović for
Seecult EXHIBITION TOURING

 

Link: SEEcult.org Portal for South-East European Culture | EXHIBITION TOURING: Aca Rafajlović, XII