2017 has been a year of change and transformation for me. In June I traveled to Bosnia as part of a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Program to learn about European Muslim Culture and Art with a group of 15 educators from Arizona. In that month long excursion I learned a lot about the history of the country and region known as the Balkans and also as former Yugoslavia. The opportunity to be part of this trip came up in the fall of 2016 for Maricopa Community College faculty and Arizona high school faculty to apply for. I did so, not knowing how it would change me.
At the same time I was applying for the trip to Bosnia I was waiting to hear if my application for a one semester sabbatical project would be approved. The sabbatical project was to travel to Cuba in October of 2017 to interview Cuban artists about their artwork that expresses opinions on social justice or social engagement themes.
In late December I got the news that both applications had been approved. This meant that I would need to plan for two long trips abroad, but both focusing on exploring the art made there.
I was interested in the art made in socialist/communist countries because of previous experiences traveling in China in 2015 and Cuba in 2016 where, in both places, I saw art that expressed opinions which I interpreted as being critical of the governent and the society. This surprised me because of the media reports about the oppresive tactics by both governents to forestall free speech.
In 2015 I spent five weeks traveling around China visiting the 9 Fine Arts Academies and Universities documenting the graduate exhibitions of sculpture students, and where I noticed many artworks by students which portrayed their society in negative ways.
The following year I visited Cuba and again saw art that I thought was treading on shaky ground after hearing about dissidents who spoke out against the Castro regime being jailed or “disappeared.”
I came home from that trip inspired by the courage of Cuban artists to express themselves in spite of potential punishment for speaking out. That feeling led to the idea to return to Cuba in the Fall of 2017 to dig deeper in this idea and find out from the Cuban artists how they managed to navigate the line between speaking their minds and being put in jail, or worse.
Fast forward to June 16, 2017, Sarajevo, Bosnia. I go into my hotel room and turn on BBC TV to see President Trump in Miami announcing a roll back of President Obama’s easing of the travel embargo on Americans going to Cuba. A sinking feeling in my gut told me that my sabbatical plan was doomed.
A good friend on the Bosnian trip suggested I change my sabbatical plan to return to Bosnia instead of Cuba since both are/were socialist/communist countries and artists in Bosnia are making art that is critical of the government and society, not to mention the Balkans War in 1992-95 which impacts today’s Balkan society, and on which artists there are commenting still.
The June trip provided me with a rich understanding of the history of the region, going back 2000 years to the Roman conquest, followed by the Ottoman Empire, followed by the Austrian-Hapsburg Empire, World War 1, World War 2 and the Balkan War right up to today and the rise of Nationalist rhetoric burning across Europe against Muslims.
Looking back on the two months spent in the Balkans and in Bosnia in particular I feel a sense of shame that the artists and citizens of these countries do not have the benefit of consitutional rights to free speech, etc. yet they risk everything to make their voices heard while I play it safe and keep away from speaking out in fear, not of jail or punishment by the state, but of trolls on the internet and of drawing anger from zealots in my own society who disagree with my point of view. That is not right.