Endangered Things of Beauty & the Beauty Response
”Never forget things of beauty”, I tell myself as I pick up my camera and prepare to capture images of beautiful things.
But that is no longer enough. I often find myself thinking about how fragile beautiful things can be. This is a photo taken in Mostar, a city in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina that is situated on the Neretva River.
It is a city of breathtaking beauty. Below is a view of the Old Bridge overlooking the Neretva River. One can sometimes see local divers take the plunge into the river provided that there are enough tourists willing to pay enough money to witness the risky dive. That kind of bargaining can be painful to watch.
In 1468 Mostar came under the rule of the Ottomans. The city developed and flourished as an urban settlement during four centuries of Ottoman rule. Mostar is famous for its Old Bridge and Turkish house. The Old Bridge was designed by Mimar Hayruddin, an Ottoman architect, in 1556. During the 19th and 20th centuries Mostar was occupied by the Austro-Hungarians.
The bridge was destroyed by Croat Bosnian forces in 1993 and rebuilt in 2014. For many people, myself included, the Old Bridge is a world heritage site that belongs to all of humanity. Its destruction is a stark reminder that the erasure of history is always a threat posed by war and ethnic conflicts. Its reconstruction is a stark reminder that such erasure can always be resisted in myriad ways.
As I walked through the Old City in Mostar my heart broke. The market was awash with poorly made trinkets intended for tourists. I understand that people need to make a living and that tourists are an important source of income in a country devastated by war and unemployment. Yet, there was an inescapable sense that all these poorly made products pouring into Mostar were causing harm to a proud people with proud traditions of making objects of beauty. The neoliberal order threatened fragile things of beauty as well.
It didn’t take me long to find a small shop that stood out. It was a shop owned by a coppersmith named Ismet Kurt who was could be seen making sketches in a small space that functioned for all intents and purposes as an artist’s studio.
Most crucially, the man sketching exuded a palpable sense of pride. He lamented the poor quality of the copper products being imported from countries like Turkey. He knew the value of what he was making and he kept a book in his shop to show us that others also recognized the value of what he was making: As it turned out it was a book commissioned by Unesco that documented endangered handcrafts in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The work he was doing as a craftsman and arguably as an artist was situated in a specific locale The book allowed him to escape the anonymity of being a coppersmith and the indignity of being a mere importer of foreign goods. These pieces cannot be bought anywhere or everywhere.The length of time it takes to produce a handmade piece confers a certain uniqueness. They are linked to a specific place and require specialized skills that are often passed on from father to son: as such they are emblematic of a coppersmith’s individuality and particular history. Being a producer of value in the aftermath of a war that targeted the cultural heritage of Bosnians and devastated their economic prospects is not a trivial matter.
On our way out of the shop my husband and I noticed other works of art: Ismet Kurt told us that these pieces were made by a local artist, a young woman currently studying art at University who used the stone found in Mostar. The geometric stylized face reminded me of some of his copper engravings. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the name of the artist but I do know that I can ask Ismet Kurt or his son. Their shop has become for me an invaluable source of local knowledge to which one can always return. Still, it bothers me that she is anonymous and that the piece is not signed.
These two pieces were given to us as gifts after we had purchased some of Ismet Kurt’s copper works. That gesture gave a special emotional intensity to what might have otherwise been a bland economic transaction. Traveling in Croatia I never experienced such an act of hospitality. It gave a special flavor to Old Mostar.The city was a place reminiscent of eastern hospitality and of East European warmth. That too I shall never forget. This unique mix of cultures was and still is endangered by various forms of religious fundamentalism and ultranationalism. Resisting those exclusivists tendencies is also a way of remaining committed to fragile forms of beauty that are threatened in places like Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
Civilized people the world over understand that the Old Bridge of Mostar that was destroyed by the Bosnian Croats and the statue of Buddha that was destroyed by the Taliban belong to all of us. Empires rise and fall. Boundaries shift and diverse cultures borrow from one another and remake themselves. Preserving specific heritage sites is an act of local stewardship and of universal transcendence.