Young Romi

Sadko Hadzihasanovic

March 28 - April 26, 2014

Blue Bike

Blue Bike , 2013
oil and pencil on masonite
30 x 24 inches

Thoughts on New Paintings and Watercolours: Young Romi

"My first awareness of the Romani people came to me as a young boy growing up in Klarija, Northern Serbia. It came to me in the form of a warning from my parents. They told me: ‘Be aware of them. They can kidnap you and take you to foreign lands.’ Even when Marshal Tito, the leader of Yugoslavia, gave them the status of citizens they continued to be marginalized, stereotyped as being thieves, beggars and lazy people. They were not treated equal to their Serbian, Croat and Bosnian counterparts.

"South African artist William Kentridge said that the driving force in drawing is not the idea but the image itself, and I hold this to be true in my work. Spending my summer holiday last year in that small village in Northern Serbia I met many young Romani teenagers. I would go to the outskirts of the village to paint and draw the flatlands and many of them stopped to see what I was doing. We had small conversations and I asked them to pose for some drawings and they were happy to oblige. They referred to themselves as “Cigani”, the Serbian word for Romi. What was most striking was how naturally they stood in front of me, without reservations, without hiding their emotions. They did not pretend to be someone else. There was something spontaneous in their stance and in their expressions. It was a strong vision: their clothing had fake western labels on them, their shoes were too large, but their body language echoed a happy spirit. I felt something similar to what I felt when painting the people of Cuba, a sense of pride despite poverty and discrimination.

"I realized in that moment that by exploring the identity of Romani teens through my artwork could reveal truths about them and maybe dispel some negative stereotypes and prejudices regarding their culture and their lifestyle.

"My body of work is not a political statement, rather a visual memory and feeling I experienced while interacting with the people in their own community. I believe that this new body of paintings portraying the Romani people will continue the work I began in Cuba, and will provide a new perspective on people who have been marginalized throughout Europe for centuries."

-- Sadko Hadzihasanovic, March 2014


Will Gorlitz

His story is astonishing. In 1993, Sadko Hadzihasanović was forced by the war in Yugoslavia to emigrate to Canada. At the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, and at the University of Belgrade, his education had encompassed both classical academic and high Modern art. His training had thus involved life drawing, but he also worked from photographic sources that included experimentation with Pop Art. Early inclinations as a contemporary artist— as an active member of the art collective “Grupa Zvono”—drew him to interventionist art actions. Countering cultural norms with irony rooted in Eastern European conceptual Postmodernism, the group espoused a populist ideology that proclaimed as their maxim: WE ARE ROCK BAND IN VISUAL ART! In 2013, Tate Liverpool included their work in the thematic exhibition “Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013”. The aim of the exhibition: “…to shift the focus from explicit political messages to the values of artistic processes and strategies for art to get closer to the wider public.”

However, when Sadko arrived in Canada, not only was his reputation left behind but, of greater concern to his continuing art practice, the social and cultural context he was entering was altogether unlike the one he had known. He was an outsider looking in. Nevertheless, his subsequent search to find his way in this new world led to a significant body of artworks. In a direct response to his circumstance, he began to explore representational paintings and drawings that included wry, often ridiculous insertions and substitutions of ordinary individuals, including himself, for popular celebrities. Self-portraits were most pointedly enlisted to test and complicate dubious stereotypes promoted by his adopted culture. With tongue in cheek, he called his approach ADVERTISESCAPE and it involved the strategic use of collage, a key technique in advertising for its capacity to disrupt, intervene and insert one representational reference with or against another. Identity is constructed rather than integrally being. Adopting the best of his old and his new worlds, Sadko’s art combined his early art training as a representational painter with the experimental power of media that collage supports. This hybridized combination was ingenious, fitting perfectly into the logic of the late capitalist, Postmodern world where Sadko was now ensconced, if still not fully assimilated or comfortably reconciled. After all, it is only through parody and ironic mimicry that he was able to work through his disempowerment and insist on his own presence as a subject.

But this is merely the prelude to Sadko’s story today. A trip to Cuba a few years ago led him to experience a culture that seemed to offer uncanny parallels with that of his own past in Yugoslavia. And a noticeable shift in temperament soon took hold in his working approach. Throughout the period of time that Sadko had worked with collage as a dominant artistic strategy, he continued with the representational figurative practice that he had started as a student in Sarajevo and Belgrade. As a result, his investment in figurative drawing and painting grew steadily stronger. His ability to capture the figure’s pose and anatomical form became more confident, frequently appearing bold and effortless. This progress was further reinforced through his discovery and study of John Singer Sargent’ s extraordinary watercolour technique. Sargent employs a very specific form of the often loosely-used term painterly. In his work, painterly is a process that in one and the same moment simultaneously enforces two effects— one clearly disclosing the liquid substance of the painting medium, the other persuasively articulating a subject comprised of light and form to represent things of various material substance. This process is arresting to behold and amazing to perceive. With a keen eye and a strong sense of commitment, Sadko has become a painterly artist in this extremely rare sense. Ever the experimenter, he has even adapted this technique to iPhone drawings, with mesmerizing animations that reveal his thinking through the drawing processes in progressive stages.

The historical trope of the non finito, the state of an artwork that appears unfinished yet also integrally resolved, is related to, and moreover effectively accommodated by, a painterly approach. In artworks where Sadko painted directly over wallpaper support, he pragmatically employed unfinished passages to open one layer up to another, facilitating a multi-layered representational reading with one subject visible through the unfinished portion of another. He could thereby intermingle images and texts of every kind, all in the same painting. For Sadko, the effect could be characterized as a form of collage that encompassed not only drawing, but, more exceptionally, painting. James Elkins has discussed non finito noting that:

“the non finito is a Romantic idea; the nineteenth-century Romantics were in love with partial things, fragments, pieces, lost parts and orphaned forms. For a Romantic viewer, the tenuous, unpolished, wavering, dappled surface was far more evocative than the veneered and polished surface.”[1]

Elkins identifies non finito in Modernism (largely via Cezanne and de Kooning) as unresolvable, evidencing uncertainty. This interpretation seems reasonable yet I would argue that the opposite might also be true. The “sketch” in drawing presents this possibility. Sketches are typically unfinished, but must one necessarily conclude that their incompleteness is due to “uncertainty”? Could it not simply be due to a form of purposeful discretion? In a more engaged way, it could involve a range of importance to the representation of the subject based on relevance or interest. Sketches often concentrate on an observational element of key importance and then pragmatically transition out of it in its representation. Sadko produces watercolour sketches of his subjects in this way and then further refines his sense of judgment in his paintings based on the drawings. The results undoubtedly satisfy the pleasure that Romantics found in partial things. Yet I contend that in Sadko’s painting the non finito more properly represents a responsive economy of markmaking, one that moves the viewer with deliberate intention through the picture plane. First we are drawn to the subject’s visible face. Alberto Giacometti’s hyperfocus on the visage of his sitters comes to mind. We then progress to other points of focus. The distant horizon, a hand holding a sling shot, a cut sunflower resting in a bicycle basket, a tiny Lacoste crocodile logo on a t-shirt. We might associate this compositional device to Vermeer’s inexplicable knack of directing our vision from one spot in a painting to other strategically placed focal points. Only after observing these iconic elements in Sadko’s painting does our attention turn to the general environment, the ground that envelops the figure. Much less defined than the figure or secondary iconographic elements, these comparatively unfinished passages represent the context in which the figures are posing. The context is relatively vague but no less important to his subject. What sort of place is this? The landscapes are open spaces, somewhat barren and desolate. They appear to be uncultivated, uninhabited land, possibly abandoned, or more likely, land that is transitional in function— a place with dirt road pathways, presumably connecting a developed community to rural land. Below one of the watercolour studies for the paintings Sadko has jotted two words: "Centar - Perifery", hyphenated to underline the double character of this liminal space at the outskirts of a village.

A very specific perspectival viewpoint and format is employed in Sadko’s most recent series of paintings depicting Balkan Romi. For obvious reasons, not least that of convention, the figure is composed within a vertical format. But the impact of the pose comes from the fact that the viewer feels in a close position to the subject. This is achieved by having the viewer meet the subject’s gaze directly at eye level, while scanning downward across the figure’s body the viewpoint progressively shifts so that at the feet we appear to be gazing acutely downward. This shifting point of view can be associated with the photographic distortion that occurs as a wide-angle lens exceeds the scope of the cone-of-vision. But it also similarly occurs when an artist draws from life from such a close proximity to the subject that several points of view have to be integrated to depict the entire figure. Either way, as a consequence, the figure is given a foregrounded, pronounced presence in the scene. This orientation moreover inflects the figures with a sense of stature and affirmative presence— an achievement not unlike that which Sadko previously sought for himself when he first arrived in Canada. Now however, through empathy, he asserts this positive attitude in others. Distinguished within their environment, centred in the periphery.

The irony that Sadko first employed as a defense mechanism in previous artwork is now supplanted by a disarming sense of care for his subjects. This is evident from the integral aesthetic of his responsive, painterly approach. Yugoslavian artists describe this characteristic resolution of a painting as its “gamma”. After arriving in Canada, Sadko Hadzihasanović found that there was no equivalent term in use when speaking with other artists. Yet, it now appears abundantly clear that it is central to his painting.

-- Will Gorlitz, artist and professor in studio art drawing and painting, University of Guelph
March 2014

[1] Elkins, James. "Exploring Famous Unfinished Paintings" in Google Art Project, Huffington Post, posted 02/15/2011;