Sejla Holland didn’t want to mark the 20th anniversary of Bosnia’s independence in a way that would evoke images often associated with the small Balkan country: war, death, destruction, ethnic cleansing. Instead, Holland, who came to Everett in 1994 as a war refugee, wanted to highlight qualities of the Bosnian people often lost in news reports: creativity, artistry, talent, perseverance.
“I didn’t want to do something showing the war and destruction. People know about that. I wanted to do something with art, to show that something as disruptive as war couldn’t kill our creative spirit,” said Holland, who left Boston in 1998 for Southern California and in 2010 opened a Laguna Beach art gallery specializing in green and sustainable art.
So Holland, 42, started querying Bosnian artist friends about an exhibit, and received “passionate” responses. The result is “Bosnian Born,” an exhibit of nearly 50 pieces by 27 artists including photography, fashion design, sculpture, graphic design, and contemporary art. Most of the artists live in the United States, a few are in Bosnia-Herzogovina or elsewhere in Europe, but all were born in Bosnia.
The exhibit runs through
Jan. 15 in a space at 38 Newbury St. offered by the American Islamic Congress, a civil rights organization that promotes tolerance and the exchange of ideas. The artworks are for sale, with proceeds going to the artists and to the Bosana Foundation, a charity that provides scholarships to Bosnian war orphans. About $8,000 , enough for three partial scholarships, has been raised so far.
Organizers hope to raise more at a Dec. 13 reception honoring four locals who have been active in Bosnian relief and social justice efforts: Thomas Butler, founder of Builders for Peace; Mirjana Rabadzija, who helped resettle Bosnian refugees during the war; Andras Riedlmayer, who testified at an international war crimes tribunal about cultural destruction during the war; and Glenn Ruga, founder of the Center for Balkan Development. The reception, at 6:30 at the American Islamic Congress, is open to the public.
“Bosnian Born” premiered in May at Holland’s California gallery and came to Boston with the help of fellow Bosnian refugees living in the city. It brings together artists whose work is being recognized in its own right, far outside of Bosnia.
Consider fashion designer Ina Soltani, who was 17 and on an exchange program in Los Angeles when the war broke out in 1992. She couldn’t return to her family in Sarajevo, which was besieged by Serbian forces. They were reunited when the war ended, but Soltani returned to California to study fashion and start her own label, and has made dresses worn by Jessica Biel, Miley Cyrus, Eva Longoria, Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry, Kristen Stewart, and Carrie Underwood, among others. One of her designs, a short pink dress, is part of “Bosnian Born.”
Sarajevo-born Dean Zulich took up photography only recently, but has quickly gained notice, with work appearing in Marie Claire and Playboy, and as runner-up on VH1’s photographer-competition show “The Shot.” His contribution to “Bosnian Born” is the surrealistic “Mask 1,” taken at the Salton Sea in Southern California.
“Each one of these artists — their story is related to Bosnia. The war is part of that, but it’s also about survival, and staying human,” said Ria Kulenovic, who left Bosnia in 1995 and came to Boston, where she became friends with Holland. Kulenovic belongs to the recently founded New England Friends of Bosnia and Herzogovina, and helped bring the exhibit to Boston.
It’s a notion understood by Harun Mehmedinovic, who was born in Sarajevo, in 1982. His family fled their neighborhood after it was captured by Serbian forces, and were taken in for several months by artists Seyo Cizmic and Kemal Hadzic, who became refugees themselves, and whose art is also part of “Bosnian Born.”
Mehmedinovic’s image “Hailstorm,” of a young woman in a white dress walking through a landscape whitened by hail, is playful and serene.
“It’s about living in the present,” said Mehmedinovic. “It’s an appropriate image for people who survived the war in Bosnia. . . . You’re more likely to do something kind of crazy if you’ve been through war.”
The war left more than 100,000 Bosnians dead, most of them civilians, and drove another million from their homes. While “Bosnian Born” is intended to celebrate the human spirit, the artists acknowledge that they have been shaped by the war.
“I still remember the smell of blood in the air,” said Cizmic. “I know that influenced me for sure.’’ Cizmic’s piece in the exhibit, “Secret Code,” features Hebrew letters in a grid on a gold background, and is about the suffering of different peoples through history.
The organizers said that it was important to them, at a time when ethnic tensions still roil Bosnia, to include artists from all of Bosnia’s ethnic groups. They also said the exhibit has attracted Bosnian, Croat, and Serb visitors, fostering friendlier relations.
“I think we’ve succeeded in doing what Bosnia needed to do,” said Kulenovic, of New England Friends of Boston and Herzegovina.
Azra Aksamija, an art professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who fled Bosnia in 1992, believes artists can foster pluralism in Bosnia as they did centuries ago, when Christian and Muslim craftsmen helped build each other’s houses of worship.
“There are still people who buy into nationalistic propaganda, and this is where artists can play a role, by showing how we are shaped by crosscultural influences,” Aksamija said.
The exhibit will go next to Washington, D.C., while there are talks about bringing it to St. Louis and Burlington, Vt., home to two of the country’s biggest Bosnian communities.