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The faces of capitalism's victims

F dS, Y
topics: Arts
by: Katarina Panić
located in: Bosnia and Herzegovina
tags: capitalsim, mine workers, modern slavery, worker's rights

For twelve years, visual artist Miroslav Stakić has been working as an excavator operator in an iron ore mine in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Four years ago, he took photographs of his seven colleagues right at the moment they ended the night shift, and subsequently started to paint them. Their story is a testament to a trend of westward migration out of Bosnia and the price paid by workers labouring under capitalism. 

Now, the project titled 'The Dehumanisation of Workers/Human Beings under Capitalism' is about to be finished. Yet, the majority of the workers featured in the project have left the mine (and some the country) due to the harsh working conditions.

FairPlanet interviewed Stakić at his art studio in a village near his hometown, Prijedor, in northwestern Bosnia.

The studio is located in a former school building, one of hundreds that shuttered due to a decrease of registered pupils. This specific school has had no students for more than a decade and the village it is located in has no running water.

FairPlanet: it seems that your initial approach to the project was predominantly humanistic in nature, and yet eventually it turned out to be more of a demographic one. You showed that dehumanisation inevitably leads to depopulation.  

Miroslav Stakić: Goran [the 46-year-old man with glasses, who is the youngest among the seven workers featured in the project] left first. He went to Slovenia to work as a truck driver. His wife and daughter stayed here in Prijedor.

This man here [the one whose portrait is on an art easel] is almost 60. He went to Germany to work as an electrician. Vujičić left recently. He moved to Germany with his whole family. He has a wife and two sons. Milojica is retired. So, only Mutić, Uzelac and Zgonjo are still in.

Some five years ago, I also had a try. My wife was pregnant at the time, and we wanted to find out [whether] it would be better for our future to move westward. I took a month off and went to Germany. And I think it is not a solution.

Still, people massively leave, and it is the reality the authorities must face and fight. Instead, the state continuously creates laws to please the investors at the expense of workers.

The story any worker on the planet understands

What do you intend to show with this project?

I took the pictures of miners immediately after they finished their nightshifts to [capture] the tired expressions on their faces. However, their eyes show their inner being, where there is a kind of serenity. I choose a large format canvas to glorify the workers under neoliberal capitalism.

For me, it is equal to the colonial capitalism of the 19th century, even though it is not so brutal, but rather subtle and perfidy. This is the story that any worker, anywhere on the planet, understands.

You work at a multinational, which is the biggest employer here in Prijedor. You experienced the system in a highly developed country, such as Germany. You do live  in a so-called 'emerging' democracy. What aspects of capitalism do you criticise?

My critique of capitalism is overproduction and lack of empathy. It brings workers into the position of slaves. Workers get just enough money to pay for housing and food. Didn't slaves from ancient Egypt work only for accommodation and food?

Transition and partocratic society have brought us to the edge of existence; individuals are enormously wealthy, and the people are poor and unhappy. To make a profit is OK. To make an extra profit at the expense of workers is not OK. You have to understand that no one can feed the mouths of capitalists. It’s not just a local story, but a global one.

You used to work as an art teacher until the art classes were either sharply reduced or wholly removed from curricula some 15 years ago. In the mine, among some 800 employees, you are the only academic artist. Besides, you are the only one with a university degree among workers digging the iron ore. Is this an advantage or disadvantage?

Being in the mine is good because I see more clearly how things work. A mine is just a microcosm in the cosmos. Workers go along the line of least resistance. If I were not in that place, I would not have learned of suffering and torment. I feel it within my being, and it inspires me as an artist. I visualise the struggle for existence.

It is impossible to avoid politically engaged art, no matter how art historians and critics often try to. Whenever the work and life of an artist are dissected, one comes to the [realisation] that artwork is always a reflection of the political system of the time in which it was created.

The set of portraits titled 'Seven Magnificent' is only one part of the exhibition you prepared, and you need 18 meters of wall to have them presented one by one. What else makes this project impossible to be exposed anywhere else in the region but Republika Srpska Museum of Contemporary Art?

Seven smaller canvases portray persons on sale, since everything - and everyone - in capitalism has its price. So, we have a mother-in-law, public officer, president, episcope, deceased friend, father and friend - all on sale.

There is a video work, The Way of the Living, and a series of 150 drawings in ink and pen - a kind of my diary. The white, eight-meter-long ribbon with black letters DAS IST KUNST is going to be on the ceiling.

Two spatial installations - Armchair and Black Box – need additional space. Four shovels keep the armchair symbolising the workers whose work keep the chairmen in their position. However, the chairmen do nothing to make things easier for the workers. On the contrary, the shovel handles have 12 thorns each. The Black Box contains the sentences I’ve been collecting over the years - the ones that the employers use to address the workers and that are deeply humiliating. This one will interact with the audience, giving them the space to write down their similar experience.

One must be aware: some people leave this country not because of low incomes, but because of feeling miserable under the inhuman treatment by superiors. 

During the preparation of this interview, a miners’ strike broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The state-owned seven coal mines employ some 7,000 workers. Thousands of them took the streets in the capital Sarajevo to protest against job and wage cuts. They called for the minimum wage to be set at BAM 1,000 ($575), which is still less than a monthly net average wage in the country. 

Image by Katarina Panić.

Article written by:
Katarina Panić
Katarina Panić
Author
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Visual artist Miroslav Stakić, who has been working as an excavator operator in an iron ore mine took photographs of his seven colleagues right at the moment they ended the night shift, and subsequently started to paint them.
Visual artist Miroslav Stakić, who has been working as an excavator operator in an iron ore mine took photographs of his seven colleagues right at the moment they ended the night shift, and subsequently started to paint them.
© Katarina Panić
2,500 coal miners gather during protest in Sarajevo. Miners halted production of coal in protest against government's decision to decrease monthly wages for coal miners to approximately 280 euros.
© ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images