Masters of their destiny | Monocle

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Being in a state of limbo can be a source of inspiration. In Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, the city’s chequered past as part of the former Yugoslavia and uncertain future within the EU are frustrations that provoke young creatives to question what it means to be from this small, landlocked and recently minted country. 

“My goal is to promote emerging artists from the region because, though they have created their own community, they have been neglected by the art market over the past 30 years and they need support,” says Jana Garvanlieva, who founded gallery and online art platform Pioneri in 2022. “It’s what motivates me.” The name of Garvanlieva’s gallery harks back to the era of Yugoslavia, which stretched from 1918 to its implosion in 1992 – and was a term used to describe hard-working young people with strong moral values. Its use signals a shared culture with Balkan cities such as Sofia and Belgrade. It’s these places – both up-and-coming cultural destinations – that Garvanlieva cites as examples of what Skopje could achieve if North Macedonia accedes to the EU and receives dedicated funding for the arts. 

The National Gallery of Macedonia
The gallery is inside what was once a Turkish hammam
Café Kotur by night
‘Spomenik’ in Skopje - also known as ‘the bomb monument’

When monocle visits Garvanlieva’s gallery on the outskirts of Macedonia Park, where she regularly hosts opening nights with DJs and drinks for more than 100 guests, the art on display is by emerging names such as Tijana Stojkovska, Glasgow-based Filip Velkovski and Tokyo-based Ana Jovanovska. The works draw inspiration from forgotten brutalist architecture, US artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Japanese love letters and more. Meanwhile, in Milan this spring, Rome-based multimedia artist Margarita Aleksievska Sclavi exhibited her hand-painted tapestries at Casa Ornella during Salone del Mobile, under the name House of Ita. “We have something authentic, being Balkan,” says Garvanlieva. “Despite artists leaving Skopje, there is still a creative climate here. We’re famous for our music and films.” 

There is an element of absurdity to Skopje’s architecture. An earthquake in 1963 destroyed 80 per cent of the city’s buildings and a reconstruction effort led by Japanese architect Kenzo Tange has left many brutalist gems. More recently, kitsch additions dreamed up by former prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s populist government as part of his controversial “Skopje 2014” urbanism project have radically altered the cityscape. Bronze statues honouring the region’s luminaries, often strange and sporting eerie expressions, stand on every corner. None are as brazen as the one dedicated to Alexander the Great, who surveys the city, sword in hand, from atop his horse. Along the Vardar river, which winds through the city, pre-existing buildings have been given pseudo-neoclassical wedding-cake façades. Nonetheless, scratch the stucco surface and a city full of Balkan charm awaits, where hours can be whiled away over drinks, cigarettes and dominoes in the Turkish cafés of the Old Bazaar or the leafy boulevards of the bohemian Debar Maalo neighbourhood.

Booksellers line by the Vardar river
‘Defragmentation’ exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art
Brutalist-inspired art at Pioneri

As monocle’s Slovenian photographer Jaka Bulc navigates the city in Serbo-Croatian, it’s clear that nostalgia for the communist era (some of it secondhand, in the case of younger generations who weren’t alive to experience it) unites the Balkan region despite its collapse 30 years ago. At the Museum of Contemporary Art, a modernist concrete-and-glass edifice financed by Poland following the 1963 earthquake, the concierge unlocking the terrace doors laments not giving Bulc a ticket for free; he didn’t know he was Slovenian. From our terrace perch, beyond the city dotted with cranes and seemingly endless construction, we can see verdant mountains – one of them, Vodno, is topped with a 66-metre-tall steel crucifix, the Millennium Cross. Inside the museum, an exhibition named Defragmentation gathers artists from Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary to reinforce co-operation and solidarity across borders as 2023 marks 60 years since the earthquake. 

Angela Karulovsq

In the Old Bazaar, where the call to muezzin’s prayer can be heard in the winding streets, the National Gallery’s premises are the bones of what was once a 15th-century Turkish hammam. Under the direction of Dita Starova-Qerimi, a permanent collection traces the evolution of art in the region, from post-Byzantine icons to abstract pieces by artists from North Macedonia and beyond. Beneath starry domes, abstract paintings mingle with brass statues and more folkloric portraits by Croatian artist Ordan Petlevski and prominent North Macedonian expressionist Petar Mazev. As an introduction to this particular field of Balkan art history, it is a concise, well-considered collection. 

Brutalist-inspired art at Pioneri
The 'Skopje 2014' stucco monument
Art at the National Gallery
Street life
The MKC cultural centre
Sweet treats
Coffee in the Old Bazaar
Post Office and Telecommunications centre

A short walk along the river, past booksellers and kiosks, is the mkc centre, a city-council-funded space for art, theatre, music and more. Since February 2022, in the face of governmental budget cuts, its programme directors have been working around the clock to promote emerging talents, such as rap group Dope Kukjata, and attract international acts such as US surf-pop band Daikaiju. “We’re raised here, it’s where high-schoolers come to get a taste of alternative music,” says Luka Toshev, who is helping the centre with its online presence while juggling teaching music and touring as a guitarist for Dina Jashari, a rising star of North Macedonia’s bedroom-pop scene. 

When we meet Toshev over shots of iced espresso at the mkc, he is preparing to head to Exit Festival in Serbia, a huge opportunity for young musicians to build their audience in the Balkans. “It’s the same scene, from Skopje to Ljubljana,” he says. “We understand each other, so touring the region, spending a month in Croatia this summer and performing somewhere different every night makes sense.” As a North Macedonian act, is there ever any pressure to switch the singing to English? “For sure. Maybe we would get more clicks or be able to perform in cities such as Berlin or London. But performing in English is boring. You don’t need to understand all the lyrics; the emotion behind the songs can be the language.” With his cycling sunglasses perched atop his head and a lighter attached to his hip by a retractable holder, Toshev embodies a certain offbeat Balkan edge that could surely overcome any language barrier. 

In the evenings, a lively crowd of film enthusiasts can be found at Café Kotur, where screenings of new and old releases are accompanied by cocktails mixed with the evening’s entertainment in mind. “Since we opened five years ago, this has become the best spot in Skopje for coffee in the morning and a cocktail at night,” says waitress Angela Karulovsq. “And every week you can expect something new, be it an event, film screening or concert.” The premises, with their mid-century light fixtures and furniture, were once the headquarters of the former Yugoslavian distribution body Macedonian Film. The film scene in North Macedonia is particularly strong, with Oscar-nominated directors such as Milcho Manchevski, Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov flying the flag on the international scene and documentary festival Makedox taking place every August. 

With its strong café and festival culture, North Macedonians certainly know how to have fun. As the sun sets over Skopje’s main square, Bulc treats monocle to some grilled corn from a street vendor and we watch people pass by: families, elderly men on bikes, young couples holding hands. It’s unclear whether geopolitics will allow for North Macedonia to accede to the EU and what that might mean for its cultural scene and young creatives. But in the meantime, with Balkan spirit in spades, Skopje is enjoying itself.

Skopje address book:

Art gallery for emerging artists from North Macedonia and the Balkan region, run by Jana Garvanlieva.

National Gallery of Macedonia
Founded in 1948, the city’s main art gallery is based in a restored Turkish hammam from the 15th century.

Museum of Contemporary Art
A modernist marvel with smart exhibitions and stellar views of the city.

Council-run cultural centre where concerts and workshops are held for the young and young at heart.

Akademska Kniga
A bookshop with a brilliant selection of North Macedonian classics and foreign-language literature, including English.

Café Kotur
A lively spot for drinks that also hosts regular film screenings. 
+389 75 760 497

Public Room
A dynamic bar, events room, restaurant and co-working space on the pedestrianised strip of Debar Maalo.

Buzzy bar and shop with a recording studio, inspired by Skopje’s brutalist cityscape. 
38A Boulevard Ilinden

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