Creative expression has always been integral to expressing identity in the Balkans. Invading and prevailing cultures played tug-of-war over buildings that even today show the layers of who was here. Similarly, music not only expresses traditions and cultures but also has been used to garner support for political ideology or to rally resistance against it. Visual arts reflect and record history, and live and breathe triumphantly today after having survived past oppression.

Literature

Literature in the Balkans all began with epic poetry, a tradition which survives in the Dinaric Range from Croatia to Albania and predates Homer. In Serbia, BiH and Croatia, vast epic poems were memorised and recited to the accompaniment of the violin-like gusle, played with a bow. They were passed down through generations like this, recording key historical events, dramatising heroic tales and giving rise to myths.

The 1389 battle of Kosovo features prominently in Serbian epic poetry. Serbian epic poetry was first written down by the 19th-century writer and linguist Vuk Karadžić, whose works were brought to a wider audience through translations by the likes of Goethe and Walter Scott.

Montenegrin literature is dominated by poet-prince-bishop Petar II Petrović Njegoš; his acclaimed work The Mountain Wreath is still a source of pride. Montenegrin writer Milovan Ðilas also led a fascinating life beyond his literary pursuits. Partisan leader and one-time vice president to Tito, Ðilas was on the verge of becoming president in 1954 but fell from communist grace when works critical of communism landed him in jail.

Contemporary literature in the region has achieved global acclaim. Bosnian-born (but revered throughout the region) Ivo Andrić won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1961 ‘for the epic force with which he has traced themes and depicted human destinies drawn from the history of the country’. Andrić’s classic The Bridge on the Drina offers extraordinarily humanising insight into ethnic conflicts in the region.

Contemporary writers include Ismail Kadare, Albania’s most beloved novelist and a perennial candidate for a Nobel Prize, who was awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2005. One of Kadare’s most renowned works is The File on H, a short, humorous book about the epic-poetry tradition in which two Irish-American academics stumble into local politics.

Another widely acclaimed contemporary writer is Serbia’s Milorad Pavić, whose books are not so much read as embarked upon as one would a surreal interactive journey.

Music

Candidates for the oldest living musical traditions in the Balkans are the old Slavonic hymns of the Serbian Orthodox Church and southern Albania’s polyphonic singing. Croatia’s four-voice klapa music is another unusual a cappella tradition. The various Islamic dervish orders have traditions of religious chants on mystical themes. One regional curiosity is bleh-muzika, Serbian brass music influenced by Turkish and Austrian military music. It’s often played by Roma bands at weddings and funerals and at the raucous Guča Trumpet Festival. Other folk traditions include Macedonian gajda (bagpipe) tunes, accompanied by drums, and Serbian peasant dances led by bagpipes, flutes and fiddles. Kosovar folk music bears the influence of Ottoman military marching songs, with careening flutes over the thudding beat of goatskin drums. The beloved traditional music of BiH is sevdah, derived from the Turkish word sevda, meaning love. The melancholy sound of sevdah is sometimes described as the Bosnian blues. Slovenian folk music features accordions and flutes made of wood, clay and reeds, and central European rhythms such as the polka and waltz are popular.

Enormously popular throughout the region, turbo-folk is the crass lovechild of a dirty affair between folk and pop music. During the Milošević era, turbo-folk was appropriated by the regime and heavily impregnated with nationalist messages. The intermingling of pop culture and the political scene was never more epitomised than by the marriage of turbo-folk queen ‘Ceca’ and Milošević henchman Arkan. Though its nationalist connotations have diminished, turbo-folk is the loudest thing left over from the former Yugoslavia; video clips are gloriously reminiscent of the 1980s: female leads with gravity-defying bosom and height-defying hair are flanked by groups of choreographed dancing women.

Modern pop artists from BiH, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia have a bigger audience than imports from other European countries throughout the former federation – ‘from Triglav to the Vardar’, to quote an old Yugoslav anthem. Indeed, much Balkans talent has been well received in foreign lands; Macedonia’s baritone Boris Trajanov has sung all over the world and became an Unesco Artist for Peace in 2005, and classical pianist Simeon Trpčeski is world-renowned.

Another influential character on the music scene in the Balkans is Goran Bregović. Born in Bosnia to a Serbian mother and a Croat father, the former rock star is now famed for his collaborations with famed filmmaker Emir Kusturica (including composition for the soundtracks of Time of the Gypsies and Arizona Dream, starring Johnny Depp). Bregović is a strong ambassador for Balkans music and an advocate for Roma music’s role in the region’s cultural history. Another advocate of Roma traditions was Macedonia’s Esma Rexhepova, widely acclaimed for her mastery of the music of her culture.

The music scene in the Balkans seems to be in a perpetual state of crescendo, with new artists and sounds emerging all the time. Even hip-hop is building a strong following throughout the region (even for horrifically named outfits like Montenegro’s Monteniggers). Some do it tongue in cheek, but others are genuinely dissed. More challenging types of music also have a strong base among the substantial urban bohemian community. Serbia’s Exit Festival is the largest in the region and draws larger crowds and bigger names each year. Internationally, the best-known alternative band from the region would be the Slovenian veteran industrial collective Laibach, who released an album in 1990 of nothing but different versions of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.

In 2007, the Balkans was shaken by the loss of Toše Proeski, one of its most successful and beloved pop stars, who died in a car accident at the age of 26. Toše represented Macedonia in the 2004 Eurovision Song Contest and was a regional Unicef ambassador. He was loved for his powerful voice, compassion and charisma, and his death was met with anguish as fans throughout the Balkans deeply mourned the loss of the young star.

Cinema

Some exceptional films offer a fascinating window into the Balkans. Lamerica (1995) depicts the postcommunist culture of Albania. Bosnian Danis Tanović won an Oscar for No Man’s Land (2002), about the relationship between a Serbian and a Muslim trapped in a trench together during the Sarajevo siege. In Grbavica (2006) – written and directed by another Bosnian, Jasmila Zbanic – the protagonist learns that her father was not a war hero but that her mother was a victim of rape during the war. Macedonian director Milčo Mančevski explores ethnic tensions in his Oscar-nominated, cinematically sublime After the Rain (1994) and the more recent (and controversial) films Dust (2002) and Shadows (2007). Montenegro’s Veljko Bulajić’s films have achieved several international award nominations; his most recent work is Libertas (2006). Bojan Bazeli (of Mr & Mrs Smith fame) has crossed over to Hollywood. Enigmatic filmmaker Emir Kusturica – two-time Palme d'Or winner – playfully and energetically dissects the Balkans with vivid portraits in his outlandish films, including his famed black comedy Underground (1995).

Visual Arts

Serbian and Macedonian medieval architecture is mostly on a provincial scale compared with Orthodox Christian centres such as Kyiv and Moscow, but in fresco painting local artists rivalled anything produced in the Orthodox world. Many classic frescos painted in churches and monasteries from the 10th to the 14th centuries were hidden by whitewash applied by Turkish rulers (which inadvertently helped to preserve them) and obscured by dense layers of smoke and candle residue. The frescos in the churches of Sveti Pantelejmon near Skopje and Sveti Kliment in Ohrid display a skill for expression that predates the Italian Renaissance by 150 years. Albania has a largely unknown tradition of fine Orthodox art, exemplified by the icon painter Onufri, whose colourful, expressive work is contained in a museum in Berat.

An important 20th-century Yugoslav art movement was Zenitism, from the word 'zenith', which fused French and Russian intellectualism with Balkans passion. Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art has a fine collection of Zenitist works (returned after works of non-Serbian artists were purged under Milošević).

Socialist realist art dedicated to glorifying the worker and the achievements of communism had only a brief heyday in Yugoslavia – artists were allowed to return to their own styles in the early 1950s – but it lasted right up until the early 1990s in Albania. Tirana’s National Art Gallery has a salon devoted to socialist realist works.

The best-known sculptor of the region is Ivan Meštrović, born into a poor farming family in Croatia in 1883. He taught himself to read from the Bible, and went on to create some of the finest examples of religious sculpture since the Renaissance. Though he emigrated to the USA, around 60 of his works are scattered around the former Yugoslavia, including the Monument to the Unknown Hero on Mt Avala outside Belgrade.

Conflicts of the 1990s hampered the arts and almost every other sphere of endeavour, but artists of the region survived to re-emerge with much to explore and express. A powerful message was offered by young Bosnian artist Sejla Kamerić, who was growing up in Sarajevo during the time of the siege. In her most recognised and confronting work, Bosnian Girl, she has laid graffiti left in Srebrenica by a Dutch soldier over her photographic portrait.

Another interesting work to come out of this era was produced by Serbian Ivan Grubanov, who had the opportunity to sit in the press gallery at the Hague during Milošević’s trial. The 200-odd portraits that emerged were fused with recordings of the trial as an evocative depiction of the broken dictator.

Architecture

The region’s architecture is a three-dimensional record of previous societies. Buildings have been erected, redesigned, demolished and resurrected throughout history, making for a rich collage of stylistic contrasts.

The Roman amphitheatre at Pula in Croatia is one of the best preserved in the world, while the Euphrasian Basilica at Poreč earned a World Heritage listing for its preservation of Byzantine and classical elements dating back to the 4th century. The Croatian and Montenegrin coasts are strongly Venetian-influenced, while Slovenia’s architecture shows links with Austria. Serbia’s Vojvodina region has Hungarian-influenced elements, particularly in the art nouveau buildings in Novi Sad and Subotica. The Turkish influence in mosques, madrassas (colleges for learning the Koran), hamams (public baths) and domestic architecture spreads from Macedonia to Albania, Serbia and BiH. Berat in Albania has a particularly fine set of Ottoman-era neighbourhoods, and Sarajevo and Mostar in BiH have a delightful mix of Ottoman-style structures, Orthodox churches and Habsburg-era public buildings. Baroque and Gothic architecture mostly appears in Slovenia and Croatia, which also have a strong legacy of Romanesque architecture, continuing long after this style had been supplanted by Gothic design in other parts of Europe.

Communist architecture is easy to spot; it fills you with dread or makes you laugh. While the unmistakable communist influence in the Balkans is not particularly celebrated, some of it is certainly distinct. The wackiest in the region has to be Tirana’s Pyramid, built in honour of dictator Enver Hoxha. Some surviving Yugo-hotels in Serbia and Montenegro are also thrilling for their grey but groovy character. It’s easy to be cynical about these, but some of them truly capture an era and are original enough to be worth hanging on to.

Builders were brought from Turkey to erect authentic structures, so what remains of the Ottoman era is fascinating for the contrast it lends to other styles. Much character has been lost in rebellious assertions of independence from the Ottomans, but interestingly, many Turkish styles left an imprint in post-Ottoman design. The Turkish konak is a distinct style of residence throughout the region, generally white with timber framings. The 2nd floor, often balanced on beams, protrudes over the ground floor. These doksat (overhanging windowed rooms) would jut over the street so as not to appropriate too much space on it but still afford the people inside a view of its goings-on. Interiors of such residencies were adapted to the lifestyles that played out in them; most of the living rooms were on the 1st floor, often adorned with peškum (carved hexagonal coffee tables) and sećija (benches along the wall), often draped with ćilim (hand-woven carpets). Windows were shuttered so sequestered women inside could enjoy the views without being seen. Many such houses now serve as museums. The classical Ottoman mosque features a large cubed prayer area with a dome on top. Minarets on Ottoman mosques in this region are often taller and slimmer than their Arab counterparts. Inside, the mihrab (prayer niche) faces Mecca, and the pulpits are often carved from wood.

Tragically, the region’s architectural heritage has been caught in the crossfire of its conflicts over the years; hundreds of mosques, churches and monasteries have been vandalised or destroyed. The most recent such spate occurred in Kosovo and Serbia as a result of Kosovo’s independence declaration in February 2008; Serbian Orthodox sites in Kosovo continue to be guarded.

On the brighter side, there has been increased effort to restore key buildings destroyed or damaged during the wars. In Dubrovnik, for instance, dozens of buildings that were attacked from land and sea have been rebuilt. Several brave locals risked their lives during the bombardment to replace roof tiles, and similar courage was shown elsewhere in the region; the people of Sarajevo went to untold effort to protect sacred artefacts. The most iconic structure in the Balkans to have been resurrected after its destruction during the war is BiH’s Old Bridge in Mostar, which was painstakingly rebuilt in 2004 using 16th-century engineering techniques. The meticulous reconstruction of the 16th-century Ferhadija mosque in Banja Luka, completely destroyed in 1993, was also finally finished in 2016.