Creative expression has always been integral to defining identity in the Western 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 has also been used to garner support for political ideology or to rally resistance against it. Visual arts reflect and record history, and artists are generally highly regarded and respected within their home communities.
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 gained a World Heritage listing for its 6th-century Byzantine mosaics. Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and baroque architecture appears mostly in Slovenia and Croatia. The Slovenian, Croatian and Montenegrin coasts are strongly Venetian-influenced, while inland Slovenia’s architecture shows links with Austria. Serbia’s Vojvodina region has Hungarian-influenced elements, particularly in the art-nouveau buildings in Subotica. The Turkish influence in mosques, madrasas (colleges for learning the Koran), hamams (public baths) and domestic architecture stretches from Macedonia to Bosnia. Berat in Albania has a particularly fine set of Ottoman-era houses, and Sarajevo and Mostar have an eclectic mix of Ottoman structures, Orthodox churches and Habsburg-era public buildings.
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. 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), and 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.
Communist architecture has been much maligned for its gloomy greyness, but Yugoslav and Albanian architects produced some eclectic and whimsical buildings which are finding a newfound cache under the moniker Socialist Modernism. In Yugoslavia, hundreds of WWII monuments (spomenici) were built, often on a grand scale; in 2018 they were celebrated in a dedicated show at New York's MoMA. While some have been destroyed or have fallen into ruin, many remain – there are particularly impressive examples in Mostar and Sutjeska National Park in Bosnia. Belgrade has a love-them-or-hate-them crop of envelope-pushing concrete apartment blocks, and there are fantastically angular Yugo-style hotels scattered throughout the region.
Tragically, the Western Balkans' 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 of attacks occurred in Kosovo and Serbia as a result of Kosovo’s independence declaration in 2008; Serbian Orthodox sites in Kosovo continue to be guarded.
On the brighter side, there has been increased effort to rebuild and 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. The most iconic structure in the Balkans to have been resurrected after its destruction during the war is the Stari Most (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 finally finished in 2016.
Medieval Serbian and Macedonian fresco painting rivals anything produced in the Orthodox world. The frescoes 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 Balkan passion. Belgrade’s Museum of Contemporary Art has a fine collection of Zenitist works. 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 region's best-known sculptor is Ivan Meštrović, born into a poor Croatian farming family in 1883. Though he emigrated to the USA, dozens of his works are scattered around the former Yugoslavia, including the Monument to the Unknown Hero on Mt Avala outside Belgrade, the Njegoš Mausoleum in Montenegro and a large collection in his former home in Split.
The 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 Šejla Kamerić, who was growing up in Sarajevo during the time of the siege. In her most recognised and confronting work, Bosnian Girl, she has superimposed crude graffiti left in Srebrenica by a Dutch soldier over her photographic portrait.
By far the region's most celebrated contemporary artist is Marina Abramović, known for her thought-provoking performance works in venues such as New York's MoMA and London's Serpentine Gallery. Her return to her native Belgrade for a retrospective exhibition in 2019 marks her first solo show there for 44 years.
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 multi-voice klapa music is another unusual a cappella tradition, with its roots in church music. The various Islamic dervish orders have traditions of religious chants on mystical themes.
The beloved traditional music of Bosnia is the melancholy sound of sevdah, derived from the Turkish word 'sevda' (love). 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. 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. One regional curiosity are trubači, Serbian trumpet music often played by Roma brass bands at weddings and funerals and at the raucous Guča Trumpet Festival.
There's a strong tradition of classical music throughout the Balkans, and some of the region's biggest musical exports of recent years have been classical-pop crossover artists such as Croatia's 2Cellos and Montenegrin classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić. Macedonian baritone Boris Trajanov is an internationally acclaimed opera singer.
However, when it comes to international success, nothing beats the meteoric rise of Kosovar pop stars Rita Ora and Dua Lipa who have topped the charts around the world. The best-known band from the region would be the veteran Slovenian industrial collective Laibach, whose oddball discography includes an album containing nothing but different versions of the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil.
Another influential character on the international music scene is Goran Bregović. Born in Bosnia to a Serbian mother and a Croatian father, the former rock star is famed for his collaborations with filmmaker Emir Kusturica. Bregović is a strong ambassador for Balkans music, particularly the role of the Roma in the region’s musical history. Another advocate of Roma traditions was Macedonia’s Esma Redžepova, known as the 'Queen of the Gypsies' and widely acclaimed for her vocal dexterity.
Enormously popular throughout the region, turbo-folk is the 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. 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 singers with gravity-defying bosom and height-defying hair, flanked by groups of choreographed dancers.
The Yugoslav era spawned many bands and solo artists that remain hugely popular. The 2018 death of Croatian singer Oliver Dragojević, a popular figure since the 1960s, saw an outpouring of grief across national boundaries. Yugoslavia's openness to the West meant that the trends that swept London, Dublin and Los Angeles were quickly picked up domestically and delivered in local languages – whether that be 1960s mop-top pop, 1970s guitar heroics or 1980s New Wave jauntiness.
Although audiences have now somewhat fragmented along national lines, there's still a vibrant Balkans music scene comprising everything from electronic dance music to hip-hop and alternative rock – buoyed and influenced by the high-profile international music festivals (especially Exit in Novi Sad and Ultra in Split) that have blossomed over the last two decades.