Pancevo is a small Serbian city located just northeast of Belgrade. It has some lovely Habsburg architecture. There’s a thriving arts scene and a growing Chinese community. But this city of about 73,000 people is perhaps best known for the damage it sustained during the NATO bombing in 1999, when an industrial park containing an oil refinery, a petrochemical plant, and a fertilizer factory was hit.
The most vivid reporting from Pancevo during the NATO bombing came from a cartoonist publishing under the pen name of Aleksandar Zograf. His weekly dispatches, “Regards from Serbia,” appeared in various magazines and websites, and were translated into several languages.
In a drawing style reminiscent of R. Crumb, Zograf produces frequently acerbic cartoons, for instance one that depicts the residents of Pancevo welcoming the “smart bombs” and “cute little cluster bombs” of NATO. He catalogues the victims of the Yugoslav wars and the NATO attacks. He chronicles life under sanctions. He struggles to put pen to paper. “Invisible NATO bombers, hundreds of thousands of refugees, crazy dictators, army moves, explosions, propaganda lies,” he writes in one panel. “Hey! Somebody wake me up! I just want to sit and draw my pathetic little cartoons!!”
In late September, I took a bus from Belgrade to Pancevo to meet Aleksandar Zograf, who turns out to be Sasa Rakezic, a thoughtful man who was born in 1963, the same year I was. He rode his bike to the bus station to meet me, and then pushed it along as he took me on a tour of Pancevo. During our conversation, I realized that Rakezic was very much an archaeologist by inclination. He likes to dig into history, into the substratum of human experience, into what lies beneath consciousness.
John Feffer: How did you feel personally about life in Yugoslavia?
Sasa Rakezic: Generally I would say that I had a happy life in those days. For example, life was cheap and you could live with a small amount of money, which is good for artists. The level of stress was somehow much less. But on the other hand, some of the opportunities that you have now were not present at that time. For me, I wish that I had used this time better than I did. I was not very clever when I was younger. I couldn’t imagine what was going to happen.
There was this famous musician from Belgrade, who said—not about these times, but about the wars in former Yugoslavia—“We’ll spend the rest of our lives trying to understand what happened during the wars of the 1990s.” This is also true about this socialist period. We will spend ages thinking about what happened and what was good and what was bad. It was far from a black-and-white picture, especially for the artists. Artists are never satisfied with the general atmosphere of the system in which they live. They always feel a little to the side of society, rejected in some way. They would have to struggle in any form of society anyway. They also learn not to be excited by the system they live in. I could imagine that someone with a steady career and a job in a society that would enable him to live comfortably will be excited about the system that allows him to live like that. But for the artist, he knows that he will have to struggle in this system as he would struggle in any other one.
Mr. Feffer: I want to talk about your work. What struck me the most about “Regards from Serbia” is the reluctance. So much of your work is about your dream life. At some points you were just drawing things in your head—demons, and so on. Can you talk about this dream life and this reluctance?
Mr. Rakezic: It’s connected to my own personal quest. In the late 1980s or early 1990s, just a little before the crisis started, and just when the crisis started, I started to explore these inner realities. I was very interested in presenting different material from the dream states in comics. Comics are a very good way of presenting your dreams. You can use pictures and words to explain these different experiences. I was also interested in different dream states. I started to practice lucid dreaming. I was successful to a certain extent. I was able to wake up in my dreams and explore the reality of the dream.
It was a very overwhelming thing to experience. Suddenly I was becoming aware of another state of being. There is wakened reality, there are dreams, and there is the state of lucid dreaming. I managed to look at my hands in my dreams and become lucid while I was dreaming. I was able to go very deep into all these things. It was very exciting, as if I were conquering a distant country or another realm. I was trying to capture a lot of information coming from inside, from these very deep inner realities, and turn it into artistic material.
But it stopped when the crisis emerged in ex-Yugoslavia. You have to use a lot of your energy connected to your awakened reality to achieve the state of lucid dreaming. Since I was a very poor artist who didn’t have any savings when the crisis started, it was very difficult for me. I started to struggle with everyday reality. I realized that what was happening around me were these tragic things—the splitting up of the country called Yugoslavia. Like many other people I had to struggle just to be alive in this situation. There was not enough food, for instance. I had to go from this inner reality to an outside reality that was very dramatic and sometimes even more surrealistic than what I would find inside.
Mr. Feffer: Can you give an example of something that was more surrealistic outside than inside?
Mr. Rakezic: Everything was more surrealistic. In 1993, when I started to make comics about what was going on around me, we went into a period of hyperinflation that was very much like what happened in Germany or Hungary after the first world war. You go to buy bread. In the morning, the price was 10 dinars. At noon it was 100 dinars. In the evening it was 1,000 dinars. It was a completely crazy situation just to buy regular things. I remember thinking that it had been like this forever, ever since I was born.
I was very curious about these quests that I was doing in lucid dreaming—and several other dream states that I tried to explore—and I was not very happy to return to the gray and stupid reality of being in a country that was on the brink of a war for an unknown reason with a crazy leader leading everyone straight into a catastrophe with an economy that was completely destroyed. It was not a reality that I liked very much.
Mr. Feffer: One of your stories is about your Hungarian colleague who set up an exhibition about life in Serbia under Milosevic and under sanctions. He said he would keep it going as long as Milosevic was in power.
Mr. Rakezic: This was a friend in Hungary who did an exhibition of my stuff and he said it would last until the fall of Milosevic. It opened in 1999, when the bombing of Serbia started. I was thinking that it was going to the longest running exhibition in the history of Hungary. It’s another indication that if you live inside a reality you cannot judge it. I thought he would rule forever, that we were doomed to live under his reign for the rest of our lives. The exhibition lasted until the year 2000 when Milosevic fell from power. I guess this friend in Hungary was able to detect something that we were not aware of. I can go into the underground levels of society, just like many artists do. But somehow I can’t predict what will happen in the surface reality the next day.
This is an abridged version of an interview published on JohnFeffer.com. John is currently traveling in Eastern Europe and observing its transformations since 1989. He is the co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.
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