Zivkovic was born in Sarajevo in 1962 and currently lives and works as an artist and art professor in Sweden. His show, which points to the themes of the survival of a community under adverse circumstances, and the possibility that Jews, Christians, and Muslims might live together in peace, consists of a collection of 16 paintings and 17 supplementary drawings.
The paintings are of young Jewish women, in twos and threes, with flesh-tone faces, brown eyes, reddish brown hair or shawl-like head piece, set against a yellowish background, wherein there are said to be historic scenes. Sometimes the women wear partial Venetian masks, or have palm flowers on their heads, or are transforming into men — which is meant to symbolize their strength for holding the family and the community together.
The women are Sephardic Jews — expelled from Spain in 1492 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella under the Alhambra Degree — who are in transit out of Spain, passing through Italy and destined for Sarajevo in the Balkans. The supplementary drawings, in black and white pencil, depict scenes from the Jewish community’s passage.
The artist’s inspiration for this collection comes from The Sarajevo Haggadah, which is one of the oldest and most valuable Sephardic Haggadahs in existence. A Haggadah is the song and story of the Exodus of the Jews out of Egypt. It is read to accompany the Passover Seder — a feast of celebration. The Sarajevo Haggadah originated in Barcelona around 1350 and was probably given as a wedding gift from a wealthy Jewish family. It is handwritten on bleached calfskin and illuminated in copper and gold. It opens with 34 pages of scenes from the Old Testament, from creation through the death of Moses. Notes found in the margins of the text indicate it surfaced in Italy in the 16th century. In 1894, it was sold to the Museum of Sarajevo by a man named Joseph Kohen. The manuscript has survived hundreds of years of transit, the two world wars and the Balkans War. During WW II it was sought out by the Nazis, but hidden from them by a Muslim cleric under the flooring of a mosque in Zenica. During the siege of Sarajevo by Serbian forces it was almost stolen by thieves. In 1991, it was appraised as worth $700 million dollars. It is currently on display at the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo.
The manuscript is unique in that the drawings it contains show a mixture of Christian, Jewish and Muslim influence. The figures are dressed (even the Pharaoh) in medieval Spanish clothing and regalia, the backgrounds are Islamic tiles and the stories are Jewish. The manuscript points to a time in Spain when Muslims, Christians and Jews coexisted. Its long term survival has been possible only through the help of both Christians and Muslims.
The Sarajevo Haggadah, describing the Exodus of the Jews out of Egypt, seems to represent, for Zivkovic, the Jew’s exodus from Spain and their eventual resettlement in Sarajevo. His work especially points out how women contributed to the survival of the Jewish people and it celebrates Miriam — the first Jewish woman of Spanish origin to give birth to a baby in Sarajevo. Zivkovic’s art expresses his inner connection to the past of his people.
He writes, “I saw one of the finest books in the world (the manuscript) and I understand what I am … I have created one of the many windows to my intimate world. The red and yellow vermilion color interwoven in golden hues is still the color of my dreams. It is the story from the soul of a man. It seems that I am crying of wishes to return to that time.”
In addition to viewing Zivkovic’s paintings and drawings, you can also view a copy of The Sarajevo Haggadah and its translation into English at Galleria Jan. Pulitzer Prize winner Geraldine Brooks’ novel “People of the Book,” which is a fictionalized account of The Sarajevo Haggadah and its journey from Spain through Italy to Sarajevo, is also on hand to examine. It turns out that Geraldine Brooks originally got the idea for her book from viewing a copy of The Sarajevo Haggadah when she visited Galeria Jan years ago. The combination of seeing Zivkovic’s art and looking through the books, plus a little conversation with gallery owner Biljana Beran, is a powerful and moving experience that will rekindle your hope that we might all live together in peace.
While at the gallery, be sure to view the collaborative painting by Zivkovic and Jan Beran (Biljana’s husband), which is called “A Fairy Tale Is About To Happen.” This piece is up for silent auction. The entire proceeds will be used to help a young woman from Sarajevo, living in Italy, who is in desperate need of a pancreatic transplant.
For further information see www.galeraijan.com or call (858) 551-2053.