Images & Intersections / Visual Culture AboutImages & Intersections Hands at Work Ginan Rauf in Conversation with Nermina Begovic Ginan Rauf March 12, 2022 Share Lace and filigree pendant by Begovic, photos courtesy of Ginan Rauf. Translated by Merjem Begovic, daughter of Nermina Begovic We were in Sarajevo. There was an early flight to catch the next morning. I felt rushed. A strong desire to return once more to a place I had visited many times took hold of me. It was distinct from a tourist’s desire to see as much as possible in a short time and then quickly depart. I wanted to linger in the Bascarsija (Baščaršija), often described as the “main tourist attraction” in the heart of Sarajevo. Yet, the description “main tourist attraction” felt far too reductive for a place like the Bascarsija. There is more to it than a traditional bazaar where tourists can buy mass produced souvenirs and taste some delicious cevapcici or baklava in the local restaurants. Bascarsija is a place of intense socialization for the locals who gather in the many cafes to spend time chatting with family and friends. It’s hard to miss the echoes of these human conversations and the intermingling of diverse cultures in the heart of Sarajevo. This is a remarkably small area that boasts a Catholic cathedral, an Orthodox church and the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque. The oldest manuscript of the Sephardic Haggadah is housed in the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It survived the Nazi occupation and the siege of Sarajevo in the 1990s, unlike many Ottoman-era manuscripts that went up in flames when the National Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina was shelled. Much of what one encounters in the Bascarsija, then, evokes a unique cultural configuration and the precariousness of the city’s cosmopolitan legacy. Not far from the Sarajevo Cathedral stands Gallery 11/07/95, an exhibition space and memorial that commemorates the tragic massacre in Srebrenica. Sarajevo is not easy to forget. Traces of all that has been lost or threatened by destructive forces remain. Questions arise. Memories gather. What’s to be done in the face of such a barbarous assault on the city’s multiethnic identity and cultural diversity? The most compelling answers are often provided by Sarajevans themselves. Take the example of Vedran Smailovic, the leading cellist of the Sarajevo Opera at the time. During the siege of Sarajevo, he donned formal attire and performed Albinoni’s Adagio under artillery fire. The music is a leisurely invitation to defy the horrors of war. The poignancy of such a performance, of course, is inseparable from the city’s history. There I was in the Bascarsija, searching for a historically charged memento to purchase before my flight back to New York. I was looking for something that embodied the city’s particularity. I happened to be in the right place. Built in the 15th century by Sarajevo’s founder Isa-beg Isakovic, the Bascarsija has long been associated with the production of traditional crafts that both evoke and transcend the city’s Ottoman past. My attention turned towards Gazi Husrev-beg Street. The cobblestone street is lined with goldsmith shops and windows full of filigree jewelry or replicas of museum pieces that evoke Sarajevo’s urbane lifestyle. The shops appeared to be family-owned businesses. Being able to attach a name or family history to the intricately wrought filigree jewelry appealed to me. It confirmed my view of the goldsmith as an artist and designer, a maker of wearable art in her own right. It was quite a moving experience given that there are only a handful of goldsmiths who continue to practice this ancient art in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Bookmark from Sarajevo, photo courtesy of Ginan Rauf. The quest led me to Nermina Begovic’s shop NBgoldline, a place that struck me as being part of a long-standing tradition of arts and crafts but with an innovative twist. Her work stood out. It incorporated handmade lace into the silver filigree pieces in what appeared to be a tribute to the arts practiced by the women of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the domestic sphere. A quick glance at the brochure on the counter indicated that Begovic’s work has a decidedly communal and restorative dimension. Kera lace, it informs the customer, is produced by members of the Gracanicko Keranje Association that is located in Gracanica, a city west of Tuzla. The Association was established in 2006 to preserve this traditional handcraft and pass it on to the younger generation. Nermina Begovic, photo courtesy of Nermina Begovic. I had found my treasure! The patiently constructed work inspired me to make a tiny contribution to the collaborative effort. Besides, how could I resist the delicate combination of lace and filigree? Filigree and lace pendant by NBgoldline, private collection, photo courtesy of Ginan Rauf. The South-Korean born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han has observed that the proliferation or hyperinflation of objects can leave us feeling indifferent to their presence in our lives. By way of contrast he suggests that beloved objects, those closest to our hearts, provide a resting place in a fragile world. Perhaps he meant that unforgettable objects generate a sense of stability or continuity. This comes close to what I was experiencing in Nermina’s shop. The jewelry became a historical anchor of sorts, reminding me that the domestic sphere has often been a site of creative productivity. Memories gathered. I thought of our Bosnian foremothers who worked with their hands to infuse everyday life with useful objects of beauty. An embroidered blouse or handwoven bath towel came to mind. The fine work conferred dignity on the makers. I recalled how these foremothers embodied a way of life in which fine living and excessive consumption were not considered necessarily as the same thing. It occurred to me that these memories constitute what Bell Hooks terms an “oppositional consciousness”. As there is variety in lifestyle, objects have the potential to catalyze an array of values. Tremendous care was devoted to preserving these handmade objects that were intended as heirlooms. Daily habits militated against the recklessness of a throw away culture. I thought of the pearl earrings given to a young bride or a pendant gently placed around a granddaughter’s neck who happens to be visiting. A broken gold chain might be sent for repair to a trusted goldsmith with whom the family has had a long relationship. Return visits to the same goldsmith was implicit in the purchase. It amounted to an incremental accumulation of social capital. These precious gifts were imbricated in rituals that strengthened communal bonds and deepened human intimacy. I was already thinking about the daughter-in-law or niece who may one day wear Nermina’s filigree, and remember. All this time travel tempered the fleeting nature of my encounter, and brought me outside myself as I thought of how the object was made and where it may end up. Our possessions sometimes remind us that we are mortal beings and by extension temporary stewards of historically charged objects. I regretted that Nermina hadn’t been in her shop at the time but there wasn’t enough time to arrange for a meeting. Her beginnings intrigued me. I wanted to understand how her work as a goldsmith and designer is embedded in a larger family history. Sarajevo beckoned but the global pandemic intervened and shaped our encounter. The return journey had to be conducted online. Nermina graciously agreed to a written interview, with the generous help of her daughter, Merjem Begovic as translator. Below is the interview slightly edited for length and clarity. **** GR: Would you please describe your childhood and tell me a bit about your background. What was it like growing up in Bosnia, or the former Yugoslavia? NB: I must say that until the 1990s the situation in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia was different. Society as a whole cared about the needs of children and young people. I spent my childhood and youth during my country’s “ Golden Age”. I come from a family of respected goldsmiths in Sarajevo who did their best to educate my two sisters and myself and give us a proper upbringing. We lived a very comfortable, carefree life. I got the best grades in school. I went to music school and played the piano. I had countless other interests and participated in many activities, we traveled with my parents, had winter and summer holidays. In short, we lived a European lifestyle. GR: What was it like being a teenager or young woman in Bosnia? How would you characterize your relationship to the crafts traditionally practiced by women such as lacemaking or embroidery? NB: Since I come from a respected family in the city, we also nurtured the traditions of Bosnian Muslims. It’s interesting that practicing Islam wasn’t an obligation in our house but the respect and preservation of traditional values was something we all cared for. My grandmother shared stories about her youth. She talked about the changes she saw and explained foreign concepts that we had difficulty understanding. She especially emphasized the importance of women’s handcrafts such as embroidery and weaving which were already falling into oblivion. The younger generation wasn’t interested enough in developing these skills. So that’s how traditional crafts became a natural part of my life, something related to beautiful memories. Everyday life was becoming completely different. It was changing. The spirit of the time was European. Young people in the city, including myself, mostly wanted to study. I went to the Gymnasium and prepared to enter the University of Architecture. We hung out, listened to music, went to clubs and cafes just like young people all over the world. Interestingly, I never felt the difference between men and women. Everything was equally accessible to all. GR: I understand that you are an architect by profession. How did you become interested in jewelry making? Did your professional background as an architect influence your work as a goldsmith and designer? NB: My parents were master goldsmiths, both of them ambitious and dedicated. Right next to our house was a large goldsmith’s workshop where jewelry was produced, starting with the melting of gold and ending with the final product. The entire process of jewelry production took place in that workshop. It was interesting to peek into their empire. For a long time, I was just an observer and a girl with many questions. After completing my studies, my parent’s love for the profession drew me to the workshop too. I thought it was temporary, just a break from architecture. I sat down at that desk and stayed. I immediately had some new ideas but to carry them out I had to first master the basics of the craft. Architecture has taught me that without a good foundation there is no beautiful facade. I haven’t become a skilled goldsmith but I know how to place a design in certain technical frameworks. I understand the technical processes and their possibilities. I have collaborated with craftsmen and learned how to evaluate the quality of their work. I can explain to them how a draft works in a practical manner. Not knowing the basics of the craft is a big drawback for many designers of applied art. This is why young people often give up on designing jewelry after completing their senior project. Architecture has certainly had an impact on my work. I always start with the construction. I focus on the form and functionality of a piece. The details come from that and are by no means simply decorative. It would be unacceptable from an aesthetic perspective. My work has integrity, it reflects my personality and desire to connect unrelated materials. This is how my line of jewelry NBgoldline was created and very quickly grew into a brand. It is jewelry made by using a combination of gold, silver, ceramics, lace and Swarovski crystals. Jewelry by NBgoldline, Ceramics, gold, and Swarovski crystals, photo courtesy of Nermina Begovic. GR: Could you talk a little bit more about the different materials you incorporate into your work? NB: I see silver and gold as material. Silver emphasizes the beauty of handmade pieces and over time you get that vintage old-fashioned look. A special type of ceramic base allows for a certain spontaneity and artistry to be achieved in the creative process during moments of inspiration. Gold is fascinating, the smallest grain elevates the design and moves it towards the sun. Swavorski crystals are a celebration of light with their magnificent colors. By associating with the masters of traditional crafts I learned to respect and appreciate this particular type of creativity. I learned how to recognize the beauty contained in fragments, broken pieces without frames. For me a defect in the material doesn’t mean a loss of beauty or the impossibility of repair. I decided to try and salvage the beauty of the material and save the memories that bind us to a piece of jewelry. This is how our line of jewelry and bookmarks “ Second Life” was created. It was shown for the first time in 2010 as part of an exhibition called “ Traditional vs Modern” at the Sarajevo Green Design Festival. The line is still in production. Photo courtesy of Ginan Rauf. GR: Nermina, you have had a very successful and exciting career, one that’s full of innovative collaborations and experimentation with different materials. Did you encounter any challenges as you forged a path for yourself in a profession that has historically been dominated by men? NB: Yes, this innovative experimentation with different materials has defined NBgoldine. It led to much success. I became a proud member of ULUPUBIH, The Association of Fine Artists of Applied Arts and Designers of BIH. It is an umbrella organization for fine artists interested in applied art and design. Artists come together voluntarily to defend their professional interests, to promote their work and encourage participation in the country’s cultural and political life. I became a notable exhibitor and took part in exhibitions all over the world. I don’t know if the women in my family were lucky or if it was just a more general condition. I know that my grandmother as a widow inherited a goldsmith shop before World War II. She ran the business successfully and had master goldsmiths working for her. After the war ended the communist regime confiscated all her property. She lived alone in a small part of her own house in the city center. Other parts of the house were inhabited by families who had lost their homes. Interestingly, I was born in that house in 1961 and those families were still living there! They took away my grandmother’s property but her ambition and enthusiasm kept her going. She enrolled my father in a professional school for goldsmiths and upon completion of his studies he got the right to repurchase his shop from the government. How ironic! The business brought my parents together. The family tradition has continued. My mother, Zineta Cengic became the youngest female master goldsmith in 1958. Together, side by side, they have progressed and managed to build a successful business. At that time, there were already several women in Sarajevo who even ran their own businesses. Nermina’s mother Zineta Cengic, 1958, photo courtesy of Nermina Begovic. GR: So that was another collaboration of sorts? NB: Yes, together and side by side they progressed and managed to build a small business. At that time there were several women who ran their own businesses. I must say this was a time of great emancipation for women in the former Yugoslavia. Programs of basic education for both men and women were established immediately after World War II. There were part-time programs for professional development. Great progress was made. As early as 1961 there were a large number of women in all fields and even in managerial positions which was unusual in Europe at the time. Personally, I have never experienced any difficulties as a woman. My voice was always valued in professional meetings. I am aware that we still have a lot to do to achieve full equality with men. The main problem in Bosnia doesn’t have to do with laws or professional discrimination. It’s the mentality of men who still see women as their property or as a person whose only mission in life should be centered on housekeeping or motherhood. Such a mentality is making a comeback with the younger generation and we as a society should work on it. GR: You are running a business. Could you talk about your work as a manager of a family-owned business? NB: I have always been a better worker than a businesswoman. It is difficult during this time of economic collapse in Bosnia to measure your success. The arts and crafts are disappearing, they are literally being erased. This isn’t just about the current economic crisis. It’s part of a larger decline that has been impacting the country for the past fifteen years, not to mention the war. In 1992 my family’s property was looted yet again. After the war we had to start from scratch. I can say with certainty this is possible because design is for me an inexhaustible inspiration. I am also inspired by my collaboration with other associations and craftsmen or artists. All this gives me the strength to work as if I were starting from the beginning. My family gives a lot of support. My husband left his job to help me run the business. He is the one who encourages me to keep doing what I love. GR: You seem to be involved with the fashion industry in Sarajevo. Perhaps you can give us a feel for what’s happening on the local scene. Are fashion designers inspired by traditional arts and crafts in Bosnia? NB: Jewelry and fashion somehow go together. I take great pleasure in working with fashion designers. I took part in several shows during the Sarajevo Fashion Week. There are two fashion shows that meant a lot to me, “Katarina Kosaca the Last Queen of Bosnia” and “Postcards from Bosnia.” These collections draw upon the tradition and art of this independent kingdom. They remind me of Bosnia’s glorious past. Fashion designers in Bosnia are happy to incorporate traditional arts into their work because they are aware of its value and significance. I’ve noticed they mostly incorporate upgraded designs but there is no intention to really turn things around or introduce dramatic innovations. I believe the main reason for this is the difficult economic situation. The fashion industry avoids incorporating handcraft techniques. Instead, the industry chooses cheaper alternatives. The fashion scene has been practically non-existent for the past five years. There are no fashion shows or events. Jewelry and fashion go together. Photos courtesy of Ginan Rauf. GR: This is a sobering assessment. Yet, you’ve worked with the Association Gracanicko Keranje. What are the aims of this organization? Can you tell us something about the women running it? NB: In 2010 I was working on a very important project. It was an exhibition called “Traditional Arts and Crafts in BiH” for the World Exhibition EXPO 2010 in Shanghai. It was an honor to work as a program editor for this exhibition. I did research on the traditional arts and crafts of BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina). It was my responsibility to select the craftsmen from all over the country, choose the works that would be exhibited and set up the exhibition itself. I met many wonderful artists and patrons of the arts in Shanghai. I also became familiar with the work of an association called Gracanicko Keranje during that time. The association was founded in 2006 with the aim of protecting a traditional form of crochet, one of the oldest crafts that has survived in the municipality of Gracanica. Lace-kera in its original form has only survived in the Gracanica region and continues to be produced thanks to the hardworking enthusiasts gathered in this association. The most active women in the association have either lost their permanent jobs or are students who have dedicated their time to learning the art of lacemaking. We met several times before finally embarking on a joint project. I did the complete design and the Gracanicko Keranje Association turned it into a reality! We ended up creating a fashion collection called “Lace” that won the best authentic product by the Women’s Business Association in BiH. This association provides opportunities for women entrepreneurs to form connections and collaborate on joint ventures. USAID and the American Embassy supported this project, helping us with the implementation of planned activities. Lace is a fashion line that promotes traditional lace with the help of modern design. The collection makes it possible for a self-confident modern woman to enjoy fashion that’s feminine. I think it’s made for lovers of refreshing elegance. There have been numerous fashion shows and exhibitions of the Lace collection in BiH and abroad. It’s currently on display at the ULUPUBIH Art Gallery. I also entered into an independent collaboration with the women from the association. Working with them inspired me to create a jewelry line that combines filigree and lace. GR: What in your opinion are the biggest challenges facing designers and jewelry makers who incorporate traditional crafts in their work? Who are your primary customers? Does the state support this kind of work? NB: The biggest challenge is to be realistic and choose the right path as it is really easy to go down the road of unachievable goals. Today the real challenge is to find people who have mastered traditional skills and to establish quality collaborations with them. There are also technical limits, including the cost-effectiveness of production, the real market versus the real market price of a product. You have to be two things in one, a designer and a manager. Jewelry that requires handmade techniques is always more expensive than industrially produced pieces. This carries a high risk for designers and manufacturers because the number of customers is much smaller, despite the passionate interest. Our customers are mostly foreign tourists. It used to be a domestic urban clientele, people who are a pleasure to work with but times have changed. I hope that the domestic customers will return. Bosnia is currently in a great crisis. There is no comprehensive strategy to support the survival of traditional arts and crafts. The state hasn’t adopted a serious approach to art and culture in general. GR: How do you see your work moving forward? I know your daughter recently graduated college. Is she interested in perpetuating this family tradition or running the business? Are young Bosnians in general interested in this kind of work? NB: I remember a time when my parents had at least one person in their workshop. In twenty-five years of work I’ve had only one full-time apprentice. Now I don’t need to have any. I cooperate with colleagues as the need arises. This is not a popular profession anymore. Young people are not so interested. Unfortunately, my daughter hasn’t chosen this path either. She’s interested in the social sciences and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication and journalism. However, she appreciates my work greatly and understands the situation in this country. I believe that she will make her own contribution to the cultural heritage of Bosnia by speaking up publicly about its enduring value. GR: On a more personal note what does jewelry mean to you, Nermina? NB: “Jewelry is the carrier of our personality, a cave of our solace when all formats fail.” I will never forget this quote. I have just one rule when it comes to my work. I have to be in a good mood when I am working because my energy is reflected in each piece I make. This way I can hope every person who wears my jewelry will feel the same joy and happiness. Nermina with her mother and sister, courtesy of Merjem Begovic. GR: Thank you for sharing your life story with me. Special thanks to your daughter Merjem Begovic for her invaluable help with the translation. It has been a real pleasure and honor working with both of you.