Pen and Needle

Aleksandar Zograf and Gordana Basta
January 31st – February 10th, 2006

Aleksandar Zograf (or Saša Rakezić to use his real name) started to publish his comics in Serbian magazines such as NON and Ritam, in the mid-80s. During the 90s, he entered the international scene – in the US he contributed to magazines such as Weirdo (edited by Robert Crumb), The Comics Journal, Zero Zero, Rare Bit Fiends, Buzzard, and many others.

Fantagraphics Books, one of the most important independent comics publishers in US, produced several collections of Zograf’s comics, after which his books were published in the UK, Italy, Spain, Germany, and France (with L’Association), including two titles in Serbia (Ocean of Surprises and The Moon and the Heart on Fire). Starting in 2003, Zograf’s comics have regularly been published in the Belgarde independent weekly Vreme, and his collection of comics (titled Tušta and TMA) recently came out as the first comics edition ever published by the biggest Croatian publishing house VBZ.

Along with publishing comic books and albums, and the regular comics stories in Vreme magazine, this author has continued putting out self-published pamphlets, such as Hypnagogic Review, with drawings based on half-dream visions, and Kuhinja (spin-off of his comics workshop), even T-Shirts based on his drawings (printed in his homeland but also in Italy,US, even Brazil, where an entire series was released).

At his recent exhibitions, Zograf has included works by his wife Gordana Basta, who – along with occasional script-writing for Zograf’s comics, is also producing embroideries based on his drawings. These embroideries («Kuvarica» in Serbian) are examples of traditional kitchen-bound DIY art production in old-time Serbia. Gordana Basta’s «modern» embroideries were on display during Zograf’s solo exhibitions held in galleries such as Liquid Ad Store in Munich or Mondo Bizarro in Rome, and inland events such as Pančevo’s comics festival GRRR! and Theater Festival in Užice.

«There are a few different strands apparent in my work… Sometimes I concentrate on re-telling my dreams in the form of comics. Other times, my approach is almost journalistic. Some of my comics could be more easily connected with «literature» than «popular comics». The very tone of self-confession, apparent in many of my comics, is to be linked with the approach of a novel writer. Traditionally, it’s not part of the popular comics tradition – can you imagine the owner or coordinator of Italian Bonelli production appearing through his self-portrait in one of the comics featuring popular characters such as Zagor?

I still intensively collaborate with magazines and comics anthologies in many countries and enjoy doing it, although work on the weekly comics has restricted my free time. For example, I just finished work on an illustration of an unorthodox poetry book (I would call it horror-poetry) tilted Abracadabra, based on lyrics by Emanuele Del Medico and Francesca Faruolo. The book is to come out in Italy soon, shortly after a collection of Vreme strips translated in Italian is released, as part one of the series titled Appunti, published by Black Velvet in Bologna.

From my comics published in Vreme, it’s pretty obvious that I’m attracted to the past. I think of history as a great mystery. Just look down the street – some other people were walking through that pavement in the past, entire generations of people just like us were following the same footsteps! Some strange force of the universe has annihilated them, and all we can do is ask ourselves – what was another human creature thinking in Neolithic times, when he was walking down by that river with a club in his hands, or something? The reason that my thoughts of Serbia’s past are maybe more profound is that I know this environment better than some others. I love to go to the flea markets and find books that are literary forgotten; for example, in one of my Vreme comics, I rendered one forgotten novel from the 30s, which was describing life in Belgrade in those days. It told a story of new riches and profiteers as being opposed to groups of bohemians and artists who craved for change (usually without much success). You can’t escape thinking that it’s almost unbearably similar to the contemporary situation. But then you got surprised even more when you notice that the name that the writer has prophetically given to one of the main characters in the book is the name of the current leading tycoon from Belgrade! And it’s not just the name, it’s the manner and personality too! So you start to think that writer (whose name is not preserved even in the most inclusive history of local literature) must have had some gift if he was able to go beyond the actual reality in his writings.

Another topic of my Time strips is travel… When I find myself in a town that is new to me, I usually try to find an interesting detail, a story, instead of practicing «tourism» in the usual sense. You can always be impressed by the beauty and glamour of a town that you visit (and I believe that just any place where people live has some beauty and some quality that you can discover), but it’s not very moving from the point of the story making. Maybe that is why my «reportage» from European towns is not what you may expect. Sometimes it’s even funny. For example, during our stay in Munich, when there was a discussion held in connection to the exhibition of my comics and works by (my wife and collaborator) Gordana Basta, somebody from the audience asked what impressed me most in Munich, and will it be featured in my next comic? And I said: the most striking thing was seeing gorillas in the Munich zoo! It was not sarcastic or anything– I love Munich, and I have a lot of friends in that city. The reason for that answer is that something really exciting happened during our visit to the Munich zoo. It happened that gorillas, which are really shy and private creatures, known for their dislike of captivity and habit of hiding in the most distant corner of the cage, have suddenly stood up from the shadows and come to stare at the people, from which they were separated only by a glass wall. It was an amazing, unforgettable experience, and even now I can’t figure why the hell these creatures had the urge to do something like that. Then we were approached by the scary-looking papa-gorilla and delicate mama-gorilla with a furry child in her chest – an entire gorilla family, and they stood only a few centimeters away from us, staring deep into our eyes»…

(from the December 2005 interview published in Feral Tribune)