Donald Niebyl: Every monument counts
Donald Niebyl

Every monument counts

Illustrations by Georgi Vasilev

Donald Niebyl has spent the last few years of his life building an online memorial site — ”Spomenik Database“. He documents and collects lost pieces of information about “Spomeniks“ — the fascinating brutalist monuments scattered around the region of ex-Yugoslavia. Learn why he felt the need to do that, where his adventure began and what’s his opinion about these monuments’ role nowadays.

Tell us a bit about yourself, your project and what inspired you to do it.

Well, first of all, thank you for inviting me to contribute to your wonderful magazine. I feel honored that your publication was interested enough in my work to reach out to me in this way. As far as myself, I became interested in the topic of the monuments of Yugoslavia in about 2015 when I first came across the photo series by Belgian photographer Jan Kempanaers titled “Spomenik” which captured a number of these memorial works in a set of very visceral stirring images. But at that time in 2015, when I went online to try to learn more about these works to satiate my burning curiosity, I found precious little information about them available in English. The only accessible info I could find was sensationalist articles from mainstream Western media which essentially amounted to comparing them to sci-fi films and UFOs. However,

I could instantly tell upon seeing them that there was much more to these Yugoslav monuments than crass comparisons to Star Wars.

The visual language contained within their unique and charismatic forms spoke to me, but I couldn’t quite make out the words. The idea of these sculptures stuck with me for a long time. Then, finally, in 2016, I had a few months between jobs to take the opportunity to travel over to the former Yugoslav region to investigate them for myself. While my profession at that time had nothing to do with art, history of Yugoslavia (I was working for the government in the field of natural resource surveying at that time), a unique skill that my job did lend me was being able to track down things hidden within the landscape. I had worked for many years interpreting aerial photographs for the purposes of using them for navigation and mapping features in the landscape. This skill translated quite well when applied to examining aerial photographs on Google Maps looking for large concrete memorial sculptures nestled in very remote parts of the former Yugoslav region.

Do you remember which was the first Spomenik you visited and how you decided to document all of them?

The first monument that I visited was right after I arrived in Zagreb and rented a car. I proceeded to immediately drive to the small village of Podgarić to visit the Monument to the Revolution of the People of Moslavina. It was quite an amazing first sculpture to encounter and I will always remember that first experience. From there, I have gone on to visit many hundreds of monuments of all shapes and sizes. When I first began visiting them, I thought that it would be useful to take photos of the monuments that were less “touristy-type” images and more “documentation” images, as those were the types of images which I was most interested in when I first began researching the monuments at the very beginning. Naturally, much more can be learned about a monument by taking rudimentary photos of plaques, engravings, damaged elements, etc, than taking pretty posy sunset photos (although those can be fun to take too).

As I took these photos of inscriptions and engravings on the monuments, I asked local people who I met along my journey if they could help by translating them for me, which they were more than excited to help with. As such, by the time I got home after more than two months of visiting, documenting and researching these Yugoslav monuments, learning all about the Partisan movement, the struggle against fascism, the victory of the Yugoslav people, etc., I decided that I would take all of these photos, translations, history, mapping and research that I had put together and create a little spot on the internet to host them all, so that if anyone else wanted to learn about them as I did, they would have access to all the unique information that I had found. Then, as soon as I created what I called the “Spomenik Database”, I started receiving messages from people all around the world so excited about this work I was doing. That encouraged me to do even more work and put more effort and time into this project. And it has gone on like this now for almost five years.

Apart from the site, we saw that you’ve published a book, how was it perceived — both politically and artistically?

The book was received very well and it was a huge honor to be able to work on the project of assembling it with Fuel Publishing. As far as artistically, I feel it was perceived favorably, with it being highlighted and discussed by numerous artistic and architectural publications. As far as how it was perceived politically, the book was also recognized and praised by a number of veterans and antifascist groups within the former Yugoslav region. However, I am not aware of any mention of the book on any higher political level, as far as how it might be perceived or taken by any of the current governments or notable political bodies of that region.

Some governments want to erase their past by destroying the monuments, what’s your opinion about this practice?

I believe that the iconoclastic action of destroying monuments that embody a people’s cultural history and heritage is a very dangerous road, especially now in the modern age.

Governments or groups who think they can erase the past or “correct” history by destroying monuments don’t seem to realize that such destruction doesn’t erase the memory or history of those events that occurred. Neither of those things can be destroyed.

Furthermore, the majority of these purged monuments across the former Yugoslav region are not political monuments but instead, largely monuments which commemorate fallen fighters and victims of fascist violence. As such, it makes it all the more tragic that such markers that remember and preserve the memory of human lives could ever be destroyed, removed or replaced.

Can you share an interesting story from a trip to a Spomenik? Is there anything that you’ve found out, but didn’t expect to?

When I was in Sarajevo a few years ago, I got an email from a person in Germany that their grandfather had died in Sarajevo during WWII and that their name was inscribed on the victims’ memory wall at the Vraca Memorial Park overlooking the city. I thought that getting this message was quite coincidental, being that I just happened to be in Sarajevo when this random person emailed me about wanting me to investigate a monument there. So I proceeded to head up to Vraca to find this name on the long series of walls that contain over 9,000 names. After taking a group of friends with me to search the walls, we finally found that name and took several photos of it, while also making a crayon rubbing of the name on paper. I then informed the German email sender that I did indeed find the name. At that point, I not only sent them the images I took, but I also sent them the crayon rubbing I had made. Hearing the intense happiness and joy that I brought this person with this seemingly simple act of finding and giving to them a name on a monument was really incredible for me. They told me that my helping to find this lost piece of their personal family heritage helped them rediscover a piece of themselves. This really helped me realize not only the importance of monuments as tactile spaces of memory, but also how they can offer us a direct conduit to history as well as deeper connections to our own personal sense of identity.

Do local people accept your idea well and has someone shared a personal story related to some of the sites?

The vast majority of local people I met along the way visiting Yugoslav-era monuments across the cities, towns and countrysides which I ventured were more than excited to help me when I approached them. Admittedly, they were often quite confused why someone from the United States had travelled thousands of miles to come see these sites, but all the same, most people were more than willing to point me in the right direction, help me translate an inscription or explain to me the history of a site. There was even an instance where I got my car stuck in a remote forested ravine trying to access one monument site in northern Bosnia and Herzegovina, at which point a group of local people came together to help me get my car unstuck and even had me over to dinner afterward. They then kindly provided me with proper directions to find the site I was looking for. As far as people sharing personal stories with me, I get amazingly thoughtful emails on a weekly basis from people not only from the former Yugoslav region, but also around the world who find deep meaning and joy in exploring my website and reading my book. What humbles me everyday are the intimate stories of people who tell me how my efforts have touched them.

Have you thought about extending the scale of the project and documenting the rest of the monuments in the whole “Eastern Bloc”?

While such an endeavor would be extremely exciting, to this day, I still continue writing about and researching the monuments, sculpture and architecture of the former Yugoslav region. For as much as I’ve already done, there is so much more that I would still like to do. There are so many monument sites that I have not yet visited, explored and written about, that I still firmly have my sights set upon continuing to further develop the work I have already done. I would hope that my work inspires other people to initiate projects similar to mine in other regions… not only in Eastern Europe or former communist nations, but other places around the world. This style of educational website and non-institutional research I have put together and assembled could be applied to all sorts of disciplines and parts of the world.

We see that racism and far-right movements are on the verge in Ex-Yugoslavia and Europe, do you think that we can “reuse“ some of those monuments to talk about unity among people?

I think this “reuse” that you speak of is already happening in many cases. Since I’ve begun my work nearly five years ago, I have seen countless monuments across the former Yugoslav region be rehabilitated and restored with multi-ethnic community efforts that are indeed bringing people together in a very powerful way. If anything, in present times, seeing projects of monument restoration is much more common than seeing instances of monuments being destroyed, from what I can establish. As the new youth generation across the region rediscovers the monuments, learning about their heritage, history and messages of “Unity & Brotherhood”,

I see great promise and potential for these memorial sculptures acting as central points where people of all backgrounds will come together and celebrate ways in which they are similar, rather than what divides them.

Can you think of a way to strip off the political image of the Spomeniks so that they get perceived solely as a work of art? Do you feel that people need that?

I have heard others discuss the idea that the monuments of Yugoslavia should have all of their historical context stripped from so they can exist solely as works of art… however, I think such efforts are not constructive for helping maintain the memory and history of these sites. Remember, the majority of these works are not so much politically geared in nature as they are works that operate as markers which designate and commemorate important battlefields, massacre sites, fallen fighters and victims of fascism. As such, working to decontextualize these monuments and understand them merely as “works of art” would rob the memory of these victims and risk creating a historical amnesia around the tragedies and fascist oppression of which many of them remind us.

Which is the most interesting Spomenik for you and why?

I am not sure I would be able to answer such a question. How does one even judge such a thing? They are all unique and singular in their own ways and trying to play superlatives by saying which is the most interesting to me really isn’t a constructive exercise. Playing such games of “favorites” only works to further aestheticize these works and serves to frame them only as interesting sculptures when they are most certainly much more than that. Are there some monuments that are more sculpturally sophisticated than others… of course. However, it would be wrong to say that I value them purely as a metric of their sculptural sophistication.

Some of the most historically moving, heroic and heart-stirring sites have very traditional and conventional memorial markers, while some of the grandest and most ambitious memorial sculptures mark very customary historical and military events.

What I find more interesting than anything is working to understand all of the Yugoslav monuments as a single body of work and how they operate as a cohesive unit instead of trying to think of them all as disconnected detached entities.

Have you shared your work with some of the Spomenik’s architects? What do they think about it?

I have been in touch with numerous authors of the memorial sculptures of the former Yugoslavia. In fact, many of them (or their surviving family) have reached out to me personally, wanting to share materials with me or help provide me with information about their works. Many of the authors of these monuments who refused to endorse or contribute to the new nationalist governments of the post-Yugoslav era were marginalized within this transformed political system. As such, a number of the authors and their descendants were more than happy to have me write about and highlight their artistic legacy. Some even helped provide me with information to write small biography pages about them, which were sometimes the first instances of these artists having profile pages dedicated to them on the internet. In time, I hope to reach out to and connect with even more authors.

It is inexcusable to me that so many of these amazing artists, sculptors and architects have been almost completely ignored by Western art and architecture reviews.

Thankfully, efforts like the 2018 Yugoslav architecture exhibition at MoMA helped give greater exposure to many of these authors.

Did you have the chance to personally meet some of them? If yes, what is their opinion about the current controversial perception of their work?

I had the honor to meet both Miodrag Živković and Svetomir Arsić Basara, both of whom created multiple monuments across Yugoslavia during that era. Both instances of meeting these authors was an incredible experience and something I will always remember. However, it would be difficult for me to communicate such a delicate and detailed question about their opinions on how they feel about the controversy surrounding the monuments they created. I would say that both authors were and are keenly aware of the controversy surrounding the monuments they had created. Svetomir Basara specifically had one of his most important works, the Monument to Brotherhood & Unity in Landovica, destroyed and erased from the landscape, while several of the works of Živković have been severely damaged and defaced over the decades.

Among the hardest burdens to bear is witnessing your life’s work defaced, damaged or even destroyed by those who wish to see it erased.

You say that you self-fund everything, why are you so passionate about those monuments and what’s the end-goal of your project?

My passion comes from the continuing words of support from people all over the world who have been touched in various ways by my work. Nothing is more moving than getting messages from complete strangers telling me that the efforts I have put forward on my project have been hugely meaningful for them.

Never did I imagine that simply taking photos, doing research on monuments and assembling histories would be something that could make such a deep impact on so many people across the former Yugoslav region, as well as people from around the world.

Furthermore, everyday I see that there is still so much more to do. I have only begun to scratch the surface as far as writing about the monumental heritage of Yugoslavia. There were untold thousands of monuments dotting the landscape, and I have only written about a small handful of those. Yet, I still have people asking me “Why do you, a person not from this region, seem so interested to write about a history and heritage that is not your own?” My answer to such a question is “Why should I not be interested?” As an American, I am constantly subjected to people in mass media from around the world writing about and analyzing my history and heritage. However, the moment an American is interested in writing about the history and heritage of another part of the world, some seem to act quite confused, bewildered and maybe even suspicious about why they would ever be interested in doing such a thing. To me, such attitudes are a bit backwards…

inquiry into the wonders of the world should be thought of as free for anyone to write about and explore, no matter who they are or where they are from.

As far as my goals, I would not say that it is my objective to examine every single monument ever built during the Yugoslav-era (as that would take several lifetimes, without a doubt), but I would say that my goal is probably more in the realm of continuing to develop my website in a meaningful way that not only informs people about these amazing works (many of which are still threatened), but also further crafting it as a resource for those who want to personally explore and discover the monuments for themselves. I want to create the sort of resource that I envisioned and wished had existed when I became interested in the monuments of Yugoslavia for the first time all those years ago. No resource is more powerful in this confusing and messy world than easily and freely-accessible well-organized information assembled in an engaging and useful way.