Visuality and Identity

Keywords: identity, nationalism, visuality, historicism, modernity

Moderator: Bratislav Pantelić


This session is concerned with issues surrounding the overbearing bond between ethnicity, religion and historical affiliations that has defined Balkan nationalities over the past century and a half. It will examine how visuality was used by ideologies of exclusion to establish ethnic loyalties and foment interethnic mistrust and separation from the Balkan wars to the recent Yugoslav wars. One primary goal of this session is to establish patterns of equivalence between the separate ‘national’ strands of visual communication and inquire into the possibilities of shaping new models that would promote inclusion rather than exclusionist identities and policies.


In the Balkans where nationality is derived from religious affiliation the conflation of cultural models and religion produces visual codes that function as statements of ethnic/national or ideological identity. One such statement for Orthodox Serbs, Bulgarians or Greeks is the icon. For Turks and Muslims in Bosnia, it can be a religious phrase in Arabic calligraphy that one often sees on cars and trucks or as graffiti, and, as a particularly powerful self-identifying statement, as body tattoos. The calligraphic design transcends its original religious meaning and transmits a visual code associated with a cultural or ideological orientation. It communicates a particular worldview which in the Turkish context stands in opposition to the equally charged design motif constructed from the signature of Atatürk. Although the text is illegible to most, they adopt it. The design becomes the text. Visuality indeed is part of identity formation. It was reiterated since the turn of the century through Art Nouveau inspired folklorism and ethnographic references in graphic design and typography that conveyed the ‘spirit’ and heritage of the emerging nationalities: as ornamental devices, images and pseudo-medieval typefaces such as the ‘Miroslav’ typeface in Serbia which is used to convey nationally-charged meaning in insignia and nationalist website design. The socialist interlude ushered in a novel sense of modernity.
Traditionalist parochialism did persist but identities were losing their ties to historical references and attaching themselves to a political ideology wary of ethnic nationalism and religion. Yugoslavia’s inclusionist discourse and mainstream modernism in residential architecture, furniture, fashion and graphic design and in the officially approved visual models that even included some avant-garde digressions, was an ideological statement as embodied for example in Start magazine whose explicit female nudity, often critical and intellectually stimulating content and modern layout and typography communicated a message of modernity and urbanity. Why did the experiment in modernity fail? The aim of this session is to provoke debates on the possibilities of visual communication to mediate across ethnic, religious and political boundaries towards the creation of an inclusive transnational culture. In other words, is it possible to establish a culture that would be truly representative of the region and which builds upon similarities rather than disparities? Suggested approaches will touch upon specific cases of interaction between visual media, politics and will include discussions on the role and impact of modernity, tradition and identity structured around questions such as: What are the mechanisms of identification with particular visualities? How do these visual references to the ‘national‘ past interact with narrative structures? How is visual meaning transmitted? How is it received, processed and internalized? To what extent are ‘visual codes‘ instrumentalized? How are they used by competing ideologies to establish loyalties? How did the appearance of the internet and satellite television interact with the return of patriarchal traditionalism and isolationism? Why did the increase in information lead to a decrease in toleration?

Biographical note:

Bratislav Pantelić received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania (1994). He is a faculty member at the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences of Sabanci University in Istanbul where he teaches art history and theory. He has published on diverse subjects that include the interaction of architectural style and political ideology in the Middle Ages and the role of the visual arts and architecture in nationalism, identity formation and cultural policies in Central and Southeastern Europe.


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