Stefan Zaric: Introducing Estonian Art History in Serbia

Stefan Zaric, a young man from Serbia, spent a semester as an exchange student at the University of Tartu. Now he is conducting his master’s thesis about 20th century fashion design and its connections to fine arts and culture in general at the University of Belgrade.

Stefan Zaric. Photo from a personal archive.

First of all, tell us how you heard about Estonia and about the University of Tartu?

As the discipline of art history is not highly modernized in Serbia, my MA thesis mentor suggested I seek programmes that would enhance my research in art and fashion. We checked out several opportunities offered to Serbian students, which are very limited, as Serbia is not a member of the EU, and Estonia was one of them. Even though the programme in art history at the University of Tartu was in Estonian, I decided to come and take classes from the semiotics department, as that is very famous at my faculty, and those classes actually proved crucial to understanding theoretical aspects needed for my thesis.

A city that has ART in its name is already an opportunity! It would actually be amazing if the art history department would offer some courses in English, as the city has great museums. But even without art history classes, I fully managed to create an ideal curriculum for myself, freely approach museums, professors – even those who weren’t teaching me, and reach a really satisfying basis for coming. I was even contacted by a few friends from Serbia and abroad who were interested in coming here, as they have been amazed by openness that the programme in semiotics offers, and the freedom students have in creating their own research.

On the other hand, I did my BA in Minneapolis, Minnesota, which Americans like to say has the worst winters in the whole country. Back there I fell in love with the Nordic lifestyle, and I knew that Estonia was the place for me. Ironically, the other option was Spain, and then Germany.

You mentioned that you were the only foreign art history student in Estonia. How was it?

I knew a few people who went to study art history at Tallinn Academy of Arts, but I decided to be the only one who would do so at the University of Tartu. Instead of being a small fish in the big sea, I decided to be the only fish in the sea. It was liberating and wonderful to walk around the city and just enter the museums, talk to professors, and to have other students expressing interest in what you do and what you can tell or show them. As I said before, a city that has ART in it must be a good city for an art history student. Later my friends started calling me T(art)u Historian, and it really felt like the city honored me as its personal foreign art curator.

We have heard that you organized events for Erasmus students at Tartu’s Art Museum. Tell us about it.

The idea to start off my engagement came on multiple levels. First, the most beneficial factor was the fact that the museum was hosting the exhibit on Estonian design, and design history is my focus within art history. So I approached the museum on my own, without any open call, and after a few meetings, we came to the idea to start off a programme for students. They are the audience that is the hardest to engage. Many students, even those studying art history, believe that a museum worker is a very old and strict person who judges every lack of knowledge. We wanted to break that stereotype, as my colleagues and I already did by creating the student guide programme in Minneapolis.

When it comes to Tartu Art Museum, we had a foreigner interested in Estonian art, the exhibit on Estonian art, and hundreds of students craving to hear and see something new about Estonia. After a few months of research, I gave my first tour in English language, focusing on Estonia’s geopolitical position and the way it has affected the design. The students were in awe! We talked, discussed, argued. The idea of a curator is to be a mediator between the audience and the art, and to break the barriers and take down the walls. Students studying politics, engineering, medicine, languages, sociology, and chemistry all came, proud to show what they know and to learn more. We did tours twice, and there was a satisfying number of people showing up. I remain in touch with my museum mentors, and I am sure they will continue to develop this programme on some level. I also urge students to go there! Every museum is a house with no borders, and everyone is welcome! You don’t have to be a professional, and that is the most beautiful thing. We are all equal in our contribution.

Stefan exploring The Science Center Ahhaa in Tartu. Photo from a personal archive.

You are now giving lectures on Estonian art in Serbia. Are people in Serbia interested in Estonian art? 

Just a few days after my arrival, I saw that Serbia was hosting a major exhibit on Nordic glass design. Following the recent act of the UN in which the Baltic States have officially been recognized as Northern Europe, I approached the museum hosting the exhibit with the idea to publicly present the research I did in Tartu as a part of the exhibit. The museum responded positively, opening its doors to Estonian art being presented in Serbia for the first time. There is already a significant number of people contacting me in regards to this lecture, and the interest they expressed in Estonia is amazing. There has always been a respect for the Baltic States and their positive transitions here in Serbia, and I hope that with this lecture I could open new chapters in cultural ambassadorship between our two countries, which are unfortunately not yet as connected. When it comes to my personal opinion on Estonian art, as an art historian and a curator I always tended to be rather objective, but Estonian design really swept me off my feet – what an intriguing combination of Nordic and Soviet influences!

Besides being active at organizing the events at the Art Museum, what else did you mange to do in Tartu?

Back home my family and I are adopting dogs, and I really missed my 3 puppies. That inspired me to visit Tartu Animal Shelter, and volunteer there by walking the dogs. Another thing was cooking Serbian food for my dorm friends. I think food and the way you prepare it and share it is one of the most important steps in accepting and tolerating new cultures, so we had our cook-outs almost every day.

I must admit that I didn’t spend a lot of time with other students. Many of them were at the beginning of their Erasmus adventure, some of them 5 years younger than me or even more, so my goal was to get integrated in the city and country’s art and design scene. I did that by reaching museums and local artists, and then expanded it to a network of friends and colleagues in Tallinn, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, and Vilnius. However, I would say that student life in its general aspects is quite similar, the only difference that I found with Serbian student life were fraternities and sororities. I always thought that was an American thing, and was surprised to see it in Estonia.

What was the weirdest thing that you saw/heard/felt in Estonia? 

The weirdest thing was definitely the fact that someone told me that the Estonian national dish was a beaver soup. After some research, I did find out that there are some restaurants around the Baltics serving it, but I didn’t find it myself.

Traditional Serbian style Moussaka Stefan made for his German, Latvian and Estonian friends. Photo from a personal archive.

What was the most important lesson that you learned during your stay in Tartu? 

Tolerance and acceptance – that no matter whether we speak Estonian, Russian, or some other language, and no matter the political ideologies of the countries we are coming from, we are human beings as individuals, and we have to approach each other as such. Upon studying within the European Union for the first time, I realized how important it is to work towards mutual benefits and integration, while still respectfully preserving diversity.

And lastly, what is the one suggestion that you would give to a student who is planning to go on an exchange to Tartu?

Bring an extra suitcase. Because when you visit the place called Humana, you will regret that you didn’t.

Sandra Saar is the editor of the Universitas Tartuensis magazine.

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