Richard Drury, Balkan people

Aldin Popaja (born 1971 in Jajce) could be described as someone who lives between two worlds. A native of Bosnia and Herzogovina, he was profoundly affected by the human tragedy of the violent break-up of Yugoslavia during the early 1990s. He studied from 1995 to 2000 at the Prague Academy of Art, Architecture and Design, where he continues to work as the assistant of Stanislav Diviš at the studio of painting. For more than twelve years, therefore, his Bosnian identity has been confronted (and possibly also enriched) by a second culture – that of the Czech Republic.  The word ‘identity’ is important here, because it lies at the heart of what Popaja deals with in his art. Having personally witnessed the brutality of military conflict, he possesses the hard-earned knowledge of the real meaning of human identity, human relationships and human values. His humanist themes have an authenticity and validity arising from harsh experience.

Popaja’s visual language is that of objective realism. The technical precision with which he portrays his themes is not an end in itself. He wants the reflection of human existence that appears in his work to be as sharp as possible – in terms of both image and metaphor. In connection with this, we should not be asking ourselves what he is painting but why, because every picture he paints has a clear reason, a theme that inspires and motivates him. Beginning with the ‘nucleus’ of members of his own family, Popaja focuses out into the society around him, representing specific lives while also reflecting on broader issues of social behaviour.

Following a series of broad canvases entitled ‘Party in Jajce’ (2002-2004), in which the symbolic motif of the Bosnian party refers to the universal danger of cynical manipulation in human society, Popaja then painted the series ‘Balkan People’ (2005-2007), portraits of specific Bosnian friends and acquaintances. These large-format pictures draw us into an intimate sphere, in which, apart from a restrained psychological assessment of his subjects, we feel the subtly, soberly indicated bonds between the depicted people and place, and also between the artist and his model. Nothing is left to chance here – the body language of these people, their clothes and surroundings together provide – in an unassuming, ordinary context – a statement about their own unique lives. If ‘Party in Jajce’ gravitates upwards, from a concrete environment to issues affecting the whole of society, it can be said that ‘Balkan People’ works in the opposite direction – from a common level that deliberately makes no specific religious, gender, national or linguistic distinctions down to the inalienable inner value of the individual.

With his carefully considered ‘figural still life’, Aldin Popaja breathes fresh relevance into the striking tradition of the rationally conceived, psychologically complex artistic portrait: one only has to mention van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Marriage (1434), Hans Holbein’s Renaissance court portraits, and from the 20th century David Hockney’s iconic Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy (1970-71). As well as an innate feeling for others, Popaja also invests his work with careful doses of ironic humour, enabling the imaginary window on the souls of his subjects to remain faithfully clean. In this respect, he could also perhaps be seen as a follower of the legacy of critical human sincerity fostered by Brueghel the Elder and William Hogarth.

Aldin Popaja paints his ‘ordinary heroes’ with deep conviction and with a natural sense of responsibility towards their human qualities. This fact alone represents his significant contribution to the meaning of contemporary Czech art.



Richard Drury