Tvrtko Šakota
© NAV

Zagreb's cultural icons

We salute the innovators, visionaries and pioneers behind what’s now and what’s next

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From the kitchen to the stage, art, writing and all points in between, Zagreb continues to erupt with talent, names to watch and faces to remember.

IGOR HOFBAUER
© Igor Hofbauer

IGOR HOFBAUER

If Zagreb can be said to have a recognizable look, then the art of Igor Hofbauer is one of its key ingredients. Hofbauer’s instantly identifiable posters, flyers and programmes for alternative rock club Močvara have become ubiquitous elements of the city’s street-level identity. As well as his poster work, Hofbauer has published comic strips, designed book jackets, and painted highly arresting murals inside both the Močvara club and the SPUNK music bar. Hofbauer’s style mixes film noir, fifties’ Sci-Fi, Russian constructivism and the gritty cityscapes of suburban Zagreb to create a seductive urban aesthetic. 

However it’s the Mediterranean holiday landscape that comes to the fore in Hofbauer’s latest work Grimizna Laguna (“Crimson Quays”, published by URK/Močvara; mochvara.), the dark tale of a dystopian holiday resort co-scripted by British travel writer Jonathan Bousfield. Combining elements of science fiction, political thriller and grotesque nightmare, it is a fitting visual companion to Hofbauer’s earlier collection of dark, self-penned stories, Mister Morgen (available in English from Canada’s Conundrum press; conundrumpress.com). His earlier Prison Stories, a collection of comic-book tales set in a disturbing world of suffocation and paranoia, has become a cult title among Europe’s alternative comic-reading set. Hofbauer’s graphic narratives display both a strong sense of place and ambiguous psychological depths; and pretty everything he produces works beautifully as an illustrated artefact whether you can follow the story or not. He is currently working on Doberman, a book crammed with visually sumptuous one-page narratives that looks set to be his most ambitious work so far.

IVANA BODROŽIĆ
© Ivana Bodrožić PR

IVANA BODROŽIĆ

Thanks to a flurry of recent English-language translations it finally looks as if contemporary Croatian literature is getting the international attention it deserves. One of the most welcome recent additions to Anglo-Saxon bookshelves is Ivana Bodrožić’s The Hotel Tito (Penguin; translated by Ellen Elias-Bursač), which under its original title of Hotel Zagorje is one of the most widely-read Croatian novels of the last few years. A largely autobiographical tale, it follows the fate of a girl from the southeastern Croatian town of Vukovar, forced into exile during the Serbian-Yugoslav siege of autumn 1991. She spends her formative years as a refugee living in a cramped hotel room in the rustic north-Croatian region of Zagorje, before moving on to high school and student life in Zagreb. The passing years are marked by the ongoing search for news about the girl’s missing father, who chose to stay in Vukovar to the bitter end. As well as taking a relatively unsentimentalized look at the trauma of wartime displacement, The Hotel Tito is also a touching coming-of-age novel and an extraordinarily well-handled piece of first-person family history. An accomplished poet and forthright newspaper columnist, Bodrožić is also celebrated for her 2016 novel Rupa (“The Hole”; a worthwhile candidate for future translation), a Vukovar-set political thriller that is unsparing in its criticism of post-war Croatia’s elites.

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KONTEJNER
© Sanjin Kaštelan

KONTEJNER

Confronting audiences with the kind of unusual, offbeat and in-your-face art they wouldn’t normally see in gallery-land, the group exhibitions coordinated by Zagreb-based curatorial team Kontejner are among the best attended cultural events in the city. Kontejner’s programme revolves around three triennial festivals, each of which invites Croatian and international artists to comment on the way we live now: Touch Me (which has taken place every three years since 2002) explores the impact of technologies on modern life; Device Art (established in 2004) juxtaposes frontiers-of-science gadgets with obsolete machines; while Extravagant Bodies (first held in 2007) deals with questions of art and the human body. It is the latter festival that gets a run-out in September 2019, with Extravagant Bodies: Extravagant Love featuring works inspired by “love outside the norm”. Exhibitions will be held in the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Nikola Tesla Technical Museum. Like all Kontejner events, Extravagant Love will be a hands-on affair, inviting audiences to poke around with the exhibits rather than simply look and admire. Doing contemporary art in a non-elite environment is central to the Kontejner philosophy. “There has to be a little bit of emotion and strangeness about the exhibition” says Kontejner member Olga Majcen Linn. “It’s not just an institutional show, it also has to access an audience that might not go to art exhibitions usually but which might be persuaded to go to more.” Co-curator Klara Petrović concurs: “you have to work at building an audience, because if there is no audience you may as well hold the exhibition in your own living room”.

DARKO RUNDEK
© Emir Srkalović

DARKO RUNDEK

Arguably the most versatile singer-songwriter Croatia has ever produced, Darko Rundek (born 1956) began his career as one of the pivotal figures in the Post-Punk/New-Wave scene that took Croatia by storm in the 1980s. Rundek’s band Haustor produced a sophisticated mix of post-punk, reggae and intelligent pop. Moving to Paris in 1991, Rundek returned to the Croatian scene with in 1997 with the album Apokalypso, an infectious blend of world music, jazz, chanson and thinking-person’s rock-and-roll. Rundek and his touring band metamorphosed into the Cargo Orchestra, a multi-national unit whose albums Ruke/Hands (2004) and Mhm A-Ha Oh Yeah Da-Da (2006), Plavi Avion (2010) and Mostovi (2015) included some of the most eclectic and deftly crafted songs around. 

Rundek has recently emerged as an environmental activist, leading a campaign to save the Črnomerec stream in western Zagreb from creeping urbanization. 

Rundek’s main project for 2019 is Mura Mura, an album of 12 folk ballads sung by Andrea Kurelec-Kosavić and backed by Rundek and the Ftičeki (”The Birds”), a loose group of musical collaborators, many of whom toured with Rundek last year. All of the songs on the album come from Međimurje, a region of eastern Croatia famous for its haunting narrative songs sung by women, a unique form of Pannonian blues. Ranging from jazz-swing to meditative avant-garde, Rundek’s arrangements give the songs a whole new breadth – and help to make the Croatian take on World Music worth listening to again.

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TVRTKO ŠAKOTA
© Tvrtko Šakota

TVRTKO ŠAKOTA

If there is such a thing as New Croatian Cuisine then chef Tvrtko Šakota is one of its leading exponents. Now in charge of recently-opened NAV in central Zagreb, Šakota has pioneered the application of global fusion techniques to the traditional Croatian table, nurturing a new respect for healthy local ingredients in the process. 

Raised in the rural Zagorje just north of Zagreb, Šakota grew up with the hearty, meaty fare of northern Croatia, although his mum was an enthusiastic follower of Far Eastern cuisine. Šakota worked long shifts in London kitchens before returning to take over the reins in a string of ground-breaking Zagreb restaurants, including the famously macriobiotic and vegan MakroNova, and gastro-bistro pioneers RougeMarin, Mundoaka and Xató. In between times, he studied sushi-making in Los Angeles and did cooking stints in restaurants all over the world. He helped design the menu at Brokenships Bistro – attached to the Museum of Broken Relationships in the Upper Town – before branching out on his own with NAV, which opened its doors in early 2019.

Ecstatically reviewed by the gastro-journo community, NAV mixes forgotten farmhouse recipes with familiar cuts of meat and fish, subtly borrowing contemporary tricks of preparation and presentation from modern European and Far Eastern cuisine. Šakota tries to give vegans a decent crack of the whip with an excitingly green and healthy side menu, while throughout relying as much as possible on certified Croatian farmhouse produce. Šakota is one of the people who gave shape and purpose to the city’s bistro revolution, and Zagreb is a lot better off for it.

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