The following is an abridged version of an article WE PRESENT: SONYA RADAN – FROM SARAJEVO TO LONDON, THE PATH OF SUCCESS BETWEEN TWO WORLDS, published online in December 2021 in Bosna van Bosne, Bosnia outside Bosnia:

Mastery flickers over her paintings as if something bright and primordial has caressed them with ancient moonlight. Her painting is no longer just a work of art but a mysterious consequence of life flourishing in the colours of a beautiful and unhappy country.”  Mišo Marić, journalist

In June 1991, Sonya, pictured left, held her first solo exhibition called Bewitched by the Moonlight at the Energoinvest Gallery in Sarajevo. She was supported by art critic, playwright and poet Ljubica Ostojić, as well as the then mayor of Sarajevo, Muhamed Kreševljaković, who opened the exhibition.

The exhibition was supposed to close in August of the same year, but that did not happen. That June, Sonya, her husband Bojan and nine-month-old daughter Tara set out on the road to the Pelješac peninsula for their holiday; that road took them to London instead, via Greece, Italy and France.

She did not see any of the artworks from that exhibition, nor Sarajevo, for a long time after that.

“I felt like a traitor and the betrayed”

In an interview with journalist Mišo Marić, Sonya described her refugee experience. Among other things, she stated:

“My thoughts were in Sarajevo, with my loved ones, who did their best to dissuade me from returning every time we spoke on the phone. But what about my exhibition, my students, the school, my responsibilities? All became clear when we bought a copy of The European with the front page headline: ‘War in Yugoslavia heats up’.

“By way of three one-way tickets, we found ourselves on the rainy streets of London one October afternoon. I don’t like to think back to that time and don’t particularly want to describe the misery we went through, but can share one detail I remember vividly – the day before Tara’s first birthday, we had two pounds in our pockets, a room paid for another seven days, and my portfolio with about 15 drawings.”

“Once again, my craft came to my rescue. We managed to get £150 for one of my drawings in a gallery somewhere in London. Right then this seemed a fortune. We could even afford a muffin with a single candle for Tara’s birthday. We also managed to make a few calls from a telephone box and arrange a meeting with a representative of World Jewish Relief, who finally offered us a roof over our heads. I remain eternally grateful to them.”

“In late ’92, we were advised to hand over our Yugoslav passports and apply for British citizenship. It was one of the saddest moments of my life. Giving up something that you had been for 30 years was immensely sad – I felt like a traitor and the betrayed.”

Left, Sonya at 3 years old; above Sonya and her brother, and her parents
Above, Sonya's mother Vera; right, Sonya with her brother

Sonya goes on to describe how in 1992 she managed to get her brother out of Sarajevo and bring him over to London. At her insistence, her parents went in a Jewish community convoy from Sarajevo to Belgrade, from where they were to be transferred to London too. However, circumstances detained them in Belgrade, where her mother would later die of grief, Sonya recalls, due to being separated from her family and her home.

Sonya emphasises that World Jewish Relief was extremely supportive of her parents in Belgrade and of her own family in London. When it became obvious that Sonya and her family could not return to Sarajevo, they helped them apply for refugee status in the UK. In addition, Sonya and her young family were given accommodation in their shelter, as well as three meals a day and £100 a week. It was a huge relief for them, Sonya remembers – it meant they could survive with a one-year-old child; it also meant she could buy painting materials and continue to work and create.

Sonya later helped her father move back to Sarajevo, so he could spend his last days in his hometown. It was not the city he had known, but at least he was buried next to his parents.

Between two homes

For Sonya, Bosnia represents her roots and her homeland. She often visits other parts of former Yugoslavia but it is Sarajevo that holds a special place in her heart – it is where she goes to recoup and recharge her batteries. She goes to Sarajevo to visit friends and the grave of her father. She says she is going home when travelling from London to Sarajevo, but she also says she is returning home when going from Sarajevo to London. Her real home is probably somewhere in between, she says, in a place from where she can see both more clearly.

Several of Sonya’s relatives, as well as many friends, still live in Bosnia and Herzegovina and she keeps in regular contact with them. In this way she gains insight into events and the situation in the country. She points out that it is difficult to hear about the frustration and difficulties her friends face there, especially her generation, which, she says, is slowly disappearing and has less and less hope that better times will come.

Her friends complain about corruption, nepotism, primitivism and say that all those who have not done so already are doing their best to send their children out of the country. At the same time, Sonya and others like her, who are dispersed all over the world, are talking about going ‘back home’ to grow old in whatever part of the country they had come from, Sonya points out.

“Imagine there's no country…”

In Sonya’s view, the biggest problems in Bosnia and Herzegovina are poverty, inequality, great distrust in the existing leading parties and the feeling of utter helplessness at the inability to change anything. Things must change, she says, so that pensioners can live on their pensions and young people can get jobs and live on their salaries.

For Sonya, there are only two sorts of people: good people and bad people, and that in Bosnia and Herzegovina, when they are good, then it is hard to find better people anywhere. She tells us that when she thinks about the situation in her homeland, it is John Lennon’s Imagine that comes to her mind:

“Imagine there’s no country
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace…”

Quoting the song, Sonya says: “’You may say I’m a dreamer’ but we should love and respect each other and, in this way, we can start solving problems in Bosnia.”

London, a city of diversity

Sonya tells us that people she knows who are originally from Bosnia and Herzegovina and now live in the UK have had few problems integrating into local communities. She adds that many of them came to London already highly educated and almost everyone she knows does the job they were trained or educated for, a job they would be doing had they remained in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

She describes her home as “open to everyone” and tells us about the May Day festival she has been organising for years now – a garden party with lots of people, music, singing, mountains of traditional food with dishes brought by friends and neighbours and generous helpings of frivolous but also serious talk.

For Sonya, London is a truly diverse city – Londoners are proud of the multitude of cultures and customs that make up the city. Indian curry is London’s favourite dish, its largest carnival originates in the Caribbean, art that fetches the highest prices in London’s galleries is from China and Korea, and for Diwali, the Hindu festival of light, the neighbourhood where Sonja lives, Brent, is lit like a Christmas tree.

She says she loves London because it vibrates with diversity, it is full of colour and welcomes people of all heritages, nations and religions; because it is a city of sexual freedoms and tolerance, a city where “you don’t feel like a foreigner” because so many Londoners have come from different parts of the world. Even in her own neighbourhood of Brent for example, a relatively small part of London, about 160 languages ​​spoken every day.

Yet, she says that before Brexit, London seemed to be more open still, and thinks that only time will tell what leaving the European Union really means. She sees in Brexit a bit of that notorious English arrogance that allows no-one else to steer the ship, although it is obvious that the current prime minister is not much of a captain, Sonja concludes.

Language as a treasure

Sonya tells us that children of people from Bosnia and Herzegovina have already “become English” and express less need to socialise with “our people” on account of language and geographical affiliation. It is unfortunate, she says, that they speak our language less and less, for which she sees no good reason. She considers our language a treasure and being able to speak it an advantage in every respect. She tells us jokingly that she has made her long-time partner, who is English, learn her language. “Of course, he wanted to do it himself and in fact enjoys learning our language,” she says. “Those who speak our language say that he sounds like a Bosnian with an English accent.”

Above, Sonya's daughter Tara with her new Bosnian passport; right, Sonya and her partner Nick at Sonya's exhibition for The Blacksmith and the Bull

Her daughter Tara studied history of religion at SOAS University of London and no longer lives with her. The partner with whom she has shared her life for the past 25 years is journalist Nick Lipley, who still takes every opportunity to discover the charms of her homeland.

Sonya describes how Nick, upon hearing a story of the origin of their friend Nina’s surname, Aždajić, was so impressed that he wrote a long epic poem set in 19th century Bosnia called The Blacksmith and the Bull. Sonja illustrated the poem with the help of graphic designer Dubravka Cucić, also a Sarajevan, and one of the first public readings was held at the Bosnia and Herzegovina Embassy in London.

Sonya also mentions her close working relationship with the current ambassador, Vanja Filipović. She remembers, for example, her Recollection of Wood exhibition, which was held in 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic. At the opening night the attendance was low because people were afraid of the virus and avoided gatherings, but Ambassador Filipović came and took time to look at the exhibited works with great care and interest, Sonya points out. The exhibition closed the day after it opened, but it will be re-organised soon.

Saatchi Gallery: representing Bosnia and Herzegovina

Recollection of Wood had won the sympathy however of both audience and jury at the 2018 START Art Exhibition at London’s Saatchi Gallery, one of the world’s most important venues for modern art. The exhibition featured artists from China, Japan, Korea, Germany, France, Denmark, Italy, Nigeria and many other countries, but thanks to Sonya, Bosnia and Herzegovina was represented too; the jury found her work to be ‘new and refreshing’.

Sonya’s participation in the Saatchi exhibition inspired film director Zlatko Ivanišević to make a documentary about her and her artwork. The film covered three days at the Saatchi Gallery; it was shot by Ivan Marević and featured music by Dado Džihan.

Sonya also played a prominent part in the Mediterraneo exhibition, held in 2008 at the Italian Cultural Institute, London. Forty two artists from countries in the Mediterranean exhibited their work, and Sonya again represented her country.

Sonya was especially eager to mention her 2006 solo exhibition at London’s Salon Gallery, owned by gallerists Semir Cerić and Haris Dervović from Banja Luka. Inaddition to numerous academy colleagues, collectors and other visitors, her father was also there. This was the last time he was able to attend one of her exhibitions, and that makes this exhibition especially important to Sonja. At the same time, she deeply regrets that her mother, who always strongly supported Sonya and her work, could not be there too.

Women who left home for a better life

Sonya tells us how at one point she turned her attention to the women in her family, as well as other women, mothers and grandmothers, who had to leave their homes in search of a better life.

“It took me several years to create a series of paintings called Women in a Sign of Yearning, which I exhibited for the first time in Sarajevo in 2012. At the invitation of the Jewish community there and through efforts of a great art connoisseur, playwright, poet, my mentor and friend, the late Ljubica Ostojić, the exhibition saw the light of day at the New Temple Gallery and then toured some European cities and capitals of former Yugoslavia. Each cycle of my paintings is at the same time a story about my life, a reflection of my own desires and suffering,” says Sonya.

Thus, in the cycle Women in a Sign of Yearning, a woman inventing and establishing her own identity during different periods of her life has a central place. In the words of Ljubica Ostojić: “What connects them into a single huge family of mothers, daughters, ancestors and descendants, is DESIRE, strong and eternal female desire, as a creative and active principle and reason for being.”

Sonya with mentor and art critic Ljubica Ostojić

Sonya adds: “My approach to painting is constantly changing, as is my life. How and why we paint something is difficult to explain, but it happens, and we who paint have a constant need for it and there is no way to give it up. It is in the very fabric of the life we ​​live.”

Sonya is included in the 2017 Lighthouses anthology, which contains profiles of the most renowned Bosnian artists who now live outside the country.

She has been a member of the Association of Fine Artists of Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2012 and regularly participates in its annual exhibition in Sarajevo. This year she also joined the Association of Applied Arts of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sonya working on her Swimmers series

Fundraising for homeless children

Sonya’s work is not limited to art. For seven years she organised fundraising events in aid of the Home for Orphans Bjelave. This work of hers in Bosnia and Herzegovina was well received, she says, and she also managed to engage many London friends in her efforts and motivate them to donate to the cause.

Staff at the orphanage used the collected funds to buy many essential items. These included new bedding and mattresses, carpets, sofas, newly upholstered furniture for the children’s playrooms, washing machines, several computers and mobile phones for the best students. Sonya describes how she’d travel to Sarajevo every year to do the shopping personally and work closely with the director and other staff on obtaining what was needed.

Since 2012, she has also volunteered to run the Summer School of Painting in Počitelj with Zlatan Smajlović and Gina Landor. By offering art education and welcoming kids of all nationalities to the school, together they are doing what they can to convince local children that art has no barriers and that nations and religions should not be obstacles for children to socialise and show their creativity.

Sonya at the Summer School of Painting in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sonya proudly remembers how, after finishing one summer school, a mother asked for her child to come the next year, and said she was willing to set aside a quarter of her monthly salary for the school to continue. Sonja still recalls this generous gesture which had moved her to tears.

Sonya also used to teach children painting at a Jewish club in London and, on completing courses in art and painting therapy, she began working for Brent Mind with women between the ages of 50 and 100 who were living with mental illness. However, the situation in the UK changed, Sonya says, and the government withdrew funds from many humanitarian organisations. She says she was sad for the women she had worked with, who had lost one of the rare periods of respite in their troubled lives. “We bonded, so I continued to work as a volunteer for a while. I saw that painting and socialising helped them forget about their advancing age and their illnesses,” says Sonya.

Sonya hopes that she will always be healthy enough to paint and create. She wants to realise exhibitions which had to be delayed due to the pandemic, especially the one focusing on a new series of paintings she created during that time: Mothers and Daughters, on the theme of unconditional love between mothers and daughters during Lockdown.

Most recently, Sonya has been preparing an exhibition opening soon at the Embassy of Bosnia and Herzegovina in London. The exhibition is entitled My First 30 Years in London.

'My first 30 years in London' - Exhibition in the Bosnian Embassy

Sonja Radan - Od Sarajeva do Londona, od izbjeglice do proslavljene umjetnice