An interview with Prof. Elizabeta Dimitrova, art historian specialised in the Byzantine Empire, interviewed by Ana Frangovska, art historian and curator.

Elizabeta Dimitrova, MA and PhD in art history from the University in Belgrade, is a Professor at the Faculty of Philosophy in Skopje, Republic of North Macedonia (University of Ss Cyril and Methodius). Within her scientific work, she devoted herself to the study of art, culture and socio-cultural features of the early Christian and Byzantine eras. In that context, she interpreted and was the first to publish the program, iconographic and artistic features of the ceramic icons from the Vinicko Kale site. Whereafter, Vinicko Kale became in the ‘90s one of the main archaeological attractions in the Balkans. Mrs Dimitrova identified the programmatic and iconographic concept of the frescoes in the Episcopal Basilica in Stobi based on the fragmentarily preserved parts of the decoration from the 4th century. Many of her scholarly works are devoted to the analysis and contextualisation of the symbolic meanings of the iconography of the early Christian mosaics in Stobi, Heraclea Lyncestis, and the antique town of Lychnidos. In the field of Byzantine art culture, she wrote a monograph dedicated to the Church “Assumption of the Most Holy Mother of God”. Mrs Dimitrova is a very well-known worldwide researcher and a commissioner of many activities related to protection of cultural heritage.

What is the impact of Cultural Heritage on solving issues related with shared or contested heritage?

Elizabeta: The impact of heritage is one of the most influential aspects in this context, if one should have doubts about its value, capacity, management opportunities, protection options etc. On the other hand, if one wants to treat heritage as property, one should know that heritage is priceless therefore it cannot be treated as a property of any kind. Cultural heritage belongs to the whole of humanity; it just happens that a certain country takes care of the heritage located on that country’s geographic territory.

Do you engage in cross-border cooperation with professionals from Greece and Bulgaria and do you find any difficulties in its realisation?

Elizabeta: I do have cooperation with colleagues from Bulgaria (ongoing project for digitalisation of cultural heritage with professors from Sofia) and permanent cooperation in the process for review of archaeology and history papers with professors from Athens. In that regard, I have never had any problems, difficulties or pending issues involving historic dilemmas or any other kind of misunderstanding so far (including origin of the heritage or its institutional/non-institutional management, protection etc.).

"Cultural heritage should be treated as a precious accomplishment of people’s creativity of a certain time"

We do have heritage that can evoke different – sometimes difficult or competing – views and emotions, depending on the approach and viewpoint. The challenge of dealing with such divergence lies in the attempt to simultaneously convey these different views and voices when presenting this heritage to the public. Do you agree and do you think that this is an essential task when dealing with heritage and histories that speak to different people in different ways?

Elizabeta: When we say heritage, we address the qualitative scope of art works, artefacts, monuments and sites originating from different periods in time and diverse actions of human civilisation. Cultural heritage should be treated as a precious accomplishment of people’s creativity of a certain time, not as a mean for creating political views or manifests. It is a testimony to the creative potential of a certain epoch and its historic, economic, social and cultural amplitude; therefore, it should be interpreted in that manner – as a positive reflection of a historic momentum that is gone forever, leaving a precious trail in a certain artistic or cultural medium/sphere.

Do you think that being more polyvocal, engaging, diverse, (self-)reflective and participatory may solve some of the obstacles on the way of presenting cultural heritage (shared or contested)?

Elizabeta: One should be methodologically correct, chronologically precise and historically accurate to be able to be a real spokesman of the “bright” side of cultural heritage, since the “advocacy” can have a negative side, as well. Cultural heritage has been left to us for more pleasant reason than to be utilised as a political/social/national weapon. As soon as one realises that it is left for admiration (art works) proper investigation (artefacts) and touristic presentation (monuments), the misuse of cultural heritage stops being interesting or valid.

Can you think of an example of a case study of shared or contested heritage related to your particular field of interest (ethno-music, history, archaeology, contemporary art, art history etc.) and how would you approach its presentation?

Elizabeta: Of course, the church of the Holy Virgin in the village of Matejche, in the north part of North Macedonia first comes to mind. It was commissioned in the golden age of the Serbian medieval state, during the reign of Emperor Stefan Dushan as a mausoleum of the former Bulgarian princess Elena in the region of present-day North Macedonia. It belongs to the historic legacy of three modern states; yet, nobody takes care of it and the church is almost in decay. Instead of debating whose heritage it is (I remember some discussions on the subject), someone should ask whether they could do something for this heritage to survive in order to be classified historically or otherwise; if the church is gone, there will be no heritage left for discussion.

How we choose to remember the past and how we choose to move forward are the critical issues of today. What does cultural heritage mean in different national and regional contexts? Who can claim it as theirs, and who decides how it is preserved, displayed, or restored? How to share cultural heritage?

Elizabeta: With mutual initiatives (cross-border and/or international) for its protection and scientifically verified presentation (historic, chronological, thematic, artistic etc.). In my field of expertise, it is very simple – it is Byzantine cultural heritage, i.e. belongs to the medieval cultural and artistic production, manifesting certain architectural, iconographic and artistic features, the quality of which is the main hallmark recognised by its visual character.

“What signifies the national narratives are that they do not include layers; they are one-sided, often chronological and has a sense of a fixed, static, historical truth, about them”, said Anderson in 1991. Do you agree with this citation and why?

Elizabeta: As I said before, cultural heritage is not an instrument for national or political dialogue. It represents a reflection of how cultivated the people had been in the past (defined by certain chronology). Also, it reflects how cultivated we are in our efforts to take care of the legacy and preserve it for posterity. Cultural heritage has the following main specificities: it originates from a certain historical moment (chronology), it is shaped in a certain visual form (typology), it has certain recognisable qualities (classification) and it has certain existential needs (protected or unprotected). In the 21st century, we have to focus on the last specificity, since it requires the greatest effort. Everyone can say whatever they like about the heritage if one can see it, if not, we will all share the silence of a possible destruction.

When we discuss about shared or contested heritage the issue of time is essential, and in extreme cases of recent turmoil, the best method for reconciliation might not be to address the past as individually relatable; but rather that the past should hopefully remain in the past. Do you think that this can be implemented into our context?

Elizabeta: No, because, at least, in the Balkans the past has become the main argument for shaping the future. What is more dramatic is that the past has proven to be so changeable for  people in the Balkans that we no longer believe in what our ancestors have taught us. In such circumstances, the future becomes so uncertain that we are in pursuit of an opportunistically reconstructed past, defended by the role imposed to cultural heritage. Therefore, we have to give the legacy a new, more productive and highly affirmative function and save it from the current abuse and exploitation.

Do you think that the realm of words can influence the way the audience read the stories related to heritage (shared or contested)?

Elizabeta: By all means, that is why we need reliable spokesmen. Rhetoric skills have been much appreciated since the Ancient times due to their effect on people from all walks of life. The realm of words can have many effects (positive or negative) and that is why words should be selected carefully, intoned in a good will and passed through “secure” channels of professional approach and ethic standards. Cultural heritage, in its most basic definition, means creation and as such deserves creative approaches, treatment and appreciation.

***

The interview is conducted within the framework of the project “Shared or contested heritage”, implemented by ALDA Skopje and Forum ZFD. The aim of the project is to improve cross-border cooperation between North Macedonia, Greece and Bulgaria. The project raises awareness of the role of contested histories and shared cultural heritage for the EU integration processes among heritage practitioners and cultural workers. The content of the interview is the sole responsibility of the interviewee and does not always reflect the views and attitudes of ALDA and Forum ZFD.

It was a great experience of intercultural promotion, collective caring for common issues, and an important occasion to stimulate young people’s active citizenship in Strasbourg. As it insisted on the fundamental role of youth in becoming “actors of change”, in addition, the project contributed to the achievement of some of the Sustainable Development Goals, namely SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities; SDG 11 – Sustainable Cities and Communities; SDG 12 – Sustainable Consumption and Production; and SDG 13 – Measures relating to the fight against climate change.

Funded by the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs through FONJEP, ECO-CHANGE was coordinated by ALDA together with Stamtish, a Strasbourg-based NGO whose mission is to promote the integration of people with migrant background through culinary and eco-responsible events. 

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