Barriers to Entry —

Artistic Struggles 20 Years After a War

Ryan Montoya’s byline is unlike anything you’ve ever seen: A licensed doctor, a comic book artist, and a Goyard design consultant. For two years, he spent time in Bosna i Hercegovina alongside his wife who serves as an American diplomat. He recounts the daily experiences and difficulties of creating art in a country still living in the shadow of war.
Starting a new illustration is intimidating. Staring down at a blank page terrifies me in all the ways it could go wrong. I’ve envisaged the concept in my head, and I’ve arranged the essential composition of the piece in the smudged thumbnail sketch taped to the corner of my drafting table. I press the tip of the 3H Derwent pencil onto the medium-toothed white bristol board and begin drawing.

On aerial overview of Banja Luka.

The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia was established in the aftermath of World War II, a massive expanse along the Adriatic Sea’s eastern border that included the federated entities of Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosna i Hercegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina. Yugoslavia’s golden period of steadfast economic prosperity and durable state organization quickly dissolved after the death of its President Josep Broz Tito in 1980, spurring turbulent political unrest and bitter inter-ethnic tensions to come to a head. On June 25th, 1991, enabled by two separate republic referendums, both Slovenia and Croatia declared their independence from Yugoslavia. On April 6th, 1992, war erupted in Bosna i Hercegovina.


Bosna i Hercegovina is largely comprised of three distinct ethnoreligious groups: Bosniaks who are Muslim, Croats who are Catholic, and Serbs who are Serbian Orthodox. Two months before the start of the Bosnian War, the Socialist Republic of Bosna i Hercegovina passed a Bosniak and Croat-supported referendum and an internationally recognized declaration of independence. Bosnian Serb political-military forces repudiated both the referendum and declaration and initiated an “ethnic cleansing” of Bosniaks and Croats in all areas of both northern and eastern BiH. Forced migration, standardized rape camps, and systematic mass murder of mostly Bosniaks, primarily by Bosnian Serb forces, culminated in the first case of genocide since World War II, and Europe’s second-worst wartime atrocity.


Identifying good guys and bad guys is a particularly American trait, a way to compress muddled chaos into a digestible, forced storyline. It is a way to comprehend incomprehensible events. It is a way to condemn Bosnian Serbs as the murderers and Bosniaks as the victims. It is also a way to forget the Croat and Bosniak war crimes against Bosnian Serbs, and each other, that don’t fit a straightforward narrative. It’s a way to forget that fifty years prior, the United States had staunch anti-Fascist allies in the Chetnik-Serbs, and inveterate brutal enemies in the Nazi-backed Croatian Ustashe. Identifying good guys and bad guys is the historical equivalent of peering at an auditorium through a keyhole. Or maybe it’s a way for Americans to forget the blood on our own hands.

An illustration of Bosna i Hercegovina by Ryan Montoya.

Twelve years ago I abandoned a career as a professional comic book artist to pursue my medical degree. Four years ago my wife began working for the U.S. Government. Three years ago I started slowly picking up a pen again, only to find that my analog world of comic drawing had been largely supplanted by an industry of purely digital production methods. I needed to catch up. My transition from pen and ink illustration to an entirely digital workflow had occurred a few months before I relocated from the United States to the country of Bosna i Hercegovina to accompany my wife in her new profession. It seemed compellingly obvious to work digitally, unencumbered by leaky ink bottles or tin boxes clattering with felt tip pens during our travels. Tablet illustration would signal a personal artistic paradigm shift, and finalize my transition from American to American ex-patriot living abroad for the first time.


Bright primary colors and fluid outlines defined my first digital illustration and essay in BiH. It was a map I drew of former Yugoslavia, annotated with optimistically simple reflections and quips about Bosnia. Despite garnering well-deserved acrimony online for unintentionally omitting the internationally endorsed country of Kosovo (there was an entire war about that) and turning Hercegovina into a pun (there was an entire war about that), the reaction to my piece was broadly positive. The message to my friends and family was that I was flourishing overseas, even if my reality differed dramatically.


In a city with a population of 150,000 inhabitants, the majority of whom are ethnic Serb, I arrived as surely one of Banja Luka’s only non-white residents. So it shouldn’t have been a surprise that everyone would stare at me. My darker skin, five-foot one-inch stature, and the pronounced epicanthic folds of my eyes only added to what became a torturous daily spectacle during my work week. Walking from my apartment to my art studio, I learned to obediently tolerate the light badgering, the unsolicited cell phone pictures, the tart cigarette smoke blown directly into my face, the scowls from wrinkled men drinking too early in the morning, and the students who physically allowed me no space on the sidewalk.


You wouldn’t have known about this perpetual harassment from my artwork and essays, though. Instead, my frequent entries on prosciutto and coffee and ajvar skimmed the surface of cultural exploration glibly, fixating on inane food observations accompanied by slick, radiant digital illustrations singed with tangerine and saffron. Online, I was fully immersed in my new Balkan surroundings. My daily local interactions meanwhile were running roughshod over me.

“Excuse me,” instructed a mottle-skinned man with a shaved head and long leather jacket, “please stop.” My childhood friend MyDzi Le was visiting Banja Luka from the U.S., and we were slowly meandering to my studio. But our progress was suddenly being physically impeded by the “Banja Luka Inspector for Foreign Visitors,” supposedly confirmed by his possession of a plastic, star-shaped badge. He assured us that this stop was completely random, and while he asked us to produce our documents, I uncharacteristically audibly laughed in the face of an authority figure. “Be honest,” I inquired, “you would never have bothered either of us if we didn’t have slanted eyes, right?” He feigned offense at the suggestion and made a gesture of wiping his hands of the interaction, before stomping away indignantly.


My next illustration and essay concentrated on the rain and flooding in BiH in 2014, and suitably adopted a darker visual palette. The image shows raindrops sputtering incessantly onto heavy concrete building awnings while neon signs scarcely puncture the gloom. My essay deliberated how refreshing it was to discuss a topic as wholly apolitical as rain, before listing all the ways in which I felt my drawing inadequately captured Banja Luka’s mood.

“What kind of art?” asked the wispy, curly-locked waiter in Serbo-Croatian while delivering espressos to me and my friend Jura Pintar at an umbrous cafe behind my apartment. The server was curious about my occupation, and my Croatian former college roommate Jura was acting as an impromptu language interpreter. “I draw comic books and write,” I responded. “How much money do you make from art?” he then quizzed more urgently, to which I replied “not much.” He muttered something curtly, eliciting an evil cackle from Jura: “He says you should stop wasting time, and to get a real job.” I clutched the metal coin in my hand, figuring a tip is unwarranted.


I wanted to tackle a subject at the core of Bosnian culture for my next drawing and article, so I wrote about cigarette smoking. My written postulation — that the relentless smoking habits of BiH are an allegory for the country’s inefficacy in joining the European Union — was posted alongside a melancholy digital illustration of a blurred man seemingly reified from the cloud of smoke that surrounds him. The essay contains barely any conviviality, and the drawing is practically invisible on darker computer screens.

A crisp fall day in Banja Luka.

It was 9:37 AM on a typical Tuesday morning when I noticed three university-aged kids with buzz cuts sitting at one of the fifteen outdoor tables at Cafe Plazma on my way to work. Pointing and laughing demonstrably in my direction, I knew how particularly impatient I was feeling that day. I walked up to the most talkative giggler and asked, “is there a problem?” in English. He pointed to the bright blue artwork portfolio I was carrying in my left hand and blurted out “Faggot purse!” in a stunted accent. “Say it again,” I threatened, to the now speechless table. The entire cafe glared at the unfolding scene, but it was clear that I was a man apart. “That’s what I fucking thought,” I then commented punitively, before walking away deliberately and permitting both of us to continue our daily rhythms. It was the rarest Tough Guy moment of my life, and certainly the most fleeting. Because when I recount that story to others, I seldom mention that their laughing resumed as soon as I crossed the street. Or that now I use my somber black portfolio and often wear more sedate colors.


It came as a serendipitous surprise in a town with absolutely no comic book stores, no art training institutions, and a dearth of illustration resources to get a drawing commission request from a local music band. Tamburica, the small stringed cousin of the mandolin and buzuki, exemplifies traditional Balkan music, and my wife’s membership in the local Gradski Tamburaski Orkestar Banja Luka afforded me an unexpected illustration job. The head of the orchestra requested a movie-themed illustration for a poster and emailed to ask if I would be producing the artwork in Photoshop. Surveying my digital drawings during my time in Bosna i Hercegovina, I noticed that each successive piece became more desaturated of color until my final entry about smoking became completely black and white. My involuntary progression to monochrome seemed to be pushing me towards another eventuality. “I won’t be using a tablet for this poster,” I replied to the orchestra head resolutely, “I’ll produce it using only pen and ink.”

Dayton is the fourth most populated city in the state of Ohio, located 243 miles southwest of Cleveland and 61 miles northeast of Cincinnati. The birthplace of Orville Wright and modern aviation, Dayton otherwise doesn’t register with most Americans. But ask any Bosnian who has never stepped outside of their country, and they will know exactly where Dayton, Ohio is. Because that is where the Bosnian War ended.


November 21, 2015 marked the 20th anniversary of the General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina, more commonly referred to as the Dayton Accords. Brokered by Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke, and considered the greatest American diplomatic conflict resolution in history, the Dayton Accords stopped the bloodshed by installing a labyrinthine political architecture in BiH that includes three elected Presidents representing each ethnicity, a rotating Chair of the Presidency, an ex-patriated Office of the High Representative, ten federal cantons, and 137 municipalities. The whole country is divided into two major entities: the southwestern Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (principally Bosniaks and Croats) and the northeastern Republika Srpska (principally Bosnian Serbs), home of the Bad Guys according to historical reductionists. The capital of Republika Srpska is the city of Banja Luka. It is where my wife and I have lived for the last two years, and where I have attempted to become a professional artist for a second time.


Art in all its forms is a precarious career pursuit, but that is especially stark in Banja Luka. BiH visual and performing arts will wait in funding queue interminably while youth unemployment festers at a staggering 60.4% — the highest in the world. This environment repels inchoate artistic ambition, much less fosters it.  “Vienna, maybe,” guesses Jelena Jovanic, a passionate and strict orchestra conductor and music teacher with shoulder-length chestnut hair swept to one side. We are waiting for our breakfast at a restaurant called Le Coq, and discussing where she would ideally like to work. “Are there any opportunities here in Banja Luka?” I question, reading the answer in her expression. She laughs rhetorically, shakes her head, and redirects her piercing dark eyes past me. “Banja Luka is too small,” she muses, “and conducting is… big.”


She’s not the only one who feels that way. Adrijana Tomic, a gifted young architect with a minor background in oil painting, knows she has significantly better prospects in Scandinavia or the EU, but familial obligations and financial restrictions limit her sphere. Even the specter of having worked in Bosna i Hercegovina confines her to stay, with her local architecture training not recognized beyond the country’s borders. “I can’t work outside Bosnia,” she summarizes as her dimples soberly disappear, “because I have worked in Bosnia.”

A panoramic nighttime view of Banja Luka.

Drago Vejnovic is one of the few photographers in Banja Luka who is able to make his living solely through his work. It is a blindingly gray, frigid day as we sit outside Combo Cafe and discuss the possibility of him photographing me for a story I am writing. The conversation wanders towards art. “Before the war,” Drago explains, “art was better. In Yugoslavia, art was a real job.” For someone who had been taught that communism cripples artistic expression, it’s a revelation. “Communism or not, who cares? There was money for art. Money for art schools. Now, nothing.” He takes a long, ponderous drag of his dwindling cigarette before continuing “after war, people think being artist [sic] not responsible. People look down on art, waste of time.” A single strand of silvery hair escapes his ponytail and falls on his forehead. Drago believes working in an environment so unconducive to art is counterintuitively inspiring. He summarizes my artistic frustrations with concise eloquence: “When you have [sic] search hard for inspiration,” he mulls, “it sharpens the work.” We gather our coats, as Drago has to teach classes at the Academy of Art, University of Banja Luka. I wasn’t aware an Academy of Art existed at all. He notes that they are slowly growing and were able to graduate 18 students last year, with a few exhibitions outside BiH. His voice is quiet as if speaking louder would jinx it.


I dash from Combo Cafe to my art studio, rushing past some gawking, whispering, elderly women. It will be impossible for me to reconcile this city, where the average Banja Lukan xenophobe derides outsiders, but a small group of passionate artists and warm, close friends have welcomed me into their homes. What place do those 18 artists or I have in a country with ostensibly more pressing concerns? As I enter my studio I cautiously imagine a silently growing art community in Banja Luka that will eventually be impossible to ignore; an artistic groundswell, an eardrum ready to burst. I look up the Academy of Art, University of Banja Luka on Google Maps. This whole time, it has been just one block away from my office.

Ryan’s final Gradski Tamburaski Orkestar Banja Luka concert poster.

Fluorescent and incandescent lamplights bathe my wide black drafting table as I sit down. My illustration for the Gradski Tamburaski Orkestar Banja Luka concert poster is almost complete. My pencil draftwork has been fully enveloped by thick obsidian ink in dot matrices, cross hatching, feathering, teaks, scribbles, swirls, soft, tight, loose and angry lines. The high-contrast linework is unforgiving, and the countenances of the four principal characters in the drawing have been stretched to their expressive caricatured consequences. I uncap the ink bottle and slowly dip my crow quill pen, emptying its reservoir of excess ink on the glass vial’s crusted edges. I place the pen’s metal point onto the paper to etch the fourth character’s eyes. It is Gerard Depardieu in costume as Christopher Columbus from the film “1492: Conquest of Paradise.” He’s wearing rags at a formal dining event to which he was not invited, and everyone is staring at him. He’s an intruder who couldn’t be more out of place in this crowd. Depardieu’s sunken, weary eyes betray a self-conscious humiliation and an ineffable alienation. But he still stands obstinately with the congregation. It takes me two seconds to draw Depardieu’s furled eyebrow. It took me much longer to understand what he’s feeling.