Culture is one of the most dynamic modes through which life asserts as a living, thriving entity made up of not just the basic material needs but also something more inward, more soulbound that though still might be quelling primal demands in some form of the other. Culture is an identity itself, a facet of life in which we exist and seek continuation along its unique experience, as a line of heritage and a history of lineage we carry forward from the past to live the present and shape the future. And while elements of culture can be as physical in their existence as ‘virtual’ as they come across to be in such exploration of their essence, it is indeed the intangible assertions of it that span across a wider horizon of belonginess, in stirring souls and essences that lay within us as something that exists, even when not in all perceivability.
Just how potent the influence of cultural identities can be in shaping the trails through which humans has traversed through their centuries long existence on the face of the earth is amply summed up in a certain recognition accorded to a wide many such exuberances making up the experience of culture across the lengths and breadths of the world. To find a foothold in the UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity speaks of a stature amassed by the certain cultural identity in question which is why playing out to the gallery of wonders that make up this inclusive listing of global heritage influence is a matter that is so coveted and pursued. With countries and nations pitching every year their specific something trait of specialness to find mention in this acclaimed listing of diversive leanings, it is indeed no surprise that any brush with such pieces of cultural continuity makes for an encounter that is enriching and rewarding, irrespective of the place of origin of which they stem and the place of being in which you dwell.
One such encounter of immense fascination shapes up indeed as a treasured heritage resident in the identity of the Zmijanje area of the nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The namesake Zmijanje embroidery, specific to the villages of the region on the mountain of Manjača dwells along the length of the UNESCO list in an identity of its own, spanning as it does a specific expression in and of itself. Transcending its physicality as being a mere show of dexterity attributable to the nimble fingered women lending beauty to this striking technique of embroidery, this chunk of culture is indeed steeped deep into the intricacies of what governs life in Zmijanje, asserting through every pierce of the needlework that makes it up a sewing together of different facets of social existence and therefore of cultural relevance there. Persisting its identity since the 1800s from which it evolved to become a piece of adornment intricately weaved into the way of life is the Zmijanje embroidery that is distinguished also in being the first inscribed intangible cultural element from the Republic of Srpska and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The embroidery itself is striking and standout in its ‘dignity’. Played out along a prominent white background are threads in a dark indeed shade of blue, working out through the cross stitch technique such motifs and designs that are aesthetically striking in the perfection of their geometry. A oft encountered pattern of decoration in women’s clothing and household items, the skill of the embroidery is one acquired indeed as a heritage treasure passed on through the generations, imbibing therefore a value of societal essence. The working out of the embroidery is an art no doubt but also as artistic is the awareness in which the patterns are made to come to life in all their rich symbolism. Demanding indeed of tremendous expertise and immense concentration are the staid indeed patterns of decoration that though strike in their perfect congruency as geometric constructions of a wide many manifestations. There is the heraldic cross, an apple and a branch, flowers and other forms, each of which carries a world of meaning along their journey of coming to life under the deft play of artisanal musings. The motifs also are as steeped in significance in their occurrence, deriving as they do from such elements of culture seeping through every strand of what makes up the Bosnian and Herzegovinian identity. The national folk dance of kolo is one of the recurring motifs, asserting as a rhomb shaped pattern even as a wide many variations of such kolo pattern prevails, in significantly smaller motifs. The depiction of the kolo within the ambits of the Zmijanje embroidery itself is significant, not just in being a coherent expression of belonginess of the larger national identity but also in the symbolism of it as a theme of life itself. The symbol of the sky, of circular movement and one of the most revered symbols of divinity is the kolo pattern that imbibes even further values of living and existence in its rhomb shaped illustration. A female symbol that represents female sexuality and fertility, the rhomb also allows for a very captivating visage to take over the expanse of whiteness along which the spun of the vegetable based hand dyed thread comes to dominate in all exquisite intricacy, in such elegance of the Zmijanje filigree that outshines even its status as probably the oldest hand embroidery in all the Balkan countries.
The symbolism though is not confined to the ambits of the national identity of kolo that is so often depicted in and as art. The same richness of character governs also the other motifs of recurrence, as does the social imagery embedded in them. The variation of the designs has been long made to work out in such assertions that indicates the social status of the village women even as the vivid form of the patterns went on to become markers of marriageability itself. In therefore such assertions and expressions, the resplendence embodied by every single prick of the needle unleashing the potential of life along the remarkable canvas across which the Zmijanje identity unfolds ends up being a harbinger of life in many of its elements.
Lending itself well to this sublime realisation of life being embedded within the expanse of this embroidered reality is also the social setting in which the art is pursued. Usually performed by groups of village women, who gather together and sing and chat while continuing their striving for creative brilliance, the very process of this art is therefore subject to personal adaptations and interpretations, both in it being an oral tradition highly susceptible to change as well as in the context of the times in which it is perpetuated. This very natural, unorganised but still somewhat disciplined process of working has also helped make the embroidery form evolve as a realm upon which creativity is fostered, diversity pursued, connections are furthered and emotions weaved alongside patterns of lifesque relevance themselves. As an expression of identity, whether it be of the larger Bosnian and Herzegovinian beckoning or the more specific Zmijanje narrative, the embroidery itself is a treasure that those who are involved with it in its roots take tremendous pride in.
Despite being such a unique form of embroidery, nay of art itself, complex but not complicated, humble but esteemed in its existence as one of the many elements that has been defining life in its region of origin, the Zmijanje embroidery too faces danger of slipping out of favour from the needle eye and into oblivion, either because of its traditional mode of continuance or its relative obscurity that however has been reversed to quite an extent with the UNESCO distinction. Making indeed for authentic souvenirs any range of products along which it embroiders its elegance in all precision as improvised geometrical shapes is this authentic most expression of the Zmijanje women through which they attempt to protect and preserve an identity rooted in the ideals of harmony and the ideas of beauty. But perhaps what holds this form of the craft, believed to have its origins in neolithic art, in even more global relevance despite it being indeed a region specific heritage and therefore an emphasiser of a particular identity is the contemporary nature of it. In its geometric, linear, minimalist aesthetic that comes to the fore in such perfection despite the nuanced significance governing indeed its premise, the Zmijanje embroidery is extremely versatile an element of the cultural way of life in all universality. In perpetuating life itself in its symbolism and in adhering to the basic principles of what makes art so pervasive a force to command attention everywhere no matter its affiliation in origin, this extraordinary emergence from the many range of embroideries that deck up the Bosnian and Herzegovinian hearth and heritage stands out in and despite its running through a singular strand of simplicity.