Amid horror, artist perseveres

By Mark Dagostino

(Extracts from the article)

Manchester - The walls of this modest third-floor apartment are literally covered with art.
       In every direction, paintings and drawings - some of them as wide as a tall man’s outstretched arms - fight for space and assault senses: Violent reds, shimmering blues, horrified faces all scream of the ruins of war.
       But the staggering remains of pain and loss and the hard-fought visions of hope exist in more than images on canvas in this place. They live in artist Enko.
       Enko created these pieces as pure expressions of the agony he and his family have endured since their home erupted in war nearly seven years ago.
       "It is so hard to forget," Enko says, lighting a Doral cigarette and describing how he still gets chills and speaks in whisper, instinctively, whenever he hears footsteps outside his door. "My wife and I, we couldn’t sleep for long time."
       Enko’s Bosnian city of Banjaluka was once home to 200 000. Almost overnight, 140 000 of them were forced to leave as the Serb army rolled in, showing no remorse, destroying beloved historic buildings that even Hitler’s army had dared not to touch.
       The artist points those buildings out, and points with pride to the apartment his family called home. They are places that exist now only in his mind, and in his work.
       Enko was born in Banjaluka in the former Yugoslavia in 1942 to a wealthy family that lost just about everything to the Germans in World War II.
       By age 11, his talents were already emerging: Three of the first paintings he ever entered in competition took top three prizes at a national exhibit in Sarajevo.
       "While I was in school, everybody said my pictures so good," he says, still marvelling at the thought, and still struggling to grasp the intricacies of the English language.
       He spent more time playing soccer in middle school than he did painting, and went on to study mechanical engineering before picking up the brush again with any sense of direction. And even though a 1969 earthquake destroyed much of his early work, Enko began gaining recognition and exhibiting his drawings and paintings throughout Yugoslavia and all of Europe.
       "He was a know name," says his youngest daughter, Alisa, who is visiting from England. After fleeing her country in March 1992, just one month before Banjaluka was invaded, Alisa did not see her family for six years, during which she earned two degrees. They reunited for the first time in Manchester last year.
       That six-year interval is documented, allegorically and symbolically in "The Unfinished Circle," a magnificent painting by Enko in which, frame by frame, clouds and vultures descend upon his beautiful city, and all of his people are displaced and floating around the earth.
       The details of Enko’s entire story are laid out in the book, of the same name: More then 1600 hand-written pages that his daughter will translate into English - the final page of which Enko finished on New Year’s Day a long way from where it began.
       In 1992, forced at gun-point to leave their apartment with whatever they could carry, Enko and his wife, Jadranka, were forced into hiding - simply because of their Muslim surname.

       This couple who fell in love when she was 15, and he 20, were forced to live separately and steal moments together in the dark. Enko holed himself up in a remote basement, not seeing the sunlight for an entire year, for fear of being tortured or worse. Enko was a major in the reserve army, and had he been discovered, he would have been forced to fight on the front lines of the conflict.
       Enko supported himself that year by painting - leaving his work unsigned. "Many, many paintings are without my name, because there was fighting, and my name was a Muslim name," Enko says.
       At one point, Enko checked himself into a mental hospital, feigning madness to gain exemption from military service. Once, cornered by solders, he leapt from a bridge into a raging river to escape them.
       "When I lived incognito, I was many times close to die," he says now.
       It is a testament to his stature that some families who fled the country early on, carrying few possessions, are known to have taken Enko’s paintings with them. But it was the money from his unsigned, commissioned works during those darkest days that finally allowed him to escape.
       Bribing officials, then stowing away with his wife in the trunk of a Serbian car, Enko escaped to Croatia. His oldest daughter, Sanda, also escaped to Croatia along with her husband and their young daughter.
       The first refugee camp they found themselves in held 360 people in one tent - with thousands of rats, and one toilet. "It was so hard," he says. "I can’t believe that we didn’t have epidemic."
       For six full months the family lived in squalor, while their youngest daughter feared they weren’t living at all.
       Having no contact in that time, Alisa broke down in tears and dropped the phone when a representative from the Red Cross called her one morning. "I thought they were all dead," Alisa says. Ten minutes later, she finally heard what the woman was saying, and the six-month nightmare ended.
        The family were eventually moved to Gasinci, Croatia, where they lived in a tiny refuge shack for seven months, with no running water. A picture of the shack’s interior, which was drawn in the back-corner "studio" Enko created to keep himself from truly going mad, hangs on the wall behind him now as he speaks.
       "Sunflowers," a beautiful work reminiscent of an entire field full of Van Gogh’s interpretations of those flowers, is charged with new meaning when its creator explains: That field was beyond the fence behind the shack. For seven months, that field served as the only freedom Enko and his wife knew. It was where they would walk, for hours and hours, waiting for their chance to begin life anew.
       There were many dreams in the somber faces Enko saw at Gasinci each day. And his "Dinner at the Refugee Camp ‘Gasinci’- Croatia" captures them all. Floating in blue above painted faces and hands in this staggering painting are thoughts of lost loved ones and religious icons. A young boy thinks of a dog he left behind. Enko himself, prominent in his white beard, dreams of food, a drink, and one cigarette for himself, while telling stories of Pegasus and Excaliber to children. His grand daughter is there, too - dreaming of a doll she would finally receive, in America.
       After a brief stop in Zagreb, the Enko’s favourite city, and gaining passage to Vienna, the family flew to America.
     They settled in Pittsburgh at first,    

where 15 days after his arrival, not speaking a word of English, Enko landed a job framing pictures.
       Soon, he was painting. Painting his memories. Painting the horrors he had witnessed and heard described at the camps. Painting "Escape," the story of a 6-year old child, with no family, climbing barbed wire, blooded and screaming, trying to get out of a Serb prison camp. Painting "Soccer," the story of a young woman who was raped by 16 solders and forced to watch as they killed her baby and played soccer with its head.
       In Pittsburgh, he befriended many other artists, and began to show his work. And in wonderful moments reflected in some of his more relaxed and decorative pieces of art, he travelled in New Hampshire, visiting Manchester and Hampton Beach. "I love Hampton Beach," he says smiling.
       When his oldest daughter found work as a translator in Manchester in 1996, he and his wife soon followed.
       His work has been shown by the International Institute in this city and at The Folsom Tavern art gallery in Exeter. Jadranka, a skilled musician and piano teacher, has found work teaching day care. But life is still a great struggle, Enko says. He doesn’t sell enough work to make a living, and his language skills have kept him from finding a job here.
       He tries to explain the feeling of displacement: "If I were to put you now in China, without money, without Chinese - what could you do?" he asks. "Almost nothing."
       Back home, not only was he a successful painter, but he was a manager at a major chemical and textile company in Banjaluka. Before the fighting began, he had his own driver. He and his wife were readying for an early retirement - which would have given him the time and freedom to paint as much as he wanted.
       It began spiralling down the day he showed up for work and his name topped the list of people who were no longer welcome at the company.
       "It was just overnight," his daughter Alisa says. "You just loose everything, just because of a different name."
       But Enko tries not to dwell on the negative. He is so happy that his family survived. He is so anxious to gain his American citizenship - primarily so Alisa, who hasn’t been able to obtain a visa, will be able to stay with them permanently.
       "We’re a very close family, and we would like to try and make up those six years we spent apart," Alisa says.
       Still, they are struggling. Shortly after moving to New Hampshire, Jadranka had surgery to save her eyesight. Without insurance, the family is still making monthly payments to the hospital. Adding insult to injury, on the way back from the hospital, the brakes on their old car gave out, causing them to shell out even more money at a critical time.
       As Alisa observed, trying to make a light of the matter, it always seems to be one thing after another in their family.
       But Enko does not give up. "I am optimist," he says, "and really I think everything in short time will be much better."
       Without a doubt, Enko says, his art saved his sanity.
       "My painting helped me not to become really mad," he says, drawing on his third cigarette and looking around the room. "I love my pictures. They are as my children."