Arts meet Human Rights

Standing up for another is a fight for ourselves.” With this sentence, the DAH Theatre in Belgrade/Serbia sets a social counterpoint “bringing humanity back to the forefront before personal (selfish) needs, glorified in our times of radical individuality“. (1)  It was the motto of the festival “Arts and Human Rights” from 20th to 24th June 2023 and linked to the quotation by Martin Niemöller: “When the Nazis came for the communists, I kept silent; after all, I was not a communist. […] When they came for me, there was no one left to protest.“ (2)

The programme offered a variety of possibilities to give shape to the motto: Dance and theatre workshops, performances on the stage of theatres, streets and squares, a five-day workshop in Mural Painting on “Walls of Hope”, a literary-musical forest tour, concerts, films and discussion rounds with short performances – and many opportunities to talk with the guests from all over the world.

Theatre workshops

In the theatre workshops, led by Jadranka Anđelić, the reference to others and to oneself was experienced in simple and moving exercises. The participants were supposed to act and at the same time to react to the others. This did not mean copying, but also not ignoring them. And mainly without thinking and controlling. This work with the ‚linguistic diversity‘ of the body opened up possibilities to experience one’s own creative potential as well as self-efficacy. The reference to others therefore does not have to go hand in hand with the loss of one’s own.

This also became concrete in the creation of body images. The participants developed images of events that they associated with human rights. The others of the whole group could then position themselves in the picture – without changing the posture, gestures and facial expressions of the figures. Because: You can’t change other people. But you can change situations. Among other things, pictures of violence on the street, Julian Assange and his incarceration in Belmarsh Prison, the “Guantanamo of Great Britain”, and the obstruction of a blind person crossing a street were created.

The wars in Yugoslavia

Standing up for another is a fight for ourselves” – The wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990s are still very present – in speech and in silence. It was and is often women who make connections between people of different societies whose states are enemies, and work for peaceful solutions to conflicts. The talk “Over the Line” was dedicated to this. The director of the DAH Theatre, Dijana Milosevic, interviewed Ana Miljanić of the “Centre for Cultural Decontamination”, Staša Zajović of the “Women in Black” and Zana Hoxha, director of the theatre and cultural centre “Artpolis” in Kosovo. As in every war, the fighting and destruction were also accompanied by enormous violence against women. The wounds are far from healed. On the contrary, being able to speak publicly about the atrocities and painful experiences is still far from being a matter of course. At least by talking together, one can experience what is often the first step towards healing or detachment from the horrors: recognition. If this is denied, the violence continues to ‚float‘ in the memories of those being affected.


The exchange about such moving questions was not limited to words. In several short performances, the actress and programme designer of the DAH Theatre, Ivana Milenović Popović, offered sensual impressions and food for thought about what it might mean to be at the mercy of external forces and to let parts of the self die, to split off, in order to be able to continue living. At the beginning of the festival, Ivana Milenović Popović had already expressively addressed a taboo in Serbia: that of the disappeared babies. They were declared dead, but it cannot be ruled out that human trafficking and organ trafficking took place. Such practices are also known at least from the GDR and Ukraine.

Opening spaces

Art and culture can be civil society antidotes to political tensions. Theatre in particular is a powerful ‘instrument’ to bring up what is often so difficult to talk about. Spaces are opened up, connections can be made between concrete people. A chance to keep free of ideology and not to participate in reproducing narratives uncritically. In times of war and crisis, this has an existential dimension. This was felt when “Over the Line” also touched on the old-new dividing line between Serbia and Kosovo. Zana Hoxha had not been able to come in person because of the current tensions. She was there online. A real conversation and a symbolic act of lived cooperation and understanding. Seen from a distance, this may seem unspectacular. And yet, in the face of complex political constellations, it is a sign of courageous action.

Job Shadowing with Erasmus+

The festival is part of the job shadowing that the director of weltgewandt e.V. undertakes within the framework of the KOSMO_POLIS project from 16th June to 7th July 2023 at the DAH Theatre – Research Center for Culture and Social Change in Belgrade. Two women, Dijana Milošević and Jadranka Anđelić, founded it in 1991. It is considered the first independent and experimental theatre in Yugoslavia.

In my language „Dah“ means breath, spirit and movement of the air. For us in my theatre, it also means to gather strength, to persevere, to be spiritual and to create. If one reads it backwards, it becomes „Had oder Hades“, the underworld in Greek mythology. – Dijana Milošević 3

And what do others say?

I watched their performances that celebrate life. I think of courage, dignity, perseverance, artistic finesse and dark matter that transcends the boundaries of art. (…) They were, and remain, butterflies. Like a mystery, I watch them dream, how, flying out the window, they soar straight into History. ” Eugenio Barba, director of the ODIN Theater, Denmark 4

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1 Website DAH Theatre,

2 Martin Niemöller Foundation,

3 In: Cleveland, William, Art and Upheaval. Artists on the World’s Frontlines, Foreword by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, New Vilaage Press, Oakland, CA 2008, S. 277

4 Website DAH-Theater,

Photos by Đorđe Tomić (featured image, theatre workshop), Sophia Bickhardt

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