Founded in 2015, Art Aparat is an organization in Belgrade that uses music to gather people of any age and ethnicity. Their choir Svi UGLAS proves creativity can build inclusive communities and engage people in intercultural dialogue.
Maja Ćurčić is a music teacher by education who decided to use her expertise and the transformative power of art to pursue a higher purpose: support a more just and inclusive society.
Camilla Colicchio Can you tell us more about yourself?
Maja Ćurčić Sure, I have a classical background in music education. I started to play piano at a very young age when I was nine, and then, one thing led to another. I graduated from the Faculty of Music with in General music pedagogy, where I studied music theory and music. First, I worked in a music school for almost six years, teaching piano and other theory-related subjects to students from primary to high school. And during that time, I started to focus more on things that are not music related because I learned about what music can do, which is usually not explored at all in traditional education.
Camilla Colicchio What’s the journey that has brought you to founding Art Aparat?
Maja Ćurčić I started volunteering in a drop-in shelter directly involved with Roma children. It is a place where children can come daily, have clean clothes, take a bath, and get help with homework and support for finishing school. There, they can sometimes enroll in educational workshops, so I went there and proposed to do a music workshop voluntarily. Many of the children don’t go to school or they do it but not regularly, which impacts their skills and perception of the work related to school and their communication skills. I did not know how to maintain this group at first, I didn’t know how to approach this. However, I said to myself, I will do this; no matter what, I will stay on this task, come every week at the same time, and see what happens. Over time, I started to modify my educational methodology to fit the group’s needs. And, week after week, they started to get better. One year later, I saw a significant improvement in how they perceived themselves, their self-esteem, and their work habits. They had no problem staying in the workshop for one hour and a half. I also saw significant improvements in the sense of togetherness. They started to perceive themselves as a group, whereas, in the beginning, many kids had this perception of everyone for themselves. I realized that this had so much potential and decided to focus on it. With a group of colleagues, I started Art Aparat, to explore how music can influence people and bring them together and how music can be used for other socially engaged purposes. That is the beginning.
Camilla Colicchio If you had to describe Art Aparat to somebody who doesn’t know anything about it, what would you say?
Maja Ćurčić I would say Art Aparat is an organization that uses music to unite people, help them develop their psychosocial and cognitive skills, and bring positive change in society. That’s like the shortlist.
Camilla Colicchio Whom do you work with?
Maja Ćurčić For the last seven years, we have been working with different communities but mostly with the Roma community.
“With a group of colleagues, I started Art Aparat, to explore how music can influence people and bring them together and how music can be used for other socially engaged purposes.”
Camilla Colicchio What are their main difficulties?
Maja Ćurčić Roma community is the second largest minority community in Serbia. So, it’s pretty big. Despite that, the Roma community still faces many problems, not just in Serbia, but in all of Europe, even in more developed countries than Serbia. First, poverty is one of the main obstacles to the social inclusion of Roma. They are excluded from most of the aspects of public life in Serbia. They still live segregated from the majority community, and the discrimination against Roma is increasing. Older people say that 30 or 40 years ago, during the Yugoslavian time, it was better than today. And, of course, many other obstacles are connected to poverty. But there’s also a history of trauma. They moved through history and, therefore, have a specific past, impacting how they perceive the world. In Serbia, Roma are often involved in less paid jobs, and the reality of a child growing up in a Roma community differs from the majority community. Our system generally only values those skills taught at school, but these children acquire other skills because, from an early age, they start to help their parents earn money and get involved more in decision-making processes. Unfortunately, this often leads to a lack of motivation to pursue an education. And because of that, there are many hardships that Roma people face when later in their life when they want to get a job because they also don’t perceive traditional education as something valuable. So, to sum up, I would say that they face poverty and social exclusion.
And moreover, they often don’t feel proud of their Roma heritage; sometimes, they try to hide it. This happens mostly with young people and children; they grow up being bilingual – something valued in society – but they try to lose the Roma language. These are some of the problems we try to address with our work.
Camilla Colicchio Art Aparat also works with the refugee community. Are there any similarities between these two works, or are they completely different?
Maja Ćurčić We work with the Roma community, but we want to address primarily social exclusion, and through our programs, we try to connect people from different communities. This is the hallmark of our organization. We want to go a step further. We want to connect with people because we all talk about how people are segregated and excluded, but we never meet those people, and that’s a big issue for them, but also for us because we don’t know how to communicate with them. Their realities are so different, but when you have music, then you can easily connect with people. Through music, you can connect an eight-year-old Romani child and a person who is 60 years old. Some of our projects focus on youth, but we also have projects that have these intergenerational moments. Music is so easy, everybody understands it, and it brings people who didn’t complete their school education and somebody with a Ph.D. on the same level, just in a few minutes. We worked with the youth from the refugee community and local youth together. The problems of the refugee community are different because, after traveling for so long, their main issues are psychological. When working with refugees, music is also a powerful tool because music doesn’t require a long instruction to start, it’s easy, playful, and brings people together very quickly, we work with a translator, but sometimes we could have made it even without it.
“We want to connect with people because we all talk about how people are segregated and excluded, but we never meet those people, and that’s a big issue for them, but also for us because we don’t know how to communicate with them.”
Camilla Colicchio You work with ethnic minorities, but, as you just mentioned, you also work with the Serbian population with projects that focus on Serbian history and national identity. How do these two aspects dialog, and how do you build this intercultural narrative?
Maja Ćurčić We developed an approach that starts by bringing people together, we first want to do things almost immediately, so we physically bring people together in the same space. They are all brought together and deal with this joint task of working in this intercultural Choir. There is a conductor, which is me, and there is a band. At the first level, they observe each other because people cannot connect immediately. They observe and work on common tasks. Over time, they become a community, and they start to communicate. For example, in our youth program, it happens that at one point, they start to go out together without us because they just found a way to communicate. At the second level, we engage them to explore different music genres; for example, each participant will record one song of his choice this year. So, we engage them to exchange, and they play songs and talk about why they like that music to start connecting on that level. Another way to build a community is our public talks which are called Artist talks with Romani artists, which are perceived in two different ways: for the Romani community, this event is empowering because they see a role model that has managed to reach success overcoming those same obstacles they meet every day.
Camilla Colicchio Is this also for the Romani community a way to become prouder of their culture?
Maja Ćurčić Yes, absolutely. And not just Artist Talks do that, we also equally sing songs in Romani and Serbian. When they sing songs in Romani, they start to feel proud, for example, that they know the language and can help others to understand the meaning. When we sing some songs, we have some Romani flags, and one of the participants said, I feel so proud when I see it. There is a big community now. Our Choir now counts more than 60 people, a big community that supports them and says, we think you are valuable, and we want to discover what cultural diversity is. For other people, these Artist Talks are more about hearing the story of being Romani and becoming more aware of that. In our team now, young people are also starting to be facilitators, and in a few years, they will be able to lead their peers.
Camilla Colicchio Regarding this, you work with the regular population, institutions, and other organizations. You are trying to build a more significant movement beyond the Art Aparat. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Maja Ćurčić Being a cultural worker in Serbia, it’s not the easiest thing to think to do, especially in the civil and independent cultural sectors. Culture in Serbia is insufficiently supported, a deficient percentage, less than 1% of our budget, goes to culture. That’s why it is essential to build networks and work together. I have been a managing board member of the Association of independent cultural workers for three years. Through this work, I learned a bit about cultural politics, of course, because these networks advocate for a better position of cultural workers, but I also experienced how important it is to build partnerships and connect people who work to achieve similar goals. With Divan Hub, the project that we started with two other organizations, we want to broadly gather people who are using art as a tool for social change and promote and engage them – it’s a little bit like the Creativity Pioneers Fund. We organized here in Serbia public events, panel discussions, and different workshops where people could come and try out and learn about different techniques. There are different ways to use art and different types of art, but some things are similar. And sometimes, you can benefit from learning the tools others use. For example, I train people on how to use music for social inclusion, and I see many people, who are not professional musicians, who can include some of my techniques in their work.
“There are different ways to use art and different types of art, but some things are similar. And sometimes, you can benefit from learning the tools others use.”
Camilla Colicchio I’ve recently read a sentence that has made me think, although it’s pretty simple. It said, when you create space, new things come. And so, I wanted to know, how do you create a space for change?
Maja Ćurčić We create space where people can come, they are involved in something and allowed to create something. But first and foremost, it’s a space where they can decide for themselves. They have this small task of singing, but there is a lot of space there for friendship, learning, and self-confidence. We put them together, that’s ultimately how we create space. According to what all participants say, we create a space of acceptance, which is most important. So, the Choir is just our tool to create this space of acceptance. I’m specifically proud that they know you can feel relaxed and committed in this space. They feel they are part of this, they feel this is something they own. I think this is valuable because it develops naturally when you make a community that values acceptance.
Camilla Colicchio This sense of belonging is the most crucial part of an organization and the most difficult to achieve. If it comes naturally. I think that is a great luck.
Maja Ćurčić Yeah, it comes naturally after staying on the same task, which is important when working with vulnerable communities. These people got used to rejection and often abandonment, so just saying, I’m here to stay and I accept you means a lot to them and builds a bond that lasts year after year. I’ve been knowing some of them since 2013 when I was volunteering. It’s not always a straight line, there are ups and downs, but you can’t achieve togetherness fast. It’s a long way to build real, deep connections that requires effort and time.
Camilla Colicchio And what are Art Aparat’s next steps?
Maja Ćurčić Art Aparat is now preparing a big concert for World Romani Day on the 8th of April. It will take place in Belgrade, in a venue for 500 visitors. Our Choir Svi UGLAS – Everyone in Unity – will sing with some guests. Moreover, for the first time, the youth from the Romani community, who attended percussion workshops, will perform. Thanks to the Creativity Pioneers Fund’s support, we had the chance to focus on these talented young people and provide them with the additional attention they need to develop their skills individually.
Camilla Colicchio And the last question, what is your biggest dream for Art Aparat?
Maja Ćurčić My biggest dream? I would love to have a huge event, like the ones organized by Choir! Choir! Choir! with 200 people singing together. I would like to have this big community in Belgrade singing in Romani, for example. I also wish our organization keeps growing with a passionate team and becomes a strong organization that can support people using music on different levels.
In 2022, Art Aparat received the Moleskine Foundation’s Creativity Pioneers Fund, becoming part of the Creativity Pioneers network.Read more stories like this →