We Must Confront Ourselves
He almost became a painter, but things turned out differently. He had powerful theatrical roles, played in more than fifty movies, TV dramas and series. Only in Belgrade, his family had nine houses before World War II, while he lived in thirty-two rented apartments. He knows we are going through a very difficult period, he sees ugliness leering at us from all sides, he sees that we are chained with programmed vulgarity and superficiality. We must, he says, return to our own original image, our true identity, through culture and history. This is where the truth is, this is where the solution lays

By: Dejan Bulajić
Photo: Dragan Bosnić and personal archive

Descendants usually take the paved paths of their families, carrying the seal their ancestors imbued in their time. Even when not aware of it, it follows them and in a major part determines their paths of life. Some don’t pay attention to such things, some are proud of their origins, while some would rather keep their family stories secret.

Multiple artist and brilliant actor Tanasije Uzunović (Niš, 1942), descendant of an old Serbian family, proudly emphasizes his origins.
– The Uzunović family originates from Old Herzegovina. They grew together with the new Serbian state as landowners and soldiers. There were real warlords among them, flag bearers. They participated in all liberation wars against the Turks, including the Balkan Wars. They passed through the Albanian Golgotha and in all those events, identified with the fate of their nation with their personal courage and tragedy. The story ended with World War I to a certain extent, because already my father did not participate in the World War II events. He simply didn’t want to take side between partisans and chetniks.
Members of the Uzunović family were also great landowners.
– For a long time, there had been a rule among Serbs, that land is the foundation of every strong family. It was a time when working on the land was not considered useless moil, like it is today. The Uzunović family had large estates, about 150 hectares, but it is important to emphasize that it used to be land owned by Turkish magnates, for which they regularly paid rent until the 1930s. I know the origins of our estate and how it was gained. I wish I knew how many today’s tycoons and ”capable people” can prove the origin of their property. Only in Belgrade, the Uzunović family had nine houses. I know about the one in Dedinje and the ones in Kralja Milana and Nušićeva streets, while others I cannot remember. Some were destroyed in the bombings. It is very ironic that I, as the only male descendant of such a family, lived in thirty-two rented apartments in Belgrade during my lifetime.
The story about one of those houses – the one in Dedinje, directs us towards Nikola Uzunović, pre-war lawyer, minister and twice president of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia.
– His first mandate lasted only nine days, and the second almost an entire year. He was a truly capable and rich man, and the house he built in Dedinje caught the eye of Josip Broz after World War II. However, with his salary, Nikola was able to erect a house, but not furnish it. When Tito saw how it was equipped, he gave up on it, so it was offered to the new American ambassador. Nikola and his family were moved to the garden house, where Ambassador George Allen met him and asked why he was living there. He replied: ”I live here because you are living in my house.” The American, of course, had no reason to feel guilty about it, and even developed a nice friendship with Nikola. Upon his insisting, the authorities offered a compensation, which Nikola refused. The vast land estates were confiscated after the war as well, with certain compensation in land offered in Vojvodina, which the family also didn’t accept – ”If we cannot be householders on our own land, how can we be on someone else’s?”


Tanasije gained his first impressions about the sudden changes of the world and time very early, already in elementary school in his birth town of Niš.
– I have an unpleasant memory from that period. I can steel feel the weight of it. In elementary school, the teacher replacing our teacher, found convenient to address the entire class by saying: ”Student Tanasije Uzunović is among us. His folks are bourgeoisie and we fought against them!” The feeling of terrible shame has been following me till the very day. I didn’t know what that meant and the reason for that highly pedagogical process, but my gut feeling was telling me that something horrible had happened. I later got used to it, so I didn’t mind not being allowed to perform at rallies and some other things.
He discovered his talent for painting in Niš.
– Our family friend, Russian lady Xenia, professor at the technical school, is responsible for it. When she saw my drawings, she said I must enroll in the art school. Fortunately, there was such a school in Niš and I eagerly began conquering painting skills, which filled me with passion and satisfaction. The school lasted five years, and during my final year, something unbelievable happened. The school changed its name and system of work, because the wife of one municipality president, who was from Pirot, had to be given a job, and the only thing she knew was to weave rugs. Thus we, passionate young painters, who dreamed about Van Gogh and other masters, suddenly found ourselves at weaving looms. The state of shock was indescribable. I was completely disappointed and, of course, never entered that school again.
But that wasn’t the final departure from painting.
– Of course not. Painting has always been my special love, incomparable passion and state of consciousness. Even today I like to draw, when I have the time, because drawing is the basis of painting. Sometimes I see exhibitions of young authors and I’m surprised how many of them cannot draw. I show my works to some of them. Almost all of them immediately suggest to make a joint exhibition, which only makes me laugh, because that is something I was forcedly deprived of in my early youth. That, however, reminds me of a generation motto, which I firmly adopted: responsibility in what you do.
Departure from the painting school was a road sign towards paths already waiting for him.
– In such a bad mood, wandering the streets of Niš, I stumbled upon pictures of the ”Abrašević” Society, made of my peers from the amateur theater. They prepared Igor Torkar’s Colorful Ball. I liked it, but when they suggested me to join them, I refused, because I still considered myself a painter, not wanting to give up on it so easily. Only a bit later, when they invited me to replace an absent group member, I learned the text and entered the magical world, which I have never left again.


Encounters with painting and acting helped him understand art better, as a unique compound of beauty and freedom.
– If the art is full and carries everything that should essentially adorn it, then it makes immeasurable beauty. That is what conquered me. The very possibility to say something, to initiate someone’s emotions, to provoke contemplation, finally, to initiate shame – those are the wondrous effects acting, and in a way other forms of art as well, can provoke. Something like that, naturally, requests freedom, because art demands freedom. Thus our art is partial. It was such, and I’m afraid it has remained such. Illusory freedom in art has been surviving for a long time, especially in communist times. They needed art and knew how to cherish it, but only to a certain extent. As soon as they would feel there was something bothering them in it, they would immediately deal with it. I have witnessed many plays taken off the repertoire, without any special reason. Such things fetter art. This is also the case today, only in a somewhat different way.
Can art survive if it stops being a revolt?
– If speaking about what I do, the absence of revolt negates the existence of theater. Theater rests upon challenge, on truth. If there is no truth, the theater starts spinning around in circles, chasing its tail.
How do we interpret the role of contemporary theater?
– I think that we are experiencing difficult moments, because the attitude towards culture is miserable. I’ve never dreamed something like this would happen. It is somewhat normal that art retreats in such a situation. It became common to have a limited number of people following us when we play something provocative or serious. Unfortunately, I often remember the line: ”Come on, actor, say something funny.” If this doesn’t exist, people mostly turn to light contents, present in all corners of the media. Provocative, noticeable theater, inciting emotions and thinking, is confronted with being left to itself.
Does that offer an answer to the impression that theater is profusely adapting to the time as it is?
– The motif of survival is behind everything, and we have had it ever since 1944. That is when Žanka Stokić, Aca Cvetković and other actors were convicted for their engagement in the war period. There is a story that Cvetković was murdered in the National Theater, by Krcun Penezić personally. Since then to the very day, theater has been under control. The recommendation valid for a long time now is: if you want to survive, you have to adapt. And if you adapt, then it’s not it anymore. Fortunately, there are different examples, although much less. I recently watched Hamlet in the Jugoslovensko Dramsko Theater – wonderful play. I will also mention Patriots and Road to Damascus at the National Theater, and not to mention the Great Drama of Siniša Kovačević, speaking about what many others can’t or don’t want to speak about. Besides the wide theatrical costume ball, used for making money, you can find something really valuable, reminding of the theater’s original mission – revealing truth and constantly searching for it.


Even when bitterly speaking about the demolition of theatrical art, Tanasije cannot hide his enchantment with it.
– Theater is a test of conscience. If an actor starts lying, he should return to the theater, because there are no lies there. The audience sees and feels everything. Unfortunately, the media made the theater stop being what it is, but basically it remains faithful to itself.
Light and vulgar entertainment, imposed by the media, opposes essential culture and, unfortunately, very often prevails in that conflict.
– I run away from it, I try not to even see it, but, unfortunately, the flashes of that ugliness are so present, that they bring me back to reality and clearly indicate the environment we live in. Theater helps me a lot in that aspect, because you can run away from reality through the theater. Unfortunately, it seems that such contents have a planned support, so each step you take you stumble upon a gallery from primitivism to superficiality. Art isn’t deprived of it either. It is worrying and we should think about everything surrounding us.
Is there a risk of losing our essential identity in such a system of values?
– We already lost it a long time ago, and we just covered it with lies, lies that still exist. If we want genuine identity, we must confront ourselves, in a real way, through our history, through art, culture in general. We must know who we are and what we are. We forgot all that. We must encounter real truth, which means that we must go back at least seventy years, to determine what is what and what is not. That is where the root of evil is, in the time of Josip Broz, who was otherwise a very imposing character, hedonist, he liked beautiful women, expensive liquors. However, I am certain that truth should be sought in him and that time, truth different from the one served to us, regardless of who serves it. Unfortunately, our people tend to create idols, even when they are not worth it. We must finish with that, although I admit I am pessimistic in that matter. My only hope is the young generation, which, at least I hope so, will have the courage to say that it doesn’t want to play with these toys anymore, that it will ruin others’ criteria, others’ systems and bring something of its own, which will not resemble any of the previous illusions.


Tanasije graduated at the Academy of Drama in the class of Professor Ljiljana Krstić. Besides the theater, where he had a multitude of brilliant roles, he played in more than 50 movies, TV dramas and series. He won numerous awards for those achievements, including the Sterija Award and October Award of Belgrade. Equally easy and with unique style, he played different characters, but we most often saw him in the role of villains.
– Honestly speaking, how can a bourgeoisie son play any other role than the role of villains? Although, I have to admit, I even got used to them and forced myself to investigate and reveal the background of the villains’ characters. That, however, is a subject which constantly disturbs me. There were directors who, I can say, were my real enemies. Such as the school teacher from Niš, whom I irritated because of my origin, because of who I am. Communists didn’t annoy me, I annoyed them. The attitude was such that I was supposed to be grateful for playing TV roles at all. It happened that I get the text, which they withdraw a few days later, due to an alleged error. Or they give me a role and then take it away and give me a smaller one. It was difficult to bear and really, there were things I don’t even want to remember. I liked working with directors who were fully authentic, such as Sava Mrmak, Milenko Maričić and several others, who gave me the opportunity to highlight my stands and ideas. My only role of a lover was at the beginning of my career, in Lady of the Camellias.
The role of Rajko in the My Cousin from the Country” TV series offered him a chance to give a special charm and dignity to a rural character.
– I enjoyed the role very much, because I had the opportunity to present the Serbian peasant in a way he deserves. Ever since my childhood, I remember peasants as clean, smart and hard-working people, so I insisted on presenting my character as such. We enjoyed in working on that series and tried, every one of us in their own domain, to present the story as faithful and as truthful as possible. I think we succeeded in it.


About Friendship
– A friend is very precious. Unfortunately, not much can be called true friendship. People follow their own interests, they are alienated. There is much insincerity. However, a true friend is a gift from God.


Presence of God
The power of transformation rests in friends, sincere and brave people. What else is there to be done to reach it?
– To perceive ourselves, in truth, or in faith, because faith is not just bowing before icons. God is here, among us, but no one can see Him. It’s tragic. If we manage to see only a small part of what is called God, what we think is God and what we carry within, there is hope for us, if we speak about faith. I see awakening in truth. Truth about ourselves, asking ourselves who we are, what we are, where we are going, what we want. I think that’s crucial for us. It is for any nation, but especially for us.


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