Milenko Prvacki: The Renaissance Man

Arts | Written By, Sharifah Shahirah | March 5th, 2016

Stepping into Milenko Prvacki’s studio is like entering an artist’s dream. With the sound of classical strings wafting through the high ceilings, the sunlight that streams in from the floor to ceiling windows illuminates the massive canvases that line the walls. As he shares the studio with wife and ceramic artist, Delia Prvacki, the studio is also filled with ceramic and coloured mosaic sculptures – works of art in dialogue with each other.

Milenko Prvacki: The Renaissance Man
On my visit, despite being in the middle of a move, Prvacki was in high spirits. When I asked how often he gets the opportunity to be in the studio, he answered with a smile, “I really create when I’m in the studio, almost like an architect, creating with purpose. I don’t take my weekends; they’re spent in the studio right after breakfast. I’m always engaged in my work, constantly thinking and analysing my work even though I’m not here. But generally I spend between three to four days in a week working in the studio.”

Born in 1951 in Yugoslavia, Prvacki was inspired by art at a young age through German artist Laksaradi Emil. As he learned to paint under Emil, the one lesson that stuck was Emil’s utmost dedication in being an artist. In search of higher education in painting, Milenko applied to Institutul de Arte Plastice, Bucharest where he studied for five years. The German native speaker then took up Romanian language lessons to adjust to his new home in Romania. He would pick up a third language – English, when he moved to Singapore in the 90s.

Milenko Prvacki: The Renaissance Man
In a 2013 essay on Prvacki, Charles Merewether introduced him by quoting the artist’s own words “…the country I left does not exist anymore.” The quote was a response to the displacement and permanent separation of Yugoslavia after years of civil war, which was dissolved in 2006. This event has become a cornerstone in Prvacki’s art, with the traumatic events providing him with the drive and instinct to create and share with as many people as possible.

Milenko Prvacki: The Renaissance Man
Contemporary artist, arts educator and industry influencer, Prvacki seems to charge at every role with the same boundless energy – perhaps the ironic outcome of having an acute awareness of irrevocability. Unbound to the past, his abstract paintings are a visual dictionary of symbols, both nostalgic and holding new meaning for the artist.

Before moving to Singapore Prvacki’s first series titled ‘Dialogue’ was an expansion of his portraits and self-protraits. Though caricature in style, the colour palette was faded and pale, similar to Bacon’s. After developing the series over four years, Prvacki embarked on ‘The Trophy Series’ from 1979 to 1990. The paintings revolve around hunting trophies such as ducks and animal rawhide – showcasing Prvacki’s awareness of the embletic power of visual imagery. Lasting a decade, it became extensive, capturing ongoing shifts and the refinements of his artistic process.

In the early 90s, Prvacki came up with the concept of a visual dictionary. On the concept of a visual dictionary, Prvacki shared, “I was always learning new languages when I was in university or when I first moved here, so I was always with a dictionary. Previously I was a figurative painter but I realised that painting was static and I could not compete with video or film. So when I was analysing and finding new ways to communicate through art, I thought about the dictionary. How a dictionary was boring yet contained all of our value in a language. So that’s when I decided to create the visual dictionary. I knew that it was going to take a few years to develop, but I was prepared to work towards it.” During this time, he was also invited by Brother Joseph McNally to teach in LASALLE College of the Arts. The visual dictionary concept was realised with ‘The Ultimate Visual Dictionary,’ ‘The Visual Dictionary’ and ‘Collection’ from 1997 to 2009. Prvacki continued to expand his visual dictionary to include the ‘Construction’ series and ‘Fragments or Fragmented’ series.

“For me art is a necessity of creating, I’m productive and I work all the time. I need to express all the time what I’m thinking. Most of the time, it is a personal reason, a result of my research, my interest in history. It is a complex process and I work three to five years on one issue. It’s about collecting the information, research, things, making storage, analysing and repeating. My art is an extension of myself and my past, but it’s all about one language, a kind of visual language.”

Teaching since 1994, he is both respected and accomplished as Senior Fellow and former Dean of Fine Arts in LASALLE. Frequently invited to speak and weigh in on the arts landscape here, Prvacki was engaged by the former Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts (MICA), now the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI)] to serve on the Renaissance City Strategic Plan Strategic Planning panel, and by the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) to serve on the Marina Bay Advisory Committee. Besides consulting, the 2012 Cultural Medallion recipient has also played active roles in creating an arts rehabilitation project for the Singapore Prisons and in the Land Transport Authority’s (LTA) Art in Transit programme – Prvacki and his wife drew upon the rich cultural diversity and history of Singapore to create the mosaic murals at the Dhoby Ghaut MRT station.

Recalling how pleased he was to be invited to consult on the Renaissance City plan, Prvacki said that although much has progressed since 25 years ago when he first came, there was still room to improve. “Artists grow up studying the Renaissance period of the 14th century where arts and culture in Italy and Europe flourished. However my idea of a Renaissance is different. Renaissance in the 21st century is about making new history, new heritage and I feel that Singapore is in the best position to do so but we’re not fully realising that yet. For example, instead of re-purposing heritage buildings for museums, we should look into building new spaces for art. Art is not waiting for people to understand, it is about anticipating new things.”

Prvacki’s ‘Trophy Landscape – Paradise’ is on show in the DBS Singapore Gallery collection. Sharing a personal story on the work, Prvacki said that The National Gallery Singapore had wanted to include a historically significant piece in the collection so the collage on show is the first artwork he did when he first arrived here. Originally invited for a two-month project, Prvacki was asked to extend his stay to two years.

“I did not have any material as I had only intended to stay for two months but my stay was extended. So I looked around the empty rented house and saw old newspapers that lined the empty shelves – you know how mums would protect shelves from stains and marks. So I took all of those, as well as some German newspaper, which I had wrapped my belongings in my luggage to create the collage pieces. The work, done just three months after my arrival in Singapore, is about memory and a reflection of my own journey of what I did before and what I do now.”

Prvacki takes his commitment to educational practice and engagement in arts and culture here seriously. Feeling the need to share his experience, he largely contributes to educating and advocating about art, emphasising though that his role as an artist is simply to be present in his environment. “I really care about what is happening in the community. I didn’t speak English when I came to Singapore but I learned to. I’m someone who wants to communicate not just through my art, and to the society, government, to anyone who can improve the situation. If I can help, I should. An artist should be conscious of the society they live in. Being creative, crazy and not afraid of failures, artists need to speak their minds.”

In the time that we spent chatting about his art and the current issues in our world today it became apparent to me that, despite past scars and sense of displacement from losing his birth country, Prvacki represents the unfailing spirit of an artist and the continuous search to inspire hope and change for a better future.

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  Sharifah Shahirah

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