It’s Valentine’s Day in Zagreb, and Donatella Versace, glamorously dressed, parades up and down the stage at the alternative club Močvara — or “swamp”, an homage to its location on the river Sava. The capacity crowd laughs and cheers at the foot of the stage as Donatella responds comedically to questions posed over the PA — but this isn’t the fashion designer, of course. It’s one of the neatly-crafted artistic personas of the first Croatian drag collective, the House of Flamingo.
The performance is part of Flamingo’s anti-Valentine’s Day show, S.R.C.E. The acronym spells “heart” in Croatian, but also represents the initials of the collective’s four main performers: Spazam Orgazam, Roxanne, Colinda Evangelista, and Entity. The show has gathered together a couple of hundred people of different ages, genders, and nationalities. Jason, 18, from Kenya, is travelling through Zagreb, and heard about the show in his hostel. “It’s beautiful,” he tells me during one of the breaks. Jason is easy to spot, even in the midst of this colourful crowd, sporting a glow-in-the-dark red bow-tie and glittery jacket. “I wish these shows would happen everywhere, because here everyone gets to be what they want.”
“I love what they are doing here,” says Ana, 28, a Zagreb resident who came to see the show with her sister. “It’s a small step for Močvara, but having this bunch of colourful people defying social norms is a big thing for Zagreb.” Defining yourself as queer, let alone cross-dressing, still counts as subversive here; perhaps it is unsurprising that the world of queer performance, including the explosion of Croatia’s drag scene, has been tied to the reaction against the rise in right-wing populism in recent years.
These factors are not limited to Croatia. Although the Flamingo crew don’t think of themselves as activists, they are not acting in a vacuum: their work has had an impact on the regional scene that transcends their Zagreb club presence. It can be hard to map exactly the train of influence when it comes to this kind of underground nightlife, but for Serbian duo Vladimir and Andrej, the 2014 iteration of Flamingo-run drag festival DRAGrams was a transformative experience. “We actually met there,” says Vladimir, who performs as Markiza de Sada. Alongside Andrej, known as Dekadenca, he is now a well-established Belgrade drag queen.
Belgrade’s first drag star, Viva la Diva, was already active back in the 90s, but it’s only in the past couple of years that the drag scene has truly developed in Serbia. Now, as in Zagreb, there are more than two dozen working queens in the city. “Before, I would do two or three drag shows a year, and now there is almost one a month in Belgrade,” Andrej says. “I think the fact that we haven’t had a tradition or culture of drag in this region is an opportunity to develop something authentic, something new,” explains Andrej. He and Vladimir have found that authenticity within the collective Efermerne Konfesije (Ephemeral Confessions). Their shows are a hybrid of performance art, cabaret, concert, and dance show.
The House of Flamingo’s own Valentine’s Day massacre is one aspect of a wider rise in queer Croatian and Balkan performance art that owes much to the oldest LGBTQ festival in this corner of Europe: Queer Zagreb, which has been running since 2003. Artistic director Zvonomir Dobrović is clear that the festival has a broader political bent. “The main idea was that ‘queer’ should be understood beyond sexual and gender frames,” he says. “In that sense, the festival has promoted a wider understanding of queer that takes social, ethnic, racial, economic, and other elements into account in addition to sexuality and gender.” Dobrović’s NGO Domino runs two other events alongside Queer Zagreb: Perforacije, a festival of live art, and Sounded bodies, an international performance festival. The artistic director of Sounded bodies, Bruno Isaković, was at the forefront of cultural protests against then-Culture Minister Zlatan Hasanbegović — who became notorious for his historical revisionism, moves to curb media freedom, and cancelling of subsidies for non-profit media and liberal cultural workers. Over several months in 2016, Isaković staged a series of performance art denunciations of the nation’s conservative turn. Although Hasanbegovic has since been sacked, his legacy is still visible.
“Today we are touching upon issues of social re-traditionalisation, a new wave of patriarchy, and a right-wing populism that is sweeping political discourse everywhere,” argues Dobrović. “These developments make queer artistic practice relevant and empowering.” Following the success of Queer Zagreb, regional variants have emerged, such as Smoqua festival in Rijeka and Homo fešta in Porec, Istria. Other initiatives have been trying to open the LGBTQ scene up to a more mainstream audience. The musical collective Zbeletron has been organising queer-friendly parties since 2009, targeting clubs that are not usually frequented by the LGBTQ population. The first LGBTQ choir in southeastern Europe, Le Zbor, was created in Zagreb in 2005, and has been raising awareness ever since.
“I think the fact that we haven’t had a tradition or culture of drag in this region is an opportunity to develop something authentic, something new”
This is the promising if still embryonic context in which Croatian drag was born. “Drag was part of Queer Zagreb’s programming from our very early years,” explains Dobrović. “We have organised drag king workshops with international and local artists since 2004; we have brought artists from the US, Germany, and the UK to work with Croatian artists on developing drag aesthetics. Over the years, these programmes have inspired a slowly growing drag scene in Croatia, including House of Flamingo.”
Flamingo can be credited with opening the world of drag up to a more mainstream audience. The collective was created by Ivan Pavlić and Marino Sorel, who met at queer events in Zagreb, after they “grew bored of the same old shows,” as Pavlić puts it. “We were unnerved by the excessive political correctness in the community, and also wanted to do something new, something fresh,” he says. “We promised each other that we would never be boring. We wanted our performances to stay original, subversive.” The collective started organising DRAGrams — the first drag festival in the Western Balkans —in 2013, with the first official House of Flamingo event coming in February 2015. Little by little, other members joined, and now House of Flamingo counts some 15 people, including performers, visual designers, DJs, and assistants. It may still be too soon to speak of a real drag scene in Zagreb — “There would be no point in even organising a drag show every month,” Sorel says, “there is just not enough of an audience for that” — but the scene is definitely there.
Flamingo remain committed to their idea of drag: to amuse their audience, have fun, explore new things, and, every now and then, offer ironic social commentary. “We want people to feel lighter after our shows,” says Roxane. “When we criticise society, or comment on current affairs, it’s always done in a humourous way. I don’t want people to leave our show depressed because they’re thinking about climate change.” Not that they shy away from provocation. “We had a show in which we dressed as women and sang Christmas songs, just before Christmas. In a super Catholic country, that is pretty subversive, don’t you think?” argues Entity. According to the 2011 census, almost 86 per cent of the Croatian population declare themselves Catholic; the Church serves as a reminder that conservative forces are not limited to whoever is currently in government, including when it comes to issues of LGBTQ (and women’s) rights. In 2013, the year that Croatia joined the European Union, a Catholic NGO called “In the Name of the Family” launched a referendum that eventually amended the constitution to define marriage as being between a man and a woman.
In Belgrade, Efemerne Konfesije are also not shying away from social issues — “I think the political can also be fun,” as Vladimir says — but say they have expanded their battlefield beyond the sphere LGBTQ rights. “Markiza writes the scripts,” explains Vladimir. “And she likes putting in references to political and social realities — sometimes local ones, sometimes global ones. The ideas we stand by are those of solidarity, ideas of the left. We reflect on topics we find important: the migrant question, the place of women and men in society, gender identities, modern spirituality. But the show can also be fun. Some people can just appreciate the staging, the songs, or the costumes; others will want to get through all the layers of meaning.”
Drag and queer performance are inherently subversive wherever they go, and in both Croatia and Serbia they are on the cutting edge of the alternative cultural scene. Both House of Flamingo and Efemerne Konfesije, however, attest to a desire to go beyond, to unlock the mainstream potential of the genre. And their mix of social commentary and entertainment is finding an ever greater audience, within and across national borders.