Tomáš Kompaník, "AHA"

Tomáš Kompaník, 2014

This is not about a dislike of embroidery or folklore. But when it is folk craft – embroidery in particular – that represents Slovakia abroad, young Slovaks feel embarrassed, to say the least. Most people believe that promoting Slovakia through its traditional craftsmanship is now obsolete – and shameful, because it means that one disregards cultural diversity generated by Slovakia here and now, not to mention reducing Slovakia to an anthropological oddity. At the same time, strong, self-assured and progressive young artists have recently gained a global audience. Hence one might think that the two approaches – the traditional and the contemporary visual language – are on opposite sides of the barricade. These two different worlds, however, can be combined in interesting, innovative ways.
Young graphic designer Tomáš Kompaník lives up to the challenge: he has collected embroidery patterns from Slovakia’s eight regions, filtered them through modern sensibilities and presented them in a bold, visually appealing book with the simple titleAHA(a Slovak word used to direct/draw one’s attention to something). It won Slovakia’s Most Beautiful Book Award (Najkrajšia kniha Slovenska), a European Design Award, and – very recently – one of the field’s most prestigious awards, namely a Red Dot Award.

Yet there was nothing spectacular about Tomáš Kompaník’s path to success – he meticulously collected material, spent many laborious hours on the project, and finally raised the money using a crowdfunding website. He decided to self-publish the book – or, to be more precise – raise funds from people who were enthusiastic about his idea and understood that the layout he designed was highly unusual and the book should be a high-quality publication. The book was originally (three copies of) Kompaník’s master thesis. A few months later, after it became popular among Internet users and the first edition saw the light of day, AHA was already a major part of the Slovak exposition at EXPO Milano 2015. It was also there that it was given to representatives of other countries and major international organisations.
The book was somehow destined to succeed, not only because of Kompaník’s innovative visual approach to traditional themes, but also because he made it accessible by keeping the text to a minimum. Beside simple instructions for the “reader”, each of the eight chapters begins with a short introduction to the decorative art of a given region. The concise text also includes English translations of traditional folk songs and popular sayings, a nice bonus for the Slovak reader. 

Although AHA focuses on the cultural heritage of Slovakia, the idea to create it was born on the other side of the continent – in Istanbul. A foreign perspective and experiences in the country with rich traditions of decorative arts inspired Tomáš Kompaník to reflect on the visual legacy of Slovakia. He even points out in the introduction that the book is a token of gratitude to all those who have instinctively created Slovak visual heritage over the centuries – and inspired many generations. And indeed, embroidery – a common element in Slovak folk culture – has been a starting point for many young artists. This tendency can be observed in the Fine Arts curriculum in particular, but also at annual Graphic Design Student exhibitions. 

It seems that after decades in which folklore and the Socialist Realist aesthetic were forcefully and systematically combined (producing the dislike to which I referred earlier), people’s approach towards folk cultural heritage of Slovakia has changed immensely. Provincialism and disingenuous efforts to make folk culture “genuine” have been replaced by a keen interest in the folk heritage – only that instead of arousing interest among inhabitants of the rural areas which shaped it, it has attracted urban dwellers. If we add to the aforementioned an innovative approach that involves an awareness of contemporary socio-cultural reality, we will gain a perspective that is similar to Kompaník’s. This time it is about a new perception, about generating new emotions. And also about saying “aha!” enthusiastically rather than bitterly, ashamedly, under one’s breath – in response to how Slovakia has promoted itself globally.

Peter Michalík

Translated from the Polish by Paweł Łopatka