Child’s Play

Sadko Hadzihasanovic, Night Watch, 2018, oil and graphite on unstretched canvas, 66 × 98 inches. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid. All images courtesy the artist and Paul Petro Contemporary Art, Toronto.

For Toronto-based artist Sadko Hadzihasanovic, there are two kinds of painters: painters who paint and drawers who paint. “In my core,” he says, placing himself in the latter category, “I’m a drawer.” That core interest has resulted in works like Night Watch, 2018, a 66 x 98-inch oil and graphite on unstretched canvas, in which he arranges a portrait of a dozen young men carrying hunting rifles. It has a double source: the content is from a photograph taken in his wife’s hometown in Serbia; the form and title are taken from Rembrandt’s 1642 painting of a group of civic militiamen. In exhibitions like “Savage Garden,” 2012, and “Arcadia Redux,” 2018, he has shown groups of paintings organized around a theme, where figures, often children and adolescents, engage in simple, pleasurable actions. The paintings were often on wallpaper or fabric, which changed the background from a decorative surface into a landscape. In Pyroman, 2008, a young boy in Paris carries fire sticks and walks through a fabricscape punctuated by comic figures (Minnie Mouse and Sponge Bob), as well as tanks and clusters of soldiers. It is not altogether clear if we are to read the image as innocent or complicit.

Kids with Guns, 2019, video stills from animation, pencil on paper.

Kids with Guns, 2019, video stills from animation, pencil on paper.

Kids with Guns, 2019, video stills from animation, pencil on paper.

In 2016 Sadko’s attraction to drawing led him to use animation as a narrative frame. William Kentridge’s animated drawing and Andrei Rublev, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 film, which shifts from black and white to colour, were quiet inspirations for his work. Sadko has used both stop animation in My Name is Red, 2021, and hand-drawn animation in Gun Shy, 2023, and Don’t Play with Guns, 2022, short films for which each second of film required 12 drawings.

Gun Shy is 84 seconds long, took seven months to complete and was made from 1,000 drawings. It is a simple story of a boy kicking a soccer ball against a wall. He goes into his house for lunch and discovers a gun in a drawer. All his movement and gestures up to this point have been those of a child, but the discovery completely shifts his personality. When he comes back outside, someone off-screen kicks the soccer ball at him, and his reaction is to fire the handgun four times. The look on his face, which the video freezes at the end, is deeply disturbing. The playful boy has been changed utterly. “He becomes grey,” Sadko says, “because he was not the same innocent boy.”

In Rose Garden, 2020, oil on Masonite, 12 × 9 inches. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

Night Watch, 2019, oil on copper, 9 × 8 inches. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

RME, 2020, oil on Masonite, 14 × 11 inches. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

In My Name is Red, a 55-second-long self-portrait, he uses the simple act of shaving to change his own face into an ambiguous image. During the morning ritual he nicks his chin and the small cut grows until it fills the entire frame. But the different moments in the stop animation process don’t emerge as simple accumulations of red pastel; instead, they take the form of guns, airplanes and a red star before they become a total seepage of red. “We always think about animation as being comic and humorous,” Sadko says. “But what I like about it is that you can tell stories which are not comfortable, that grab you by the neck. What makes people watch is the juxtaposition between the lightness of the medium and the heaviness of the story.”

Bosnian Folk Song, 1999, oil, graphite, gouache, hair and collage on found wallpaper, 66 × 62 inches. Photo: Toni Hafkenscheid.

The boys in Night Watch are hunters and not soldiers, but Sadko, who emigrated to Canada in 1992 at the beginning of the Bosnian War, is sensitive to the potential of child’s play turning dangerous when it mimics the adult world. In Kids with Guns, 2019, it is not absolutely clear if the gun the young girl holds is a water pistol or a weapon. In the same black and white animation, a skipping rope suddenly turns red. Nothing is reliably straightforward in his drawn territory. What we want to understand as signs of innocence undergo a drift towards an experience that becomes threatening. Three decades after coming to Canada, Sadko still feels he is an immigrant: “When I go back to Bosnia everything haunts me again.” ❚