Creative Kosovo

The flight delay out of Tirana left me with just a day and a half in Prishtina. Which, I was soon to realize, was far to little time. From the brief time I spent there, I got the impression that there are a lot of interesting and exciting things going on in contemporary art there, not just in Prishtina, but in the whole of Kosovo. 

Since I was only in town for one full day day, I had to pack in all of my meetings back to back, all day. Just the thought of this was exhausting, but each meeting was so interesting and inspiring that the positive and creative thoughts exchanged kept me going through the long day.

A map! 

A map! 

Before my meetings, I decided to check out the Kosovo Art Gallery. Armed with a printed out Google Map, I set out with confidence, certain that I would find my way. I was unable to orient myself, however, and ended up going in the wrong direction at first. After a while I sensed this, and decided to turn around and see if the other direction was the right way. While I had managed with few street signs and no house numbers in Tirana, in Prishtina this was proving more difficult. I kept going, unsure whether I was headed in the right direction at all. After all, how long can you walk on the same road when you have absolutely no idea which road it is? Finally, I saw a map - it was the map of the University of Prishtina, and the Kosovo Art Gallery is right there on its campus. I thought this was great. While most US universities have museums on their campuses, this practice is less common in Europe. But this wasn't the university museum, this was the National Art Museum. And not only did it rest on the university campus, but it was placed directly across from the National Library. The perfect place to house an art museum - at the country's center of learning. 

Kosovo Art Gallery

Kosovo Art Gallery

Reinstallation of the gallery

Reinstallation of the gallery

I was disappointed to find out that not only was the museum between exhibitions, but it apparently didn't have a permanent installation, because the museum was completely closed while they hung the next show. The gallery attendant, however, was nice enough to hand me a stack of brochures to compensate for the fact that I couldn't go in.

I returned to my hotel triumphant at having navigated the streets of Prishtina with virtually no map and no street signs, and commenced the meetings of the day. The first person I met was philosopher and art critic Shkelzen Maliqi. I had read about Shkelzen in an article written by Sezgin Boynik entitled "The Cultural Roots of Contemporary Art in Kosovo," and was intrigued by a critique that he (Shkelzen) had published of Joseph Beuys in Belgrade in the 1970s. Shkelzen told me a lot about what was going on in the art world in Kosovo both then and now. 

Next I met with Alban Nimani, an artist that I had discovered by chance when Googling around for contemporary artists in Kosovo. Alban had just returned from a year in Arizona as part of the Junior Faculty Development Program, and was full of new ideas and energy for projects to begin in Kosovo. One such development he was responsible for was "Last Fridays" (E Premtja e Fundit), which was based on an even that the artist had witnessed in Phoenix, "First Fridays," an outdoor art and culture festival taking place once per month. Alban brought the tradition to Prishtina, and said that the first event he had was a great success. I wasn't surprised, not only because Alban seems to bring a great amount of enthusiasm to whatever he does, but also because Prishtina's streets always seem to be hopping in the evenings, with people out and about, walking, talking, socializing, and filling up the outdoor bars and cafes. Last Fridays seemed to be the perfect event to bring art to the people of Prishtina in a way that fit naturally with the city's culture and energy.

I also met with Rina Meta, a freelance writer who had just returned from the Venice Biennale and is working on a piece on Kosovo's pavilion there. This was Kosovo's first year at the Biennale and the country was represented by Petrit Halilaj. Rina also works for Kosovo 2.0, a relatively new publication that puts out two themed issues per year. Thus far, some of the topics covered have been public spaces, sex, corruption, and the next edition will be on art. The purpose of the journal is admirable: to address and discuss these salient issues affecting people throughout the world, and in doing so break down the barriers between nations. Moreover, Kosovo 2.0 aims to give a voice to the youth of its nation, reshape the nation's media, and create a new, creative and intellectual international platform for Kosovo that can only help shake the impression that many outsiders still have of the place, as a country torn apart by war.

Playwright Fjolla Hoxha told me about the plays that she writes and performs in her free time, which have dealt with such themes as rape and reintegrated/repatriated youth in the country. Fjolla aims to use art as a mechanism of healing and catharsis for these forgotten victims of war. In some ways, her work also gives a voice to the disenfranchised of Kosovan society, much like Kosovo 2.0.

Finally, my day ended with a chat with Astrit Ismaili, whom I've written about more extensively in the Kosovo section of this site. Astrit had just come from a rehearsal for his upcoming performance, and he took me on an impromptu tour of Prishtina, past the Palace of Youth and Sport that he transformed in PRISHTINË – mon amour into an regenerated and performative art space. We ended up at the Prishtina train station, in his friend's artsy outdoor bar/cafe.

After a day filled with meeting such creative and inspiring people, I set off the next day to discover Prishtina's one contemporary Art Centre - Stacion. I had just missed meeting the director of Stacion, Albert Heta, who happened to be in Tirana, where I had just come from. The thing about the Balkans is that people are traveling all over them all the time!

I set out, once again, with my makeshift map, relatively confident that I would find my way better than the day before. My map, however, did not exactly coincide with the real pavement on which I was walking. I tried to follow the direction of the streets (because there were no signs, of course), but as they started to twist and turn and wind more and more, it became impossible to find where I might be on the map. The temperature was rising (not only in my blood) - it was about 35 degrees out, and after several years in Scotland (where the high in summer is 16 if you're lucky), I was simply not used to the heat. I started to get more and more frustrated, knowing I had to get back to my hotel to check out on time. I finally just gave up - because I usually find that, in life, the moment you stop looking for something is precisely when you find it. On my descent back to my hotel, I stumbled on a rare and unique item - a street sign, bearing the name of the street I was looking for. I finally got to Stacion, but found it - of course - closed. Still, my trip was not in vain, because I think it is important for me to track these spaces of modern and contemporary art in these cities, in order to really understand how they work and how they appear to outsiders. To me, Stacion seems like a wonderful space to host contemporary art exhibitions, performances and events, but the venue seems to really be for 'insiders,' who know where they are going and when. Even the entrance to Stacion is completely unassuming, and demands that you come close to read the sign and realize what is contained in this building, lest you simply pass it by.

In just over 24 hours in Prishtina, I got to know the art world just a little better than I did when I arrived. After all, there is only so much you can learn in one day. If I have only just scratched the surface, then I can only imagine how much more dynamic a scene I would have seen if I had stayed for a few more days or even a week. It's also not just in Prishtina. I heard a lot about Peje and Prizren, which also seem to have active art scenes. There is clearly a lot going on in contemporary art in Kosovo, even despite the relative lack of spaces for it. I am really excited about what I learned here, and hope to learn even more as I continue my research on art in Kosovo.

 

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Amy Bryzgel

Amy Bryzgel is a lecturer in History of Art at the University of Aberdeen. She is currently conducting research on performance art in Central and Eastern Europe for a forthcoming book monograph.