Sislej Xhafa

I haven’t actually be able to interview Sislej Xhafa about his performative work, at least not in person or on Skype, although I did do an email interview with him that was published in Kosovo 2.0 in Autumn 2013. Sislej is a Kosovar Albanian visual artist who was born in Peja, in ex-Yugoslavia (now Kosovo), emigrated to Italy via London in 1991, and currently lives in New York – a truly global artist. The often fun and playful appearance in his work engages the viewer, drawing him in to confront more serious issues related to identity, place, migration, and the perceptions of individuals in society.

In 1997, Sislej hijacked the Venice Biennale by creating a mobile Clandestine Pavilion by walking around the gardens of the Biennale with an Albanian flag, kicking a football, dressed in the uniform of the Albanian national football team, with a tape recorder broadcasting an Albania-Italy soccer match. This performance proposed what Giacinto Di Pietrantonio called a “non pavilion” in a world of “non people,” equating the lack of a national pavilion in Venice with the status of non-citizen (or non-person) in the art world. While his hooliganism enables him to critique the Biennale’s politics of inclusion and exclusion, he nevertheless participates in it; his itinerant position evoking the tension between presence and resistance inherent in his act. In 2013, he returned to the Biennale for a fourth time, officially installed in the Italian Pavilion with a piece entitled Parallel Paradox, featuring an acrobatic barber giving haircuts in a tree.  

At Manifesta 3 (The European Biennale of Contemporary Art) in 2000, he played the role of a stock broker at the train station in Ljubljana, announcing the arrivals and departures of the trains in the manner of a Wall Street stock broker. That same year, in Pleasure Over Flowers, he decorated a Ghent police station with Persian carpets and Biedermeier chairs, questioning the treatment of criminals in present-day society. In a performance entitled Piazza della Signoria (1999), Xhafa became the criminal himself, acting as a pickpocket in the crowded square. His target, however, was not a Western tourist, as is often the case, but a person from Morocco. Here he turned the tables on perceptions of individual identities.  

Despite the seemingly prescriptive nature of his work, the artist maintains that he poses questions that only the audience members can answer for themselves. As he told me in last year’s interview, “I want to leave space for the audience to take it further, without formulating an opinion on their behalf.