BY Kimberly Bradley in Opinion | 11 AUG 22

Five Balkan Artists to Watch at Manifesta 14

Grappling with issues of identity and cultural memory, these artists take to the biennial in Kosovo with remarkable resilience and imagination

BY Kimberly Bradley in Opinion | 11 AUG 22

As reports of rising tensions between Kosovo and its ethnic Serb minority continue to make headlines, the political and social frictions in the Western Balkans have become a contextual backdrop to many of the works currently on display at Manifesta 14. The nomadic biennial, which runs until 30 October in Prishtina, trains a sharp lens on local and regional artists, who make up more than half of the exhibitors. Many of them grapple with issues of identity; even more with memories of recent geopolitical ruptures. The following Balkan artists are just some of those addressing a fraught past and difficult present with remarkable resilience and imagination.

Artan Hajrullahu

Artan Hajrullahu's hand-drawn images on a wall
Artan Hajrullahu, various works, installation view. Courtesy: Manifesta 14 Prishtina; photo: Majlinda Hoxha 

Kosovar artist Artan Hajrullahu’s small-format drawings in coloured pencil on packing paper depict groups of people, mostly in interior spaces, sleeping, watching television and dancing. The scenes are united by a poignant intimacy: in Bijat (2021), for instance, three people – married sisters visiting their mother – are tucked up in bed together under a handmade quilt. The works are often provocative or uncanny: a lone baby lies on the floor; figures appear nude (taboo in Kosovo); a seated man sketches in a room, alone except for a herd of tiny toy wild animals. With skewed, flat perspectives and proportions, these drawings reflect moments of contemporary life, but the nostalgia-laden objects they depict – a wood stove and a doily, among other items recalled from the artist’s childhood – hark back to the country’s Yugoslavia-era past.

Alban Muja

Alban Muja's installation of Above Everyone (2022)
Alban Muja, Above Everyone, 2022. Courtesy: Manifesta 14 Prishtina; photo: Ivan Erofeev 

A simple yellow house stands on the flat roof of Prishtina’s former Gërmia department store, the windows like eyes surveying the busy street (Above Everyone, 2022). Like many historical buildings in the city, Gërmia was slated for demolition, but was saved by public resistance. Berlin-based Kosovar artist Alban Muja’s work reflects the parasitic architecture of postwar Yugoslavia, where privatization, corruption and turbocapitalism gave rise to unregulated construction projects. Many citizens, some of whom had lost their homes through war, took advantage of this situation and erected new structures atop existing buildings. Above Everything is a riff on the region’s exuberantly jagged cityscapes and a mirror of its DIY spirit.

Selma Selman

A video installation featuring Selma Selman's You Have No Idea (2022)
Selma Selman, Mercedes Matrix, 2019. Courtesy: Manifesta 14 Prishtina; photo: Majlinda Hoxha 

In the searing heat of Manifesta’s opening days, Selma Selman delivered the outdoor performance You Have No Idea (2016), a half-hour, one-woman piece, the live recording of which will be screened for the remainder of the biennial. The artist, who was born in Bosnia-Herzegovina and has Roma origins, speaks, whimpers, then bellows and screams the titular phrase on repeat to near-exhaustion. On view in the Grand Hotel – the no-longer-grand building that serves as Manifesta 14’s main exhibition space – Selman’s video Mercedes Matrix (2019) sees the artist and her family, who work collecting scrap metal, destroy a Mercedes Benz. In an online interview with Art House Channel from 2020, Selman described the installation as ‘deconstructing and destroying the stereotypical image of Roma people’ in the Balkans. Rooted in the artist’s personal history, both works transfigure the exhausting experience of prejudice into engrossing videos.

Abi Shehu

Abi Shehu's analogue photographs on display at Manifesta 14
Abi Shehu, Open Studio, 2022. Courtesy: Manifesta 14 Prishtina; photo: Majlinda Hoxha 

In a corner room of the Grand Hotel, Albanian artist Abi Shehu has established an open studio dedicated to archaeological artistic research. Through it, she explores the history of Prishtina’s rivers – Prištevka and Vellusha – which were covered over in the 1950s and 1970s respectively to prevent locals from dumping waste into the water. Also on view are images from the artist’s previous project, Barren (2019): haunting, black and white, analogue photographs taken of bunkers whose rounded roofs pop out of the Albanian landscape like oversize concrete mushrooms. Nearby, Sahara (2021) comprises 15 vintage televisions stacked in three rows. On their screens are looped animations of simple sketches: not Shehu’s own drawings, but graffiti found in Spaç Prison, which was a brutal and isolated labour camp for political dissidents and intellectuals under Albania’s communist regime. With the derelict Spaç site currently on the protective radar of the World Monuments Fund, these animations (of, say, a small galloping horse) encourage viewers to muse on how to interpret and preserve memories embedded within built environments.

Driton Selmani

Plastic bags with short sentences written on them form Driton Selmani's Manifesta 14 exhibition
Driton Selmani, ‘Love Letters’, 2018–ongoing. Courtesy: Manifesta 14 Prishtina; photo: Majlinda Hoxha 

Kosovar artist Driton Selmani has developed a practice rooted in local interventions; he once replaced ‘Prishtina’ with ‘Utopia’ on a motorway sign (Utopia, The Place that Doesn’t Exist, 2009) and covered a statue of Mother Teresa with a chador-esque black cloth (For God’s Sake, 2008). But, for Manifesta 14, he presents a quieter project with Love Letters (2018–ongoing), a series of aphorisms rendered on flattened plastic bags. ‘I wish you were a plastic bag, so you could be eternal’ appears in black marker on one; ‘let’s pretend this is not a house on fire’ on another. These philosophical, poetic and political snippets, taken from the artist’s notebooks, are reminiscent of Jenny Holzer’s large-scale, text-based works, such as ‘Survival’ (1983–85), if she had swapped LEDs and projectors for found materials.

Main Image: Artan Hajrullahu, various works, installation view. Courtesy: Manifesta 14 Prishtina; photo: Majlinda Hoxha 

Kimberly Bradley is an art critic, journalist, editor, educator and moderator based in Berlin.