Summer is peak season at Kosovo’s Pristina airport as Kosovar Albanians return cashed-up from their international diaspora to holiday in their new Republic. Locals have a disparaging nickname for the dolled-up young among them – Schatze – a derivative of German for ‘treasure’ in the sense of ‘little darling’. They are perceived, whether fairly or not, to behave as if they are a little bit better than everyone else. At a table next to us in a café – there is little else to do here except sit in one of them for hours on end – a woman speaking with a Balkan-Chicago accent produces a crisp 50-euro note to pay for one of the inexpensive but extremely good cups of coffee. This means something in a place where that amount can easily be more than a month’s pension and where construction workers grateful for employment might work 12 hour days for 300 euro a month.
The dozens and dozens of new Euro-style cafés and bars with competing sound systems are just one of the things that show how much has changed here since the war and the still very much appreciated 1999 UN-sanctioned NATO military intervention. Not by any stretch architecturally beautiful, every building in every street is evidence of all of the socio-political contradictions as well as the hopes and aspirations of this country, which is still in a state of ‘exception’, ‘transition’ or ‘emergency’ depending on who you speak to. The main pedestrian boulevard is dedicated to one of the region’s most famous daughters, Mother Teresa. Walking along it you see evidence of confronting statistics: around 70% of the population of this predominantly liberal Muslim populace is under 30 years of age and that as many as 70% are unemployed. Here the nouveau riche (whose money raises worried eyebrows) and the poor rub shoulders. Amongst them are also what locals have dubbed ‘the internationals’—the Westerners working for the military and police as well as the multitude of other UN and EU offices, agencies and NGOs here in this foreign aid-dependent place. I met a committed human rights lawyer from the UK for instance, who in eight years had something like 12 different jobs in Kosovo but is now moving to Cambodia to work on the war crimes investigations there. Kosovo is apparently a ‘five star’ mission for most of them as it’s safe and well-paid and the rest of Europe is only a skip away.
Independence was declared in February 2008 but in various key matters the UN has been in charge since 1999 until recently with the handover to the EU law and order body EULEX, although their stated mission is not to govern but to assist. Again, depending on who you speak to, there is a growing sense of impatience about this state of affairs. Mainly because it can feel patronizing and they could do more, even though most are critical of their own politicians too whose motives and effectiveness are often questioned. Basics like electricity and roads are still building-sites in many places. And no one could explain to me what could be done to give the young people the jobs they sorely need. One young, female, unemployed law graduate told me: ‘That’s in God’s hands.’ Praying has become more fashionable. Understandably there is a particular resentment about the strict visa requirements to travel, let alone work aboard and because Kosovo’s independence is not recognized by some EU states its citizens are not part of the planned liberalization of entry visa requirements, which others in the region will soon benefit from. The highly visible protest organization Vetëvendosje (Self-determination) campaigns that the new overseeing EU body is not so much about a tutelage or transition as an extension of Fortress Europe.
Of course all of this and so much more – just to list the very recent past: the legacy of the 1990s when the Albanian majority endured a kind of apartheid, the horrors of the war and murders, mass flight and refugee camps, return and rebuilding, not to mention current regional, national and global politics – impacts directly and forcibly on critically minded cultural workers here. For artist and organizer Mehmet Behluli, art-making divides clearly between before an after the war. Before in the ’90s he and others were involved a politicized practice in the parallel cultural life. After might be signified by projects such as artists Erzen Shkololli and Sokol Beqiri’s space in Peja – EXIT, which the scene there called the only shop that never sold anything and was quite successful. These and a number of other artists have been involved in a series of projects ‘Missing Identities’. A publication of their activities is planned with the German art publisher Revolver.
Between the lines or even framed by this highly loaded context, two current contemporary art exhibitions spoke volumes, especially in a place in which contemporary art is thin on the ground and not much of an official priority. One was the exhibition held in The Kosova Art Gallery, ‘Artists of tomorrow’ (2009), which included the work of six finalists of a regional contemporary art prize, funded partly by a private US Foundation and the US Embassy – the prize being a six-week residency in New York City. The selection committee and jury – one and the same – included Sislej Xhafa, a Kosovar Albanian now based in New York. Xhafa seems to have diplomatically but unapologetically guided the selection of in some cases unlikely candidates, works and the installation process to produce a sparse post-conceptual show with a minimum of material at odds with all kinds of local expectations.
Indicative of the formal rupture that this exhibition represents for the conservatives amongst the public as well as those expecting direct illustration of tough political issues which abound here, was its highly effective emptiness and the decision to leave the battery of gallery spotlights running around the perimeter of the space off and to use the overhead fluorescent lights instead. A virtually unknown young painter, Miranda Thaqi won the prize with her work including Ëndërr (Dream, 2009) a simple but enigmatic nightscape in which a procession of red and blue abstract figures meet on the crest of a hill beneath polka-dot stars. The favorite was actually better known Lulzim Zeqiri who showed a group of fine pencil drawings including one of women washing their hair but who in the past has also produced videos in which he screams the Albanian National anthem at the top of his lungs to the point of total fatigue or even madness. Remaining in the new figuration vein was the work of Bahrijie Sahiti whose two works on paper showed versions feminine beauty or pin-ups in a clunky naïve style.
The remaining three works pushed the show conceptually and gave it an ironic and sardonic edge – perhaps crucial to subjective survival here. Shkelzen Sejdiu offered a video animation Ritualet (Rituals, 2009) showing a figure sitting on toilet eating and shitting – perhaps a sacrilegious statement about consumption and production. A few text work print-outs from Kushtrim Zeqiri included The Dream, ironically suggesting the innovations of the greats of art history were akin to the discovery of hair curlers – giving hair like art a new direction and that: ‘Simply this is the dream of every artist, to be a ‘curler’ in the field of art and make a curve with his unique art […] it’s a dream’. Roland Masurica’s print-out work Kodi i Da Vinqit (The Da Vinci Code, 2009), showing a cheeky side view of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (c. 1487) suggesting to naked men up against each other, was also in an iconoclastic mode.
The here provocative gay innuendo of the last image brings me to the second exhibition ‘Two pieces of one exhibition’ curated by Albert Heta at the independent venue Stacion – Center for Contemporary Art Prishtina, which was established in 2006 and now has its own stone barn-like building in the old part of the town. There one of the two older works on display was Merita Koci’s video interview Life (2003). Its subject is Lorik – the only guy who made himself infamous for coming out in Kosovo and who later succumbed to hard drugs. (This is not a Little Britain-style ironic joke.) Although not technically illegal, people of any dissonant sexual orientation who make themselves obvious or don’t abide by the age-old rules of living a cautious and clandestine sex life, apparently should expect a beating. (In writing this I’m not thinking that this sorely tested new country is by any means an exception – quite the contrary.) Queer theorist’s Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s thesis about the way that male homosexuality is imagined and treated can say just as much about the die-hard patriarchal state of gender and power relations in the mainstream (which everyone suffers at one point or another from in one form or another, particularly women) as it does about the taboo-laden minority, came to mind.
Speaking briefly to Heta, he made the point, which also came up in the seminar ‘Cultural Policies as Crisis Management’ and follow-up book: ‘The Way Between Belgrade and Prishtina has 28000 un-proper build objects. So, never will it be an autobahn!’ (_Stacion_, 2008) that in this place, which is built on the struggle for freedom, the question now is what freedoms, for what minorities will be included? Also on display was Driton Hajredini’s self-explanatory conceptual installation Who killed the painting? (2003), consisting of a chalk outline signifying an absent canvas cordoned-off by police tape in multiple languages. The work was originally made as his response to the art school traditionalism. Hajredini has also made a blackly humorous candid camera confessional video while at art school in Münster, Germany. In it he asks the priest if it is a sin to born in Kosovo. The priest says no, of course not, to which the artist rejoins but why does it sometimes feel like one? If I ended on that statement like I originally planned some of the people I met would probably take offense in the same way it’s ok to make a joke about your own family but not about someone else’s. Here everyone is potentially family.
Art works by Lulzim Zeqiri, Roland Masurica and Driton Hajredini. Photography by Avni Behrami.