Notes on Contemporary Art in Kosovo

Katharina Schendl, ed., Notes on Contemporary Art in Kosovo (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2018), 128pp.

coverNotes on Contemporary Art in Kosovo is a slim volume collecting eight short essays and two interviews focused on Kosovo’s art scene. Published as part of the tranzit.at (the Vienna-based branch of the transnational contemporary art network tranzit.org) Glossary series, the book’s stated goal is to provide the grounds for understanding how the contemporary art scene in Kosovo shaped itself beginning in the ‘90s decade. The texts included in the volume span the last twenty years,(In a few cases, it is unclear precisely when and where the essays were originally published, and it is likewise unclear which were produced (or revised) specifically for the purposes of this publication. It appears that both interviews were conducted with the aim of being included in the volume, and Sezgin Boynik’s text contains an afterword apparently written for this iteration.) and range from catalog essays on specific artists to short histories of particular art spaces and prominent figures in the Kosovo artworld. Art historian Vesa Sahatçiu aims to offer a summary of both post-1945 and post-1999 cultural developments in the country, while philosopher and critic Shkëlzen Maliqi analyzes the discursive and academic divisions in the recent Kosovar art scene. Theorist Sezgin Boynik discusses the role of nationalist politics in shaping Kosovo’s contemporary culture; artist Miran Mohar (member of the IRWIN collective) charts some examples of artists self-organizing in the Kosovo context, and curator Charles Esche focuses on the institutional contributions of Erzen Shkololli, artist and director of the National Gallery of Kosovo from 2011 to 2015. Kino ARMATA director Alush Gashi discusses the genesis and significance of the artist-run arts and music space Tetris, in Prishtina, and Kathrin Rhomberg and Vanessa Joan Müller offer catalog essays from the Venice Biennale pavilions, respectively, of Petrit Halilaj and Flaka Haliti. The two interviews (one with Edi Muka and the other with Dardan Zhegrova and Astrit Ismaili) discuss local curatorial and artistic perspectives on the country and its scene. In addition to the essays and interviews, Notes also contains a series of textual works (inserted at the breaks between individual contributions) by the HAVEIT collective,(HAVEIT’s allcaps interpellations—phrases like “SUCCESSFULLY BROKE!” and “WHAT COLOR IS YOUR FLAG WHEN IT BURNS?”—are a subtle touch, and they certainly add an anarchic counterpoint to some of the overly hierarchical analyses presented in certain texts, but it’s unfortunate not to see an interview with the collective themselves.) and a decidedly brief editorial introduction.

The appearance of this volume cannot help but be understood as (at least partially) a supplement to the recently-published Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology,(Roxana Marcoci, Ana Janevski, and Ksenia Nouril, eds., Art and Theory of Post-1989 Central and Eastern Europe: A Critical Anthology (New York: MoMA, 2018).) which inexplicably contains no significant discussion of Kosovo—or its neighboring Albania for that matter—and thus no texts from authors dealing with the development of postsocialist art in the country. Given this lacuna, Notes is undoubtedly a necessary supplement, and one that is poised to raise important questions about how a new nation-state fits into not only global but also regional histories of contemporary art. The necessity of examining Kosovo’s art scene (and not only its contemporary art scene, but that is another matter) is made all the more urgent by the growing number of recent publications focusing on the art of postwar Yugoslavia, which often also have relatively little to say about Kosovo.

This said, Notes could have gone much further in providing a thorough context for researchers and curators hoping to understand the political, social, and artistic factors shaping artistic production in Kosovo since the end of communism. While the book contains a wealth of valuable insights about what makes Kosovo’s art scene both similar to and different from that of other countries in the former Eastern Bloc, it also feels hastily compiled. Some of the writings included beg for short critical introductions that would provide more detail on the artists, art spaces, and exhibitions they discuss. Since at least one of the texts (Sezgin Boynik’s essay on nationalism) was clearly revised for this volume, the reader frequently wishes for other annotations or revisions that would give more information on the phenomena discussed. The essays often hover in an uneasy space between primary and secondary documents, and the lack of clarity about where they stand in this dichotomy also hinders the reader from understanding precisely what historical and critical narratives have emerged and are emerging in the Kosovo context. For example, the essays by Miran Mohar and Charles Esche seem to rely heavily on the fact that the authors know the subjects discussed (whether persons or organizations) firsthand, and yet these texts also present themselves as analyses, not merely personal accounts. It is sometimes difficult to parse out, in such essays, precisely to what degree the opinions presented aim to be objective and to what degree they reflect a desire on the author’s part to see their colleagues recognized for their work. Certainly, the latter goal is a reasonable one, but it raises questions about who has been included in this collection, why, and how critical the readings presented are.

Undoubtedly the two strongest texts are the two interviews—Shkëlzen Maliqi’s with curator Edi Muka and Cathrin Mayer’s with artists Dardan Zhegrova and Astrit Ismaili—in part because they avoid the abovementioned ambiguity by forthrightly allowing protagonists of the cultural scene to speak for themselves. The interviews also do the best job at laying out a clear background narrative for the specific topics discussed; Mayer’s contains an exemplary short introduction that is the kind of informational framing device so crucially lacking from the other texts (and from the volume’s editorial introduction). Both interviews delve deeper into the specific experiences of their subjects (Muka in the former case; Zhegrova and Ismaili in the second), and this allows for nuances to emerge in the reader’s understanding of the lives and careers of curators and artists. Zhegrova and Ismaili’s discussion of queer positionality spans artistic and pop-cultural references, and it also does the best job of presenting an intersectional view of identity in Kosovo, one that takes account of economics, gender, ethnicity, cultural consumption, and generation all at once. One wishes that more interviews had been gathered (or conducted) for the volume.

The first difficulty that Notes faces is the lack of prevailing understandings(Some helpful recent resources on this topic include some of the interviews conducted as part of the Oral History Kosovo project, which include several lengthy interviews with modernist visual artists from Kosovo’s postwar history. See the project’s website, https://oralhistorykosovo.org/interviews/ (accessed March 2, 2020).) about postwar (socialist-era) modernism in Kosovo, and the volume does little to fill in this gap. For example, Vesa Sahatçiu’s “Under (Cultural) Construction”—the first essay in the collection—surveys this period in just under three pages, and primarily with reference to the paintings of Muslim Mulliqi, whom she reads in terms of both the potentially nationalist content and his advocacy of subjectivism as the primary determinant of modern cultural expression: the artist can paint reality “how he sees it, and how he feels it,” according to Mulliqi (qtd. in Sahatçiu, p.9).  Mulliqi, whose name graces the major visual arts prize given in Kosovo since 2008, also features in Shkëlzen Maliqi’s text, “Crossroads of Kosovo’s New Art” (pp.17–28). Like so many Eastern European modernists, Mulliqi’s art evidences a profound blending of various styles from ‘classical’ modern art: Expressionism, Art Informel, Surrealism, often filtered through folk themes that allow the artist to be retained as a nationalist figure. Yet neither Sahatçiu’s essay nor Maliqi’s say much about how precisely we might understand Mulliqi’s artistic output in relation to what comes after it, and thus his status as an exemplary ‘modernist’ in Kosovar art history remains ambiguous: at best, we might extrapolate from Maliqi’s discussion of Mulliqi that modernism in the Kosovar context equates with a kind of naïve interest in national spirit expressed in art.  The absence of accompanying illustrations (an understandable omission, but still a frustrating one) compounds the fact that Kosovo’s modernist art history goes by with such brief mention, leaving the reader wondering if contemporary art in Kosovo only matters in relation to developments in global post-1989 art and not at all in relation to earlier local art developments. Can there be a robust definition of ‘the contemporary’ in the visual arts that virtually dispenses with modernism? Is modernism part of ‘the contemporary’ in Kosovo, or—perhaps more likely—does it still remain waiting to be made part of contemporaneity through projects of artistic recovery? None of the essays presented in Notes try to answer these questions.

This glancing encounter with modernism on the way to contemporaneity is the first of a series of questions that the essays collected in this volume raise but cannot really answer, and in many ways this reveals a conceptual shortcoming inherent in the collection’s framing. In their introduction, Katharina Schendl and Georg Schöllhammer describe contemporaneity in Kosovo as having “started with the fall of the communist regimes and the accelerated processes of globalization” (p.6), but this chronological assertion seems at best open to serious debate and at worst disingenuous. It implies that during (for example) the late Ottoman period, or in the political conditions of postwar Yugoslavia, Kosovo could not be considered to occupy the same temporal configuration as other globally networked political entities. Given the complexity of the Ottoman Empire, and Yugoslavia’s role in the Non-Aligned Movement, such a framework seems overly dismissive of differing cultural and political factors at play in the region during the past century, and indeed before.  A more useful definition of the contemporary might pose it precisely as “a coming together of different but equally ‘present’ temporalities or ‘times,’”(Peter Osborne, Anywhere or Not at All: Philosophy of Contemporary Art (New York: Verso, 2013), 17. Emphasis in original removed.) and thus as having begun much earlier than 1989. Such a definition would be eminently better equipped to pose questions about the coincidence of modernisms, avant-gardes, and new transnational (postmodern?) discourses about artistic meaning and production in the country. It might also be better equipped to reckon with the questions about Albanian ethnic identity and its (trans-) national significance (discussed further below).

The next question raised by multiple texts involves Kosovo’s status as an exemplar of “Balkanism,” a cipher for the trauma and war that are still widely perceived to characterize the region (and to shape its cultural production), as well as its middle position between the East and the West. As Shkëlzen Maliqi points out, Kosovo featured prominently in the Balkan-themed contemporary art exhibitions of the early 2000s, with René Block (curator of In the Gorges of the Balkans: A Report) asserting that Kosovo was, for him, “the avant-garde of Balkan contemporary arts” (p.17). If Kosovo once enjoyed such a privileged status as an exemplary object of Western curators’ obsession with this particular exoticization of the region, how is it possible that it has remained so minimally covered in subsequent studies of contemporary art from (former) Eastern Europe? The texts presented in this volume don’t give much of an answer, although one suspects that the reason for this has to do with a certain embarrassment on the part of the artworld in the West and the Global North, for whom the obsession with the Balkans has become a regrettable mistake, best forgotten. Grappling with the fallout of this exoticization is clearly an issue still faced by artists from across Southeastern Europe, and both Sahatçiu’s and Maliqi’s essays remind the reader that artists from Kosovo in particular are still often framed in terms of trauma, cultural liminality, and the country’s perceived poverty.

The lingering effects of the discourse of Balkanism, with its exoticization of the region’s middle position between the Muslim East and the Christian West, might suggest the need for overcoming dualities, but in fact several of the essays in Notes exhibit a predilection for overly sharp binaries.  These binaries sometimes create the impression that one could understand Kosovo’s art by jotting down a series of paired terms: “Us”/“the Other, the other being the West” (Sahatçiu, p.11); “‘official’ scene”/“alternative scene” (Maliqi, pp.20–21); “nationalism of the comprador bourgeoisie”/“nationalism of the people” (Boynik, p.60). These—no matter how accurate they might be on the surface—do a disservice to Kosovo’s artistic context by suggesting that political, artistic, and institutional issues really boil down to two opposing sides. This simplification seems particularly unhelpful if the goal of volumes such as the present one that are focused on countries that have often been ‘pigeonholed’ by curators from Western Europe and America is to give a nuanced picture of a complicated interplay of local, translocal, and transnational forces. Oversimplification would seem not be the intention of any of the authors (who are universally wary of exoticizing Kosovo and reducing its internal complexity), but there is rarely much of an effort to show how and when the above-mentioned binaries break down, or are insufficient to really grasp the situation of arts in Kosovo.(Boynik’s essay, which contains a “2018 Afterword” written for this volume (pp.67–68), does the best job of deconstructing its own attempts to frame the problem—in its case, of nationalism—simply.)

The next question—and the one that lies at the heart of at least half of the works included—is one of nationalism and ethnic identity, and this is a quandary that Notes is much better equipped to address. Both Shkëlzen Maliqi’s abovementioned essay and his interview with Albanian curator Edi Muka tackle the issue of Albanian national(ist) positionality, the notion that Kosovo’s culture is best understood in relation to Albanian culture broadly construed, either because of shared ethnicity or because of the historical connections between regions populated by Albanian-speaking groups (regions that now fall throughout several nations in the region, including North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Kosovo, in addition to the eponymous Albanian nation-state). Both Maliqi and Muka point out the difficulties of tying ethnic identity to artistic representation in any deeply descriptive sense, of proposing an “Albanian art” that describes developments in both Kosovo and Albania (pp.37–38).  Perhaps the most thoroughly conceptualized contribution in Notes—theoretically speaking—is Sezgin Boynik’s “A Personal Account of Nationalism and Art in Kosovo,” which also addresses the role of nationalism. Boynik offers a helpful account of the exhibition Exception: Contemporary Art Scene of Prishtina (Kontekst Gallery, Belgrade, February 2008), which was closed before it even opened, after violent protests and the destruction of Dren Maliqi’s Face to Face caused the police to deem the opening unsafe (pp.62–63).(The catalog essay for the Exception exhibition would have been another logical inclusion in Notes; that text, prepared by curators Vida Knežević, Kristian Lukić, Ivana Marjanović, and Gordana Nikolić, is available online at https://www.academia.edu/14439601/2008_EXCEPTION_Contemporary_art_scene_from_Prishtina_exhibition_catalogue (accessed March 2, 2020).) Boynik also charts the contemporary art scene in Kosovo against political shifts in the country, and particularly against the rise to prominence of the Vetëvendosje (“Self-determination”) political party, once the opposition party and now the party of Kosovo’s current prime minister, Albin Kurti. Boynik points out the ways that nationalism matters deeply to contemporary Kosovo art, not just because of the question of Kosovar ethnicity but also because of the “strange relationship between the state and art” (p.65) whereby the declaration of Kosovo as a sovereign state (in 2008) has—Boynik argues—eroded the complexity of individual identities that persisted when the region was still part of Serbia.

This question of the relationship between the art and the sovereign state dovetails with the question about Albanian nationalism in a way that Notes does not directly address, but that is hinted at in Maliqi’s interview with Muka, and forecast by Charles Esche’s essay on the National Gallery of Kosovo under the directorship of Erzen Shkololli (pp.79–87). The question is this: what is the role of Kosovo’s contemporary art scene in relation to the contemporary art scene of Albania? Given that Shkëlzen Maliqi has served as an advisor to current Albanian prime minister (and artist) Edi Rama, and—more importantly—given that Shkololli became the director of the Albanian National Gallery of the Arts in Tirana in 2018, there is an argument to be made that those wishing to understand the direction of contemporary art in Albania’s immediate future should look to Kosovo’s recent past.(In a somewhat ironic twist, the Onufri Prize exhibition—long the major annual exhibition highlighting contemporary art in Albania—was hosted as a guest exhibition at the National Gallery of Kosovo and other alternative art spaces in Prishtina this year, as “Onufri Remade.” The Onufri exhibition was discontinued at the National Gallery of Arts in Tirana as part of Shkololli’s new program for that institution, and now operates as an independent organization. See the exhibition’s website, https://onufriremade.com/en/for-the-exhibition/ (accessed March 2, 2020).) Indeed, in his first years as director of the Albanian National Gallery, Shkololli has featured solo exhibitions of Flaka Haliti and Sokol Beqiri, both important Kosovar artists. This new dialogue between the countries at the level of contemporary art promoted by major state institutions makes it essential to ask questions about the degree to which a shared “Albanian” identity matters in understanding art—and art structures—in both countries.

Strangely, the two essays that accompanied Petrit Halilaj’s and Flaka Haliti’s respective Kosovo Pavilions in Venice (in 2015 and 2017) feel like outliers in the collection: Kathrin Rhomberg’s essay on Halilaj (pp. 89–93) and Vanessa Joan Müller’s on Haliti (pp.95–103) both focus on rather poetic expositions of the installations presented, and they are both ultimately framed by the question of Kosovar artists’ emigrant experiences (as opposed to their localized interactions with the Kosovo scene). Furthermore, Halilaj’s connection to his hometown of Runik—where he has recently helped re-open the town’s cultural center as part of his Shkrepëtima project—seems to present an interesting counterpoint to the overwhelming focus on Prishtina that is evident elsewhere in these texts. But the author’s mention of this aspect of Halilaj’s practice is so brief that the reader has little chance to ponder the expanded cultural geography of the country.(Peja, the hometown of artist and gallery director Erzen Shkololli, and of artist Sokol Beqiri, is mentioned in passing in Miran Mohar’s essay, but the town’s significance for those figures—or for the country’s scene more broadly—is left without discussion.) The essays from the Venice pavilions help show how foreign curators have presented the country’s artists in recent years; however, given the sparseness of the volume as a whole, one wonders how these same artists (or others) would be presented by curators based within Kosovo (or at least, within Southeastern Europe).

There are some curious gaps in Notes. It is strange, for example, to find so little reference(As far as I can tell, the publication is referenced only in Cathryn Mayer’s interview with Dardan Zhegrova and Astrit Ismaili. This interview likewise contains a passing reference to Dokufest that begs for further elaboration.) to the writings that have appeared in both the print and online platforms of KOSOVO 2.0, the tri-lingual magazine whose coverage of arts and culture (among other topics) is an essential resource for anyone trying to understand Kosovar society of the past decade. Surely some of the writings published there are at least as illuminating as the essays published in conjunction with the two most recent Venice Biennale pavilions.(For example, I would contend that Cristina Marí’s article “Erzen Shkololli Leaves the National Gallery—But What’s His Legacy?” (in KOSOVO 2.0, September 4, 2015, https://kosovotwopointzero.com/en/erzen-shkololli-leaves-the-national-gallery-but-whats-his-legacy/, accessed March 2, 2020) does a far better job reckoning with Shkololli’s contribution to the National Gallery of Kosovo than does Charles Esche’s piece included in Notes.) Likewise, there is a curious lack of mention of the Autostrada Biennale, based in Prizren, the first edition of which was held in 2017. Given that biennial’s efforts to bring Prizren into a geography of contemporary art exhibitions involved asking questions, precisely, about Kosovo’s (ongoing) position as a connection between East and West and “a site of contemporaneity,”(See the description of the biennial’s concept on its website, http://autostradabiennale.org/organisation/ (accessed March 2, 2020).) it is strange to see no text related to the Autostrada Biennale’s establishment. It is also strange to see only passing mention of Dokufest, the major documentary and short film festival that occurs annually in Prizren: while Dokufest tends towards cinema rather than video art, its status as a site of major cultural exchange (attended by large numbers of young artists from the region and beyond) is undeniable. Finally, there are some particular artworks and artists that are barely mentioned, but seem deeply important. For example, almost nothing is said in any of the texts collected in Notes about Sislej Xhafa’s 1997 work Albanian Clandestine Pavilion in which the Kosovar artist appeared “uninvited” at the Venice Biennale, walked around dressed in an Albanian soccer jersey and sporting a backpack with an Albanian flag, commented on the politics of deciding which countries merited pavilions at the event. Given that this work seems to speak to so many of the themes touched upon in in Notes, it’s strange to find no texts dealing with it at length. These and other omissions make the volume feel decidedly incomplete, and they lessen its utility as a reference for readers for whom Kosovo’s cultural scene is completely unknown.

Ultimately, Notes on Contemporary Art in Kosovo leaves the reader intrigued but also frustrated: the volume does a good job showing how much work remains to be done to interpret recent artistic developments in the country, but it also seems oddly content not to acknowledge either its own lacunae, or the historicity of the viewpoints presented in its (limited number of) texts. Given the relative lack of attention to Kosovo in recent, “big-budget” attempts to compile primary documents from the former East (see: MoMA’s Art and Theory volume), Notes is essential reading. But it is also a very uneven read, and one wonders if a more thoroughly prepared volume might have presented, rather than merely hinted at, the basic narratives that shape contemporary art from Kosovo, together with their political and artistic stakes.

Raino Isto
Raino Isto is currently the editor-in-chief of ARTMargins Online. He is also ACLS Leading Edge Fellow at the Educational Video Center in NYC. He received his PhD in 2019 from the University of Maryland, College Park, where his dissertation focused on the political valences of monumental sculpture in socialist and post socialist Southeastern Europe. Raino’s research has been published in Third Text, the Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Science Fiction Studies, Extrapolation, and International Labor and Working Class History, and is forthcoming in The Getty Research Journal and Slavic Review.