PRISTINA, KOSOVO–In June, Kosovo will make its pavilion debut at the Venice Biennale.
Petrit Halilaj, a 26-year-old artist whose artistic talent of drawing simultaneously with both hands was first spotted at a refugee camp in Albania, will be representing Kosovo in a solo exhibition. He creates large-scale installations that combine piles of earth and rubble, live chickens and his intricate drawings.
It’s a major coup for both Mr. Halilaj and the Kosovo contemporary art scene, but it doesn’t come without controversy. Everything to do with Kosovo boils down to politics, and the contemporary art scene is no exception.
Countries like Russia, China and Spain do not recognize Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia five years ago. Kosovo’s participation as a country pavilion at one of the world’s premier art events is certain to ruffle some feathers.
Representing Kosovo “is a beautiful challenge, which has lots of layers,” said Mr. Halilaj, who splits his time among Berlin, Pristina and Mantova, Italy. Despite the tricky political aspects of his participation, however, many involved in the art scene here see Venice as an important step.
“When you think of Venice you think of it as a dream,” said Erzen Shkololli, an artist who is also the director of the National Gallery of Kosovo in Pristina. “So it’s amazing that we have the chance, for the first time, to really be a part of this event.”
The problems that artists in Kosovo face go beyond international politics, however; first and foremost, the schism between Kosovar Serbs and Kosovar Albanians remains a formidable barrier.
Since the war ended in 1999 there have been almost no collaborative projects between Kosovar Serb and Kosovar Albanian artists.
After the war, most Kosovar Serbs fled the city and Kosovar Albanians began running the art institutions — including the art academy at the University of Pristina and the National Gallery — that they had been kicked out of during the regime of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. That meant not only starting over with those institutions but also trying to create a new arts infrastructure.
Only this year, the art academy introduced a conceptual art module, yet it offers no courses in art history or curatorial studies. “The scene functions without any properly trained art historians or curators,” said Dren Maliqi, an artist who now works in arts management.
One of the positive things happening in the artistic community of Kosovo is the re-emergence of the National Gallery of Kosovo, formerly known as the Kosova Art Gallery, which was established as the main state gallery in 1979.
The shows it produced in the past decade mostly focused on Kosovar Albanian artists. Mr. Shkololli, the gallery’s director — whose work will be featured in a small solo show at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, Netherlands, beginning April 6 — was appointed by the culture minister to take over the gallery in late 2011.
During his short tenure, he has set about modernizing the gallery, inviting international curators to organize shows, and holding exhibitions that highlight local and international contemporary artists.
The gallery has also benefited from the fact that Kosovo went against the current trend in Europe and increased its funding for cultural institutions last year. As a result, the gallery’s budget increased by 20 percent for 2013. There are also plans for a Museum of Contemporary Art; the money is earmarked but the ministry is still in negotiations with the city government for a space.
But the Pristina art scene still faces the fact that there are very few art collectors and no auction houses, meaning the market for art is limited. Travel is also an issue for artists: People in Kosovo need visas to travel almost anywhere, making it challenging for artists to take part in international shows.
“I was taking part in a show in Russia but I could not go,” said the artist Alban Muja. “But it was not even about getting a visa, they didn’t recognize my passport.” Surviving as an artist in Pristina is a difficult proposition, with many having to take jobs in art management or teaching to pay the bills.
“It’s Darwinian because it throws out the people who do not want to do it for real,” said Brilant Pireva, 19, an award-winning artist who spent a large chunk of his childhood as a refugee in New Zealand. “You live poorly and you cannot afford anything, so the only reason you are doing it is because you either love it or you need to. I wish I was born loving economics or computer programming but art is my thing.”
Despite these issues and the lack of exhibition spaces, artists have “a lot of energy and enthusiasm,” said Shkelzen Maliqi, a philosopher who sits on the board of the Kosova Art Gallery. One successful example of this was, “Prishtine — Mon Amour,” an evening of performance art held last September in the burned out Boro Ramiz exhibition hall in the center of town. More than 2,500 people watched 33 performances — some by artists and others by members of the public.
“We wanted to do something different, beyond anything that was done before,” said Astrit Ismaili, one of the young artists who organized the event and the 2011 winner of the Kosova Art Gallery’s Artist of Tomorrow Award. “If you want to do something here, you have to invent your own path. So maybe that is what makes this city interesting,” he said, adding that “it’s always shifting.”
One of those shifts has been some tentative steps by Kosovar Serb and Kosovar Albanian artists to learn more about each other. While in recent years some Kosovar Albanian artists have worked with their counterparts who live in Serbia, it’s been more rare to find collaborations involving Kosovar Serbs, who complain that they have not been incorporated into the Pristina contemporary art scene.
But there are hints that things are starting to change. In December, a three-day contemporary art training project brought together artists from Gracanica — a Serb-dominated suburb of the capital — and Pristina.
The project was organized by the Alternative Culture Center Gracanica and the noncommercial Stacion Center of Contemporary Art. Lately, when the center in Gracanica opens a new exhibition or program — it holds 30 to 40 a year — more and more Kosovar Albanians are coming to have a look.
“We had a vision for this place to not just be for the Serb artistic community but as a drop-in place for all different people,” said Nenad Maksimovic, who co-founded the culture center in 2011. “It is not just an artistic space but it has an important societal component too. So we are pushing people to see what we are doing, that we are an effective part of society that contributes to the entire art and cultural scene.”
The center has also recently wrapped filming the “Kosovo Reality Show” — a four part series focused on artistic projects, including street art, and conversations between Albanian and Serb artists in and around Pristina, Prizren and Gracanica. There were some problems when it came to filming the show. Some of the artists did not have cellphones, making it hard to track them down, and a few of the Albanian and Roma participants dropped out when photos of them being involved in the project appeared on Facebook.
But, over all, the series reflects a positive step.
“I do not know a lot about the scene there,” the artist Astrit Ismaili said of Gracanica. “But I will go there and visit. I think they have to get involved in the art scene here. It is such a small scene so it should be presented together.”
Photo courtesy of National Gallery of Kosovo