January 15, 2018

Visiting Pristina: Coffee Culture and More

Main avenue with a picture of the president Ibrahim Rugova, strolling amicably along

Pristina has a big coffee culture so the first thing I’m offered upon arrival at the National Gallery of Kosovo is coffee. “You have to stay on a caffeinated level here,” Arta Bunjaku Agani, director of the National Gallery, tells me. Later, while driving me around in the car, she also points out there’s a thing like the “Science of Burek” in Kosovo. 

Drinking coffee with Arta Bunjaku Agani

It's cold in Pristina and the air smells of the coals that are used for heating. In spite of the cold, the main avenue is always crowded in the evenings, even on weekdays. The Christmas lighting looks fantastic. I’ve never seen a road being lit like that before and as a Belgian I know a thing or two about lighting.  

Visiting the neighboring Albania a few months before, I heard good things about Pristina’s art life. Unlike Tirana, they told me, things are happening in Pristina. But in Pristina, when I ask people about the art scene, they rather sigh: “I don’t know what to say.” 

After a few days in Pristina, I decide that the neighbors are right: Pristina has something going on. It’s a Wednesday evening and I’m at the Klubi I Boksit, a former boxing club turned into an art space.  It’s run by a a few organizations and one of them has an exhibition opening that night called Memories on the Wheel. It’s a documentary display about the cultural heritage and collective memory of Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian communities in Kosovo. Klubi I Boksit is not in the best architectural state, so the art works are displayed on mobile walls. The place is packed. There’s live music, people are dancing and singing along, and delicious appetizers are being served. When I half close my eyes, I imagine being back in 1990s Berlin when events used to have this particular vibe. Except then for the good food; that never happened in Berlin.

Astrit Ismaili

At the opening party, a man with shiny earrings catches my attention. His name is Astrit Ismaili, who lives, he tells me, between Amsterdam and Pristina. A rarity in Kosovo, it seems, because most artists have a hard time getting a visa for traveling abroad. “Where can I find your art?” I ask him. “On Instagram,” he says - very much 21st century. So I post his picture on my Instagram and start to “follow” @astritismaili

Three of four: Haveit

I also take a picture of the three artists of the collective Haveit. The fourth one arrives later. Earlier that afternoon I visited their show at Motrat, a design office that leaves its ground floor to artists. Naim Spahiu, an artist who also works at the National Gallery, took me there. The show consists of four shopping carts filled with broken glass. They’re the leftovers of a performance. The exhibition is called Baby Blues, which can mean several things in the country of the Newborn. The accompanying press text starts with: “At first wash your hair but don’t let your head’s filth fall on your body because eyes and legs don’t become one.” I’m positively intrigued. 

Baby Blues

Naim gives Lulzim Zeqiri, the author of the text and the curator of the show, a call, asking him to come around. The day before, at the Rosemarie Trockel opening, the German ambassador Christian Heldt mentioned to me that Pristina is a small city: one can be asked to hop by at any moment. Naim gets tea and biscuits and takes me to his studio to meet Lulzim. He also shows me around to his collection of paintings, which are not only his own but also those of other artists working in his studio. Naim likes to share. He tells me about his former residency program, for which he managed to make a deal with the fancy hotel around the corner. He’s thinking of starting it up again, maybe in the summer. Naim gives me a present when I leave: it’s a cup picturing two ragged tooth brushes painted by artist J. Muja. It says “Two Ugly Sisters.”

After the opening of the Rosemarie Trockel exhibition at the National Gallery, we go for a restaurant with Kosovo specialities on the menu. Next to us sits Vladislav Stevanovic of the German embassy. He speaks fluently German. “We’re the ‘Fernsehkinder’ (television children),” Vladislav explains about how he learnt the language. He also introduces us to the “caviar of Kosovo," which consists of a pasta of red peppers. It tastes at its best, Vladislav says, when made by mother. So my Berlin colleague tries to make a deal, exchanging the mother’s caviar with something German like pickles. In the end, it’s the Schwarzwalder Schinken that closes the deal.

Half of the participants in my feminist art workshop at the Kosova National Art Gallery are male. In Germany, no man would think of visiting a feminist workshop. Graphic designers Jeton Krasniqi and Berat Bajrami tell me that they’re interested because “they haven’t looked yet at things from that perspective.” 

Feminist workshop

The National Gallery is located in a historical building that has small windows. I’m told that in former times of vendettas those small windows were ideal to peek out without being seen. In front of the National Gallery is another historical building that definitely steals the thunder. The National Library is an amazing example of brutalist architecture, built in 1982. Imagine a huge concrete slab combined with 99 domes resembling the white hats of the national outfit, and all this covered by a metal fishing net. There’s a running joke about the building. A politician was asked at the inauguration if he liked the building. He said he’d like it if they would take down the scaffolding.  

National Library in Pristina

I discover that Arta is an unusual museum director: she doesn’t do in art speak and she does’t beat around the bush. I love her directness. She already worked for the National Gallery in the 2000s but because of contract problems she left, promising only to come back in the position of a director. And so she did. Right on!

Arta and I sharing the floor at the opening of Rosemarie Trockel show

At the National Gallery I also meet the artist Vlora Hajrullahu, who is an art educator. Vlora runs also an art craft shop and paints on things that can be used, like boxes and bags. Some of them have a fish painted on them. She tells me it’s inspired by the tattoos that women used to have on their wrists when their husbands were at sea. It promised a safe homecoming for the sailors.

The National Library is not the only contemporary art institute in Pristina. There’s also Stacion - Center for Contemporary Art Prishtina, which was started in 2006 by the artist and designer Albert Heta and the architect Vala Osmani. Stacion is located at the entrance of the Emin Gjiku Complex, dating from the 18th century, which houses also the ethnological museum. Albert and Vala show me the flyer of their 2017 summer school that included presentations of international artists and theoreticians such as Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina. Albert and Vala give me a book: The way between Prishtina and Belgrade has 28000 un-proper build objects. So, never it will be an autobahn! It’s the literal translation into English from a quote by Borka Pavićeć, a Belgrad cultural activist. I like the mindfuck title, and upon opening the book I also like what I read: “Transcripts go first. By doing so we want to stress the importance in investing in transcripts of events as we think that they are crucial in capturing time and thoughts and document what cannot be altered in a text written post-festum on the event. In this way we intend to create a new factual history in a scene that has no history.”

I’ve come upon the “autobahn” before. It's relatively easy nowadays to go from Pristina and Tirana on the new highway A1. But also Leutrim Leo Fi's new biennale in Prizren is called Autostrade Biennale. It’s the first biennale to take place in Kosovo and, as far as I know, the only one happening at the moment in the Balkan region (Tirana used to have a biennale a few years ago). The happy initiator tells me that the Autostrade Biennale, which took place in a castle, a bus station, and some private apartments, was a success that will be repeated in 2019. 

Leutrim Leo Fi, proud owner of a NSK passport - Neue Slowenische Kunst
It seems only logical to end my stay in Pristina with coffee. I do so in the bookstore café Dit e nat. Some zines are pictured on the wall. One of them reads: “I’m excited of a thought.”

January 6, 2018

Small Talk in the First Week of January 2018

Two ugly sisters. A cup given to me by Naim Spahiu in Pristina

"Art is part of entertainment. It entertains, but nobody dares to say so," the gallerist tells me. "Instead art 'engages.'"

When asked if she considers her art to be political, Mika Rottenberg answers: "Hopefully it's more nuanced than a political statement."

"How do you know this artist?" the teacher asks the student. "From art history," the student explains.

The man sitting in front to me at the library has some websites written in big letters over his laptop: "www.1968.mobi" and "www.MALARIA.red." Also three question marks: "???" The man himself is wearing a red helmet. It might be that he forgot to take off his bicycle helmet. Still, I don't open the websites because I fear something might explode when doing so. 

Another young man in the library has stickers on his laptop. They say "DEFEKT" and "PANIK."

There's something like library humour. We all chuckle when the library person drops a book from the shelf and curses out loud. 

"Wir haben die erste Woche geschafft!", says the employee in the dining car when the train rolls into Berlin on Friday night. 

"What is nature?" the kid asks. "Everything that lives," its mum answers, "although... stones are also nature... Nature is everything that is not man-made."

January 1, 2018

January 1 Poem

Basquiat-inspired teeth

to write rhythmically a ladder in the stockings
in the era before the remote control
red chairs with white cushions 
don't forget to catch me 
with snow that covers the mind like a blanket
and the moon tickling the sky 
declaring love 
to get off my feet
and back on again
in starry-eyed letters
what comes in two?
flowers, some flowers do