Wonders, and Horrors, Drawn From Boyhood in a Struggle Zone

ST. IVES, England — When Petrit Halilaj was 13 and a refugee from the brutal warfare in Kosovo, a gaggle of Italian psychologists arrived at his camp in Albania and gave him some felt-tip pens.

Halilaj was quickly drawing dozens of brilliant, infantile photos. However their topics had been removed from colourful: In a single, he depicted tanks blowing up a household’s residence; in one other, a mass grave. Different photos confirmed troopers standing over lifeless our bodies, with weapons or bloody knives apparently raised in celebration.

The psychologists spent two weeks within the camp, in 1999, attempting to assist the kids there course of the traumas that they had skilled in the course of the warfare, during which ethnic Albanian rebels fought towards Serbian troops. For Halilaj, an ethnic Albanian, these traumas had been many. Serbian forces burned down his residence and captured his father. His household fled from place to put, till they ended up within the refuge in Albania.

Halilaj’s vivid photos impressed the psychologists — and never solely them: Reporters visiting the camp interviewed him for worldwide news bulletins. Halilaj informed a Swedish broadcaster on the time that his sleep was damaged by nightmares. “I really feel happier once I spend time like this,” Halilaj stated of the drawings.

Now, greater than 20 years later, Halilaj (pronounced Ha-lee-LYE) is a rising determine in Europe’s artwork world whose work has been displayed on the Venice Biennale and in museums throughout the continent. In his newest exhibition, at Tate St. Ives, an outpost of the British museum group in Cornwall, England, Halilaj has returned to the stunning photos he drew as a toddler who had seen an excessive amount of. (The present, “Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather,” runs till Jan. 16.)

On a latest tour of the exhibition, Halilaj, 35, stated he revisited the photographs final 12 months and was stunned by what he’d drawn. Among the many violence, he stated, “I noticed all these birds — peacocks and doves — and so they had been as massive because the troopers, as glad and proud.”

“I’d taken the area to attract landscapes that made me really feel good,” he added. “It was like I used to be saying, ‘Sure, it was terrible, however I can dream and love, too.’”

Within the present, segments of Halilaj’s boyhood drawings have been reproduced at enormous scale and hung from the gallery ceiling, in order that when guests enter, they’re met with a fantasy panorama of unique birds and palm timber. However after they attain the opposite facet of the room and switch round, they discover that a number of the suspended kinds have been printed on the reverse with a extra macabre choice of Halilaj’s doodles: troopers, tanks, wailing figures, burning homes. The tranquil scene turns into one in every of horror.

Halilaj stated he hoped the exhibition would make folks take into consideration how politicians and the news media portrayed the battle. Even at present, he added, some Balkan lawmakers twisted the truth of the warfare in Kosovo to bolster their nationalist agendas. However making the present had additionally helped him come to phrases together with his personal recollections, he stated.

Christine Macel, the chief curator of the Pompidou Heart in Paris who featured Halilaj’s work in the 2017 Venice Biennale, stated Halilaj “was each unique as an individual and artist — very open, and artistic, and resilient, and stuffed with creativeness.”

His work tackles critical topics like nationalism and exile, she stated, but “there may be at all times a observe of fantasy and pleasure underpinning them.” The Tate exhibition confirmed his early promise as an artist was being met, Macel added.

Erzen Shkololli, a former head of the National Gallery of Kosovo, who confirmed Halilaj’s work there throughout his tenure, stated the artist at all times used the nation’s historical past as a place to begin in his work, “however his artwork is about a lot extra,” and anybody can join with it.

In some works, Halilaj’s messages are clear. In 2011, he dug 66 tons of soil from his household’s land in Kosovo, then piled it into a booth at Art Basel, the art fair, providing it on the market. Jennifer Chert, one in every of his gallerists, stated that work “was clearly about attachment to soil, the concept of homeland, and exile, however there was additionally the extra cynical facet of, ‘What’s the worth of land?’”

Different items are extra elusive. For an additional work, “Poisoned by Men in Need of Some Love,” Halilaj recreated shows of moths and butterflies that had as soon as been on show at Kosovo’s Museum of Pure Historical past, however had been left to decay in the course of the warfare. Holland Cotter, a New York Instances artwork critic, said in a 2014 review of that piece that Halilaj’s artwork “makes a lot present New York artwork appear like fluff.”

Halilaj stated he was prompted to make the Tate exhibition by a collection of occasions that made him really feel as if politics in Kosovo and Serbia had been nonetheless caught within the Nineteen Nineties. Final October, he was scheduled to current work at an artwork biennial in Belgrade, Serbia — a rustic that doesn’t acknowledge Kosovo as an impartial state. Halilaj stated he was excited by the chance, however upset when the occasion’s organizers omitted his nationality from the official checklist of individuals revealed on-line.

After he complained, biennial directors added that Halilaj was from Kosovo on the biennial’s web site, however put an asterisk by the nation’s identify, as utilized by some worldwide our bodies to indicate a contested standing. Halilaj withdrew from the event in protest.

Across the identical time, Halilaj stated, he heard news experiences saying that Aleksandar Vucic, Serbia’s president, had described a massacre that occurred during the Kosovo War as “staged.” If nationalist politicians had been inventing fantasies in regards to the battle, he would reply together with his reality: “I felt as a citizen, and an artist, I need to stand and counter-narrate one thing,” Halilaj stated.

But he stated he didn’t need guests in St. Ives to focus solely on the present’s darkish facet. They must stroll again to the beginning of the exhibition after they go away, Halilaj stated, and in the event that they occur to look again, they’ll once more be met by the fantasy panorama of unique birds and timber. Did that desired ending mirror his views about Kosovo at present?

“Completely!” Halilaj stated, smiling broadly. He was “very, very optimistic” in regards to the nation’s future, he added. Halilaj not too long ago staged a joint present there with Alvaro Urbano, his husband and inventive collaborator, during which the couple hung huge fabric flowers under the dome of Kosovo’s National Library throughout Delight Week. These included a reproduction of a lily that had been a part of the couple’s engagement bouquet.

Kosovo remains to be a macho society, Halilaj stated, but nobody had “thrown tomatoes” or protested towards the artists’ celebration of homosexual love.

“When this occurred, below the flowers, I felt residence for the primary time in my life,” Halilaj stated. There was no have to think about peacocks and parrots anymore. | Wonders, and Horrors, Drawn From Boyhood in a Struggle Zone


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