Belgrade, Biennial does not recognize the nationality of Halilaj, Kosovar. He withdraws with a letter

Petrit Halilaj, a Kosovar, withdraws from the Belgrade Biennale because his nationality is not recognized. And he writes a letter explaining his reasons.

Petrit Halilaj (Kostërrc, Kosovo, 1986) is one of the most promising young artists in Europe, with a decidedly interesting career already under his belt (we dedicated a lengthy feature on Finestre Sull’Arte to him, which you can find in the latest issue of our print magazine). Recently, Halilaj had been selected to participate in the 2020 edition of the Belgrade Biennial (which is officially called the “October Salon” and is now in its fifty-eighth edition this year), which will open next October 16 and will feature works by important international artists, including some protagonists of the last Venice Biennale (such as Neïl Beloufa and Augustas Serapinas; two Italian artists, namely Invernomuto and Nico Vascellari, will also be present). The problem is that Halilaj is Kosovar, and Serbia has not yet recognized Kosovo as an independent nation, which is why the Belgrade Biennale organization does not recognize the artist’s nationality.

As a result, Halilaj, who lives and works in Berlin and moreover has a very troubled personal history as a refugee (he lived in a refugee camp for two years as a child during the war), decided to withdraw his participation. Kosovo self-proclaimed its independence on February 17, 2008: to this year, Kosovo’s independence is recognized by 96 U.N. states, including almost all European Union nations (only Spain, Greece, Slovakia, and Romania are missing from the roll call). Several countries, however, such as Serbia, Russia, China, India, Brazil, South Africa, Iran, Argentina and many others, continue to fail to recognize Kosovo as an independent country.

This year’s Belgrade Biennial is directed by two Italian curators(Ilaria Marotta and Andrea Baccin, editors of Cura. magazine), and its theme is The Dreamers: Halilaj was supposed to present a video entitled Shkrepëtima (Flash of Light), which, in keeping with the themes of his art, documents a performance staged in the town of Runik in Kosovo in which topics such as home, displacement, and war are addressed. In the list of participants, Halilaj’s nationality had initially been omitted, and the artist’s request to include it had not been granted (the organization had simply put an asterisk next to the country’s name, later explaining that it was forced to follow Serbian policies on the issue). There was no way to indicate Halilaj’s origin as there was for the other artists (it did not even help to cross out all the nationalities of the other participants), so the artist withdrew, giving his reasons in an open letter. Below, after the image, is the full text.

Petrit Halilaj, Shkre?petima (2018; frame from video, single channel video, sound, duration 37'10
Petrit Halilaj, Shkre?petima (2018; frame from video, single channel video, sound, duration 37’10"). Produced by Fondazione Merz and Hajde! Foundation. Courtesy the artist; Fondazione Merz, Turin; ChertLu?dde, Berlin; and kamel mennour, Paris/London.

Give us back our stars

Petrit Halilaj’s withdrawal from “The Dreamers,” 58th Belgrade Biennial

Open letter

In 2019 I was invited by Ilaria Marotta and Andrea Baccin to take part in the 58th Belgrade Biennial, titled “The Dreamers,” organized and hosted by the Belgrade Cultural Center (KCB) and scheduled to open in October 2020. I was excited because I knew I was collaborating with them and going to Belgrade for the first time as a Kosovar artist. I was going to exhibit a video about “Shkrepëtima,” a theatrical performance staged in Runik (the town where I grew up in Kosovo, as well as the site of one of the earliest Neolithic settlements in the region), among the ruins of the Runik House of Culture, a symbol of local multiethnic identity, and which was closed, emptied and abandoned after the political situation in Serbia deteriorated in the 1990s. When we started the project, the House of Culture was in a state of extreme neglect and decay; garbage also accumulated there over the years. We started a community of more than eighty people and cleaned up the space to give Runik a cultural life and voice again. Shkrepëtima is dedicated to the dreams of the citizens of Runik and seemed in tune with the goals of “The Dreamers.”

As many know, Serbia still does not recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. After silencing Kosovo’s cultural expression and cutting back on education, Serbia, in 1998-1999, initiated an armed invasion of Kosovo and violently repressed the Kosovar Albanian community of which I am a part. This oppression was described as genocide, and prompted other countries to take sides; this is still happening today, since the Unilateral Declaration of Independence of Kosovo (2008) was partly encouraged, partly neglected. All these years, Serbia has treated Kosovo’s repression as if it were a fiction. As if it never happened.

But it really did happen. In 1998-1999 I was one of the many people forced to live as refugees, in camps, for more than two years after my house was burned down. I consider myself lucky to have survived. My passport and the passports of all my family members were destroyed in front of us, and suddenly we found ourselves without our freedom of movement and without our identity. So when I received the invitation to the Belgrade Biennial, I felt an inner conflict, but I also saw an opportunity to create a bridge, to open a dialogue and to explore new ways of reconciliation through art. I wanted to overcome the dichotomy between “us” and “them,” between “good” and “bad,” to finally open a space for sharing instead of widening a division that has already created so much hatred. I expected, optimistically, that an art institution would be a space capable of representing a plurality of identities, perhaps even taking a stance that would disregard official politics with regard to my home country, simply calling it by its name: Kosovo. The idea of “The Dreamers,” as well as the curators’ intention to transcend national divisions in this project, supported my hope. Unfortunately, I was confronted with a radically different reality.

With this letter I want to leave a trace of what I went through in the past months, which led to my decision to retire in June. This is my bell, of course, and I know that there are other points of view that should be taken into consideration. For my part, I decided to make this public because a silent retreat would have added another layer of powerlessness to the silencing and erasure of memories and experiences that run through history. Instead, I hope to generate some discussion about the limits of the political work of government-subsidized institutions located in nations that still pursue nationalistic and oppressive policies, about the potential of the dream in all artistic practices when the exhibition space becomes a frame that draws the boundaries of the artist’s identity, and thus of the dream itself, and, more broadly, about the current political situation between Serbia and Kosovo.

When the list of artists in “The Dreamers” was published, Ilaria Marotta noticed that my nationality, “Kosovo,” had been omitted from the KCB communiqués. In the text, each artist was accompanied by information about the year and place of birth, with the relevant country, along with the current city where he or she lives and works. In my case, the country name was left blank after the comma, and I, given the historical and geopolitical context, instinctively interpreted this as a deliberate omission of the information. This omission was decided by the KCB regardless of Ilaria and Andrea’s wishes, without prior information, probably in the hope that no one would notice or make a big deal out of it.

As artists, one imagines oneself being invited not because of one’s nationality or place of birth, but because of the ideas one wants to spread. I would have agreed with the omission only if the countries of all the artists had been omitted from the beginning, for example, as a result of the decision to explicitly transcend national divisions and only emphasize the relevance of their artistic projects. In contrast, the omission of Kosovo from the KCB website has acquired a much broader significance, which can only be read through the lens of a broader and more systematic political silencing. In my dream world, I would like people to be able to move freely, without exception, across geographic boundaries and across cultural barriers, as birds do. But we are still far, very far, from anything even approaching the realization of this dream, and I believe that these omissions should not be left alone, because they have a political relevance beyond my personal experience, and they speak of programmatic, political and ideological interventions being perpetrated behind the scenes in art institutions.

This is not the first time I have been invited to exhibit in a nation that does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, but it is the first time I feel I have to withdraw my work. My most recent project was exhibited at the Palacio de Cristal of the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, Spain, so in a state-funded institution in a country that does not recognize Kosovo. But in this case the name of Kosovo had appeared. And even in a city like Belgrade there are spaces that write the name of Kosovo when a Kosovar artist is invited to exhibit his or her work.

I was aware that this omission was not in response to the direct will of the curators. I also understand that the KCB might indeed be composed of people with radically different political views, and that not everyone perhaps agrees with this policy. So in what way should we act? And if not, at what cost? For what cause? I discussed with the editors to see this omission as an opportunity to open a constructive dialogue on the problems of geopolitical recognition of nations that are still in neglected areas around the world. In fact, the goal of “The Dreamers” is to “examine the complexity of today’s times, questioning not only the deceptive nature of the real, but also the space occupied by dreams, understood as the metaphorical embodiment of a space of freedom capable of challenging the certainties of the real world, acquired knowledge and our own beliefs.” Accepting the omission of Kosovo, however, meant surrendering rather than confidently constructing a space of freedom. To accept this omission (which would also have meant compromising with those who want to treat you differently from others) for me was also to accept the structural lack of political opinion or free action in this art institution, and this for me is in direct conflict with the initial goal of the exhibition.

Following my request to include Kosovo, the KCB initially responded by assuring me that it was a typo, then amended the releases several times, even to the point of adding “Kosovo” with an asterisk (“*Kosovo”). On the KCB website, the *Kosovo asterisk seemed to link to a note that said, “in 2018, the board of the 57th October Exhibition decided to add the subtitle ’Belgrade Biennial’ in the future.” The asterisk, from being a seemingly innocuous sign, gave the impression that it was really a typo, that it had escaped into the text and had been linked to something that had nothing to do with it. It could therefore have easily gone unnoticed.

But the asterisk in “*Kosovo” is loaded with political implications disguised on the site. The asterisk is the result of a 2012 agreement allowing Kosovo to have institutional representation without the authority of the UN Mission (until then, Kosovo was referred to as Kosovo-UNMIK). The asterisk allows Kosovo’s representatives to be mentioned in regional meetings and agreements with a note stating “this designation is without prejudice to Kosovo’s status and is in line with UN Resolution 1244 and the International Court of Justice’s Opinion on Kosovo’s Declaration of Independence.” The asterisk is a declaration of neutrality and reiterates Serbia’s refusal to recognize Kosovo as an independent nation. The asterisk does not even begin to repair a century of oppression and genocide that Serbia has inflicted on Kosovo, and it is painful to see it in the context of an arts institution that might have a different way of looking at the issue.

During these events, I learned that the cultural center was negotiating with the Foreign Ministry to add the name of Kosovo and the change in the total number of participating nations. The time between these changes gave me the opportunity to think about and observe how unprepared we are for problems like these, but also to reflect on how to learn how to deal with them.

I want to believe that art has transformative potential. This belief is among the reasons why I have devoted my life to art. But this experience raises a couple of questions: are art institutions really able to dream? And what is the space they want to allow artists to dream? And if artists are given a specific framework for their dreams, a framework that is delineated and monitored by power and politics, how far can we go?

While waiting to find a neutral solution and deal with the impossibility of adding Kosovo, the KCB changed the site again, deleting all nations of all participating artists, leaving only cities. They said this was the best they could do.

Nevertheless, I felt that Shkrepëtima’s withdrawal was necessary, and that an open letter could have the potential to become a better tool for discussion in a context where a work of art runs the risk of being miscommunicated or misinterpreted, or even politically instrumentalized, regardless of the faculties and intentions of the curators of “The Dreamers” or the KCB management.

It was only after my withdrawal that the KCB and the curators of this edition of the Belgrade Biennial decided to remove all the names of cities and countries from the communiqués, leaving only the artists’ year of birth. The signal given by my withdrawal has set a precedent for the next edition, and I hope it will resonate beyond the regional context of Serbia and Kosovo.

This letter is the result of weeks of exchanges, brainstorming and discussions with collaborators, colleagues and friends, all of whom I thank. In particular, I thank David Horvitz, who will be taking part in the Belgrade Biennial and who proposed to change his work “Give us back our stars” following my withdrawal. In this gesture, I see an important signal of solidarity and healing. One of those signals that gives hope and gives life to a dream.

Pictured is Petrit Halilaj.

Belgrade, Biennial does not recognize the nationality of Halilaj, Kosovar. He withdraws with a letter
Belgrade, Biennial does not recognize the nationality of Halilaj, Kosovar. He withdraws with a letter

Warning: the translation into English of the original Italian article was created using automatic tools. We undertake to review all articles, but we do not guarantee the total absence of inaccuracies in the translation due to the program. You can find the original by clicking on the ITA button. If you find any mistake,please contact us.