Home » Manifesta: art in the face of hostility in Kosovo

Manifesta: art in the face of hostility in Kosovo

On the final day of my brief stay in Pristina, the capital city of the Republic of Kosovo, some fellow travellers urged me to check out an arts festival called Manifesta. This nomadic biennial, founded by Dutch art historian Hedwig Fijen, is known for setting up shop in locations where the political climate is anything but stable. In 2006, for instance, Manifesta was supposed to come to Cyprus, but plans fell through following a disagreement between the island’s Greek and Turkish inhabitants. And in 2014, the festival arrived at Saint Petersburg, Russia, just months after Vladimir Putin moved his soldiers into Crimea and signed a law banning gay ‘propaganda’.

Pristina makes for an equally tumultuous backdrop. Preparations for Manifesta were well underway when Putin – unsatisfied with his previous annexation –
launched an invasion that’s threatening not just Ukraine but all of Eastern Europe. Kosovo’s already weak economy has grown even weaker, while its age-old enemy, the Kremlin-backed and Kremlin-backing government of Serbia, is being emboldened by nationalist fantasies of its own. Emulating Russia, Serbia didn’t recognise Kosovo as a sovereign nation when it declared itself one in 2008, and continues to deny its independence to this day. 

Kosovo’s tragic past and uncertain future add weight to Manifesta’s art exhibits. Donjetë Murati, a programming coordinator, says that one of the goals of the festival is to ‘challenge dominant narratives and inspire alternatives to a world where violence and war take place’. Take, for example, ‘Ring the Bells my land’ – a futuristic, post-apocalyptic installation by the Prizren-based artist Doruntina Kastrati located inside Pristina’s dilapidated Grand Hotel. Here, visitors are encouraged not only to observe the installation, but to walk on top of it, further pulverising heaps of red brick that are meant to represent the surface of a colonised Mars. The message is subtle yet obvious: the creation of art – like the recording of history – ought to be a collaborative process. This is hammered home more clearly at another building occupied by Manifesta: the Centre for Narrative Practice. Inside this quaint little townhouse, tucked away between office buildings and kebab shops, various objects recount a collective history of Kosovo. Family photographs, knickknacks and a box of discontinued Soviet cereal, paint a picture of the past that’s more trustworthy – as well as objective – than any individual historian (or politician) could ever produce.

Constructed during the 1930s, the Centre for Narrative Practice was once used as a municipal library before falling into disrepair and, ultimately, disuse. Thanks to Manifesta, however, the city of Pristina has been able to raise the funds necessary to renovate the townhouse and its private garden, which now doubles as an outdoor workspace, with music and food trucks. Murati tells me that the renewed centre contains a reference library, a children’s library, historical archives, a podcast studio and a screening space – facilities, she says, that will remain available to local residents long after Manifesta has left the country. 

A purple statue sits against blue sky in Kosovo
The Monument to Heroes of the National Liberation Movement in Pristina was built under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, former president of Yugoslavia, in 1961. As part of the Manifesta arts festival, Swiss artist Ugo Rondinone temporarily transformed the grey monument into a brightly coloured one. Image: Manifesta 14 

The Centre for Narrative Practice is but one of many abandoned buildings in Pristina that Manifesta is helping to restore. In the Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, photographer Atdhe Mulla has published pictures of students (paid a decent salary according to one of them) painting the outside of an old factory that, prior to the festival, was used as an unregulated garbage dump. Pristina’s Grand Hotel, built on the orders of Yugoslav dictator Josip Tito to accommodate ambassadors and other diplomats, businessmen and other guests of distinction, is also resuming its role as a hub for high culture in Kosovo. 

For readers in the USA and Western Europe, where urban environments are regenerated all the time, initiatives such as these may not sound particularly noteworthy, yet they acquire special significance when viewed from the perspective of Balkan history. That history has been described in all its sad detail by Peter Lippman, a Seattle-based carpenter turned journalist and human rights advocate, and the author of Surviving the Peace: The Struggle for Postwar Recovery in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Lipmann spent years campaigning in Bosnia and Kosovo – countries where people, and public spaces, suffered heavily under Serbian repression. 

BUKU Music + Art Project Festival 2…

Although the enmity between Serbians and Kosovo’s ethnic-Albanian population goes back centuries, Lippman believes that the present conflict began during the 1980s, when Serbian president Slobodan Milošević revoked the autonomy that Kosovo had gained under Tito and his immediate successors. In Pristina, professors who refused to teach Serbian curricula were fired on the spot. Kicked out of their own institutions, they taught classes in basements and backrooms. In an article for the Seattle Times, Lippman recalls attending an advanced-English course inside an empty, unheated store where students used boxes as chairs and tables. 

Source : Geographical