Rhymes and brushstrokes: portraits of women artists
Starting in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s after the opening of the University of Prishtina, Albanian women in Kosovo began entering the public sphere. They worked in factories, municipalities and public institutions. They also began expressing themselves artistically through mediums like poetry and painting.
According to Ibrahim Rugova’s 1983 article “Poetry of Lyricism, Meditation and Irony,” poetry by Albanian women was first published in 1972 by Edi Shukriu, Flora Brovina, Fehime Selimi, Shpresa Vinca Tuda, Miradije Ramiqi, Sadete Emërllahu, Shefkije Bërbatovci, Merrushe Gjoshaj, Afërdita Skënderi, Qibrije Demiri anad Nerimane Kamberi to name just a few.
Meanwhile, in the visual arts, women rose to prominence later — with the first collective exhibition: “Femrat Krijuese ‘82” featuring artists like Violeta Xhaferi, Lubica Haxhiu, Vesta Nura amongst others.
I decided to meet some of these women, who are the embodiment of the struggle their generation faced for equal opportunities. As well as for the freedom to express themselves creatively as women.
I met Violeta Xhaferi at her house located a few minutes’ drive outside of Prishtina. An art gallery in and of itself, the house has a big living room and kitchen where every corner is personalized with her drawings and carvings.
The walls are filled with her paintings, graphic art, old and new pictures plus her nephew’s drawings. She designed the lights, chandeliers and vases from recycled materials.
Upstairs one can find her studio and library where she still works on her furniture designs and paintings. Beautifully intricate handmade curtains — with a pattern full of birds and flowers, that she also designed herself, separate the studio from her bedroom
Violeta Xhaferi (73) is an all-around artist with a copious amount of work in various artistic forms of expression like costume design, painting and interior design.
Xhaferi graduated with a bachelor’s degree in costume design from the Belgrade Academy of Fine Arts in 1972.
“Student life in Belgrade was amazing. We used to read a lot of literature and philosophy. We would gather occasionally with Albanian students that were studying in Belgrade, Sarajevo or Zagreb. We also used to travel a lot, as at that time we didn’t need any visas, so we would go to Paris and visit the galleries to see art by great masters. It gave us an immense sense of freedom.” says Xhaferi.
After her studies in Belgrade she returned to her birthplace, Prishtina, and began working at the National Theatre of Kosovo. Xhaferi has designed clothes for more than 100 plays and has been the main costume designer for two films from “Kosova Film”, the publicly-owned film production company: “When Spring Comes Late” (1979) and “Proka” (1984). During this time she also worked at the Leather and Shoes Factory in Peja where she designed jackets, shoes and other leather quality products. Her product designs from Peja were exhibited in different fairs and fashion shows all over Yugoslavia.
At the beginning of the 1990s as Milošević came to power and the political situation worsened in Kosovo, Xhaferi decided to immigrate to Norway to pursue a normal life and career with her two kids.
For about 10 years of life abroad Xhaferi exhibited her work in numerous collective and solo exhibitions in Oslo, Kristiansand and other cities. At this stage she has worked endlessly in graphic art and painting. Her art has been featured in prestigious auctions and in well-known art magazines in Norway.
“I always knew I wanted to paint, though I studied costume design. I express myself more naturally in painting. Of course later on I focused on painting and art more than on what I studied (costume design).”
In 2003 Violeta Xhaferi opened two solo exhibitions at the National Gallery of Kosovo in Prishtina and at the National Art Gallery in Tirana where she exhibited a series of work from 1994 to 2002.
In these series of paintings exhibited in Prishtina and Tirana, which are vast and colourful, she combines events, images and other symbols she sees daily on TV. The exhibition or series as a whole serves as a critique to the media who decide what they want to emphasize and what people should see.
“Today in art everything has been done. There can’t be anything novel and you can’t ‘discover’ anything. Artists nowadays can be good only when they know what idea to choose from, to copy and to modify it in their own original way. ” explains Xhaferi.
To this day she still paints and works in interior design and together with her son has designed interiors for hip cafes and restaurants in Prishtina like De Rada Brasserie, that her family also owned for some time, and Soma Book Station which they partially designed.
“It is very hard for women to pursue their careers. It has been then and it still is. When I was young in the 1970s, they [the government] initiated campaigns for the ‘emancipation of women’ and they thought employment is the key. They wanted to push women to join the workforce and by this they thought we would be equal. ”
“But I don’t think that’s true, it made their lives even more difficult back then. I was like why don’t they do campaigns to ‘emancipate’ men instead of women? They should be emancipated and taught how to respect women and participate in the daily life of a family like helping with the cleaning, cooking and raising children. That would create a balance and women would not have to leave their careers after they become mothers.” says Xhaferi smiling.
“Do you think there are people who don’t write?” Edi Shukriu, now 69, asks almost immediately after we meet and sit for a coffee. “It’s hard to think there are people that don’t. Everybody does, living is in itself poetry, so in that sense I don’t think writing something is that extraordinary,” she says laughing as she puts her glasses on and starts to show me some of her latest books.
Edi Shukriu, known as one of the first Kosovar women to publish poetry in Albanian language, is the author of seven books of poetry. The first one was “Tonight my Heart Celebrates” published in 1972 by Rilindja and the latest is “Ungëshimë” published in 2014 by Jeta e Re. Shukriu is also author of three plays, first one “The Return of Euridice” published in 1986 by Rilindja; and a novel “Broken Mirror” published in 2015 by Koha in Prishtina which is a biography of her former husband, Ukshin Hoti, imprisoned in the mid-1990s by the Yugoslav authorities and whose whereabouts are still unknown.
“I am not a woman writer, a woman poet… I want to be remembered as a writer, a poet” insists Shukriu after a while, “I have fought to escape these prejudices and to be able to compete with everyone as a writer, not only grouped with women writers.” she says with her confident and sharp tone of voice.
Her background in archaeology clearly influences her poetry, as she combines fiction and historical facts. In other poems such as “Nëna” from the book “Gjakim” (1979) she elaborates on the struggle of women to gain spiritual and intellectual freedom.
Her first book of poetry “Sonte zemra ime feston” (Tonight my heart celebrates) published when she was just 23, was a huge success and made Shukriu’s name in local literary circles. Shukriu also became a member of the Authors Association of Kosovo in 1973, one year after her first book was published.
“I gave birth to you, in pain
You will give birth to joy in pain
And your daughter will give birth in joy,
We will rise, above our pain.”
- Edi Shukriu
“In the aftermath… The political situation just got worse and it was a very difficult time in general. I didn’t think about what I was doing at that time, as a woman, as a writer, I just tried to work and do my best in those circumstances.” says Shukriu.
“There was support amongst women — most of us that were actively pursuing our professions back in the day supported each other in different ways. I was the founder of the first women’s democratic organization, the Woman’s Forum, which still functions as part of the Democratic League of Kosovo where we advocated for women’s rights.”
Shukriu still teaches at the University of Prishtina, participates in literary events and spends a great deal of her free time with her niece in the Ulpiana neighborhood park in Prishtina, where she has lived since the 1970s.
At her apartment in downtown Prishtina, I met Alije Vokshi, she has a chic hat and sharp look, despite her age and dementia. She is accompanied by her daughter Zana and her nephew, artist Lorik Sylejmani. From afar I catch a glimpse of “Old Man in Black”, an astonishing painting and one of Alije Vokshi’s most famous portraits, laying near a batch of other paintings for me to see.
Alije Vokshi is known as the first Kosovar woman to study painting. She graduated with a degree in fine arts from the University of Belgrade in 1969, years before the Academy of Fine Arts in Prishtina was established; at a time when it was unusual for women to study abroad, and especially to study art. Later she finished her master’s degree in Belgrade and Paris.
“She was always an ambitious woman. Whatever she wanted to do, she did. She wanted to take up painting as a profession and she just did.” says Zana, Alije’s daughter.
Vokshi’s work has been part of numerous collective exhibitions, and eight single exhibitions.
Apart from “Plaku në të zeza” (Old man in black) that was inspired by an old man she saw when she visited her hometown of Pobergja near Deçan, one of Vokshi’s most famous paintings is “Plaka në të zeza” (Old woman in black), a 1972 portrait of an old stoic Albanian woman wearing a black veil, that has been a part of the Kosovo National Gallery collection since 1981.
“She was brilliant in portraits. She loved to capture people’s facial expressions as she could show people’s emotional side that way. But she also painted landscapes, abstract paintings and rough draft drawings.” explains Sylejmani, who has been following his aunt’s work since he was a kid. He curated her last solo exhibition at the Ministry of Culture’s gallery in Prishtina in 2018.
Alije Vokshi’s youth was as fascinating and captivating as her portraits. Vokshi was good at sport and prior to pursuing an artistic career, she was an avid basketball player who would paint and draw obsessively.
“She was a free woman. She did exactly the opposite of what society wanted her to do. She wasn’t afraid to be different, she embraced it!” explains Sylejmani.
After returning from studying abroad in 1975, until she retired, Vokshi taught painting at the Faculty of Arts at the University of Prishtina.
“It was hard for her there; they kept her as a teaching assistant though she was equally or even more qualified than her male colleagues.” explains Zana. “But she loved teaching, she loved her students and inspiring others brought her satisfaction”.
Alije Vokshi has been exhibited in various solo exhibitions around Kosovo throughout her career, but to date she has not had a retrospective exhibition of her entire work.
It was the beginning of the 70s when Miradije Ramiqi first started publishing her poems in the magazines and newspapers of that time: Fjala, Zëri i rinisë, Jeta e re, Sfiga, Rilindja and others.
Now, at the age of 66, Miradije Ramiqi is still actively writing, painting and teaching at the Faculty of Arts of the University of Prishtina.
Miradije Ramiqi is a painter and poet with a vast career behind her in both of these mediums of expression. She graduated from the Academy of Arts of the University of Prishtina in 1978 and finished her master’s degree in 1997 at the same faculty.
She’s the author of four books of poetry, “Drithërimë Ngjyrash” published in 1981 by Rilindja, “Shi në Pasqyrë” published in 1990 by Rilindja, “Pëshpërim Mbretërie” (2000) and the latest “Hirësi Prrallore” (2010). Ramiqi has also published some anthologies and compilations of her work in different languages such as English, Italian, and Romanian.
Ramiqi’s paintings on the other hand have been exhibited in countless collective exhibitions in Kosovo and abroad. To date Ramiqi has shown at up to 20 solo exhibitions and retrospectives. Her paintings include graphic arts, portraits (in her early work) and very bright colorful landscapes.
The very sociable and expressive Ramiqi doesn’t shy away from discussing each of these exhibitions and publications separately and in detail. She also talks fondly about her hometown, Pozharan near Vitia, her youth in Prishtina and her career and life.
“I was always prone to art and beauty. I always knew I wanted to study painting and later I began to express myself in writing too.”
Ramiqi, who has won a lot of awards for both her poems and paintings, uses both of these mediums to express herself — what she can’t say in words she says through painting, and vice versa.
“It is hard for women, very hard, but life is hard in general. This is my motto! One has to have motivation and work hard — then everything is possible.” says Ramiqi smiling while showing me her paintings in her studio in Prishtina.
The topics and themes in her poems vary from preoccupations with the antique (the central figure of her poetic mythology is the Illyrian queen Teuta), national heritage, to womanhood and day to day preoccupations.
In her powerful poem “Women of Dry Has” she talks about women highlanders and their lives preoccupied by “giving birth, baking and being obedient to their husbands” and how she identifies with them.
…Do not read their wrinkles
Their misery is tied in knots
Break bread and eat
The bread acquired through struggle
In the shape of their men.
I want to turn them to an earthy color
In my studio, in a painting
I erase the geography of exile
How much I resemble them,
In a sad oval portrait.”
- Miradije Ramiqi
Qibrije Demiri Frangu
Qibrije Demiri Frangu is arguably the first female children’s poetry writer to publish in Kosovo.
Demiri Frangu studied Albanian literature and teaches at the University of Prishtina since 1986. She is the author of ten books of poetry, the first was published in 1985 by Rilindja called “The Smile Isn’t Far.” Though she specializes in children’s poems, Qibrije who now goes by the name Dije, also writes for adults.
“I began with children’s poems because I have written poetry from a very early age, and published them in magazines for the children and youth of that time like Pionieri. Later on I was encouraged by editors and writers such as Agim Deva and Rifat Kukaj, to publish versions of these poems I kept publishing in those magazines. They said why not, you will be our very own female children’s poet. ” Demiri says in her office at the Faculty of Philology in Prishtina.
“I have never stopped writing. Since that time, for me, it is kind of a need, kind of survival. ”
Demiri Frangu shows me all of her children’s books that are illustrated and colourful and the poems are both playful and witty.
“I tried to be critical in those poems too, with things I care about like human rights and women’s rights. Of course then, a lot of literature got censured, but a lot of my funny work was strangely allowed through.” Says Demiri Frangu enthusiastically.
In her poem “My Father” from the book “Seeing the World as I see the Glass” published in 1989 by Rilindja, she makes fun of the old fashioned patriarchal male figure.
“Father will overrule mother,
He often gets at her for trivialities
He moves my sister and I like pawns on a chessboard:
Go to the market
To uncle Gëzim’s
Rarely do we get any surprises from him
He reigns over the TV and the car
One day, I found the courage to tell him:
Dad, the time of kings has passed!
He looked at me aslant
And grinded his teeth.”
- Qibrije Demiri Frangu
Edited by: Ferdi Limani.
Additional editing: Bronwyn Jones.
This article has been written as part of the second cycle of the Human Rights Journalism Fellowship Program supported by the European Union Office in Kosovo, co-financed by the project ‘Luxembourg support to civil society in Kosovo,’ financed by the Government of the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg and managed by Kosovar Civil Society Foundation (KCSF), as well as from the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). This program is being implemented by Kosovo 2.0, in partnership with Kosovar Center for Gender Studies (KCGS), and Center for Equality and Liberty (CEL).
Its contents are the sole responsibility of Kosovo 2.0, KCGS, and CEL and do not necessarily reflect the views of the donors.