A mother walks the line of exhausted refugees, her breast out in the freezing cold to feed the six-month-old baby in her arms that is covered by a white blanket — her stare is fixed only on the way forward toward the Macedonian border.
A crying man holds two ID-sized photographs of his children, who he is desperately looking for — the worst thoughts about their fate fill his tired red eyes with desperation.
A little 2-year-old boy is passed through the barbed wire fence into the hands of relatives — arms raised on each side and a happy face in the frame.
Three scenes, captured by photographers Damir Šagolj, Peter Turnley and Carol Guzy respectively, show the world the face of the war that hit Kosovo in 1999. Now, they will be a central motif of exploration at Kosovo’s pavilion during the 58th edition of the Biennale Arte 2019, La Biennale di Venezia, which opens for preview on May 9 and to the wider public on May 11.
The Kosovar artist Alban Muja (Mitrovica, 1980) has been selected to give life to Kosovo’s national pavilion in its fourth participation at one of the most prestigious art events in the world. Vincent Honoré, who is director of Exhibitions and Programmes at MoCo Montpellier Contemporain, has been selected as the curator of Kosovo’s pavilion, together with Anya Harrison, of the same institution, as assistant curator, in a main team completed by commissioner Arta Agani, director of the National Gallery of Kosovo.
This year, La Biennale is titled “May You Live in Interesting Times.” And coinciding with the 20th anniversary of the end of the war in Kosovo, Muja’s Venice artistic project, called “Family Album,” delves into the personal stories behind the photographs that once served to put a face to the plight of refugees and to bring international attention to a conflict that saw more than a million people displaced.
Muja's work for La Biennale was initially inspired by a series of photographs of himself with former prime minister of Spain, José María Aznar.
As part of “Family Album,” the artist has produced a video installation that brings forward an exploration of collective memory through the younger protagonists in the above-mentioned photographs, while also posing questions about the role of images and the media in constructing and shaping narrative, identity and history, especially in times of conflict.
Muja’s work has constantly explored the subtle phenomena behind political, economic and social transformation, often by pinpointing individual experiences that become normalized despite their unique nature.
He is one of Kosovo’s most internationally visible artists as well as one that continues to link his work to his local context. His work for La Biennale was initially inspired by a series of photographs, which he kept in the personal family album, of himself with former prime minister of Spain, José María Aznar.
Before leaving for the Italian city, K2.0 spoke with Muja about his own story behind the photographs, what his selection means to Kosovar arts and much more.
K2.0: All the artists who have represented Kosovo at the Venice Biennale have primarily grown as artists abroad — Petrit Halilaj, Sislej Xhafa, and even Flaka Haliti. They have all been living and working abroad for the greater part of their careers. You have always been based here in Kosovo. What do you think your selection means for Kosovo’s art scene?
Alban Muja: First of all, I think it’s important but it’s also a responsibility. And yes, I live here, I was born here, I was raised as an artist here, and I believe I know more or less the expectations and the challenges that we have here.
Being nominated made me happy but I know the responsibility that we have, because in this exhibition you don’t really represent only yourself and your work, but you represent the state you come from.
Because of political issues, we have problems in being equal when compared with other countries. And I believe if you live somewhere else and you come here, you know more or less the situation, but you know it more or less through the information that you get from others, even though I do travel and do exhibitions and residencies abroad.
Let’s talk about the artwork that you’re bringing to Venice. What exactly are you presenting at the pavilion?
It’s [been] a process. The first idea was starting with some very famous photographs by genuine reporters of the Kosovo war, and we wanted to give a human angle, through the refugees of 1999.
I had also become [intrigued] by the images that I had found in my family album.
I had an image in my album but I wasn’t sure what to do with it exactly. I had an image with the prime minister of Spain back in 1999, [José María] Aznar, when my father had just been released from prison, and [some time ago] I had this idea of doing something with my father.
But [using the picture of] Aznar I thought that people would think that it was a very political project, with my father being a prisoner of war, and then secondly being in the same picture with the prime minister of a country that supported us at the time.
During the war, [Aznar] visited us in the camp and he said: “Don’t worry because this is gonna be over soon, and if not, don’t worry, you will be set up in a very nice apartment in Spain, so nobody is going to leave anyone here.”
I wanted to do something about this memory I had, especially when I went through these images. It was kind of unusual, because in the image we see ourselves being very happy, but still being refugees. But we were happy at the time, we had just met again. I remember being a refugee — we had an amazing time in the camp, which may sound paradoxical. But they treated us very well.
I snuck out, telling them that I was younger than 18, even though I had an ID in my pocket.
In the artwork that you’re bringing to Venice, you are asking the protagonists of very iconic images from the Kosovo war to tell the story behind their pictures. What is the full story of this photo, your own?
It was taken two or three days after we met [up with] my father and my brother again.
We had tried to escape a couple of times from Mitrovica but then they caught my father and took all the men who were 18 to 65 in trucks. Somehow, I snuck out telling them that I was younger than 18, even though I had an ID in my pocket that if they’d searched, they’d have just taken me. My mum had been insisting a few days earlier that I should cut my hair so I’d look younger and could say I was 16. In the end, all the men aged 18 to 65 were divided and taken in trucks, and we didn’t know where they were going.
At the same time, my brother had escaped earlier from Prishtina through Macedonia to Albania and we hadn’t known anything about him for two months. This was a moment when our family had been divided in three.
So I left with my younger sister, who wasn’t even 11, and with my mum, who got sick from stress and fear, and from that moment she got diabetes.
From that moment I was the man of the family and I had to take care of my family for almost three months. We didn’t have any information about whether my father was still alive, or whether he was in prison in Kosovo or in Serbia, or what. So, when we got to know that our father had been released and he was in Albania — we saw it on Euronews — we decided to find a way to escape as well.
My family and some others found a bus driver, a Serb one, who we paid a lot to drive us out of Mitrovica. At the time it was very chaotic, I think we changed almost 30 houses in two months, going from one to another, trying to find a safer spot.
We finally arrived in Albania, and we stayed in the camp in Kukës. It was very strange for us, because we had idealized Albania and we had this myth of it, and we found completely something else. They told us we should go to the Spanish camp [nearby Durrës] because it was the best camp in Albania, and later we realized it was true.
The next day, we travelled from Kukës to Durrës [Hamallaj camp], it was like a 12-hour trip back then. After two days, my father and brother joined us. My brother came from the southeast of Albania, and my father from Tirana, just a couple of days after they had released him from the prison.
I remember when I saw my father he had lost a lot of weight, I think he had lost around 27 kilograms, and my brother had completely changed. He had escaped during the first days of war in Prishtina, and he looked bigger.
In 1999, former prime minister of Spain, José María Aznar, visited the Hamallaj refugee camp near Durrës, where Muja and his family had just reunited. The personal photograph of the artist triggered a conversation that led him to “Family Album.” Photo courtesy of the artist.
After two days we got information that the PM of Spain was visiting the camp and he would also be visiting our tent, since my father was one of the persons released from prison. And yeah, of course we waited for him; he came, he had some questions about my father’s experience in prison, and ours, and he spent around 25 minutes with us.
I had my photo albums and the camera with me. For me, even documenting images of Albania was very important because, like I said, we grew up with this whole myth that Albania is the best country… it was for us at that moment because we were safe.
When we met we took some photos and I took one of my father with [Aznar] and the others as well.
I was going through these images, and I was questioning myself and thinking, how paradoxical is this! In that time, the [figure of the] prime minister of Spain helped us a lot, in a very tough moment for us as a society and for us as a family. Now, the same figure doesn’t have any relationship with the people of Kosovo.
For me it was a very political question at the beginning, but I wanted to have a very human project.
When we recorded the information, both from the parents and the kids, if you put them together, and remove the emotion, they are the same.
[The questioning] started with this image, but I didn’t want to do the project through my point of view, but through the point of view of others in Kosovo instead, [those] who had even tougher situations than us.
I was doing research about some of these images, and the idea was to do videos but not with the older people in the images, but with the kids, who wouldn’t necessarily remember what happened. The memory they built, they created it from the information they received from the families and relatives.
It was a big question for me whether we should [feature] those who were older in the pictures, or their children [who are now young adults]. We went with the kids. I think this was the right choice.
We met all the families behind the images at least twice. The [older ones would tell] the same story, even saying the same words, but they would be more dramatic. When we recorded the information, both from the parents and the kids, if you put them together, and remove the emotion, they are the same.
That’s why we decided to go with the children — less emotion, more storytelling, less anger. They don’t have such a memory, or hate speech, they had more distance, they tell it as a story. For me it was very important to be quite… soft, detached of the emotion.
I wasn’t sure if I wanted to include the parents. The act of memory is important. We came to the idea that we would have less emotion and more showing what happened.
“Family Album,” is focused around a video installation that will include interviews with the younger characters in iconic photographs from 1999 during the war in Kosovo. In the image, some members of the production team with the artist. Photo: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.
For me it was very important to see 20 years later how these children see these images, not only because of what we experienced in Kosovo, but we also see similar situations all around the world. It also allows us to question what is going on in the world today.
After we decided to go with [the three pictures we selected], we contacted the four characters [that we would go on to interview] in the videos. They are two siblings from Mitrovica, Besim and Jehona. I first met with them and their father, the man in the picture [holding the photographs of his children]. Afterwards, I went to Prizren and I met Agim [the boy passed through the fence at the refugee camp in Kukës], and we went to Kaçanik and we met Besa [the baby being breastfed by her mother during her walk to the border] and her family.
We worked with them to help tell the information that they know and that they wanted to share with us.
You said from the beginning that using a photo with Aznar could be perceived as very political. Aznar went on to become a very right wing leader and also brought Spain into the highly controversial Iraq war. Do you reflect on what happened with this character after this picture? Did you feel any sort of regret toward being in a photograph with this character? Or is this picture less about Aznar, and more about your family?
To be perfectly honest, when I saw this image two to three years ago [I saw it] only as an image of mine with a prime minister. I didn’t see any potential to do anything with it. My question was only if he [the figure of the prime minister] regretted [his support for Kosovo]. He was with a society that he helped a lot. He was the prime minister, and he is not the same prime minister that is in the position today.
I don’t mind the project being related to politics. I think as artists we cannot only be an artist, but an activist as well.
I always saw in this image [something] that he probably wouldn’t do today. I never questioned it myself [at the time] because he was the representative of a government who helped us a lot during the war. And I always question: What happened [between then and] now? I mean, and we know all these political problems inside the countries, and they have their own problems… but as a human being, I always question, why can’t people communicate?
I’m not saying that this is related to the project but it somehow intrigued me to go through the images, to question myself and question what I could do with this.
I don’t mind the project being related to politics and I think we as artists can not only be an artist, but an activist as well, in a way.
Why did you choose the three particular images?
These images are very well known images from 1999, even though the families [depicted] got to know about these images quite a bit later — I guess because of lack of information, and there wasn’t so much social media at the time — [when] most of these photographers came back and gave a photograph to the families.
We thought these were the strongest in many ways, because these characters aren’t known, and for me they are also geographically spread all around Kosovo. There are a lot of known images from 1999, but these were close to my story, close to our story. We came to the conclusion that these three are strong enough to bring the story in front of a very big audience in Venice.
You’ve said before that “Family Album” is your first artwork directly dealing with the war. What do you think stopped you before? Is there today an opportunity for artists to begin to look back and reflect upon these times?
Somehow I had been trying to deal with, if I can say it like that, the consequences, and all this political, economical and social transformation — but not really dealing directly with the war.
There is no special reason, because there is nothing that can stop you, but I wasn’t sure if I knew how to treat all of this well. I think now I’m ready. It’s the [20th] anniversary of what happened. I thought it was good, at least in a human way, to exhibit our experience.
It’s not that I had never thought previously about dealing with similar political cases, but I wanted to wait until the moment when I was ready.
Twenty years later, people may only remember what happened on an anniversary.
Photographs as a medium, in the time in which we live today, have been brought to new heights perhaps. With the arrival of social media, images circulate as symbols, quickly made and quick to expire. When it comes to war photography, there are iconic images that have gone all over the world and stand the test of time. For example, writer and philosopher Susan Sontag said of the photo of the naked girl fleeing a napalm attack and running toward the camera in Vietnam, that if it were a video it wouldn’t be as powerful as the frozen photograph that became so famous.
We know the expression, “An image can tell more than 1,000 words.” I don’t see myself as an expert to speak about documentary war images. For me they are more of a tool to go beyond, in the art project.
It’s a medium that helps you to do research. I’ve also worked with photography as a medium a lot. If you compare that time  and now, the image has completely changed the form.
Now you can have a straight direct ‘live,’ because of social media, and back then the image would be seen maybe one or two days later. There may have been many things that happened before you saw the image after it was taken. The moving image, or the frozen image, is completely different today compared to the moment when these three images that we’re using as a starting point were taken.
You’ve said that these images have a “forgotten status.” Why do you think that has happened?
Because of the distance — the time. We’ve seen lately that people share images of that time, of what happened in ’99, but for maybe 15 years I didn’t see these images. Twenty years later, people may [only] remember what happened on an anniversary.
I used this term of being “forgotten,” not only for the images but also for the moments we experienced. We can think that 20 years is very far away, but for [those of] us who experienced the war, we have very fresh memories. I remember well the moment I had to leave.
From these images I want to share only these characters but I also want to share the moments that we experienced as a society.
Your works have always had a connection to the territory and borders, as well as with political change, but framed through telling the individual experience. I wanted to mention “Borders Without Borders,” a documentation of unused border crossing points across Schengen Zone countries, and “Forca,” one of your latest works, about a family from Albania who took fake Kosovar identities in order to receive asylum. The plight of refugees is somehow becoming more and more present in your work. Why is this happening now?
We mentioned at the beginning… I live in Kosovo. I was born here, I was raised here, and I always say that we cannot not deal with the issue that is going on not far away from us. I believe we have to research and react [to what happens] here, and that’s how all these concepts are bringing me to these projects, like “Borders Without Borders.”
The biggest reason that someone will try to go illegally somewhere is because they have a lack of freedom.
You cannot escape what our societies are experiencing now. We are the only society that needs all this procedure to travel [due to ongoing visa regimes for Kosovars in most countries of the world]. I experience that even now with this project. We have to spend a lot of energy to bring the people you’re working with [to Venice]. I’m not talking personally now, personally I have a few less problems in these terms, but you cannot work alone.
So, in “Borders Without Borders” I address that directly, and I bring this discussion. We would also find some fault, some problems in our society — we didn’t fulfil some criteria, some homework. But now it has become even more problematic when someone says: “Look, you finished everything but we don’t give you [the option to travel freely].” It makes you question not only the borders, [but also] identities, and all these things that we’re going through.
For me the biggest reason that someone will try to go illegally somewhere is because they have a lack of freedom. If they had the possibility to travel freely they’d go and see that Spain is no paradise, Germany is no paradise.
Of course, you can find an easy way for some things but others aren’t [easy]; I know that only in 2015 and 2016 thousands of people left Spain for Berlin.
A display of Muja’s work “Borders Without Borders,” which documents unused border crossing points and custom offices in Schengen Zone states. Photo courtesy of the artist.
I want to question this now. I don’t blame people for trying to escape [Kosovo] illegally. If they had the possibility of visiting their uncle, and could see that it’s also not easy to work there, maybe they’d think of going back and contributing in their country, and probably you wouldn’t have people escaping illegally.
It’s totally OK if they find a job and go; we have a lot of movement in the EU. We have thousands of people changing their country inside the EU, and this makes me question the idea [of movement and freedom] through these works.
In “Forca,” I show a family that lived for about 17 years with fake identities. I don’t see problems with these people, but I see problems somewhere else. We need to raise a voice and discuss what’s going on. I can do that through my projects, someone else can do it some other way.
We have to deal and react to [the things that happen] where we work, where we live.
You’ve also created works telling the stories behind people’s names. I’m speaking about artworks like “Palestina,” or “Tibet,” where individuals are named after those countries, in which you explore the story behind their names. In a way, this connects with your art project in Venice. How do you reflect on this way of deconstructing the already existing, ready-made narratives, in this case based on a person’s name, or based on an iconic photo? And how do you relate these works?
I see these projects communicating with each other. But some of them deal with the present, and some of them deal with the past, in a way. If you go to all these videos, like “Palestina,” “Tibet,” or even “Tonys” [a 2010 work, depicting nine boys named after Tony Blair], for me they are the same concept. They were just born and lived in different times.
Through these works I want to show all these things that I mentioned before: consequences, transitions, what you went through not only in the social, economic or political context, but also beyond identity, etc.
In Muja’s “Palestina” a young Albanian woman tells the story of why her mother named her Palestina. Photo courtesy of the artist.
It would be impossible to get to “Tonys” if I hadn’t worked on “Palestina” and “Tibet” beforehand. Or I wouldn’t have done “My Name Their City” [seen here] in 2012 if I hadn’t worked on “Tonys.”
The Tonys were born in 1999 when we got freedom, and Palestina was born in 1981 when everything started [in Kosovo]. It’s all connected. It happened, and these guys were born in different situations.
Also “Blue Wall Red Door” [seen here] shows that kind of transition but it shows it through street names and signs. Especially older people will orient themselves through these signs, but I think we orient ourselves through the transition. For me, these works are related and in a way they are related to “Family Album.”
Your exhibition in 2013, “I Never Knew How to Explain,” was the last time we saw a solo exhibition showing your most important works in Kosovo. But you’ve continued to be very active with solo exhibitions internationally, just recently at the Kunstraum LLLLLL in Vienna, and you were in a residency in France at the Cité Internationale des Arts this year. How does that influence your artwork, and do you see a change in how you address issues with this constant exchange between here and there?
I think it influences the way how you work more than the concept of your work. It gives you more experience on how to treat topics, issues and ideas. So, of course travelling, in residencies, shows, and meeting people, it has helped me in [terms of] how to treat topics or concepts that I’m always interested in.
You mentioned Cité Internationale des Arts, and even there I was one of the rare artists from the region. I could do research on works I had done before, but from a global perspective.
Vienna is a very linked city between East and West, and for me it was always important to link this with my work. I could always go and come back, but I’d be stuck on an idea of something that I have experienced here.
I remember two years ago, a big show in New York where I showed a piece that I hadn’t shown for 10 years called “Catch Me” [an image showing the artist jumping in the air, in the desert border between Mexico and the U.S.].
When I did it, at the border between the United States and Mexico, I just wanted to link the political situation between Kosovo and the West, and the U.S. and Mexico. But for a while nobody saw something special in the United States — until the political changes [regarding migration] in the U.S. [became more relevant]. Afterwards, [the work] became more valid.
In “Catch me,” Muja explores the double face of migration across the border of Mexico and the United States, a work, he says, that has taken on more relevance with the current political situation in the U.S. Photo courtesy of the artist.
When you see this image, for example, you can see how easily you can go from the U.S. to Mexico, or how easy it is to go from every state in Europe to Kosovo, but not vice versa. So even if I deal with something similar very far away from here, there are links with my experience, my life and environment here in Kosovo.
Coming back to your participation in La Biennale, often the person who is appointed to be there is called a representative of the state, the representative of a national pavilion. You’ve spoken about how this is a responsibility, also because it’s only the fourth edition of the Biennale in which Kosovo will participate. Do you feel the need to create a positive representation of the country, one that is not critical of internal politics or society?
We are a very young country, taking part only for the fourth time in the arts biennial. People lack information about Kosovo, also about its past, and its people. I think it’s a very good opportunity and the right place to show who we are through this arts representation. And I think first we have to be equal with others.
A lot of people question state representation, and I feel that we still haven’t arrived there. We have other issues in Kosovo that are fundamental for living, fundamental to being respected as human beings.
Just 20 years ago we couldn’t talk about presentation of art at all. I’m sure the time to speak about other problems that we have will come. But first I thought that it is important to also show what I have.
If it’s necessary to be represented in the World Cup as a country, I don’t see a problem here.
Last year, especially in the architecture biennial in Venice, with Eliza Hoxha, there were a large number of key state representatives. There were several ministers besides the Minister of Culture, Youth and Sport, even the President of the Assembly, Kadri Veseli — an excessive number of political actors perhaps? Do you fear being used in the same way, or placed in an uncomfortable position? Or do you see there being a risk for an artist, in this process of so-called cultural diplomacy?
This is the only exhibition of this scale that is organized and supported by the state. It’s organized and paid for by the Ministry of Culture. It’s not up to the artist, the curator or the team to decide who should be there.
There are some countries that bring all of the government [to their openings], there are some countries that just send one [representative]. We don’t get to go there and discuss who is coming and who is not coming.
One or two representatives should be there, not just to show their power, but to show their support for the pavilion — plus, they finance it. I’m sure there will be a moment where we discuss these issues further.
There are countries that question, is it necessary to represent the country? But I said, if it’s necessary to be represented in the [Football] World Cup as a country, I don’t see a problem here. I think the art, and the team, can be free to find the concept. They never asked me what I’m gonna do, because of course I would never accept that, to be told what to do.
I have to say the collaboration has gone smoothly and well. This is a very expensive project as well, the Venice arts biennial is a very tough project with a lot of energy and people. I’m sure that there will be a moment when [artists] will question everyday economics, and everyday politics… But somehow I felt that this is a project that I have to share right now, 20 years after freedom.
Feature image: Photo courtesy of Alban Muja.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in English.