One-on-one | Arts

Astrit Ismaili: Bodies are just bodies — free the nipple!

By - 13.03.2017

Conceptual artist discusses performance art, rebellion and body expressionism.

For those not familiar with Prishtina’s artistic scene, Astrit Ismaili shot to prominence through directing Era Istrefi’s music video “E dehun” in 2014. When it was released, all hell broke loose; cries of anger resonated from Kosovo’s neighbor Serbia because parts of the music video were recorded inside Prishtina’s unfinished Orthodox church.

Some Serbian media outlets — and readers in the comments sections — considered it a provocation, while Kosovo’s diocese of the Serbian Orthodox Church issued an official condemnation of the “desecration of a temple.” Such criticism came as a surprise to Ismaili and the whole team behind “E dehun.” As urban artists, they say the clip was not about provoking the church, nor another nation, but it was more a comment on the undetermined status of the building and an attempt to initiate a discussion about its fate.

Exposing your body, for Ismaili, is exposing yourself, be that physically or spiritually.

It wasn’t the first time that Ismaili had made an impact with efforts to revitalize urban space. In 2012 he was a coordinator of one of Prishtina’s most acclaimed artistic projects, “Prishtine Mon Amour”; held in the burnt out half of the city’s iconic Palace of Youth and Sports, the project encouraged the transformation of dilapidated and useless spaces in Prishtina into functional artistic locations. The one hour performance attracted around 2,500 visitors.

Ismaili regularly embraces his body in his work, often using it as his main ‘ingredient.’ In 2011 he won Kosovo’s “Artist of Tomorrow” award with a work that included a series of photographs of him posing naked, if we do not count the thin transparent veil with which he was covered.

Exposing your body, for Ismaili, is exposing yourself, be that physically or spiritually, and making it prone to change for the better. “With my performances I expose complexes, anxieties and pain, because I think when you touch these topics, you open a debate to talk about them, and I think people should talk about their bodies, feelings — should try to solve their problems, traumas, complexes and I think art is a method which can be healing,” he says.

In addition to winning the “Artist of Tomorrow” award in 2011 Ismaili was also named Best Director at Skena Up International Festival for Film and Theater, a festival at which he would later scoop the Best Performance Award in 2014.

Ismaili has previously won the Best Director and Best Performance awards at Prishtina’s Skena Up festival. In 2012 his work “We Are Broke” was performed at the festival’s opening. Photo: Courtesy of Astrit Ismaili.

Having studied Theater Direction at the Faculty of Visual Arts in Prishtina, during his artistic career, Ismaili has turned his hand to photography, videos and performances, as well as directing two music videos. “E dehun,” saw him pick up the 2014 Video Fest awards for Best Video Performance and Best Styling, while last year he directed the video for Swedish rapper Gnucci’s song, “Ultimate Syndrom.” He says he enjoyed directing these video clips because they include “video, fashion, makeup, narrative, scenario, acting, dancing and all the things I do in my performances.”

Currently he lives in Amsterdam, where he last year received his Performance master’s degree through the renowned DasArts Master of Theatre program at the Amsterdam University of the Arts. When asked whether he plans to return to Prishtina, he says that he is not bound by any city; he goes where his artistic works send him.

In the year ahead, he has at least two new projects in mind, but while he has some time in between, he says that he is composing songs — music is an important element throughout his work — writing ideas for performances and creating and embellishing characters. In other words, as he puts it, he is working on his artistic identity, “which is recreated continually and is dependent on circumstances.”

He will also have a number of performances in Europe of his most recent projects such as his master’s theme performance, “Unikat” (see video below). The follow-up to this project is called “Love Research,” parts of which Ismaili has performed in Berlin, and he will later perform it in Amsterdam.

In “Love Research,” as in many of his works, he sings, but this time he is dressed up as a pregnant character that looks like a boy, while old people dance around him.

Ismaili believes that people should fight uniformity and express their authenticity, even if it means going against the current. “People should be in constant search for what fits their bodies,” he says, adding that we should dress and behave the way we feel. “It is not important what the circle [society] wants, or what they think is right.”

It is this approach that makes Ismaili stand out as he has the courage to challenge, the determination to be persistent in what he believes and the resolution to succeed in it; they are values that are not that easy to uphold in a largely conservative society.

K2.0 sat down with Ismaili and asked him about his approach to his artistic work and his two recent ‘European’ performances, “Unikat” and “Love Research.”

K2.0: Your art, which could be called conceptual art, at first seems to want to strike with its explicitness. But before rushing to conclusions, can you comment on how you see and perceive your own art?

Astrit Ismaili: My art is mainly about the politics of the body and identity. More so with gender identity. Social pressure to conform to assigned roles, which the patriarchal society tries to impose on people, is what mainly pushes me to react as an artist.

I might have chosen art as a medium to indirectly criticize reality or comment on it. Art is a language that conjures emotions; it touches people, and makes them think about something new, that they might not have thought about before.

Can you elaborate on the idea of artistically reacting against the patriarchal system?

Performance is my medium, and my protests are not necessarily always directly related to a cause. I tackle these issues in a natural way, because in my daily life I am faced with them continuously, so I try to function outside these contours that society has left as roles that we must play. I do not adapt, and I do not want to adapt, because I think that they are not separated equally.

For me, the medium is secondary. The most important thing is the content and what you want to say.

What do you focus on before starting to work on a piece? Where do you find inspiration? And how does the process continue after that?

I constantly write songs, record myself. Then I start to skim through the material that I have produced for a while. But the things I produce are not necessarily done to achieve a set goal.

It comes naturally to me. I write, draw, and when I see them, when I skim through them and look back, an idea is sometimes born, then from that idea I try to find a medium that fits. Then based on what it needs, I either perform by myself or with other performers. It all depends, because each project has its own process, and each process is different.

Which medium do you chose most often, and why?

I work between performances and visual arts. When I work with performances, obviously I perform, and when I work with visual arts, I do photography and video. For me, the medium is secondary. The most important thing is the content and what you want to say. Whereas the medium is just a form that deals with a subject.

I mainly work with performances, and what brings them all together is the body, which is present in all of my artworks.

In your artworks, besides aesthetics, it seems that you also deal with social aspects of the society you live in; if not a form of protest, then it could maybe be called a resistance.

I think a rebellion would be more fitting, but not necessarily. When you are very young, you are not aware, that is why you are not very politically and socially active.

But when you see in what context these artworks have been developed, you can consider it as a form of rebellion. I think that now, as I am growing up and becoming more aware of reality and politics, I think that also in a social way I have empowered my artistic identity and my political stance, regarding what I think about society and the arts, and what I want to say with the mediums that I use.

The good thing about conceptual art is that just about always when it is done well, you can interpret it in many different ways. But instead of me explaining my experience of your 2015 performance piece “Innocent,” can you explain its content and message, if it has one?

“Innocent” is the activation of the space [in which the performance is developed] with three bodies that embody my drawings, writings and songs. Three performers perform three different narratives in a parallel manner within the same space. Their pieces are not necessarily related to one another. They are independent. In the space there is no separation between the performers and the public, so it is a concept of using space, similar to how it is used in a gallery and in visual arts, where the public has complete freedom to explore.

In this performance I am also present, and I draw the drawings that are performed by Antonia Stefans, one of the performers; at the same time she sells these drawings that she is performing to the public. On the other hand, Jose Manuel Portas, who is a tenor, sings songs that I have written, whereas Andreas Hanes performers texts that I have written.

Antonia Stefans is one of three performances in Ismaili’s “Innocent” performance, which he describes as “the activation of the space.” Photo: Astrit Ismaili.

The performance is quite chaotic at the beginning, because these three characters are constantly searching for their identities, and they continuously transform and take different forms. They have fluid identities, up until the end when all three of them strip, strip away the stress, the complexities, the material world, and try to communicate with one another through the sense of sight, smell, taste and touch, trying to activate these senses for one another, but also for the public.

Your artistic forms show that you are in harmony with your body, and you do not hesitate to appear naked or wearing different attire and decorations — in short, to transform as you wish. We could say in this case that your body is also the main part of your art and expression.

One of the subjects that interests me most is the politics of the body. I think the body must be free from limitations, and that people must be free to use their body as they please. My relationship with my body is complex, because as a child I was very sensitive, and I felt the pain of growing up. This means that before reaching adolescence, I felt my bones growing, and they caused me pain.

So the first intense relation that I had with my body was pain. Then during adolescence, I was always weaker than boys of my age. My pants never stayed on without a belt. This normally brought with it a sense of insecurity and discomfort regarding my body, until I realized that I could wear women’s clothes too. And from that moment I started to wear women’s clothes, pants or jumpers, I started to feel very comfortable with my body, not because I wanted to look like a girl, but because i felt comfortable and they looked good on me.

A naked body in performances is not a novelty in art history, especially in performance art. Sometimes my performances, in order to transform, must start from scratch, from zero. So I need to strip, and for me it is not embarrassing or problematic. It shouldn’t be, because I am not afraid of my body, and I do not understand people that are afraid of a naked body. On the contrary, people must try to understand their bodies, and learn from their bodies, and love their bodies as they are, and if they do not like something, they should intervene, and find a form that makes them feel comfortable. I think that people must stop mystifying their bodies and glorifying them. Bodies are just bodies. We all have one, so free the fucking nipple!

“Love Research,” the second part of Ismaili’s “Unikat” project, is performed with elderly people from a welfare project in Amsterdam. Photo: Rowan Mendes.

One of your works which I find very charming is “Love Research,” in which you are masked as one of your fictive characters, and you sing while old people dance around you. What is this piece about?

“Love Research” is the second part of another project called “Unikat.” The song is mine, and it is about loneliness. It is not a coincidence that the piece was done in cooperation with the elderly from “Combiwel community” in Amsterdam [an organization for care and welfare], because they too feel loneliness in their daily lives, but each Wednesday they fight it by dancing to Country music.

My aim was to take one of the alter egos that I created for “Unikat” out of the comfort zone, and bring it to reality. So I decided to cooperate with the elderly of the Combiwel community, to kind of duplicate their daily life with a character that is based on fantasy. So it is a figure that looks like a boy, but on the other hand is pregnant. Currently it is impossible for a boy to be pregnant, but I think very soon reproduction will not be biologically dependent only on women.

I wanted to conduct this meeting between the fictive character and the elderly ladies because they told me that these women dance every Wednesday, and I felt that it suited my idea a lot, with the rhythm, the subject and the context of the song seemed very right.

You said that the piece “Love Research” was the second part of the “Unikat” project. This project is your latest, and you’ve also said that it is one of your best.

This project explores relations between certain images and sounds or music. “Unikat” is an audio-visual performance in which I construct three figures, two of which have futuristic characteristics, or alien characteristics, and the other is just a young boy who remembers that he was a seahorse in his past life every time he goes on vacation.

Ismaili has performed “Unikat” in a number of European countries, with more locations lined up for 2017. Photo: Matevz Paternoster.

Seahorses are one of the only species where males give birth, and when I saw a video of the process, it inspired and fascinated me greatly. It seemed magical to me.

That image was also an inspiration for the project. But the audial aspect is very important in this project. These three figures communicate with the public through songs, breathing, whistling and poetry. These elements create an atmosphere that puts the public in a meditative state, between a dream and reality. “Unikat” is a critical tale that aims to promote values, ideas and alternative attitudes that peacefully fight uniformity, and embrace authenticity.

What preoccupations do you elaborate on there, and what are the beliefs, if I can put it that way, that you have incorporated in this piece?

Initially I was inspired by Sarah Schulman, who wrote the book “The Gentrification of the Mind.” One of the subjects that she deals with in this book is uniformity, and how processes of gentrification fight everything that is unique, and attempt, in a way, to relativize and categorize things, as well as to simplify them. Whatever is unique and authentic is fought and wiped out. Capitalism has this stern pressure that always tries to industrialize things, and to materialize them. It loses our individuality and our uniqueness.

For a while you’ve had this unique look: A pregnant boy with blue hair. You mentioned him before as a character, but seeing that it is seemingly a character that you hold dear, can you elaborate on his history?

It — as this creature has no name and no gender, and as such cannot be characterized. It came from a “bubble gum satellite” [an imagined satellite that travels through the cosmos], and when it reached Earth, it was not pregnant at first. But when it came to Amsterdam and went to the beach and saw the sun, it was so fascinated that it could not look at anything else besides the sun, until it set.

As it was gazing at the sun, it felt something weird in its stomach, and gradually its stomach began to grow, leaving it pregnant with the sun. But in Amsterdam you do not see the sun very often, so its absence started to depress it. One of the reasons why it went to this community house in Combiwel to visit the elderly ladies was because it felt lonely, and it found it very hard to be accepted by society, as it didn’t know how to categorize itself.

We are still talking about the character that you created, and surely since it is pregnant, then it is more so a woman, more so a ‘she’?

She is not yet a she, but still feels more comfortable being referred to like that, compared to other ways. When it sang [in the elderly ladies community] the feeling came back. It felt similar to what it felt when it was gazing at the sun. That is when it understood that with dancing, singing and art, it can feel that way again. It can fill that loneliness and ‘longings.’

Can you tell us about life in the Netherlands, the society there, the cultural differences, but mostly about what you gained as an artist from Kosovo in your relations with another culture?

Naturally I benefited a lot from it. I’ve seen a lot. I have grown and become more open as an artist. Personally, it helped me distance myself from the situation and from the daily pressures of Kosovar reality. And it also made me understand what I can give as an individual, aesthetically and conceptually, without necessarily being connected to the situation in Kosovo.

Although I still think that art always has its own importance. The political situation is changing around the world, and I think that every artist, even if they are not involved in politics, must be politically aware, so that they do not fall victim to strategies of prevailing politics, and so that they do not reproduce those ideas, concepts and attitudes, but rather they fight them.K

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. The interview was conducted in Albanian.

Feature image: Majlinda Hoxha / K2.0.