There are many social issues that are barely progressing in Kosovo; still others are not even talked about — too sensitive, too taboo, ‘too much.’
It is precisely to tackle these topics that most people would rather ‘leave alone for the time being,’ that the collective Haveit exists. Comprised of two pairs of sisters, Alketa and Lola Sylaj, and Vesa and Hana Qena, Haveit constantly push at what many deem socially uncomfortable with their activism-based performances.
For some they are the spawns of the devil sent here to lead Kosovo’s ‘immaculate’ society to decadence, while for others they are the new super girls who fight for freedom of expression and the liberty of being.
The collective’s members however have a more modest regard for their art. “In the beginning we did not know what we wanted to do, but we gathered for just one performance,” says Vesa. “Afterwards we liked what we did and so we wanted to continue that manner of performance and activism for things that bothered us, and things that are unjust and which everyone in their own way tries to fight.”
The two sets of sisters have known each other for years but all studying various directions in the Faculty of Arts brought them closer together. Their first performance in 2011 came as a reaction to the murder of Diana Kastrati, a woman killed by her ex-husband despite having requested police protection as she feared for her life. The murder triggered women’s rights organizations to organize multiple protests and also sparked Haveit into action.
“We decided to react, so we did a performance in the square [in central Prishtina] that was named ‘Coronation,’” explains Lola. They wore veils, and stood there unmoving “like a bride”(a local expression when someone stands in a place without taking any action) while ‘blood’ dripped from their nets.
The performance aimed to send a message of disgust at how little the state does to protect women, even when it is directly asked to intervene, and at the bitter irony of women suffering sometimes deadly domestic violence after they have been pushed into marrying in order to give them social ‘security.’ “During the performance there were [traditional] marriage songs like all these marriage songs that sing about how the woman is a flower, beautiful, or she is an apple… and then they end up dead,” explains Lola.
Their first performance also set the mindset and attitude for the majority of their future artistic activism, which consists largely of street art performances protesting against the oppression of women, LGBTI discrimination, patriarchal dominance, gender stereotypes and even water shortages. “For the majority of our works, the only way we try to demand something or raise our voice is through performances on the street,” says Hana. “We choose it on purpose, because it is between art and activism.”
The other reason according to Hana is because the audience on the streets is not a selected one as it is in art galleries, or cinemas and theaters. “Instead it is a public that you find in the street, which you confront directly, leaving their reactions and thoughts open.”
The way Haveit works, the girls explain, is in an impulsive manner; they have an idea, they discuss it and within days they make it happen. This approach has seen them rewarded with international cooperations with many other artistic bodies, such as residences and exhibitions in Tirana, Stockholm and Munich.
Haveit provokes again
In February 2014, for Valentine’s Day, Haveit made waves with another artistic street performance, and afterwards posted a photo of it on their Facebook page. Then all hell broke loose.
Hundreds of threats and tirades condemning the collective appeared in the comments sections of news portals and on social media: “I have never seen or heard of this disease amidst the Albanian population,” “May Allah punish you” and “These are provocations to degenerate our youth, someone else stands behind these girls,” are just a select few. Sure, there were messages of support, but not in the same number and intensity as the messages of hate and anger.
But what could trigger such strong reactions, as to call for the help of deities to strike down these four artists? It was a picture of them kissing in couples, while in the background there were people walking by, and one is seen looking at them confused. Depending on the observer, it has been interpreted as both a clear sign of the end of days and a bright symbol of Western freedom.
The girls view it with much less loaded connotations. “The purpose of ‘The Kiss’ was that on this so-called ‘Day of Love,’ our society still refuses and forbids same-sex love for reasons of ‘morality,’” Vesa says.
For Alketa, “The Kiss” was done in good faith and was not done to incur reactions or hatred. She says that the reactions generated by the performance came somewhat as a surprise to them. “The moment we posted it, it went viral. And when it went viral, people went crazy,” says Alketa, light-heartedly. “It was a discovery for us as well … because when you post something on Facebook, it is a statement … and people will react to it, to write, to curse you or to say something nice about you.” Some of the reactions, like people sharing it in Belgrade and Tirana, were nice, while some others, such as the dozens of death threats that they say they received, were not.
“We went to the police because of the threats, and when we went there they knew us, because people had called them and told them ‘to seize those girls,’ and ‘go remove them because some girls are kissing in the square,’” recalls Alketa, adding that the police had advised them to “remove the photo and all will be well.” She believes that they were not taken seriously because they were not an NGO and didn’t belong to a human rights group.
However Alketa says that they do not want to belong to anything, or to become an organization: “Haveit will always be a collective that does performances,” she says. “That’s why I like our works, because they are done in the square and are for everybody. They do not belong in an art gallery, or for that matter to anything else. They are completely ours.”
What especially aggravates Kosovar society, according to Hana, is the simple fact that they are women who are challenging social stigmas.
“It is a society that is irritated if a woman goes out in the square and does something [audacious],” Hana says. “It does not matter what you do, for them you are still a whore, a drug addict, and stupid. It is the same as in elementary school, when the teacher said to you, ‘Sit down because you are stupid.’ Kosovar society treats people that want to say something in the same way. It tries to quieten others by deprecating them, by not stimulating them to go forwards, but to hush one’s mouth by making it personal, like, ‘Who are you to tell us what to do?’”
Hana observes that all the comments on Facebook show the reluctance of Kosovar society to welcome something new. “People fear change,” Hana says. “For 16 years it has been the same situation in Kosovo. It is not as though Haveit will now change the situation, but at least the positive of this is that people are talking, either with each other or by cursing us.” She adds that if nothing else, at least people are venting their daily emotional frustrations.
It is not all dark and grim though. Alketa points out that there were people who were happy when Haveit appeared on the scene with their daring performances that often tackle everyday issues, such as when they washed their dirty clothes in the fountain in front of the National Theater in protest at the delays in the capital getting 24-hour water. “Much of our work is about the concerns that you as a citizen of Prishtina have,” she says.
Alketa says that if someone challenges what others are suffering in silence, it is natural for them to gain supporters, fans and love. “People expect from us — we are the Powerpuff Girls,” she jokes.
Each reaction is a positive reaction, argues Vesa: “Because that reaction that is negative, which threatens, it only shows you where are you living. So every reaction or whatever we were called is a mirror of the country that we are living in. There are people who support us, but also those who continually criticize us.”
She believes that those who support Haveit are growing in number and that they have made a change, albeit an indirect one, by causing people to reflect on what bothers them and what consequently affects them.
Challenging through performance
Haveit wants to stir things up, to disrupt people’s comfort zones, to challenge social stigmas, to exercise freedom of expression and to fight against the suppression of women in Kosovar society.
Since Kosovo’s society is not yet one in which women are equal to men, Haveit has vowed to do what others want to but dare not: shamelessly raise their voice and protest social injustice. Such an example is their performance “Examination,” which was first performed in 2013 in order to support women who suffered sexual violence during the war. Hana says although it is believed that 20,000 women were raped during the war, until very recently it was rarely talked about.
What truly enraged the girls was when an Assembly deputy allegedly called for those women who claim to have been raped to be medically examined in order to prove their veracity or whether they are lying in order to receive a state pension.
“[We] took apples, which are commonly used to represent virginity, beauty, purity … and we destroyed them with kitchen hammers,” explains Hana. “With this we wanted to say that if you want to examine [rape survivors] you have to open them again to see if they are ‘rotten,’ or virgins, if they were raped or not.”
Another piece, “When Father Cried, Mother Washed my Eyes,” was a 2014 installation of four videos in Tirana, and this time it was about men. Lola says that their attempts in the performance to make men that they barely knew cry with their stories was highlighting that men are raised with ‘values’ such as “not to cry, to be strong, and to be ready to support the family and find jobs,” which leaves them emotionally crippled.
Their latest performance, “Shaving Patriarchy,” done on November 28, Albania’s independence day, was a protest against the overt accentuation of patriarchal perceptions in Albanian culture — the bigger the beard, the more respectable, loyal and strong a man is perceived to be. So they sat in front of the Skanderbeg Statue in the city centre, and shaved their faces, thereby “shaving the patriarchy for which Kosovo is known.”
Daring to talk — and act
What made them start with their collective were simple friendly chats. Although many would have crumbled under the weight of other people’s gossip, curses, and offensive words, the Haveit girls do not seem too affected by them. On the contrary, they urge all those who have something to say to set aside their fears or laziness, to ignore the consequences and to do it.
“In Prishtina we all have an opinion about something,” Alketa argues. “So why not show that? Why not work towards it? I would like to see young people do what they want to do.”
Haveit have realized what many others have concluded over the years as well: For those plans, ideas, and wishes to do something and to change our social environment, they need to move beyond simple bar talk. “Sometimes it’s really easy to get up and do these things that you want to do,” Alketa says.
“We kind of live in a bubble,” adds Lola, “where you have some friends, a circle, but only when you perform you see where are you truly living.” She argues that many opinions, ideas and beliefs are hushed and there are topics many fear to open — a succinct summary of Haveit’s very rationale.
“We wanted to go out in the streets and talk about them,” says Lola, “because they are not things that should not be talked about, they are not ‘taboo’ and neither do we ask [society’s permission]. They are topics not often talked about but that are now being discussed again.”K