At 3 a.m. on Friday, June 7, I walked down to the Newborn monument in Prishtina and over the course of six hours, with the help of a couple of friends, covered it with the portraits and quotes of 99 women from Kosovo.
The installation, titled “Reclamation,” was the culmination of an effort to amplify the voices of a sample of women from various generational and ethnic backgrounds who are making change in their communities and who I had spent the last several months interviewing and photographing for the documentary project.
Through sharing their personal stories or those of underrepresented groups of people, the installation was the first phase in a project exploring the influence that the stories we tell, and those that are told about us, have on our perception of self and the places in which we live.
In the days since its installment, the project has been a lightning rod for public attention and debate. It’s drawn criticism and support and drama and praise; hateful messages, and hopeful ones, negativity that’s the result of confused and distorted narratives, as well as damn good and much-warranted critique.
And so, in the name of the project, I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who has visited the installation and contributed to public discussion, as well as to offer some insight and background that has, perhaps, been drowned out by the volume of reaction.
In order to do so, let me first backtrack a little to explain how the project was conceptualized in the first place.
In my first few months in Kosovo, I found the conflict in my position to be immobilizing.
In 2016, with less than a year of journalism classes under my belt, I arrived in Prishtina to take part in a last-minute summer program. The seven weeks I spent in Kosovo were those that would define both my professional and personal trajectory in years to come. It was a summer of firsts; my first time abroad, unaccompanied by family, my first published article (a blog for K2.0 on fear and the unknown), and the first time I realized my love and affinity for storytelling.
It was also the summer that Kosovar-Canadian writer Hana Marku published an opinion piece titled, “An Awkward Conversation About Foreigners in Kosovo,” which delved into power imbalances between foreign journalists with large platforms and those whose stories the journalists were often quick to tell but careless in doing so. That piece has forever influenced my relationship to my work.
When I returned to Kosovo in September of 2018 on a Fulbright student research fellowship, as part of an educational exchange program between Kosovo and the U.S., I revisited Marku’s writing. It had been more than two years since my previous stay, and having been somewhat surprised as the recipient of funding, I was now challenged as a storyteller working in an environment that was not my own.
I had a responsibility to use the time and space wisely, but more so, a responsibility to the people and place that I was supposed to be writing stories about. In my first few months in Kosovo, I found the conflict in my position to be immobilizing, so much so that I ended up messaging Marku on Twitter, and reaching out to many other writers in Kosovo*, and asking to speak about the essay before I began my work.
It was during these multiple conversations that I was able to fully realize the potential there was for a storytelling project that called attention to women in Kosovo who were already working to broaden the narratives about their role in society, about the role of marginalized groups, and about the communities in which they live.
With this new goal in mind, of amplifying the voices of women already working as storytellers, rather than claiming a story as my own to tell, “Reclamation” was born. What was originally focused on women in filmmaking, quickly expanded to include the voices of journalists, artists, athletes, academics, politicians, students, activists and others.
Over the course of three and a half months, I connected with 99 women, young and old, with diverse ethnic backgrounds, and sat down to record interviews, as well as take a photo that was to be added to an interactive portrait series presented in an urban exhibition and on a project website, where longer stories were to be archived in the following months.
Photo: Lauren Peace.
Reporting this project was an absolute joy for me, not only because it allowed me to meet and connect to various degrees with a number of inspiring women, and to engage in open and honest dialogue about the good and the bad. But also because it created space for meaningful reflections about media and misrepresentation in my own community, where much like in Kosovo, outsiders drop in once in a blue moon to tell stories about the terrible or the exotic.
In my experience, the overtelling, over time, often contributes to a civic apathy rooted in a pessimism derived from these narratives. The stories about women are more often missing, whereas those that are present in most mainstream coverage are hardly representative of the majority.
At its core, “Reclamation” was an effort to counter that, contributing stories of strength and resilience represented by women who are using their voices and their positions to fight injustice and expand our understanding of truth.
Since the installation was installed at Newborn, a broad array of criticism has been brought forth. Among the offered critiques are the use of Newborn as the site of the installation, the failure to include certain women (and the inclusion of others), as well as the scale of the project in public space.
“Reclamation” is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a “Top 100” list.
On Friday night, after the project was installed, I was asked to remove the portraits of five women whose professional and personal positions were compromised because of the political symbolism that the Newborn monument carries.
While they, along with other women featured, were made aware that the project would be presented at an “urban exhibition of the work in Prishtina” that would link back to a website in June, and they expressed verbal permission for this use at the time of the recorded interview, the specificity of the use of the Newborn monument was never discussed because at the time of the interviews, the location of the project had yet to be determined. Upon learning about the location, the five women retracted permission, and they were removed from the installation and the website soon after expressing concern.
When I decided to pursue Newborn as the backdrop for the project, I was thinking only in the context of a space that would best bring attention to the voices that “Reclamation” made a goal of highlighting, and I failed completely to consider the political interpretations that using the monument might bring. This was a huge oversight on my behalf, rooted in the very ignorance that my project was meant to counter. Despite my best intentions, it showed in this mistake. For this, I acknowledge my error and express my most sincere apologies to all women affected.
Still, I do not regret the body of work nor the attention it has drawn, even despite the outrage it has caused.
“Reclamation” is not, nor was it ever intended to be, a “Top 100” list. That thinking is the result of misinformation and knee-jerk reactions that have gained power on social media, demonstrating the danger of groupthink.
To interpret this project as a ranking of women, is to engage in conversation about who should or shouldn’t be included, and to assign varying degrees of value to the experiences of human beings. Whose voice deserves to be heard, and whose does not?
And so I cannot, and will not, apologize for something that the work did not intend to be: A snapshot of 99 women could never have included every single woman and girl in Kosovo, regardless of the impact they have had in their communities.
We can learn a lot about ourselves in analyzing our reactions and then taking the time to ask ourselves why we’ve responded in the way that we have.
The women highlighted were highlighted because they were a diverse group of storytellers and change-makers, old and young, on small and large scales, and my hope is that upon visiting the website or installation and spending time reading the mix of quotes people will find themselves identifying with some, and challenged by others. They are merely a small sample, representative of many, many more. A project description, both online and at the site of the installation, makes this intention clear. You just have to take the time to read it.
Furthermore, I will not apologize that an intervention celebrating women in Kosovo causes discomfort; a reaction that I believe to be further proof of why we need women to reclaim public space. While the installation has brought forth waves of inspiration and pride, there have been others of resentment, envy and revolt. We can learn a lot about ourselves in analyzing the reactions we have to certain works, and then taking the time to ask ourselves why we’ve responded in the way that we have.
While I feel some disappointment that much of the project’s intended purpose has been lost in the swarm of reaction, it is, in the end, the swarm of reaction that further validates the existence of the project and why it was so important for it to be presented in a public space.
Would you have paid attention to “Reclamation” if it were shown quietly in a gallery? Would I be writing this piece?
And so for all of its controversy, one thing is certain; “Reclamation” has created room for a much-needed public discussion about monuments and nationalism, about our motivations and the fixation on obtaining personal recognition, about media literacy and how we respond to what makes us uncomfortable, and about the ever-growing need for the increased representation of women and marginalized communities on the public stage.
It’s not too late to make the conversation constructive.
It can be easy to lose sight of a project’s meaning and its potential for good when criticism floods in.
On Sunday afternoon, for the first time since the project was officially launched, I got the opportunity to go down to Newborn and view the exhibition, not as a panicked curator, desperately working to quickly patch mistakes, but as a casual observer, out for a walk on a Sunday afternoon. As a journalist, or an artist or anybody whose work is made available to the world, it can be easy to lose sight of a project’s meaning and its potential for good when criticism floods in, but as I read the words of the women featured, I was reminded of both.
There was a quote from a teenager that read: “We shouldn’t tear down other women just so we can feel higher. Putting out another flame doesn’t make yours shine any brighter. Once I got over that jealousy, I started to see people as inspiration. I see what they’re doing and I feel inspired and proud. I get this good feeling in my chest.”
Another from a writer, who said: “I think we can come to a healthier concept of sisterhood, really get together on the critical issues, but also be able to constructively critique one another’s work and perspectives in the messages that we put forth.”
One from an editor: “I think we tend to forget how important it is to inspire one another.”
And finally, that from an artist and activist whose quote was particularly timely and read, “If you make work, you have to stand behind it.”
And so that’s what I’m doing: welcoming critique and criticism where it is due, hearing feedback and learning from mistakes, and standing firmly behind my work in the belief that once the storm subsides and clear skies emerge, “Reclamation” will have helped shed light on the need for a wider conversation.
Feature image: Lauren Peace.
*Editor’s note: An edit has been made to the text after publication to clarify that the shape of the project took form over a period of time and as a result of multiple conversations with various individuals.