A new generation of artists breaks their way into Prishtina’s art scene.
The corridor in the Palace of Youth and Sports that leads to the artists’ studio is long and gloomy. Cool and quiet, it wrapped me in the familiar yet distant feeling of socialist modernism interior design. Built in the mid-1970s during Prishtina’s modern urban transformation, for the last couple decades, the Palace has not lived up to its promise of being a vibrant youth center. With its towering spiky metal spines, the partially derelict complex resembles the skeleton of an extinct beast sitting in the middle of the city.
A few months ago, the space the artists’ studio inhabits today was just one of the many vacant spots of the Palace. “You wouldn’t recognize the space if you compared it to how it once looked,” said Arbnor Karaliti, a painter and member of a collective of young visual artists who, at the beginning of this year, transformed the space into a hub of alternative, experimental art.
Inside the studio, is an inviting mess. Paintings of different sizes and styles hang on the white walls. Brushes, sketches and half-finished canvases lay on the paint-splattered floor, while quiet indie music plays in the background, giving the space the feel of both a working studio and a small alternative gallery.
For the six artists — Arbnor Karaliti, Blerta Hashani, Brilant Milazimi, Ermir Zhinipotoku, Lumturie Krasniqi and Mimoza Sahiti — who regularly use the open studio, it is more than just a place to work; it is a space where they nurture friendships forged in college, built upon a mutual interest in experimental visual art, protest and creative exploration.
“We’ve been looking for a long time to find a space for a studio, but couldn’t afford the rent,” said Ermir Zhinipotoku. “So, when the Municipality [of Prishtina] announced they were offering two studios at the Palace of Youth and Sports, we were more than happy to apply.” Their application was accepted, and after a sweaty week spent painting the studio’s walls and scrubbing the ceramic tile floor, it became an artistic home.
In their mid or late 20s, the six artists are mainly painters. At the same time, they are invested in a contemporary experimental approach and play with styles, materials and techniques, challenging the conventional rules of what a painting should be. Though each studio member has their own artistic individuality and distinctive way of working, they are unified in their quest for alternative modes of creative expression.
“I think being experimental is more than a working approach, it’s also a lifestyle, how you go about your daily life,” Karaliti said, while sitting in a circle with the other artists. For Lumturie Krasniqi — who in her last painting cycle deploys geometric symbols, mud-like textures and a fusion of photography and digital art with painting — experimentation allows for self-reflection and difficult questions. “That process of personal contemplation and emotional sensing of the situations you’re in is what ultimately gets translated into your work,” she said.
At the end of February, the group hosted their first exhibition in the studio, “INTERNAL,” which displayed some of their works and those of Valdrin Thaqi — who is closely affiliated with the group — along with Altin Krasniqi and Petrit Maliqi. The exhibition had been in the works for some time, but they were able to stage it once they got the studio. By the end of the year, they plan to host around four more exhibitions.
It was another exhibition they held as students in the winter of 2018 at the University of Prishtina’s Faculty of Arts building that formed the basis of their collective. Titled “Emerge,” the exhibition doubled as a public protest. Dissatisfied with the prolonged, never-ending renovation of the faculty’s building, the group decided to reclaim the space through artistic intervention, turning it into an exhibition venue.
“Those days, we were working all the time at the faculty’s studios and that was our way of reflecting on all the disarray that surrounded us,” Zhinipotoku said. “At some point, we just said, ‘Screw it, let’s hold the exhibition in the middle of this mess.’”
'We were discontent. The black sheep of the Academy.'
Brilant Milazimi, artist
Beyond being a protest about the faculty building’s infrastructure problems, the exhibition represented the group’s conceptual break with the Art Academy. Part of the same college cohort (except for Mimoza Sahiti, who has a diasporic upbringing and joined the group in 2021), they had come to be disillusioned with what the Academy, which they considered deeply conventional, had to offer. Conservative in its teaching approach and rejecting conversations about contemporary art, the group felt the Academy constrained their inclinations toward experimentation.
“We had a sort of inner revolt. We were rebelling against the Academy and the whole educational system in the country,” Milazimi said, adding that while the exhibition proved to be a success, none of their professors attended the opening. “We were discontent. The black sheep of the Academy.”
The group made other public interventions. In 2018, Milazimi, Karaliti, Zhinipotoku, Valdrin Thaqi and Dardan Murseli, operating under the name HAP, hung an installation from the faculty building that resembled a giant infusion bag to address the Academy’s need for “emergency therapy.” They were dissatisfied with what the group saw as a deficit of professional, dedicated faculty members and of adequate studio space. “We were heavily criticized by the faculty and they threatened that we would not get our diplomas,” said Milazimi.
The second intervention, “External,” consisted of a cube-like structure made of scaffolding and transparent plastic material, erected in front of the National Gallery of Kosovo. It was a reaction to the Gallery’s exhibition program, which the group felt excluded young artists.
In this atmosphere, which the group found unstimulating and unsupportive, one of the few places they were able to explore and develop was a particular classroom at the Academy. There, they would gather after hours, spending whole nights — sometimes sleeping there — playing with different materials, forms and conceptual ideas.
For Arbnor Karaliti, the time spent experimenting in that classroom was decisive for their future styles. “Even though we were in the painting program, in that classroom you could find the most diverse materials: iron, gypsum plaster, tar,” he said. “We were all very invested in what we were doing and it’s that dedication that still keeps us together.”
The warm atmosphere of their late night talks and discussions over coffee is chronicled in Karaliti’s paintings, most of which are portraits of his friends. “I enjoyed so much the love of people around me in get-togethers, so I gradually found myself painting portraits, set in everyday settings,” he said.
At one of their regular gatherings the group was introduced to an older generation of alternative artists, most of whom were graduates of the Art Academy from the early 2000s and who had been similarly defiant. Among that group were Jakup Ferri (Kosovo’s representative at the Venice Biennale this year), Vigan Nimani, Lulzim Zeqiri, Fitore Isufi – Koja, Alban Muja and Driton Hajredini, all of whom brought a contemporary approach to artistic practices in post-war Kosovo.
Karaliti said that the older generation’s approach to contemporary art served as a lodestar for the younger group. “I remember the discussions I had with Vali [Valdrin Thaqi] about Jakup Ferri, Alban Nuhiu, Jeton Gusia. It’s interesting because we didn’t get introduced to their work through the Academy, but just through chats among friends,” he said, recalling how one of their professors, Mehmet Behluli, drew similarities between the two generations.
“He would go on to say that since Jakup Ferri’s generation, around 15 or 20 years ago, it is us now who have the same experimental flair,” said Karaliti.
The group’s freedom to experiment was among the main reasons that Mimoza Sahiti joined, and ultimately what pushed her to leave Germany for Kosovo. Academically trained in economics, she always used to paint. When she came to Kosovo in the midst of the pandemic, during what was a confusing period for her personally, she decided she wanted to just do art. “When I first saw their works, it was something completely different from what I was used to seeing in Germany and I felt I found a group of people I could belong to,” she said. “The freedom here has given me immense energy to paint; it’s the period I’m painting the most in my life.”
So far each of the artists has shown their works in several national, regional and international exhibitions. At the end of March, Blerta Hashani opened a solo exhibition at LambdaLambdaLambda, an international gallery for contemporary art based out of Prishtina and Brussels. The exhibition, “Ambient,” featured 27 paintings depicting the artist’s intimate relationship with rural landscapes, home and memory. Small in scale and framed by pieces of rough fabric, the paintings, as the curatorial text reads, “evoke sensations of an unspecific nature that feels familiar without being identifiable.”
At the same time, Lumturie Krasniqi’s solo show “0220” was on display at Hani i Dy Robertëve, an art gallery known for its role in keeping Prishtina’s cultural scene alive during the ’90s, when much of the country’s public life moved underground to escape Milošević’s apartheid-like policies in Kosovo. Krasniqi said that although she began working on this cycle of paintings before the pandemic, the lockdown forced her to revisit her creative motives and transform them into a reflection on the dystopian character of the post-pandemic reality.
In May, Milazimi’s solo exhibition opened at La Maison De Rendez-Vous in Brussels. The space is shared by three international galleries, one of which is LambdaLambdaLambda. His work is also on display until the end of October at LambdaLambdaLambda’s new space in Prishtina as part of a joint exhibition with Blerta Hashani and Dardan Zhegrova, titled “Nothing like home II.” Milazimi’s paintings depict creatures, sometimes with grotesque features, which blur the divisions between humans, animals and plants and open up for the viewer an imagination that goes beyond the anthropocentric view. His style, “both sinister and poetical“ suggests an uncensored look into the personal and collective memory, and relations with one another.
Zhinipotoku and Sahiti plan to launch solo shows this year.
The whole group is part of the artistic program of Manifesta 14 Prishtina, the nomadic biennale which takes place in a different European city each time, and which is running in Prishtina until the end of October. Milazimi’s work is displayed on the seventh floor of Prishtina’s Grand Hotel as part of the exhibition “The Grand Scheme of Things,” which includes more than 50 local and international artists.
Karaliti, Hashani, Sahiti, Zhinipotoku, Krasniqi and Valdrin Thaqi have a joint artistic intervention titled “New Grand” on the 3rd floor of the hotel. Drawing from the hotel’s socialist legacy as the site of a rich collection of modernist art, the work highlights the absence today of a national art collection and the limited state support for the art market, which leaves independent artists vulnerable to economic precarity.
“It’s mainly collectors who buy artworks, but there’s not enough of them to support most of the artists and the art market is not consolidated,” Karaliti said, when asked how they manage to make a living out of their art. He and others hope for greater state support for independent artists or for flexible jobs within cultural and art institutions, so that, as Krasniqi put, “We wouldn’t have to work jobs outside the domain of arts and culture.”
Alongside his painting, Zhinipotoku has worked as a cook for more than three years to support himself, but said he will leave the restaurant industry soon. “It’s taking a lot of energy out of me,” he said as he sat next to one of his paintings, which depicts what appears to be a huge pizza with eyes and fish on it, floating on a green turquoise background like a giant water lily.
“There’s still some work to be done on it,” he said, “but I’ll eventually get there.”
Feature image: Ferdi Limani / K2.0.