In-depth | Arts

The invisible working class

Workers, long a key part of Kosovo, are starting to gain notice in art.

By - 03.08.2020

“I kept going to work sick, with an injured leg, and my leg was injured again in the same place, because I kept my boots on all the time. Working 12-13 hours straight; we even worked for 20 hours. No rules at all. During my medical leave at the end of 2018, I was fired, even though I had a work contract. I was fired.”

This is a quote from Doruntina Kastrati’s artwork on worker deaths in Kosovo. The work is the result of extensive research, including dozens of interviews, official documents, and digging in archives, and will be exhibited this year at the National Museum in Prishtina as an installation of sculptures, videos and photographs, accompanied by a publication. 

Fifteen years ago in my “Theories of Nationalism and Contemporary Art in Kosovo,” I noted that a country with almost 60 percent unemployment did not have any artists addressing this issue. I criticized the nascent art scene of Kosovo as nationalist, as it was mainly preoccupied with symbolic cultural values. 

My initial conclusion was that this absence of class in Kosovo’s contemporary art scene was a symptom of its fixation with the nation as a form absorbing and transcending any other expressions of politics and everyday life. Now, after 15 years of ups and downs in Kosovar art, Kastrati is determined to fill this gap with her efforts on worker deaths. 

The most striking issue with this first artwork about workers, class and unemployment is that it focuses on the most extreme elements of this subject: death, injury and constant humiliation. I argue that extreme language is the only language to use when talking about Kosovo’s working class, which is reduced to living as slaves. Workers and their invisible class today call for this language.

“We worked for 12 hours, 13 hours, 15 hours every day, a day off once in two weeks ... no one can endure that.”

The language of class was spoken through Engels in Manchester, through Amiri Baraka in New York, through Larissa Reissner in Hamburg, through Rosa Luxemburg in Berlin, and through Frantz Fanon in Algiers. And for Kosovo, here are some more examples from the dozens of worker testimonies recorded by Kastrati. 

Doruntina: “And when you worked on Saturdays and Sundays, did they compensate you?”

Milaim: “Absolutely nothing. Only the working hours…”

“We worked for 12 hours, 13 hours, 15 hours every day, a day off once in two weeks … no one can endure that.”

“People were scared, since no one had any money, and everyone was supporting their family with that salary, and if they were to leave their job, who would support the family?”

“Then those supervisors came and called each of us separately, about two hours after the protest. We were told ‘Anyone who doesn’t want to work can go home, just don’t get in the way of the work.’ They even threatened us. And helplessly we went back to work. We are very disappointed.”K

This is an extract from a feature story in our new HOPE print edition. To read the full article, buy your copy of the magazine now — click here for more information.

Feature image: Stills from a video by Doruntina Kastrati.