Interview with Erzen Shkololli on his research in Kosovo
In many cases gender representation in the socialist period was marked either by the continuity in or the transformation of traditional gender roles. Could you describe how and which tradition was continued or transgressed under socialism? The re-establishment of nation-states in the 1990s coincided with a return to conservative agendas. How do artworks created after the 1990s address traditional gender patterns?
Kosovo had a very specific experience under socialism. The progress that was made in women’s emancipation between 1974-1989-documented in various direct and indirect data such as higher university attendance by women, lower birthrate, and more jobs for women, etc.-was completely halted in 1989 when Milošević and the Serbian government suspended Kosovo’s autonomy and introduced dictatorship.
The 1990s saw somewhat antagonistic processes: on the one hand, women were gaining greater recognition, for example via their inclusion in the first political parties. On the other, the destruction of the economic base of society meant that many of them had to return to the hearth and traditional values, and assume more traditional roles.
In 1999, after the war in Kosovo, Kosovans didn’t just experience mere freedom-they also experienced the liberation of male and female roles. A kind of explosion occurred during the transitional processes that countered the conservative agenda. Women were working, earning money, and were now in a position to become actors in society in a more significant way than ever before. Strong women’s rights coalitions were organized and their voices were heard more than ever.
Researchers such as Kosovan anthropologist Nita Luci point out the macho aspects of the liberation war and its aftermath when analyzing symbolically all KLA (Kosovo Liberation Army) war memorials celebrating men and their fight for freedom. And while it may be true that a dominant-male macho version of history is supported in the fields of Kosovo, at the kitchen-tables of Kosovan homes it is the feminist movement that has the upper hand in transforming traditional family roles. Artwork by women has also become more direct and is in direct referential relationship to the new sexual and political roles.
Many researchers mention that Gender Check has brought their attention to the less known subjects of local histories: neglected artists or new issues, methodologies, or epistemological approaches. Could you write about your “discovery” or “discoveries” during the research?
The initial discovery was shocking-Kosovan women got involved in the arts much later than men. Their involvement can be traced back to the autonomous years of the 1970s when the first wave of women moved from delicate work using textiles or similar materials to the applied arts and they were mostly engaged in stage and costume design. Few of them had support and their struggle was a lonely one. The most noted names working in these areas were Alije Vokshi and Violeta Xhaferi.
A wealth of work was made with an ethnographic and artistic interest, but unfortunately little of it survived the years of war .
You write that beginning in the 1990s not just the role of women in the arts in Kosovo increased, but also “the treatment of the subject of the woman changes, going beyond the ‘romantic’ and ‘patriotic’ image of the successful ‘manly women’.” Your examples show that in the works by young artists, women are often represented together with symbols of ethnic or national allegiance-like women and the flag in the work of Nurhane Qehaja, women in the Turkish baths in the photographs of Lala Meredith Vula, or in Merita Harxhi-Koci’s staging of a campaign for the female president in her investigations of the democratic process. Could you describe what role political questions have acquired in the works of women artists in the 1990s?
In the examples I mention it is possible to trace an interesting twist in the classical representational models of women. For example in the work by Qehaja, the “patriotic” paradigm is perverted by introducing a direct relationship to the naked body. But this is not merely a reference in the manner of Delacroix, where the naked female body highlights romantic and patriotic stances. On the contrary, the darkened hidden place, where the connection between the flag and the body occurs, is obscure and has more to do with the attempt to discover a relation, rather than assert patriotism or romanticism. In Harxhi-Koci’s work, playing with or critiquing “politics” or society is more direct and obvious, since it addresses a very specific issue-the lack of women in institutional life in Kosovo. While in Vula’s photos, as the artist herself says, the classical view of “beauty” is perverted by revealing some sort of “real beauty.”
Thus political questions and stances have, in my view, influenced in significant ways the new work of the younger generation of women artists from Kosovo, but they are not always directly related to politics or the political sphere. What’s important is that in the works of these artists “the political” can now be seen from a multilayered and gender-based perspective.
Erzen Shkololli, Research Kosovo
Born in 1976 in Pejë, Kosovo, Erzen Shkololli is one of the most prominent members of Kosovo’s new art scene, encouraging and facilitating intercultural and intracultural dialogue between Kosovo and the world, and within Kosovo’s art scene. After finishing his education at the Academy for Fine Arts in Prishtina his works have been featured in solo and group exhibitions in museums and galleries internationally. In Germany, he has participated in the Manifesta 4 (2002) in Frankfurt am Main and in the 2003 exhibition curated by René Block In the Gorges of the Balkans (In den Schluchten des Balkan) at Fridericianum, Kassel. Apart from this, many works of Shkololli have appeared in exhibitions curated by Harald Szeeman, including Money and Value-the Last Taboo (Geld und Wert-das letzte Tabu, 2002) in Biel, Blood and Honey. Future is at Balkan (Blut und Honig. Zukunft ist am Balkan, 2003) in Vienna, and The Joy of my Dreams (1st Sevilla Biennial, 2004) in Sevilla. Recently, he took part in the exhibition Ritornell. Nine Stories (Ritornell. Neun Geschichten, 2008) at the Taxispalais in Innsbruck, curated by Sylvia Eiblmayr. Erzen Shkololli has also curated numerous international exhibitions of contemporary art, most recently History started playing with my life featuring the work of artists from Israel and the region of ex- Yugoslavia (Israeli Centre for Digital Art, Holon, Israel, 2007). From 2003 through 2006, he was the artistic director of EXIT Galerie in Pejë. Since 2003, he has been a member of the European Cultural Parliament. Erzen Shkololli was a 2008/09 guest of the Berlin Artist program of the DAAD. He lives and works in Pejë and Berlin.