Interrogating Exclusion: A Summary.
Seen through the gender lens, the local history of art after the Second World War fails to account for women artists in Kosovo. At the time, as a province in Yugoslavia, Kosovo underwent extreme transitions, which affected it politically, economically and culturally. In the immediate years after the war, women attended the Art High School, founded in Peja in 1949 and prepared students of applicative arts for different university programs in different Yugoslav capitals. However, very few women were encouraged to develop their practice further and pursue art as a profession.
To study art in Yugoslav art space, women had to reimagine their role within Kosovo society first. The socialist period ensured equal opportunities and access to education. Although these opportunities were available, the cultural obstacles posed to women were not few. Public space was still male-dominated, which made it difficult for women to define themselves outside of the private sphere and domestic duties. However, access to art education allowed women to claim their position as artists. In a few years’ time, women started exhibiting their work and slowly carving their place in the local art scene. Though very few, these artistic positions held by women artists are significant and provide critical insights into the period at hand.
In the early 1960s, Alije Vokshi graduated from the department of Figurative Arts at the High Pedagogical School in Prishtina. Her expressionist portraits of women and workers with conspicuous hands were well received. Encouraged by her professors and later her father, she went to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade. By gaining admission in 1968, she became the first woman to study art and take up painting as a profession in Kosovo. Six years later, in 1974, Vokshi started teaching at the newly-founded Academy of Fine Arts, becoming the first female professor of fine arts in higher education in Kosovo. In tandem with her teaching, she developed her art practice and exhibited her work in different art galleries in Yugoslavia.
At the time, women who studied fine arts, went for professions in art education or similar because that ensured a degree of financial independence. By not having art studios to produce art as their male counterparts, and by not enjoying much visibility in the art scene, it made it difficult for women to remain active as independent artists. Initially a trained painter, Violeta Xhaferi graduated from the costume design department at the Academy of Fine Arts in Belgrade in 1972. Working as a costume designer for the People’s National Theatre in Prishtina, was a way to provide for herself financially and engage in artistic production without having a studio. Moreover, she did not require much space to sketch her designs; she could do them at home or office.
Until 1979, Kosovo had no gallery or spaces where an art scene could thrive. There was a lack of professional galleries, art institutions, criticism, and collectors, as well as a lack of an educated audience. The 1974 Yugoslav Constitution repositioned Kosovo politically as an autonomous province within Yugoslavia. Favorable political conditions gave rise to new cultural institutions. The Gallery of Arts in Prishtina was founded in 1979; this was an opportunity to create institutional practices and theoretical frameworks to interpret and display art. Structurally modeled after Yugoslav institutions, the Gallery became the vessel that absorbed stylistic influences of art scenes in Yugoslavia.
As the main art institution of the visual arts and a gatekeeper of a tradition in Kosovo, the Gallery’s management reflected very little on the absence of women within their exhibition and public programs. Their public programming in the first decade was structured around Yugoslav artistic collaborations and international exhibition exchanges, such as the Yugoslav Drawings Biennial (1974), the Yugoslav Photography Biennial (1976), the Slovenian days of culture (1977) and the Polish visual arts exhibition (1978)1; and solo exhibition by local male artists, hence positioning them locally as “Old Masters”. During these formative years of the institution, there was an attempt to create a cultural identity for Kosovo. However, it was based on the experience of male artists solely. Structurally excluded, women did not play a great part in defining what was eventually known as modern art in Kosovo.
The commitment to ensuring the representation of women within the institutional art context was undermined by gender biases. Annually, the Gallery of Arts in Prishtina organized a group exhibition on International Women’s Day on March 8, which was locally interpreted as Mother’s Day until recently. The participating artists of these group exhibitions often were from different cities in Yugoslavia, this way, silencing the fact that local women were altogether absent in the arts. One such exhibition was “Femrat Krijuese ‘82” [Female Artists ‘82]2. Not sustained by a critical discourse, these exhibitions further contributed to ghettoizing women artists.
A way to gain access to a larger art network of state-run galleries and museums was through art associations. Kosovo had multiple associations representing artists of different art disciplines. Kosovo Artist’s Club was founded in 19533. It was joined by three artists associations, self-organized artists groups, Shoqata e Artistëve Figurativë [The Visual Artists Association], founded in 1962 and led by Muslim Mulliqi; Shoqata e Artistëve Aplikativë të Kosovës [The Kosovo Applicative Artists Association], founded in 1967 and led by Shyqri Nimani; and Shoqata e Artistëve Figurativë të Prishtinës [The Pristina Visual Artists Association], founded in 1972 and led by Kadrush Rama. However, they were led by men, and from these structures, male artists profited mostly.
With the dissolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, the art system and its institutions were deeply destabilized. With the revocation of the autonomy of Kosovo in 1989, Kosovo Albanians were fired from their jobs in the public sector and were not part of state institutions. This paradigm shift in politics affected culture too. The Gallery of Arts in Prishtina was no longer open to Kosovo Albanian artists, and art associations lost their former networks. The 1990s in Kosovo was a period of self-organized institutions and the creation of a cultural and political ecosystem that expressed itself as non-violent resistance to Milosević’s regime.
During this period, many restaurants and coffee places led by Kosovo Albanians were used as exhibition spaces. At Hani i Dy Robertëve, the Albanian community of artists found a refuge and an exhibition space. Due to a lack of access to the Gallery of Arts of Prishtina, the annual exhibition of Salloni i Nëntorit [November Saloon] also moved to Hani i Dy Robertëve. Similarly, restaurants like Koha and Fjala played a key role in maintaining the vibrancy and importance of cultural life. However grim, this period was important for women artists. Many of them, who hardly had access to the Gallery of Arts in Prishtina, could now exhibit in coffee places and organize independent exhibitions.
The Dodona Gallery became a meeting point for artists of all generations and arts of various media. The art world that used to gravitate towards the Gallery of Arts of Prishtina in the ‘80s found a home at Dodona Gallery. Also, it was a venue for established and graduating students of the art departments who could no longer exhibit their work at the Pristina Gallery. The cultural space was supported by the SOROS Foundation and was run by Alisa Maliqi, a young female architect at the time. In its short lifespan, Dodona Gallery produced thirty exhibitions and organized many cultural events. This period of deep isolation and deinstitutionalization lasted until the 1999 war.
The art practices that emerged in the first decade following the 1999 war in Kosovo, a United Nations protectorate at the time, were not separated from the question of national identity, belonging, and gender; quite the contrary, art produced in those years played a role in the process of reconfiguring and reevaluating the newly created political reality in Kosovo. Marked by multiple transitions, from an oppressive regime to liberation; from war-exhausted socialism to liberal market democracy; from war to peace, this period brought to the surface a new generation of women artists who used different media to articulate their subject positions in the country’s reordered political space.
For instance, the video works The Flag (2005) by Nurhan Qehaja and Japan (2006) by Fitore Isufi – Koja, both employ the body and flag iconography to negotiate body politics and national identity. Through a flexible and self-aware praxis, both artists not only reclaim corporeality but use the body as a site to counter-cultural essentialisms and undo national and transnational imaginaries. Gendered and subject to alterations by an array of cultural and historical factors, the body becomes an archive of affects, performance, and embodied politics. These works were exhibited in contexts inside and outside of Kosovo, creating important feminist dialogues around their practice.
Today, Kosovo’s art scene is young and vibrant and way more accommodating for women than in the past. Artists that employ feminist tactics and discuss politics against the backdrop of gender disparity are numerous. By interrogating conditions of exclusion, they have contributed to generating new knowledge on women’s subject positions, thereby creating new possibilities for women to inhabit the arts.
The text was written by Erëmirë Krasniqi.
1Information obtained from the Moderna Galerija Ljubljana’s archive, section: “Pristina”, containing press clippings of events that took place in Pristina and were reported by Slovenian newspapers. 2Information obtained from the National Gallery of Kosovo’s archive. 3Vlado Bužančić. “Introduction”. Contemporary Art in Kosovo, p. 60.