Letter from Kosovo

This report from the third edition of the Autostrada Biennale appeared in Art Monthly:

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Haveit, Ceylon Island, 2016/21

The very name of the Autostrada Biennale holds the promise of a journey, such as a road trip along the awe-inspiring highways linking far-flung corners of the tiny landlocked state at the heart of the Balkans. For the first time, the artist-run biennial that Leutrim Fishekqiu, Vatra Abrashi, and Barış Karamuço co-founded in 2014 spread from its base in Prizren to two other cities in Kosovo whose names also begin with a ‘P’, Prishtina and Peja; the three connect to form a triangle. Making good on its promise, ‘What if a Journey…’ – the title of the biennial’s third edition – channelled visitors from one end of the country to another along the eponymous Autostrada.

My own journey began with a ferry crossing from Bari in Apulia over to Durrës in Albania; several hours, a broken bus and a taxi ride later, I finally made it to Prizren, in time for the mid-afternoon muezzin call echoing across the city centre with its numerous mosques. Despite Prizren’s multi-faith population, their number apparently rises with every new road whose building is financed by Turkish construction companies – in a tacit trade off. Prizren-born Doruntina Kastrati’s interview-based film When It Left, Death Didn’t Even Close Our Eyes, 2020, screened at the Castle of Prizren rising above the city, documents the plight of construction workers hired for a pittance and in total disregard for their safety by the likes of the Bechtel-Enka joint venture to build Kosovo’s highways.

That evening, at the welcoming party held at the Autostrada Biennale’s Education and Production Space located within the former KFOR (Kosovo Peacekeeping Force) Hangar, we were served flija, a Kosovar and northern Albanian staple consisting of densely layered savoury pancakes cooked for hours, often by the roadside, in a special round dish covered with a hot iron lid lined with charcoal.

It was prepared for us by Fejsal Demiraj, who used to work as a sous-chef at René Redzepi’s Noma restaurant in Copenhagen, before returning to Kosovo during the pandemic with a view to opening his own place. A collaboration with the London-based duo Cooking Sections, this edible artwork started as a conversation about bread and the appeal of reintroducing local varieties of grains, in a bid to foster more sustainable agriculture, one that uses fewer chemicals, even if this meant lower yields.

Stones used for grinding wheat could be seen in the garden of the Pintolli Mill, one of the few extant mills in the city, which has reinvented itself as a café. The next morning, I bumped into curator Joanna Warsza who was heading there with the members of the Haveit collective, ahead of their performance scheduled for the afternoon. Warsza presented Haveit – two pairs of sisters based in Prishtina – as a Kosovar version of Pussy Riot. Photographs of the sisterhood, posing outside of tea houses and other public places that traditionally draw an all-male crowd, were displayed inside the café, in the same space where the four women, sporting white wedding dresses for the occasion, would later ceremoniously pour out some tea, freshly brewed before our eyes.

The Turkish-Polish curatorial team – Övül Ö. Durmuşoğlu and Warsza – made for an interesting mix of local and international artists, several of whom hailed from Turkey and Poland respectively. Foreign artists were often coupled with someone working locally, be it a fellow artist, an artisan, an activist, or a chef in the Cooking Sections-Demiraj pairing. São Paulo and Istanbul-based Camila Rocha’s collaboration with filigree masters from a local workshop thus resulted in a jewelry line inspired by her botanical illustrations in the FloriKultur watercolour series. Facilitated by activist Edis Galushi, Polish artist Małgorzata Mirga-Tas’s meeting with members of Prizen’s Romani community led to the creation of large-scale textile works depicting remarkable Romani women, displayed side by side on the brick walls of a house located right by the Lumbardhi river.

Spanned by several bridges, the river is the city’s main artery and its lifeblood. But Prizren once had an extensive network of stone water channels carrying the water to nearly every household. A number of biennial artists engaged with the city’s river, its hidden waterways and lost springs alike. Most prominent among them was Turkish artist Hera Büyüktaşciyan’s intervention: a blue fabric strip that tumbled down from its invisible source within the Prizren Fortress, tracing a stark blue water line across the hill on which the fortified castle stands, until it came out through the empty doorway of a house under construction situated near the river bank. The lyrics of Bora Baboçi’s polyphonic composition The Waters of Prizren, 2021, came from a book of poems celebrating the city’s water fountains. The Albanian artist discovered the poems during a research trip to Prizren and then set them to song, using her own voice for the sound recording projected amid the hydraulic machinery alongside her own delicate pastel drawings suspended from the ceiling at Hydroelekrana.

Situated upstream the Lumbardhi river, the diminutive hydro power station hugging the cliffs came with a garden and artworks of its own, namely in the shape of the Kosovo Electrification Map of 1978-79, connecting the region’s electricity generation points by a web of threads pinned to the stucco map designed to show the geographical features in relief. The stone-clad building, which houses the Museum of Electrical History of Kosovo, seemed a fitting venue for Agnieszka Polska’s mesmerizing immersive filmic installation The Thousand Year Plan, 2021, set in post-World War II Poland and ostensibly dealing with the electrification of the countryside by the fledgling communist state. Projected onto two facing screens installed in a dark room beneath the crenellated roof with a bench in the middle for visitors to sit on, forcing the audience to alternatively view one or the other, the film’s minimal narrative builds up towards the dramatic encounter of two couples representing opposite sides of the political spectrum – communist engineers and disaffected nationalist partisans respectively. But it soon veers into the uncanny dimension, graphically rendered through flickering veins of electricity outlining the features and faces of the four protagonists, shot through with light in the lingering close-ups.

Polska’s work presented certain affinities with Rossella Biscotti’s La Cinematografia è l’arma più forte (‘Cinematography is the strongest weapon’), 2003-7, referencing the slogan with which Benito Mussolini opened the Cinecittà Studios in Rome in 1937. The phrase was projected as a still image on the main screen of the indoor movie theatre at the Lumbardhi Cinema in the city centre. Named after the river, this beautifully restored cinema whose modernist outdoor screen would do any city proud hosts the yearly DokuFest festival, which has been going for two decades, a testimony to the cultural vitality of Kosovo’s second city. What it arguably lacks is a purpose-built art exhibition space, which explains why the lion’s share of artworks included in the Autostrada Biennale were exhibited in public spaces and out in the open, at unconventional and imaginative venues, making virtue of necessity.