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Simon Shiroka, Petrit Halilaj, Flaka Haliti: Shooting Stars and Camo Clouds

Essay
cloudscape
Grand Hotel Prishtina
KFOR
Kosovo
kujunxhillëk
Manifesta 14
Njomza Vitia
Palace of Youth and Sports

For V/A’s focus theme on opulence, art critic Alex Fisher creates a constellation out of the works of three Kosovar artists: a monumental filigree by Simon Shiroka from 1978 and contemporary public installations by Petrit Halilaj and Flaka Haliti. Each work engages the power of shining and is thoroughly situated in the local context—technically, materially, and narratively. Taken together, Fisher argues, these works shed light on an ongoing period of social transformation in the region.

Text Alex Fisher
Images provided by the Author

Sun rays tipped with precious stones stretch toward flowers festooned with gold blooms. Birds flutter amongst the stars on a cloudless night. A pregnant woman with distorted features carries ornamental cannisters as the sky’s jewelry glints overhead. These are some of the motifs in a monumental filigree by Simon Shiroka, a 20th century master of the ancient tradition, known as kujunxhillëk in his native Prizren, a city located in Kosovo that has been known for centuries of cultural efflorescence. The untitled work, which was produced in 1978 and measures 122 × 244 cm, has not lost its luster despite having been caught up in a destabilizing sequence of events—the Yugoslav campaign of apartheid against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, which culminated in a devastating war at the end of the century, followed by a rapid transition from a socialist to free-market system.

Simon Shiroka: Untitled [filigree], 1978. Photo: National Gallery of Kosovo

Simon Shiroka (1927-1994) is a preeminent figure in Kosovo’s art history, who demonstrated “that even the mostly anonymous craft of silversmithing can be incorporated within the currents of contemporary art.”[i] His practice challenged the segregation of artists and artisans. Shiroka’s labor- and resource-intensive works were met with widespread acclaim in former Yugoslavia, assuming pride of place in important venues, including the National Library of Kosovo. Since Kosovo declared its independence, his star has kept rising as scholars—foremost among them the public intellectual Shkëlzen Maliqi—have heralded the significance of his life and work for Kosovo Albanian identity construction. Shiroka distinguished himself for his first-rate craftsmanship and his ability to both syncretize and cycle between an ever-expanding “inventory of motifs and working methods.”[ii] He traversed urban-rural divides and communed with otherworldly beings. Reflecting on his creative output, Shiroka said: “I was weaving my dreams with silver and glasswork.”[iii]

I was weaving my dreams with silver and glasswork.

Simon Shiroka
Simon Shiroka: Rosette, c. 1970s – 80s. Photo: National Gallery of Kosovo / Samir
Karahoda

The filigree that inspired my essay exemplifies Shiroka’s artistic prowess. Richly detailed, the work conjures a convergence of spirits. The composition has a “loose” quality that belies the intricacy of its parts; it is caused by their placement in a dark blue expanse whose shade resembles that used in religious frescoes. At the same time, the work is copious, produced from materials that connote wealth with motifs that signify abundance. This includes a rosette, a motif that the artist often worked with during the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. In the work, the rosette appears as the head of a figure standing with its arms outstretched inside the sun. This appearance is striking in light of the complexion of Shiroka’s contemporaneous series of standalone Rosettes, for which he collaborated with fellow filigree masters from across Kosovo. Considering the complexion of this series, Maliqi has remarked that:

The plenitude of gems and silver flourishing in the Rosettes invite us to an open universe of “stars” and mystical nebulae, where imaginary ghosts can float between two perspectives of reality, on the one hand that of a rational view where one finds soothing order and symmetry, and on the other hand, a view of dense networks of figures and shifting forms with micro-ornaments that look like a labyrinth of which there is no way out.[iv]

The head of the figure which resides inside the sun in the monumental filigree hearkens back to others wrought by the same hands that entice audiences into a starry realm. Simon Shiroka compounds his motif’s resonance, dazzling his admirers while compelling them to adopt alternate outlooks. Shiroka created the filigree for the Grand Hotel Prishtina, the first five-star lodging in what was then the Socialist Autonomous Province of Kosovo, part of the Yugoslav federation. The hotel opened in 1978, part of a wave of modernist developments in Kosovo’s administrative center. In accordance with standard Yugoslav practice, a large corpus of artworks was produced for the hotel by the leading artists of the day. Shiroka’s work was installed in the hotel’s suite, nicknamed “the residence,” reserved for Yugoslav President Josep Broz Tito on his visits to the city before his death in 1980.[v] From the moment it left his studio, the filigree entered rarefied air, adorning a space designed for the highest elites.

Grand Hotel Prishtina in its prime in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Oral History Kosovo.

The fate of Shiroka’s work changed with that of the Grand Hotel Prishtina. The hotel was widely accessible to Kosovo’s multi-ethnic population until the end of the 1980s, at which time the Milošević regime put into place draconian regulations that restricted the rights of ethnic Albanians, who constituted an absolute majority of Kosovo’s population. In 1992 the Serbian warlord and paramilitary commander Željko Ražnatović established an outpost in the hotel, at which time a note was reportedly posted on the hotel’s front door stating that “Entrance is not permitted to dogs, Albanians, and Croats.”[vi] The situation deteriorated throughout the 1990s, ultimately erupting in a full-scale war in 1999, pitting the Serbian Armed Forces against the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA), a guerrilla organization run by Kosovo Albanians. NATO entered the fighting to prevent a genocide, launching targeted strikes against Serbia that drove Belgrade to the negotiating table. The war ended with Kosovo receiving assurances that it would be granted a path to autonomy. Kosovo was placed under international administration, with security provided by the Kosovo Force (KFOR)—a NATO-led international peacekeeping force. Kosovo went on to declare independence in 2008. Today, its independence is partially recognized and the KFOR remains in place.

During the Kosovo War, a sizable international press corps resided in the Grand Hotel Prishtina alongside a Serbian armed formation.[vii] By that time, the hotel was worse for wear following a decade of misuse. After Kosovo declared independence, the formerly socially-owned enterprise was privatized, sold to a local firm that promised to make capital investments. According to the Kosovo Privatization Agency, the firm failed to uphold the terms of the deal, prompting the agency to nullify the sale. The firm rejected the agency’s conclusion, launching a legal battle that is still ongoing. As the case has slowly wound its way through the courts, a cloud of uncertainty has hung over the Grand Hotel Prishtina, which subsists on a shoe-string budget under the agency’s supervision. Over the course of the last two decades, the lodging’s five stars were removed one-by-one as it became, in the words of the journalist Besa Luci, “a symbol of a society that still struggles to navigate the intricate political narratives of its past and present.”[viii]

Empty space where Simon Shiroka’s monumental filigree was originally installed in “the residence” at the Grand Hotel Prishtina. Photo: Majlinda Hoxha.

The Grand Hotel Prishtina’s art collection did not emerge from this volatile era unscathed. The structural integrity of many works was severely degraded, including Shiroka’s filigree. Multiple of its parts were lost, including several flowers and many precious stones. (Despite my best efforts, I have not found any documentation of the work in its original form.) At some point, the hotel’s staff relocated the work from “the residence” to their offices to prevent it from being irrevocably damaged. The staff, unlikely champions of art, did their utmost to preserve their hotel’s collection, which they perceived as a significant part of Kosovo’s national inheritance.[ix] No longer in rarefied air, the impaired filigree survived on life support in the cramped staff quarters. In “the residence,” the work left behind a field of flowers—a taupe wallpaper packed with petals.

The staff’s initiative did not go unnoticed by Kosovo’s artistic community, members of which pushed to save the collection. Here it is worth highlighting the activities of Majlinda Hoxha, a photographer who made a durational documentation of the Grand Hotel Prishtina’s evolving fortunes, and Vesa Sahatçiu, an art historian who collaborated with the investigative reporter Jeta Xharra on a series of media stories about the collection. Eventually, in 2020, a decision was made to transfer what remained of the collection to the National Gallery of Kosovo. The following year, the gallery dedicated an exhibition to the collection, (re-)introducing it to the public and filling out the public’s understanding of the portfolios of artists like Shiroka, who had been the focus of a retrospective at the gallery in 2015.

Simon Shiroka’s monumental filigree being installed by Skender Xhukolli and Arbnor Karaliti at the National Gallery of Kosovo, for the exhibition “GRANDART 1970-2000,” 2021. Still from documentary by Kallxo Pernime / BIRN Kosovo.

Despite having suffered so much loss, Shiroka’s filigree remains radiant. Decades of challenges have not vanquished its opulence. Concurrently, in its defiled form, Shiroka’s work testifies to the difficulty of drafting a definitive record of his and his peers’ artistic prowess. Absences echo across this generation’s oeuvres, once-resplendent spaces that were robbed and ransacked by what the artist Petrit Halilaj (*1986) has referred to as the “forces of mayhem.”[x] These absences have a structuring effect; in this case, they heighten the emotions that stem from the filigree being brought “into the light” after decades in darkness. The filigree now hangs in the office of the National Gallery of Kosovo.

New Grand (Arbnor Karaliti, Valdrin Thaqi): Installation view. Photo: Manifesta 14 Prishtina / Ivan Erofeev

The Grand Hotel Prishtina did not stay devoid of art for long. Numerous cultural projects have recently breathed fresh air into the centrally-located architectural and historical landmark. This includes Manifesta 14 Prishtina, whose thematic exhibition was realized therein. The biennial’s artistic program was led by Dr. Catherine Nichols, whose motivation to work with the hotel was informed by her impression that, despite its sorrowful state, “people in Prishtina still orbit the Grand like the Earth does the sun.”[xi] One of the artistic interventions presented at the hotel was a “speculative response to the void” left behind when its collection was moved to the National Gallery of Kosovo as well as to the relative dearth of institutional support for artists.[xii] For this intervention, staged in the foyer outside the “residence,” six young artists from Kosovo presented works under the imprimatur New Grand. The participation of one of these artists, Arbnor Karaliti, is especially poignant. Karaliti, an adept portraitist, had helped install the National Gallery’s 2021 exhibition dedicated to the Grand’s art collection. In the span of a few years, he went from handling Shiroka’s filigree with white gloves to presenting one of his works mere meters from where the filigree originally hung. This intervention was organized with the support of the Hajde! Foundation, created by Petrit Halilaj, who simultaneously unveiled an installation of his own at the hotel.

Halilaj’s installation, When the sun goes away, we paint the sky (2022), bursts from the rooftop of the Grand Hotel Prishtina and streams down its exterior. The work was conceived by Halilaj in response to the invitation he received from Nichols to participate in the biennial. The first point of departure for the installation was the discovery that the hotel’s stars were lying flat on its roof. Seeing them there made him wonder whether wishes could be made on Kosovo’s fallen stars and whether another reality could be envisaged for this and other troubled landmarks.[xiii] The second cue was his reading a text by Njomza Vitia, a resident of Prishtina who was twelve years old at the time, which included the line, “When the sun goes away, I will paint the sky.”

Njomza’s words made Halilaj wonder whether he could rearrange and supplement the letters and stars of the Grand Hotel Prishtina to script a poetic call that would shine for and in the city. A personal wish became collective as he transformed Njomza’s “I” into “we.”[xiv] The installation When the sun goes away, we paint the sky consists of an Albanian-language sign that combines newly-manufactured letters with ones from the hotel’s original sign and a series of twenty-seven stars, one of which was placed on the balcony where the staff who safeguarded the hotel’s art collection continue to take their breaks. The sign and stars flicker in the evening, not unlike how the silver birds flutter in Shiroka’s filigree. Halilaj’s installation also fulfills Shiroka’s will to uplift what contemporary Kosovar society has inherited—despite the odds—by using those materials and techniques in novel ways. In their works, there is not an obvious difference between what is old and new; rather, old and new are conjoined. Further, they bring stars “down to earth,” situating the luminous objects—and all they stand for—within reach.

Petrit Halilaj: When the sun goes away, we paint the sky, 2022. Photo: Studio Petrit Halilaj / Yll Çitaku.

Where the “forces of mayhem” had lurked in the shadows, Halilaj is defiantly optimistic. When the sun goes away, we paint the sky affirms, and makes common, the artist’s musing that “When the darkness falls down on the sky it seems I still want to live.”[xv] The work attracts the residents of and visitors to Prishtina to alter their point of view, training their gaze skywards. Since the work’s poetic call is written around the rooftop, it also tracks the public’s orbit.

Halilaj donated When the sun goes away, we paint the sky to the state after Manifesta 14 Prishtina had finished. Now part of the National Gallery of Kosovo’s collection, the installation remains on display at the Grand Hotel Prishtina while its stars have started spreading. In the fall of 2023, two stars are included in “HOPE,” a group exhibition at Museion in Italy, and another set will feature in “RUNIK,” the artist’s upcoming solo show at Museo Tamayo in Mexico, which is named after his hometown in Kosovo.[xvi] However symbolic, this development advances the idea that the hotel can be a source instead of a sink—a site that not only consumes but produces energy.

Petrit Halilaj: When the sun goes away, we paint the sky, 2022. Photo: Manifesta 14 Prishtina / Majlinda Hoxha

When the sun goes away, we paint the sky begins at the back of the Grand Hotel Prishtina. The first word in the poetic call appears on top of the hotel’s rear-facing wall; the “entrance” to the installation is where its evocative venue “ends.” Halilaj’s decision to script the poetic call this way was influenced by his desire to complete the missing link between the Grand Hotel Prishtina and the Palace of Youth and Sports, a soaring piece of social infrastructure dating to the same period. Indeed, the premium vantage from which to encounter the poetic call’s first word is the Palace’s spacious platform, located a few hundred meters from the Grand.

The Grand Hotel Prishtina and the Palace of Youth and Sports were meant to be connected by a pedestrian bridge, which was never built. Today, a dilapidated model of the plan can be found in the Palace’s lobby. The Palace figures prominently in Prishtina’s public consciousness. The identity of the complex, which includes many recreational facilities, has morphed as Kosovo’s political landscape has changed; it was originally named “Boro-Ramiz,” after two World War II Yugoslav Partisans, the former an ethnic Serb and the latter an ethnic Albanian. Shortly after the Kosovo War, a fire decimated the complex’s ice rink and charred other halls. Lamenting the conflagration, Serbian speakers reportedly began referring to the decimated rink as “Izgoreo Boro” (Burnt Boro)—“a name pointing to the fact that the memory of the Serb Boro would not be venerated any longer after the war and echoed the majority of Serbs leaving Prishtina in 1999.”[xvii] Supposedly beyond repair, the rink has been turned into a parking garage while the other halls continue to host a range of activities.

Noting that the Grand Hotel Prishtina and the Palace of Youth and Sports were meant to be connected, When the sun goes away, we paint the sky composes multiple constellations. The installation, with twenty-seven stars and counting, is its own constellation. At the same time, the installation helps turn its venue and a nearby venue into the nodes of a constellation; when members of the public see the installation at the Grand from the Palace, their sight links the venues. The people of Prishtina then transmute this constellation as they encounter the poetic call from other sites in the city—the National Library of Kosovo, their personal residence, etc.

Flaka Haliti: Under the Sun – Explain What Happened, 2022. Photo: Manifesta 14 Prishtina / Ivan Erofeev.

At the Palace of Youth and Sports, another public installation shines of its own accord—Flaka Haliti’s Under the Sun – Explain What Happened (2022). The installation, also commissioned for Manifesta 14 Prishtina, deepens Haliti’s decade-long investigation of the “demilitarization of aesthetics”—a neologism coined by the artist, informed by her analyses of Kosovo’s post-war condition. The primary components of the installation are a row of hardened plastic panes and a cloudscape made with stainless steel. During the day, the installation is quite inconspicuous, as the cloudscape mirrors the sky and the panes, with their repeated verticality, duplicate the textured cornice of the Palace’s Red Hall—on the roof of which the installation sits on an offset angle. When evening comes, Under the Sun – Explain What Happened ignites, as the panes start to glow. They do so in sync with the lighting of Halilaj’s sign and stars.

Standing on the platform of the Palace of Youth and Sports, the people of Prishtina join an open discussion between Haliti (*1982) and Halilaj’s installations. Haliti doubles the Palace’s signature design as Halilaj multiplies the hotel’s fallen stars. The former says, “Explain what happened,” and the latter exclaims, “When.” Moreover, just as When the sun goes away, we paint the sky can be seen from the Palace, so too can Under the sun ­– Explain What Happened be seen from the Grand. This shared potential underscores that the orientation of my essay could be reversed. In this text, I chart a route from a filigree to a similarly starry installation produced for the same venue to an installation of a cloudy horizon presented a short distance away. Plotting this path through time and space from the other way around would reveal a different web of associations.

Flaka Haliti: Under the Sun – Explain What Happened, 2022. Photo: Manifesta 14 Prishtina / Ivan Erofeev.

Haliti located the hardened plastic panes on a deaccessioned base of the KFOR. The base, located in Prizren, is being repurposed, as entrepreneurial and non-profit ventures are established on its sprawling premises. This includes the Autostrada Hangar, a platform for producing and exhibiting art that emerged out of the Autostrada Biennale. The panes were used for skylights on the base; over time they were scorched by the sun, tinting them orange. They were slated to be discarded before Haliti intervened. As Nichols has written, “what captivated the artist about the material is what might equally intrigue us as viewers: some enigmatic process has inscribed itself on the material, has left behind a trace, a photo of sorts, a haunting piece of evidence, a historical narrative yet to be told.”[xviii]

Flaka Haliti: Under the Sun – Explain What Happened, 2022. Photo: Manifesta 14 Prishtina / Atdhe Mulla

When all is calm, the cloudscape is still. When the breeze is soft, it ripples. And when the wind whirls, it trembles.

Though the KFOR has vacated the premises where Haliti came across these materials, the force maintains an active presence in Kosovo, as its mandate is repeatedly extended and the threat environment remains precarious. The cloudscape in Under the Sun ­– Explain What Happened alludes to how the KFOR has become “part of the scenery” in the Balkan country—the clouds are patterned after the “leaves” in the camouflage worn by the force’s troops. Haliti tears at the uniform’s seams, rendering the uniform’s “natural” elements in polished metal before affixing them to a scaffold in the center of Prishtina. Although fixed in place, the cloudscape is attuned to the atmosphere. When all is calm, the cloudscape is still. When the breeze is soft, it ripples. And when the wind whirls, it trembles. The mercurial cloudscape twists the installation’s tone, reminding me of Haliti’s answer to an interviewee who asked her whether she was an optimist, romantic, or cynic. Haliti answered: “Maybe a combination of all three!”[xix]

Haliti’s conversion, or transfiguration, of the hardened plastic panes from the KFOR base and of the camouflage worn by the force’s troops recalls how Shiroka used a familiar technique to create a filigree whose plot evades comprehension, or classification. Both artists also make use of “local” resources: silver was mined for centuries in the mineral-rich region, fueling Kosovo’s attraction to plundering imperialists, and spent or expired military materials are readily available.[xx] This being said, there is a crucial distinction between their respective usage of “local” resources: there is a mature market for silver, which has a popular appeal, while no such market exists for spent or expired military materials, particularly those like the panes from the deaccessioned KFOR base. The panes were part of the security architecture, but not tools of destruction—a differentiation specifying that which exists between the “demilitarization of aesthetics” the topic of Haliti’s artistic investigation, and the “disarmament of aesthetics.” The “value” of the materials that Haliti engages is contested; her public installation at the Palace of Youth and Sports stirs debate on whether they have been unduly discounted by society. Haliti has asserted as part of her intellectual property what let the light into a compound of the international peacekeeping force that ostensibly exists to protect Kosovar selfhood.

The country is in a state of becoming, its prospects subject to endless interpretation. The sky is the limit.

The art historian Vanessa Joan Müller has remarked that Haliti has “developed a sensitivity for designing spatial scenarios with simple means in which complex emotions can be physically transferred to the beholder and consequently speak intuitively of openness and expanse, confinement and trepidation.”[xxi] Under the Sun ­­– Explain What Happened typifies the artist’s method, as ample as it is refined. Now on long-term loan to the state, Under the Sun ­­– Explain What Happened is a horizon in construction—a metaphor for Kosovo’s present. The country is in a state of becoming, its prospects subject to endless interpretation. The sky is the limit. The sky is made of what purportedly serves to “keep the peace.” The sky glows. And the sky burns—alternately and all at once, when day turns into night, when a new day breaks.

The author thanks Adrian Berisha, Hana Halilaj, Shkëlzen Maliqi, and Vesa Sahatçiu for their support.


[i] Shkëlzen Maliqi, Simon Shiroka (Prishtina, Kosovo: National Gallery of Kosovo, 2015), 11.

[ii] Maliqi, 25.

[iii] Maliqi, 37.

[iv] Maliqi, 37.

[v] Majlinda Hoxha, Conversation with the author, September 13, 2023.

[vi] Beca Luci, “A Grand Hotel and Room for My Uncle,” in Prishtina in 53 Buildings, ed. Donika Luzhnica and Jonas König (Munich, Germany: Sorry Press, 2022), 246.

[vii] Lucian Kim, “Grand Hotel Pristina: Where Guests Tote Guns, Cameras,” Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 1999, https://www.csmonitor.com/1999/0702/p7s1.html.

[viii] Luci, “A Grand Hotel and Room for My Uncle,” 246.

[ix] Emisioni #KallxoPernime: Arti në Hotel Grand, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K57TQttp2Eg.

[x] Petrit Halilaj, “When the Sun Goes Away, We Paint the Sky,” June 25, 2022, https://manifesta14.org/news/when-the-sun-goes-away-we-paint-the-sky-petrit-halilaj/.

[xi] Hedwig Fijen et al., eds., Otherwise (Prishtina, Kosovo: Manifesta – The European Nomadic Biennial, 2022), 126.

[xii] Fijen et al., 138.

[xiii] Halilaj, “When the Sun Goes Away, We Paint the Sky,” June 25, 2022.

[xiv] Halilaj.

[xv] Petrit Halilaj, Of Course Blue Affects My Way of Shitting (Berlin: Chert and Motto books, 2014), 37.

[xvi] Petrit Halilaj, Conversation with the author, August 30, 2023.

[xvii] Ana Dragić, “Bororamiz Mon Amour,” in Prishtina in 53 Buildings, ed. Donika Luzhnica and Jonas König (Munich, Germany: Sorry Press, 2022), 137–38.

[xviii] Fijen et al., Otherwise, 476.

[xix] Flaka Haliti, Speculating on the Blue: Pavilion of the Republic of Kosovo 56th International Art Exhibition La Biennale Di Venezia 2015, ed. Nicolaus Schafhausen and Vanessa Joan Müller (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2015), 149.

[xx] Noel Malcolm, Kosovo: A Short History, 2nd ed. (London: Pan Books, 1998), 5.

[xxi] Haliti, Speculating on the Blue, 17.

Text Alex Fisher
Images provided by the Author
Essay
cloudscape
Grand Hotel Prishtina
KFOR
Kosovo
kujunxhillëk
Manifesta 14
Njomza Vitia
Palace of Youth and Sports
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