PRISHTINA, Kosovo — The bus from Skopje pulled into Prishtina after dark. Although the city center is lined with restaurants that look like nightclubs, none would serve me food. Lost, alone, and increasingly hungry, I found a small café wedged between a lingerie shop and a bridal parlor. Inside were four tables, two guests, and one barman. The latter, exhaling a cloud of cigarette smoke, asked me if I wanted a kebab.
A Dua Lipa concert was playing on TV. By the time the barman — who was also the cook — brought out the kebab, the other guests had left. He sat across from me, wiped his forehead, and lit another cigarette. We were both drenched in sweat, for which he apologized. “It’s broken,” he said, gesturing to the vents above our heads, “but I have no money to fix it right now.”
The vents, it turns out, were the least of his problems. Like many Kosovans, he was putting in hours upon hours of backbreaking work and barely making enough to get by. His son, the pride and joy of his life, had emigrated to Germany decades ago, and he hadn’t been able to visit due to strict visa requirements. Between sips of beer and puffs of smoke, he kept repeating the same question, “What can I do?”
I encountered similar feelings — of powerlessness and uncertainty — a day later while attending Manifesta 14, the most recent iteration of a major nomadic art biennial founded in the Netherlands. This event, which lasts from July 22 to October 30, includes dozens of exhibits, many by Kosovan artists, that comment on the fledgling republic’s past, present, and future.
In her installation “there are crossroads where ghostly signals flash from the traffic” (2022), Edona Kryeziu investigates what Arts of the Working Class called the “geopolitical, economic, and emotional conditions of waiting in relation to the unresolved sovereignty of Kosovo.” Towers of unprocessed shipping boxes hint at a logistical, and bureaucratic, separation between Kosovans and the outside world.
Close to Kryeziu’s installation is “Mercedes Matrix” (2022), a short film in which Bosnian artist and activist Selma Selman and her family smash to smithereens a Mercedes Benz — a recognizable and highly contentious symbol of luxury in the post-Soviet Balkans, where the division between socioeconomic classes is now greater than ever before.
Next to “Mercedes Matrix,” if memory serves me, is a stand where people can buy jars of ajvar, a Balkan condiment made from peppers and eggplant. The ajvar is made by an agricultural collective run by women from Krushë e Madhe, a town where — during the Kosovo War of 1998-99 — Serbian forces massacred a total of 243 men and boys. The collective’s founder, Fahrije Hoti, lost her husband.
Many exhibits at the biennial seem to be about Kosovans setting things right and regaining a sense of control over their lives and livelihoods. By acknowledging past crimes and tragedies that higher powers — i.e., corrupt regimes or foreign oppressors — have tried to erase, artists can avenge victims, condemn assailants, inform the general public, and contribute to a more complete, reliable understanding of history.
Nowhere in Prishtina is this process carried out as effectively as in the so-called Centre for Narrative Practice where (among other installations) visitors can learn about Kosovo by way of random possessions and paraphernalia from various anonymous individuals as opposed to, say, a history book written from the limited and often biased perspective of a single person.
“In Kosovo, the local cultural workers have been conducting memory work for quite some time,” Donjeta Murati, a programming coordinator working with the center, explained in an email, “specifically because there is so much that we need to grapple with, to delineate and interpret. But also, to make sure that a multilayered and inclusive history is being told rather than a single, official narrative.”
Prishtina fought hard to host Manifesta 14. The reasons for such enthusiasm were manifold, not all of them art related. In the eyes of politicians, the biennial offers a chance to strengthen Kosovo’s relationship with Western European countries — something that the republic has been keen on doing ever since it declared independence from Russia-backed Serbia in 2008.
For ordinary citizens, Manifesta 14 also presents an opportunity to fund the renovation and repurposing of abandoned buildings in Prishtina. The Grand Hotel, a one-time nexus of art and culture in Kosovo that fell into disrepair following the fall of Yugoslavia, comes to mind. Though no longer accepting guests, this dilapidated structure now makes for an atmospheric exhibition space.
Manifesta’s widely publicized quest to reclaim public spaces in Prishtina is one of practical as well as symbolic significance. In the years leading up to the Kosovo War, Serbia cracked down on Kosovan students and teachers who refused to speak Serbian in the classroom. Barred from attending their own universities, these dissidents set up a new education system in the streets.
One resident, Mehmet Aliu-Heretica, turned his partially constructed, three-story house into a makeshift school for everyone who had been kicked out of the neighborhood’s gymnasium. From 1990 until 1998 (the year that the war broke out), Aliu-Heretica’s home hosted 30-minute classes from dawn till dusk. It’s still standing today. What’s more, Manifesta is organizing tours to keep its legacy alive.
“We tend to forget the long-term impact that resources like art and cultural spaces have on our livelihoods,” Murati replied when asked about the importance of these renovations. “Their impact cannot be immediately measured, but reveals itself over time. Public spaces have been pivotal to the experience of Kosovars everywhere.”
While the work being done by Murati and her colleagues is inspiring, it is unlikely that the situation in Prishtina will improve dramatically anytime soon. Currently, Kosovo is locked in a standoff with Serbia over the latter’s refusal to accept Kosovan license plates for vehicles — an indirect dismissal of the republic’s sovereignty that European mediators have thus far failed to address.
Still, there is something to be said about the perseverance and especially the principles of Kosovans. The meal I had at the café came out to about 4 euros and 90 cents. I offered the barman a 10 euro bill, but he wouldn’t accept it, not even when I suggested he put the money into fixing the vents. In the end, we compromised on €7.50, under the condition that I would stay in touch.
Manifesta 14 (various venues, Prishtina, Kosovo) continues through October 30. The biennial was curated by Catherine Nichols.