ST. IVES, England – When Petrit Khalilai was 13 years old and a refugee from the brutal war in Kosovo, a group of Italian psychologists arrived at his camp in Albania and gave him some markers.
Soon Khalilai drew dozens of bright children’s pictures. But their plots were far from colorful: in one he depicted tanks that blew up the family house; in another is a mass grave. Other photographs showed soldiers standing over dead bodies with weapons or bloody knives, apparently raised in celebration.
In 1999, psychologists spent two weeks in a camp trying to help children cope with the trauma they suffered during the war, when ethnic Albanian rebels fought against Serb forces. For Khalilai, an ethnic Albanian, these injuries were many. Serbian troops burned down his home and captured his father. His family fled from place to place until they ended up in a refuge in Albania.
Khalilai’s striking photographs impressed psychologists – and not only them: reporters who visited the camp interviewed him for international newsletters. Halilai told a Swedish TV presenter at the time that his sleep was disrupted by nightmares. “I feel happier when I spend this time,” Khalilai said of the drawings.
Now, more than 20 years later, Halilai (pronounced Ha-lee-LYE) is a growing figure in the art world of Europe, whose work has been exhibited at the Venice Biennale and in museums across the continent. At his last exhibition at Tate St Ives, the British Museum Group’s outpost in Cornwall, England, Khalilai returned to the shocking paintings he painted as a child who saw too much. (The “Very Volcanic Over This Green Feather” show runs until January 16.)
During a recent tour of the exhibition, 35-year-old Khalilai said that he visited the paintings again last year and was surprised at what he painted. Amidst the violence, he said, “I saw all these birds – peacocks and doves – and they were as big as the soldiers, just as happy and proud.”
“I used the space to paint landscapes that made me feel good,” he added. “It was as if I said, ‘Yes, it was terrible, but I can dream and love too.”
In the exhibition, fragments of Khalilai’s children’s drawings are reproduced on a huge scale and suspended from the gallery’s ceiling, so that when visitors enter, they are greeted with a fantastic landscape of exotic birds and palms. But when they reach the other side of the room and turn around, they find that some of the hanging forms have been printed on the back with a darker set of Khalilai drawings: soldiers, tanks, howling figures, burning houses. The calm scene turns to horror.
Khalilaj said he hoped the exhibition would make people think about how politicians and the media portray the conflict. He added that even today, some Balkan lawmakers have distorted the reality of the Kosovo war to bolster their nationalist views. But making the show also helped him come to terms with his own memories, he said.
Christine Masel, chief curator of the Pompidou Center in Paris, who presented Khalilai’s work at the 2017 Venice Biennale, said Khalilai “was original as a person and artist – very open, creative, persistent and full of imagination.”
According to her, his work touches on serious topics such as nationalism and exile, but “there is always a touch of fantasy and joy at their core.” The exhibition at the Tate showed that he was made promises when the artist was greeted, Meisel added.
Erzen Shkololli, the former head of the National Gallery of Kosovo, who showed Khalilai’s work during his tenure, said the artist has always used the country’s history as a starting point in his work, “but his art is much more than that,” and anyone can contact with him.
In some of his works, Khalilai’s messages are clear. In 2011, he dug 66 tons of soil on his family’s land in Kosovo, then put it in a booth at the Art Basel art fair and put it up for sale. Jennifer Damn, one of his gallery owners, said that the work “was clearly about attachment to the land, the idea of homeland and exile, but there was also a more cynical side to the question:“ What is the value of land? “”
Other parts are more elusive. For another work, Poisoned by Men in Need of Some Love, Khalilai recreated displays of moths and butterflies that were once exhibited at the Kosovo Museum of Natural History but were left to decompose during the war. Holland Cotter, art critic for the New York Times, said in a 2014 review of the piece that Khalilai’s art “makes much of contemporary New York art look like fluff.”
Khalilai said he was motivated to do the Tate exhibition by a series of events that made him feel like politics in Kosovo and Serbia were still stuck in the 1990s. Last October, he was scheduled to present his work at the Art Biennale in Belgrade, Serbia, a country that does not recognize Kosovo as an independent state. Khalilai said he was excited about the opportunity but disappointed when organizers of the event removed his nationality from the official list of attendees posted online.
After he complained, the biennial administrators added that Khalilai was from Kosovo on the biennale’s website, but put an asterisk next to the country’s name, which is used by some international organizations to indicate contested status. Halilai withdrew from the event in protest.
Around the same time, Khalilai said he heard news reports that Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic described the massacre that took place during the Kosovo war as “staged.” If nationalist politicians were inventing fantasies about conflict, he would answer with the truth: “I felt like a citizen and an artist, I want to stand up and refute something,” Khalilai said.
However, he said he doesn’t want visitors to St Ives to focus solely on the dark side of the show. They will have to go back to the start of the exhibition when they leave, and if they happen to look back, they will again be greeted by a fantastic landscape of exotic birds and trees, Khalilai said. Does this coveted finale reflect his views on Kosovo today?
“Perfectly!” – said Khalilai, smiling broadly. He added that he was “very, very positive” about the country’s future. Halilai recently put on a show there with Alvaro Urbano, his husband and associate, in which the couple hung huge fabric flowers under the dome of the Kosovo National Library during Pride Week. Among them was a replica of a lily that was part of the couple’s wedding bouquet.
According to Khalilai, Kosovo is still a macho society, but no one “threw tomatoes” or protested against the artists celebrating homosexual love.
“When it happened under the flowers, I felt at home for the first time in my life,” Khalilai said. There was no more need to introduce peacocks and parrots.