Dirty, Aggressive, Oppressive
The Uncompromising Art of Kosovo
Sokol Beqiri is one of the key artists of his generation driving forward radical changes within contemporary art practice in Kosovo. Although he trained in graphics, he now works freely in object, installation, video and performance art. An uncompromising and dedicated artist, he tackles the war-torn history of his region, reflecting upon war, violence and the cruelty of human nature. In the aftermath of the war in Kosovo, Beqiri’s works were particularly shocking and brutal. Although his approach has become less confrontational, fierce irony remains an important element of his work.
‘There is nothing hidden in art … I am art, you are art, and all of us are art.’
Reflecting on the recent bloodied history of his homeland Kosovo, it is not surprising that Sokol Beqiri’s works are raw, uncompromising, direct and shocking. Yet the Bulgarian artist Luchezar Boyadjiev has also correctly described them as ‘noble, generous and inventive’. With an unwavering honesty, Beqiri explores the limits of human behaviour in extreme situations and, in the process, has become one of the leading artists in Kosovo today. Though his latest pieces display a gentler approach, and a shift away from the difficult scenes of massacres, deportations and burnings that raged within his earlier works, Beqiri’s characteristic and often brutal irony remains a powerful element in his practice.
Working freely in object, installation, video and performance art, Beqiri is, arguably, at the forefront of a new spirit driving forward radical changes within contemporary art practice in Kosovo, and breaking it free from high traditionalism and academicism. From the beginning of his artistic career, he experimented with new ideas and materials to create works that, as art critic and philosopher Shkelzen Maliki has commented, lay between ‘art and non-art, painting and non-painting, artefact and non-artefact, living and non-living, life and death, beauty and kitsch’.
It was Beqiri’s ‘Intermedia’ exhibition in Prishtina in 1995 that, for Maliki, signalled an important moment in the emergence of new art in Kosovo. Held in the relatively small attic space, Beqiri’s works recalled the artistic avant-garde of the twentieth century but, fuelled with deconstructivist intent, they did so with mockery and parody. Two years later, he exhibited in a restaurant a series of deliberately rough-edged, ugly paintings rendered in gaudy colours.
Alongside, he displayed two large panels of photo-wallpaper which bore idyllic landscapes, which were painted over again in clashing colours, so as to disallow their decorative and instant, yet anodyne beauty.
As Beqiri began using found objects in his works, he started to focus on the ever-present military oppression that people in the Yugoslav region have suffered for years. Subtle alterations to revered traditional folk artefacts pointed to a latent degeneration: innocuous wooden barrels suddenly resembled bombs that had wreaked mass destruction in towns and villages. Under Beqiri’s fierce irony, these shells were painted in bright, cheerful colours.
Little wonder then that Shkelzen Maliqi has described the reality that Beqiri reflects in his works as ‘dirty, aggressive, oppressive’. It was only to get dirtier and more aggressive, however. In his video-performance project ‘Milka’, produced in the immediate aftermath of the war in Kosovo, Beqiri took up the subject of the violence of war crimes. His performance began as he entered the crowded gallery space, carrying two military ammunition cases, painted with his trademark bright colours. From one of the cases the artist took out a military camouflage uniform and put it on. Out of the other came a box of toy clockwork soldiers, which Beqiri wound up and placed on the gallery floor facing a TV set on the other side of the room. Dressed up as an army commander, the artist led his army of marionette soldiers into a virtual battle. Against this absurd and comic performance, dramatic music provided a soundtrack to the accompanying video, which showed graphic scenes of live cattle being bloodily slaughtered. The video ended with the peaceful image of the happy cow painted in violet that is the trademark of the famous chocolate label Milka. The recent massacres in Kosovo and other nearby regions are never explicitly mentioned.
The expression of human cruelty reaches a pinnacle in ‘End of Expressionism Painted by a Madman’. The work consists of what appears to be a series of abstract images. On closer inspection however, one slowly makes out the remains of a charred human body, taken from documentary photographs. Another image depicts a child with an innocent expression on his face. One then realises that his neck is broken. On the other side of the installation are Baroque paintings of biblical scenes. The sound of a human cry becomes audible. If one dares to look through the spy-hole at the centre of the image, one witnesses the video of a real execution of a young man, whose throat is being cut with a knife. As art critic Edi Muka has commented of this piece, ‘It´s a freezing image, no one can really stand it. The limit has been pushed too far. It´s not any more some kind of protest against the war and the crimes. It touches the deepest, most diabolic, darkest nature of mankind.’
In more recent projects, Beqiri has moved away from such raw and direct commentaries, despite the confrontational title of one of his latest works, ‘Fuck You’. A photograph depicts a row of people, standing in order of age, from an old man to a young child. All are waving Albanian flags as if in celebration of a national day. Contextual background to the work, however, informs us that the different positions in which the flags are held adhere to marine signals. These joyful people simply spell out the phrase, ‘Fuck You’. Edi Muka has pointed out that this work articulates the difficult position in which the artist finds himself – caught between nationalism on one hand and the invisibility of his people in the international political arena on the other. ‘"Fuck You" is a call to everyone’s consciousness’, says Muka, ‘and \outlines the difficulty in understanding one other when walls of hatred and preconceptions are not erased from our minds’.
Sokol Beqiri’s works have been shown in several renowned exhibitions across Europe, including the Ljubljana and Zagreb biennials, and he has had solo shows in Germany, Slovenia and Kosovo. In 2001 he was shortlisted for the Spike Islands residency organised by Visiting Arts, UK.
Sources: Based on texts by Edi Muka and Shkelzen Maliki
Author: Diana Yeh, Visiting Arts
Born in Peja, Kosovo in 1964, Sokol Beqiri graduated in graphics at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prishtina, before completing his postgraduate studies at the University of Ljubljana in Slovenia. His works have been shown in several renowned exhibitions across Europe, including the Ljubljana and Zagreb biennials, and he has had solo shows in Germany, Slovenia and Kosovo. His exhibition at the ‘Intermedia’ studio in Prishtina in 1995 was a significant milestone in new Kosovan art. Beqiri is an influential figure and has initiated several important art projects. In 1999 he brought together several artists to perform a series of artistic interventions in the old market of his birth town Peja, which had been destroyed by Serb forces. During the war, Beqiri was deported to Ulqin, Montenegro but returned to Kosovo after the war had ended.
SELECTED GROUP EXHIBITIONS
Exhibition / Installation
2002 International Biennial of Cetinje, Montenegro
2001 Turn, Mimar Sinan University Galerie, Istanbul, Turkey
2001 ‘VideoROM’ Biennial Valencia, Spain
2001 ‘Becomings’, curated by Andre Rouille, Albania, Kosova, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia Hercegovina, Macedonia, Greece, France
2001 ‘Beautiful Strangers’, curated by Edi Muka, IFA gallery, Berlin, Bonn, Germany
2001 ‘Our World Today’, Printing House London
2001 ‘International Tirana’s Biennial’, organised by Giancarlo Politi, editor of Flash Art magazine, Edi Rama, Edi Muka, Tirana, Albania
1994 6 Albanian artists, Kristiansen, Norway
2000 As part of Luchezar Bojadijev’s concept, Galerie Nationale du Jeu de Paume, Paris
2000 International Art and Technology Festival & Symposium, Athens, Greece
2000 ‘Onufri 2000’ National Galerie Tirana, Albania
1998 ‘Onufri 98’ National Galerie Tirana, Albania
1997 Pertej; center for cultural decontamination, Belgrade
1997 International Biennial of Cetinje, Cetinje
1996 Biennial of Slovenian Graphic Art, Otocec
1993 1st International Graphics Biennial, Mastricht
1994 21th International Biennial of Graphic Art, Ljubljana
1994 Biennial of Slovenian Graphic Art, Otocec
1993 Premio Internationale Biela, Milan
1992 20th International Graphics Biennial, Ljubljana
1992 Biennial of Slovenian Graphic Art, Otocec
1991 19th International Graphics Biennial, Ljubljana
1991 Spring Salon of Fine Arts, Prishtina
1991 Slovenian Graphics, Ljubljana
1991 Instituto Cultural Norteamericano, Lima
1990 May’s Salon of Fine Art Zagreb
1990 Biennial of Yugoslav Graphics Art, Zagreb
1990 Salon of Cetinje, Cetinje
Exhibition / Installation
1996 Kultur centrum Ignis, Koln, Germany
1995 Inter-media, Prishtina, Kosovo
1995 GTZ Echborn, Germany
1994 Palais Jalta,Ost /Westeeuropaisches Kultuzen-trum, Frankfurt
1991 Galeria ARS, Ljubljana