An Artist From Kosovo Takes Flight

When the Kosovar artist Petrit Halilaj received an invitation for his biggest project ever in the United States, he knew just where to go: back to school.

For “Abetare,” his spare, smart, absolutely delightful sculptural installation on the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Halilaj, who is 38, traveled to elementary schools across southeastern Europe, documenting the doodles that generations of schoolchildren left on their desks and walls. (The project’s title refers to the Albanian-language ABC book from which Halilaj learned the alphabet.) Those children’s drawings from the Balkans formed the templates for the sprightly, sometimes bawdy bronze and steel sculptures that now garland the skyline of New York — large ones, but also flowers, birds and graffiti that nestle in the topiaries, and hide behind the cocktail bar.

Halilaj was born in 1986 in Kosterrc, a small village outside the town of Runik. (At Art Basel one year he answered that perpetual question, Where are you from?, by dumping 60 tons of Kosterrc soil in the white cube of the art fair.) His own school days took place amid the most horrific fighting in Europe between World War II and the present war in Ukraine. Serbian forces burned down the Halilaj family home in 1999, at the height of the Kosovo war, one of the most brutal chapters of a decade-long nightmare of ethnic and religious conflicts in the Balkans. The family fled to Albania, where psychologists in a refugee camp encouraged the boy to draw. War reporters at the time chronicled an ambidextrous child prodigy, drawing chickens and peacocks with both hands.

Petrit Halilaj’s “Abetare (Spider)” seems to be smiling mischievously at the Metropolitan Museum of Art Roof Garden.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

Halilaj now lives in Berlin, but in both art and life he remains deeply engaged with Kosovo, which became independent in 2008 and where Halilaj is advising the culture ministry on the creation of a museum of contemporary art. (He figures among an exciting generation of artists from Europe’s youngest country, including Flaka Haliti, Alban Muja, and Doruntina Kastrati, the last of whom just won a prize at the Venice Biennale.) And for a decade now I’ve been captivated by Halilaj’s art, which pirouettes around questions of nationality, family and sexuality through a dense register of symbols — especially birds, whose wings and claws appear everywhere from the surface of Balkan antiquities to the fuselage of a Boeing 737.

In two conversations, which have been condensed and edited, he and I spoke about the trauma of displacement, the magic of flight, and the universal language of schoolchildren’s scribbling. While we were on the Met roof one morning he pointed out his little sculpture of a dove, high up in the sky. A pigeon — an echt New Yorker — had touched down next to Halilaj’s bronze bird, and was making friends with its Balkan counterpart.

At left, “Abetare (Wall of Symbols),” and at right, “Abetare (Flower, Toshe, Messi).”Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

The project you’ve done for the Met roof continues one that began more than a decade ago, when you went back to your elementary school in Kosovo. What was it like, returning to the village you had to flee as a child?

In 2010 I went back to Runik for a holiday. My old school — which had actually survived the war — was being torn down to build a new one. [The Serbian army] had burned 99 percent of the town, this was one of the few buildings that remained, and still it was going to be replaced by new, cheap construction! And while I was at the school all these kids showed up. Some were teenagers, but others were very little, maybe 8, 9: little devils. A classic small-town crowd of naughty kids. I loved them.

Some of them knew me, that I’m an artist, and they were like, “You have to go in. ”We entered, and I started filming. They started doing everything you are not supposed to do in a school — just out-of-control fun.

These kids would have been born after 2000, after the war.

Exactly. They started painting on top of pictures of national heroes and poets, which, honestly, I would have never had the courage to do when I was a kid.

Then one of the kids took me into a classroom. And then I see the pile of these green school desks there since before the war. The desks were older than me. And this kid says to me, ‘‘Come see the drawings,’’ because there is everything there. These desks contain 40 years of unconscious, crazy secrets. There’s this encyclopedic aspect, these layers of generations. But you also see how local and global these things are, and also how funny.

I was just so touched by the language of drawing, and in a moment I saw another loss — this time not from the war, but from the postwar craziness, wanting everything new. I asked the principal if I could save at least one classroom of desks. He said, “Yes, if you finance new desks.” We made a deal. I hope he used the money to really buy them …

“Abetare (Big Flower),” one of the bronze sculptures that ring the walls of the Met roof.Credit…Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times

From left, a tiny bird perched on the giant spider; the letters “KFOR,” a reference to the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo; and a star atop the artist’s “Abetare (House).”

You exhibited the desks from your hometown in a show in Cologne in 2015. Why did you go further, all around the Balkans, for the Met project?

It was a personal journey. I started three years ago, going to Kukes, in Albania, where I was a refugee. Then to Rozaje, in Montenegro, where we used to go on holidays before the war. Very, very, very small towns. I actually went to all the countries of ex-Yugoslavia, except Serbia, where I had friends send me images.

What I was amazed by, as I was going to the schools, was to feel so connected everywhere. For me, these drawings are a language that I just get. I had experts in education, or from museums, or even local artists, who accompanied me everywhere. Because otherwise it’s hard to convince a school superintendent that you aren’t a maniac. “Can I enter your classrooms to see the drawings of kids?” [Laughs] You have to really take time and build trust.

Some sculptures on the Met roof clearly refer to the Balkans. There’s one with the letters “KFOR,” a reference to the NATO peacekeeping force in Kosovo. But there are also birds and stars, and Lionel Messi, and the Chanel logo, and then the same naughty drawings of body parts you could find on a school desk in America.

It’s a really funny way of seeing history, through all these politically incorrect drawings. But I love the queerness in them, these secrets. They are codes. You can see the euro symbol screwing Yugoslavia …

One little queer joke I caught up here on the roof is the sculpture that spells out “IDGAF” — which stands for “I don’t give a [expletive],” but is also a song by the unofficial president of Kosovo, Dua Lipa.

[Laughs] It’s kind of a tribute to her, but it’s also a little celebration of new possibilities. Both locally in Kosovo, or regionally, there is a chance for new generations to really question all these static historical, nationalist narratives that are so hard to move.

A performer in Petrit Halilaj’s 2020 exhibition “To a raven and hurricanes that from unknown places bring back smells of humans in love,” at the Crystal Palace in Madrid.Credit…Oscar Gonzalez/NurPhoto, via Getty Images
Installation view of “Petrit Halilaj: Runik” at Museo Tamayo, Mexico City, in 2023.Credit…via Petrit Halilaj and Museo Tamayo, Mexico City; Photo by GLR Estudio

Tell me about why birds have such a notable place in your work. For your 2017-18 New Museum show, you translated antiquities from your hometown, many of which are now in museums in Serbia, into birdlike figures with spindly claws. There were giant brass bird claws in your show in Madrid, and a performer dressed as a white raven.

The birds and the chickens always bring me back to the Albanian ABC book, the Abetare. In the lesson for the letter P, there is a boy named Petrit. “Pulat e Petritit.” Petrit and the chickens. So imagine, when you are little, and people ask you, “What’s your name?” I would say “Petrit,” and they would say, “Ah, Petrit with the chickens!” I didn’t get it for years. Why am I Petrit with the chickens?! I just knew we had chickens in our garden …

Later on, I understood that all these adults went through this Abetare and learned this lesson.

Language politics were such a flashpoint in the wars of the 1990s.

Students were allowed to learn in Albanian until 1989, with the ending of autonomy. After that it’s this story of hidden classrooms, hidden universities. The school became a place of discussion, where we could see what was going to happen. My Abetare was burned when they burned the house in ’99.

In shows before this one you’ve incorporated your own childhood drawings of birds, and also flowers. Is there something that links those redeployments of your drawings as a refugee with the doodles you found for the Met project?

Questioning adulthood, or questioning established canons by going back to a part of childhood is the way to understand the world around me that scares me the least. Going through the schools and the desks, there was a way to build a counternarrative: a network of symbols and alphabets and drawings that come to the Metropolitan Museum and form a kind of joint landscape.

A view of “Petrit Halilaj: RU,” 2018, at the New Museum, featuring an imagined landscape populated by whimsical creatures fashioned from pottery fragments, found objects and other detritus.Credit…via Petrit Halilaj and The New Museum, New York; Photo by Dario Lasagni

Two years ago you did a wonderful project on the roof of the Grand Hotel in Pristina, Kosovo’s capital. Once it was a five-star hotel; and as it declined through the war years, the stars on its roof sign were taken down one by one. You restored the stars, added dozens of new ones, and replaced the sign “Grand Hotel” with a phrase from a Kosovar child: “When the sun goes away we paint the sky.”

This is a work that I ended up donating to the city, to the people of Pristina. We’re talking about, literally, the hotel where Tito was coming to sleep. You can still sense this glamour that was once there. I mean, you had this fantastic article in The New York Times about it …

The then-president of Kosovo told our reporter, “I don’t think it is the worst hotel in the world, but that is because the world is very big.”

And I had this idea of coming back to Kosovo and lighting it back up. Making something that is rotten into a 28-star hotel. Poetically, you can dream of something bigger than the hotels in Dubai, you know?

But to me the stars against the blue Pristina sky were also the stars of the flag of the European Union. The installation is just as much about Kosovo’s still incomplete recognition as an independent European state.

It was about bringing in a different language that we hardly see in public spaces. And also about seeing sculpturally a fallen ideology in these fallen stars. In Yugoslavian times, there was a whole generation of people who were so proud of this hotel, and they had no money to enter.

An artistic project by Petrit Halilaj at Grand Hotel Pristina, 2022. Halilaj restored the stars, added dozens of new ones, and replaced the sign “Grand Hotel” with a phrase from a Kosovar child: “When the sun goes away we paint the sky.”Credit…Armend Nimani For The New York Times

You have these two rooftop projects, in Pristina and in New York, both rooted in the voices of children. And what interests me most is how these children’s voices, even as they cement a claim to Kosovo’s independence, also escape the nationalist traps of so much artistic advocacy.

At the Met there is an equilibrium. Maybe there are some nationalist symbols. But then you have a big heart. You have “Michael Jackson” written on the walls in Albania. You have group agendas, but also personal things. I felt like an archaeologist, discovering how people are so much more interconnected, more global, more human, than the national politics that dominate this area of Europe. And to me, that is really good news.

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